PARK: Prairie Creek Redwood National Park
FEATURES: giant Sitka spruce and a stream canyon filled with skunk cabbage
DISTANCE: 2.8 miles round trip (longer option available)
ELEVATION GAIN: negligible
Open year round
THE HIKE: Few routes in the redwoods are at their best in early March, but this trail is an exception. It is then that the vivid yellow flowers of the path’s most notable plant, skunk cabbage, brightens the shaded stream canyon through which it runs.
Even in one of the season’s frequent rainstorms it is a sight worth seeing.
The access road to the trailhead passes several large Sitka spruce, whose grayish bark and thick trunks lend them the appearance of giant columns fashioned of dark, aged concrete. More spruce surrounds the parking area at the trailhead. From there, the hiking route proceeds west, crossing an alder-shaded creek canyon on an earthen bridge and then following an old logging road along the hillside. Red alder fills many of the damp openings along the trail’s early stages and can be seen across the canyon at 0.35 miles, covering an old cut block that was logged in the 1970s. The resultant clear-cut continues over the ridge to the north, where it is visible from Highway 101. The exposed devastation shocked many passing motorists and added fuel to the drive to expand Redwood National Park. At 0.65 miles is a right-hand view down into Skunk Cabbage Creek, where a large bog is filled with the stream’s namesake plant.
Skunk cabbage (Lysichitum americanum) attracts attention wherever it is seen, but under the ideal growing conditions found here it will stop hikers in their tracks. Rising from a rosette of large, fleshy green leaves (some more than a yard long) is a yellow-green spadix (the plant’s flower-filled spike), behind which a rich yellow bract, called a spathe, rises like a protective hood. Another name for the plant is swamp lantern, and that is the effect created by the luminous spathes as they shine brightly in the shadowed forest. Here, thousands of plants choke the stream canyon, creating a glowing flow of light like some incandescent river, tempting viewers to approach them even at the cost of traversing the muddy bogs where the plant makes its home. When flowering, skunk cabbage produces a memorable odor, intended to attract particular pollinators, that indeed justifies its name. The leaves, however, carry no such aroma and were used by certain Indian tribes for lining berry baskets and for wrapping berries and bulbs for steaming.
The forest here features both Sitka spruce and western hemlock, with a ground cover of sword fern. The trail continues to run above the boggy creek on the right, passing several large redwoods on the left at 0.95 miles. False lily-of-the-valley then appears by the trailside, as does piggyback plant below a bridge at 1.2 miles. Soon the path turns right, moving into the broad canyon bottom before crossing Skunk Cabbage Creek at 1.4 miles. At the bridge here the route turns back to return to the trailhead.
For a longer hike: Continue past the bridge, heading west and running up the rest of the canyon to the bluff top above the ocean. Turning back here adds 2.6 miles to the hike, for a total of 5.4 miles. At the bluff top you can also keep going on the Coastal Trail, first along the bluff itself and then dropping to the shoreline before reaching Gold Bluffs Beach Road. If you haven’t arranged for a car shuttle here, you will need to retrace the entire route, giving your trip a total length of 11.2 miles.