Thursday, August 6, 2020

Big Tree Loop

Redwoods along the Cathedral Trees trail
2.8 miles loop, 200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park contains some of the most impressive forests within the Redwood National and State Parks complex and many of its massive trees can be seen from the easy Big Tree Loop, which combines a number of the park's forested trails. While this loop does visit the Big Tree, a coast redwood of remarkable volume, rest assured that the remainder of the hike includes plenty of other big trees. This trail largely 

Redwood National and State Parks is far from any large metro area; most visitors coming here will have done so with the express purpose of visiting, or as part of a longer road trip. Anna and I hiked here during our road trip from California to Seattle for my move. The closest major town is Eureka; from Eureka, we took US 101 north for about 47 miles. Soon after passing through Orick, we left US 101 at exit 753, taking the Newton B. Drury Parkway into Redwood National and State Parks. We drove a mile north on Drury Parkway and arrived in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park; turning left at the turnoff for the Prairie Creek Campground and the visitor center, we parked across from the visitor center on the edge of Elk Prairie.

The hike starts near Elk Prairie, the eponymous grassland for which Prairie Creek is named. The grassland is so named because elk frequently graze here; we saw elk near Orick on our drive in but did not see any of the animals here. The hike started on the other side of the road from the prairie, next to the visitor center: the Cathedral Trees Trail and the Prairie Creek Trail both left from here. While we would return on the Cathedral Trees Trail, we started out on the Prairie Creek Trail.

Elk Prairie
The Praire Creek Trail crossed a bridge and then entered the quiet old-growth redwood forest. At a junction not far from the trailhead with the West Ridge and James Irvine Trails, we took the right fork to head into the valley along Prairie Creek.

The next 1.2 miles were a quiet journey through some of the tallest trees on Earth. Coast redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth, with specimens found in the Redwood National and State Parks area reaching 379 feet, taller than the Statue of Liberty. Massive trees, many greater than 15 feet in diameter, dotted the hillsides near the trail, rising out of an understory of ferns and bushes.

Redwoods along the Prairie Creek Trail
The trail was flat and wide, making this portion of the hike easy and enjoyable. Hiking in the evening, we did not see many other hikers; however, this hike's proximity to a visitor center means it is likely to be far more crowded during the day on weekends.

A massive coast redwood
We crossed Prairie Creek again on a bridge at about 0.8 miles. The trees became a little less impressive as we headed north on the Prairie Creek Trail, with smaller girths than the ones near the start of the hike, but whenever we looked up it was still an awesome sight to see the tops of these coast redwoods soaring to such heights. 

Soaring coast redwoods on the Prairie Creek Trail
At 1.2 miles, we came to a junction with a trail that led out to the Newton B. Drury Parkway and the Big Tree. Here, we took the right fork, leaving the Prairie Creek Trail. A hundred meters along this trail brought us out to the Newton B. Drury Parkway, named after a member of the Save the Redwoods League who worked to preserve the coast redwoods of California and later became director of the National Park Service. We followed the Drury Parkway north (left) briefly, walking along the shoulder until coming to the sign for the Hunnewell-Donald Memorial Grove on the right (east) side of the road. We left the parkway here and got back on the trail, which led a tenth of a mile through an impressive grove to connect with the Foothill Trail. We turned right at the Foothill Trail and followed it south towards the Big Tree, passing through majestic forests towering above a fern-covered floor.

Redwoods in Hunnewell-Donald Memorial Grove
Following the Foothill Trail south, we approached the Big Tree. Here, there was a bit of a maze of trails as many paths joined together all at once; follow the signs for the Big Tree and you'll be fine. The Big Tree can also be accessed by a short walk from a parking lot off Drury Parkway, so expect to see many more visitors here. At 1.5 miles into the hike, the Big Tree is just over halfway through this hike.

The Big Tree is just that- a particularly massive redwood boasting a 23.7-foot girth. At 286 feet tall, it's not particularly tall for a redwood, but its size is impressive. A wooden platform at its base allowed visitors to approach the tree without stomping on the soil around it.

The Big Tree
Leaving the Big Tree, we followed signs for the Cathedral Trees Trail and soon found ourselves on a single-track trail ascending slightly from the valley floor. This stretch of trail is responsible for basically all of the elevation gain of the hike; the Cathedral Trees Trail also represented the most difficult terrain of the hike, shifting away from perfectly maintained dirt and gravel paths to a single-track trail that had steps, rocks, occasional roots, and mud in places.

The scenery here was extraordinary, though: evening sunlight cut into a forest of magnificent redwoods that we now had to ourselves.

Cathedral Trees Trail
Cathedral Trees Trail
We followed the Cathedral Trees Trail for about a half mile until coming to an unmarked junction with unpaved Cal Barrel Road. Here, we left the Cathedral Trees Trail, turning right and descending back to the floor of Prairie Creek's valley via Cal Barrel Road. Cal Barrel Road is a motorized road, but it's frequently closed to car access and still makes a scenic hiking route. In fact, the stretch of Cal Barrel Road that we hiked along had some of the densest collections of large trees on our hike, making it a very scenic quarter mile descent from the Cathedral Trees Trail down to the Foothill Trail.

Soaring redwoods above Cal Barrel Road
Redwoods along Cal Barrel Road
Whatever preconceived notions you might have about hiking along a road you should set aside here: Cal Barrel Road is an extremely scenic road route, an unpaved road coated in forest litter winding through the tallest trees on Earth.

Cal Barrel Road
We passed a gate and parking area for Cal Barrel Road (the upper road was closed to vehicles at the time of our hike), walking out just further along the road until we reached a junction with the Foothill Trail. Here, we turned left and followed the Foothill Trail back towards the visitor center. The trail paralleled the Drury Parkway and we were able to see cars on the road, but there were still a number of very impressive redwood giants here, including one specimen with a trunk that was certainly 20 feet in diameter.

Massive redwood on the Foothills Trail
The Foothill Trail ended at a junction with the Cathedral Trees Trail. We turned right at this junction, following the Cathedral Trees Trail back towards the visitor center. At the junction between the Cathedral Trees Trail and the Drury Parkway, the trail passed beneath the road via a tunnel; we chose to simply follow the Drury Parkway back to the visitor center parking lot, enjoying views of Elk Prairie just before sunset.

This easy hike visits some of the most impressive forests in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The redwoods here are magnificent and there are few stretches of this hike that fail to deliver soaring, gargantuan trees. Combined with the location's ease of access from US 101, this is an excellent place to experience the awe of the ancient, towering coast redwoods of northern California.

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