Mama Boots and I continued our road trip north from Eureka, headed to see more redwoods. It was time to see my twelfth national park!
Redwood National and State Parks are an interesting cluster of three state parks, including this visit’s Prairie Creek Redwoods SP; and National Park lands and visitor centers combined into one ‘park’. It’s admittedly confusing–there’s the land saved by the Save-The-Redwoods League that became three California State Parks around the 1920s, then land adjacent to those parks was purchased by the National Parks Service in 1968 to create Redwood National Park, and in 1994, the two entities decided to merge the lands to become Redwood National and State Parks. Got it?
If you don’t, fear not, as visitor centers abound at multiple corners of the park. We started bright and early to hit the furthest-south visitor center, the Thomas Kuchel Visitor Center about an hour north of Eureka. This center is right on the beach, and migratory grey whales sometimes swim by! We got maps, my NPS cancellation, and advice about stops for sights and easy trails for us to knock out. The first stop recommended was only a few miles north–and it might have elk!
We made a beeline for the aptly named Elk Meadow, home to Roosevelt elk (the same kind we have in Washington). Standing on our tippy-toes, we could just make out heads of some elk bedding down in the grassy meadow. Luckily, a family offered for us to climb into their truck bed to get a higher vantage point! We were thrilled at the gesture, and repaid their kindness by sharing our binoculars with them. As it was Mama Boot’s birthday, this was a perfect start.
From here, daytrippers can continue on the road from Elk Meadow for Trillium Falls. Trillium Falls, like many hikes in the parks, is great because it’s customizable. It’s an easy 1/2 mile stroll from the parking lot to the falls, which can provide a cooling mist. For those with a bit more free time, you can complete a loop back to the car (<3 miles total distance) instead of returning the way you came. We opted instead to get back on the 101 to go to Prairie Creek Redwoods SP, where there’s tons of trails. A stop at that Ranger Station and we had our three-mile route planned, winding along the Prairie Creek Trail through some more big trees before seeing the famed Big Tree, completeing the loop back to the visitor center along the Cathedral Tree Trail.
Similar to the day before, we were along a creek bed, crossing on wooden bridges, surrounded by behemoth trees. All around us were other people gazing up (and up) in wonder. While this hike certainly had more people than our previous day’s hikes, it was unique to see so many other people in the same state of awe that we were. So many hikes are about time in the woods before you get to the incredible thing–a view, a peak, a lake, etc. Today, the woods were the incredible thing. The trails here are an intertwining network, but we were able to pretty much just follow the signs for the Big Tree. There is a parking area for those limited by time or any mobility issues much closer to the Big Tree, but it was nice to just walk there.
The Big Tree is one of the biggest trees in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. I’m not sure which came first, the road or the exalted nature of the tree, but either way, this is likely the easily accessed super-big tree in the parks. Parks staff have planned accordingly, with a docent nearby answering questions and tons of descriptive signs in the area. I don’t know how often they update the height, diameter, and circumference signs, but I think given over 1500 years of growth, anything would be massive. People all over were trying in vain to get panorama view on their camera to let them shoot vertically, to no avail. It was nice to have more space to see more of the tree, including what looked like small trees growing up out of the midsection.
This area includes a flat space to accommodate the crowds, complete with one of my favorite jokes seen at a park–this wacky sign, echoing what I had been saying during my entire time amongst redwoods. This area was actually a convergence of a few trails, all of which did indeed lead to big trees. We joined the Cathedral Tree Trail to finish our loop to the car. After seeing the Big Tree, I admit, this trail felt less remarkable, but still had plenty of redwoods to spare. On a hot day, you’d have thought all the trees and lush fern floors would have kept us cool, but I felt the ‘cool’ sensation disappear right around my shins. We moved quickly, time being ever of the essence as we didn’t want to be hitting Bend after darkness fell.
Perhaps knowing how many people hit the parks as part of a road trip, rangers at every station (and also the Redwoods website) are great at distilling which hikes and stops are best on a crunch. However, like all of our stops along the trip so far, we could have easily devoted days more to seeing things here, including seeing the other two state parks (Jedediah Smith SP and the Hiouchi area being the stand-in for the forest moons of Endor from Return of the Jedi and more of the coastal parts of the park, especially). Luckily, thanks to hard conservation efforts and the coast redwood’s build keeping them less prone to fire damage, they aren’t going anywhere.
Distance: The parks have hundreds of miles of trails, talk to a ranger to best plan a hike to your abilities and time constraints. This loop we did was exactly 3.0 miles.
Elevation: Will vary based on trail.
Parking: The national park parts are free, the state parks collect day-use fees only at campground entrance stations (plus fees for camping).
Bathrooms: Visitor Centers have flushing bathrooms.
Best Beer Bet: The closest breweries to Prairie Creek Redwoods SP are in Eureka, including Lost Coast Brewery. Further north are options in Crescent City, by Jedediah Smith Redwoods SP.