Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Damnation Creek

Redwoods meet the coast at Damnation Creek
4 miles round trip, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The Damnation Creek Trail passes through an incredibly lush and beautiful redwood forest on its descent from US Highway 101 to the Pacific coast in California's Del Norte Redwoods State Park, which is a part of the larger Redwood National and State Parks system. The hike's coupling of spectacular forest and coastal scenery makes it one of the premier hikes around Redwood National and State Parks.  The hike makes a steep descent through redwood forest to reach the shoreline, meaning that hikers will have to tackle a fairly big hill climb on the way back. Damnation Creek is a good late afternoon hike- the west-facing slopes here allow sunlight to stream in late in the day, even when other redwood forests are largely in the shade. I found this to be one of the more enjoyable hikes during my second visit to Redwood National and State Parks.

The last bridge on the Damnation Creek Trail- which is just a few hundred yards before the trail reaches the beach- has seen structural damage and been closed for a few years now. While the trail is technically closed at this point, many visitors have obviously found ways to continue onward across the gully at that point to reach the coast. Park regulations dictate that you should turn around at the bridge; ultimately, you'll have to rely on your judgment on what to do here.

I hiked the Damnation Creek Trail during a January visit to Redwood National and State Parks. The trailhead is just off of US Highway 101, ten miles south of Crescent City and 30 miles north of Orick. The hike- and Redwood National and State Parks in general- is far from any major metropolitan area, with the San Francisco Bay Area, at six hours away, being the closest. Eureka is an hour and a half to the south. Thus, unless you live along the Northern California coast you'll have to make a trip out here. The trailhead is not clearly signed when approached from either the north or the south; there is an unmarked but well-defined parking area on the west side of Highway 101 at the trailhead. For those approaching from the south, the trailhead is on the left side of the road immediately after Highway 101 turns inland from the coastal bluffs of the Last Chance Grade; those coming from the north will just have to keep an eye out for the pullout on the right side of the road and know that they've missed it if they hit the Last Chance Grade. There are no restrooms at the trailhead and a Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park entrance fee is not required.

Leaving US 101, the Damnation Creek Trail immediately plunged into a soaring old-growth redwood forest with lush undergrowth. The trail began with a gentle ascent as the trail followed the east side of a low ridge with gargantuan coast redwoods; however, the trail roughly paralleled US 101 here, with the highway constantly within sight and earshot, so despite the impressive forest scenery it was not particularly quiet. 

Massive redwoods of Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
After a fifth of a mile, the trail leveled out as it rounded the side of a hill, leaving behind the sounds of US 101 and entering a redwood forest on west-facing slopes. Although the largest redwoods are typically found in valley bottoms and alluvial flats, there were some impressive giants here on these slopes. Late afternoon filtered into the redwood forest. Ferns dominated the understory here, coating the forest floor and contributing to the prehistoric feel of the forest; rhododendron occasionally dotted the understory here, too. This stretch of trail featured the hike's most impressive trees.

Lush redwood forest along the Damnation Creek Trail
Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
The trail descended steadily down these slopes, soon paralleling the Coastal Trail for a stretch (ignore the first use path descending to the Coastal Trail and stay on the single-track Damnation Creek Trail, which stays just uphill of the Coastal Trail. At 2/3 of a mile from the trailhead, the Damnation Creek Trail intersected the Coastal Trail. Crossing the Coastal Trail- which was a wide, well maintained road trace in the Last Chance section here- I continued on the Damnation Creek Trail, which began to follow a ridge.

Sun filtering into the redwoods
The Damnation Creek Trail briefly followed the top of a gently descending ridge, winding between the bases of some soaring redwoods. I really enjoyed this part of the hike: the slight topographic prominence of the ridge helped the trees here catch a lot of late day sun, making for gorgeous lighting.

Redwoods along the ridge
Soaring redwoods along the Damnation Creek Trail
The trail soon began to descend in earnest, dropping down the continent's final western slopes in a series of well-graded switchbacks. Sun filtered through the redwoods and Douglas firs and I caught glimpses of the late-day light glimmering on the Pacific through the trees. The trees here were not as large as higher on the ridge, the understory vegetation was less spectacular, and there were more non-redwood trees mixed in here, but the forest still had a serene and cathedral-like feel.

Forest along the Damnation Creek Trail
Redwood forest
As I descended further down the switchbacks of the Damnation Creek Trail, the composition of the forest began to change: the redwoods became smaller and Sitka Spruce started getting mixed in. Coast redwoods are intolerant to salt, so despite their name they are almost never found directly along the coast. Sitka Spruce, on the other hand, are still able to grow and reach impressive heights even when bathed in sea spray, so spruce trees largely dominate the immediately seaside forests of Redwood National and State Parks (and much of the Pacific Northwest coast!). Though lacking the girth of the mighty redwoods, Sitka spruce are able to achieve impressive heights as well: the tallest known Sitka Spruce reaches 315 feet tall on Vancouver Island and even here along the Redwood Coast they are nearly able to match the height of their more rich-hued and majestic neighbors.

Soaring redwoods
Soon the redwoods ended completely and the forest was spruce alone. The trail turned away from the coast and continued its descent into the canyon of Damnation Creek; some final steep drops brought me to the level of the creek. The trail then began following the creek towards the coast. There were two wooden truss footbridges over gullies along this final stretch of trail; both were damaged during my visit, the first having been partially crushed by a falling tree and the second fenced off with orange netting. As no signage prohibited me from crossing the first bridge, I made my way to the second bridge, where I found a way across the gully and emerged onto the grassy bluffs rising above the rocky beach at the mouth of Damnation Creek.

This was a lovely spot of wilderness coast with sweeping views to the south. The hills of the Del Norte Coast dropped away steeply to meet the ocean here. Far away, the skyscraping skyline of coast redwoods rose above coastal bluffs, making this a rare spot to simultaneously appreciate the world's tallest species of trees alongside the planet's largest ocean. Seastacks dotted the coast, each sending up a curtain of mist each time a wave rolled in off the Pacific.

Beach at the mouth of Damnation Creek
The view to the north was more limited, as a high bluff rose directly to the north on the other side of the mouth of Damnation Creek. While the views from the low grassy bluff were nice, it was not particularly straightforward to get from here down to the beach itself and I stayed at this slightly elevated viewpoint of the ocean to watch the sunset.

Rocky Pacific Coast at Damnation Creek
While I saw a handful of hikers on the way down to the beach, I had the coast all to myself when I arrived about 20 minutes before sunset and did not another person for the rest of the evening. I watched that day- the last day of a particularly bad four years- end as that mid-January sun sank below the western horizon, illuminating the surf on the incoming waves just as it was about to disappear behind the ocean. This is a beautiful spot for a sunset, but if you choose to watch the sunset here it is very important to have a flashlight or headlamp available to return safely up the trail. As dusk settled in, I returned the way I came.

Pacific waves lit by the setting sun
Damnation Creek is an excellent hike, with both a lush and towering redwood forest and access to a rocky and scenic stretch of wilderness coast. While Del Norte Coast Redwoods does not contain the most spectacular of the redwood forests, the varied scenery of this hike still makes it one of the most outstanding hikes on the Redwood Coast.

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