Whiskey Prairie Hike

  • Address: Mattole Road, Baxter Campground Humboldt Redwoods State Park
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Excerpted with permission from the book "Best Short Hikes in Redwood national and State Parks," by authors: Gisels Rohde and Jerry Rohde.

PARK:   Humboldt Redwoods State Park
FEATURES:    Fall forest colors and an oak-fringed prairie with views of Bull Creek
DISTANCE:  3.7 miles round trip (longer option available)
ELEVATION GAIN:  550 feet
DIFFICULTY:    Moderate

Open all year

HISTORY: In the 1910s Bull Creek was known for its prize-winning apples. Then, during Prohibition, it developed a reputation for another commodity—bootleg whiskey, with stills hidden in the area’s secluded, heavily forested canyons. This hike takes you to an unnamed grassland that could well be called Whiskey Prairie, since one of the stills lay in the woods just south of it.

THE HIKE:   A steel gate blocks vehicular access to Baxter Environmental Camp, a small hike-in facility. Passing around the gate, you proceed southward on a gravel road. A willow thicket lies off to the right, while mixed forest covers the hillside to the left. Oregon ash, red alder, California bay, and bigleaf maple also line the roadside.

At 0.2 miles the road ends in a turnaround at a second gate. Now the route follows a path that leads through the redwood-shaded camping area, named for Grace Johnson Baxter, a member of the pioneer Johnson ranching family. Baxter once had a home here.

Just beyond a park outhouse, the trail divides. The way right provides access to a campsite, so you turn left. A short climb brings you to a junction at 0.3 miles. Right leads to a ford at Bull Creek, while your way is left. The wide pathway accommodates horses but you will probably encounter few of them—or hikers, either.

The trail ascends the hillside on a gentle grade, passing through second-growth conifers and a delightful mix of other trees. Many years ago the area was part of a tie camp operation that cut redwoods into “bolts” several feet long. The bolts were then hand-hewed into “split products,” including grape stakes, fence posts, and railroad ties. Various road remnants crisscross the trail.

Willow and Pacific dogwood appear at 0.65 miles. Then, after a switchback, come California bay, California hazel, and Pacific madrone, followed shortly by California black oak and more willow. In fall the woods come alive with color, the soft yellows and golds accented by glimpses of pale pink. After crossing a wooden bridge, the route runs past more hazel and then bigleaf maple. At 1.45 miles you see tanoak, Douglas-fir, and evergreen huckleberry.

Watch closely for a switchback that cuts left at 1.8 miles. Leave the main trail here and follow the side path that leads directly off the elbow of the switchback. It runs south for some 200 feet, passing beneath bigleaf maple and Douglas-fir, to a large, steeply sloping prairie bordered by Oregon white oak. The view from the prairie encompasses, from right to left, Pole Line Road, the mouth of Cuneo Creek, and the Lewis apple orchard next to Bull Creek.

Some conveniently placed fallen oak limbs allow you to sit and contemplate the view. The prairie drops in front of you all the way to Bull Creek, while to your left the grassland continues southeastward, cutting through a fringe of conifers and then continuing uphill until it reaches a forested stream canyon. One of Bull Creek’s numerous stills was once hidden here, while over the ridgeline to the left is a spot called Whiskey Camp, where another still was cleverly concealed in a hollow redwood, the smoke from the still’s fire issuing from the hole in the tree’s top.

Although bootleg whiskey was always in high demand, the various distilling operations met with mixed success. Sometimes they would be discovered by other locals—one newcomer to the area ran across a still with a barrel containing twenty gallons of “fiery red liquid” whose fierce effects prevented him from sampling more than a small amount. Other times, as with the Whiskey Prairie operation, the “dry squad” located the still and the bootleggers were arrested.

From your oak “bench” at the edge of the prairie you return downhill by the same route to the trailhead.

For a longer hike: Continue uphill on the Baxter Trail, meeting Squaw Creek Ridge Road in 0.6 miles. Turn right here and take the road south, climbing gradually through redwoods until you reach the Whiskey Flat Trail Camp in an additional 1.9 miles. Turn back here and retrace your route to add 5 miles to your hike.