Monday, October 18, 2010

Boy Scout Tree Trail

Old Growth Redwoods
 On the northern end of Del Norte State Park is another fine tract hosting some of the most pristine old growth redwood habitat on earth. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is almost completely undeveloped, with its watershed well protected, thanks to the efforts of Newton B. Drury and his Save the Redwoods League. The only roads going in are a couple of narrow, winding, unpaved scenic roads which are not recommended for large vehicles. Turning off of highway 101 at Elk Valley Road near the southern end of Crescent City brought us to Howland Hill Road. The section near town is paved, but as soon as you roll past some country homes and agricultural lands, the road begins climbing and winding. Soon, as you round a bend, the pavement abruptly ends, and the road narrows as you enter the forest. Further on the trees become very dense and the canopy thicker. The deep shade feels much more cool and moist, and the fragrance of the air is laden with barky aroma. This road could be a really great nature all trail by itself. The forest is awesome with thick populations comprised of both old and new growth mixed together exactly how it should be for untouched wild tree habitat. I don’t believe my pictures are going to do justice to this area. The old growth trees, their surrounding undergrowth, the high canopy, the lifting fog, and filtered sunbeams, were simply amazing; and we hadn’t even got out of the car yet. We were looking for the trail head that was recommended to us very highly. Jedediah Smith has two groves that are rated 5 out of 5, but we only had enough time to visit one. The Stout Grove is very popular with visitors, but we opted for the more remote of the two, which according to the map, included a little fall area. It’s called the Boy Scout Tree Trail, and it’s right in the very heart of Jed Smith Park. After slowly negotiating the road, and being profoundly impressed with surrounding area, we easily found the signed trail head along the road which provides a pullout for about 10 cars.

When we got there a forestry department truck was waiting along the road. We did not know this, but there was some trail work scheduled that day to be performed by a supervised team of low risk inmates from the local jail system, whom would arrive by bus later on. Good to know they’re earning their keep, and by helping to protect the parks, they earn bonus points toward good behavior status. Santa Clara County often does the same type of thing. They were working far enough away that we did not hear them until we came back to the trail head; otherwise their noise would have been a definite bother.

Old Growth Redwoods
 We began hiking wasting no time being captivated by the “spirit” of these timeless forest lands. The delicate color and texture variations are impossible for me to describe, or even photograph properly. My little compact camera, although arguably best in class, is simply not up to this kind of a challenge. And of course I’m not a pro. I’m not even an accomplished amateur. I found myself behaving a bit strangely; removing my hat so as not to obstruct any peripheral vision, and craning my neck up a lot to see, then down to make sure of my footing. I was also stopping to turn around frequently so I could see in all directions, not wanting to miss any perspectives. By the end of the hike my neck was actually a bit sore from so much movement. Hopefully that description can better convey the grandeur of this trail without me having to wear out most of my best adjectives and qualitative phrases attempting to do so, and likely failing. After about 2 miles, you arrive at an unmarked junction of what looks like a spur trail. This is the little loop trail to view the Boy Scout Tree. The BST is a very large, and very tall, double trunked redwood, which is obviously thousands of years old. The knarly, fibrous, bark near its base is infused with green lichens, and it even has small plants growing in pockets of soil trapped within the cracks and crevasses of its weathered trunk. The soil all around is the color of mulched redwood debris, and soft and moist, almost like potting soil from a nursery.

After enjoying the BST, we continued on to see Fern Falls. The trail passes through a section of mixed conifers with maples and a few alders along a pretty little winding creek. The fall is not a big one, and there are fallen logs blocking the view along the trail. Fern fall is really more of a little stepped cascade, but this time of year is not the best flow anyway. But there were some nice trickling sounds, and a picturesque little spot to have some lunch sitting on a fallen log. I even found some seep monkey flower exploring along the creek below the fall. We saw a few other hikers, but not enough to detract from our hike. We could also hear fog horns way off in the distance much of the way, but that didn’t really spoil anything for us either. The hike is an out-and-back, so we headed back by the same trail. We only hiked a total of 5 miles or so, but this trail is well worth spending some time to enjoy. You can’t see this kind of fairy tail like habitat just anywhere.

Click here to see my photos on flickr

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Damnation Creek Trail

Heading to the north from Prairie Creek, you pass through the coastal section of Del Norte Redwood State Park. Some nice views of the coast are seen before the highway turns inland a bit and begins climbing into the densely wooded coastal hills. A barely noticeable turnout on the southbound side provides access to the Damnation Creek Trail. The name got my attention just because it sounds cool somehow, even more so than Lost Man Creek. The rating for it is 3 out of 5 for what that’s really worth. Checking out the map, I could see the trail heads down to the ocean, and my interest was peaked. I had another one of my hunches, and began imagining what the trail might be like. I was conjuring up images of a challenging trail plunging down a canyon to a secluded beach that I would have all to my self. This was going to be our second hike of the day and Sue had decided she would rather explore the area around the trail head and find a place to do meditations. The sign at the trail head indicates a 1000 foot drop to the ocean in just over 2 miles. Not the steepest trail we’ve ever hiked by any stretch, but after 5 straight days of hiking I imagine she was beginning to feel a little whipped.

The upper trail originating within Del Norte State Park is thickly wooded, and really quite impressive. It doesn’t take long before you can loose the traffic noise of the highway, and begin to enjoy the landscape. The trail climbs gently for a little while before descending to the junction with the Coastal Trail. The sign at the junction warns that the Damnation Creek Trail is a "steep strenuous trail", but as I found out, it’s really not that bad. Most of the elevation change is along the 1.4 mile section from the coastal trail junction down to the ocean, but the grading is nicely done. There are a few sections with earthen steps braced with wood which have washed out and eroded dramatically. A few other sections will cause you to watch your step, but overall the trail is in great shape. I didn’t count them, but there are multiple switchbacks the whole way down. The upper section is dominated by Redwoods and their typical undergrowth. Further down, there are more Spruce and Douglas Firs, oaks, and a few maples, and a lot of mosses. The lower section is thick with berry bushes and other leafy plants, and the fragrances begin to combine with the salty ocean breezes. After many switchbacks, an old footbridge brings you across the creek along a sandbar, and you finally break out to an ocean view. You don't get to actually see the ocean until you are basically there, which was a little disappointing.

The beach is very rocky. Smooth rounded pebbles and jagged rocks of all sizes are scattered about and piled up together. The surf has a lot of tide pools, and the waves breaking against the shoreline rock formations give them a gentle rhythm of egress and flow. Large rock formations dot the views out in the deep surf, enduring the incessant water erosion like menacing relics from another age. Looking to the south is an almost sheer cliff plunging down from the tree line above. A beautiful setting, I could have spent a couple of hours here. For the most part it lived up to my imagination even though I’m not sure how it got such a foreboding name. It was easy to see that some of the tide pools are full of mussels, but I really did not have time to explore them further. I had told Sue that I would only be a couple of hours, and I wanted to make sure I held to that. It would have been nice to explore the creek bed a little too, but I didn’t stay around that long. After enjoying the area awhile I turned back up the trail to make my promised arrival time back at the car. The return climb up all those switchbacks isn’t so tough. The trail is mostly shaded with nice breezes, and the surface is mostly smooth. This hike was a lot of fun, and I agree with a rating of 3, taking off only for lack long range views along the way, and because you can’t make it part of a loop unless you are doing a side trip from the coastal trail, which is only rated as a 2 along here.

Click here to see photos from this hike on flickr

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Gold Bluffs Beach and Fern Canyon

Ancient Sequioa Turnk
 The one classic, must do it, hike at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is the loop hike out to Gold Bluffs Beach using the Miner’s Ridge, and James Irvine Trails. If you are camping at Elk Prairie campground you have lots of choices among trailheads you can access on foot by simply walking from you campsite. And this time of year, if you get started early enough, you can count on having the trails virtually to yourself. You can saunter through the ancient forest in absolute solitude with the morning fog still lifting. The deep woods of the north coast have an unforgettable character which invites ramblers to sharpen their senses, and heighten their awareness of their surroundings. Creeks flow with clear waters that provide a soft sonic embellishment, even though the vegetation springing from their depths is so dense that you cannot see them. Old wooden foot bridges seem to span beds of ferns, and leafy green plants, but actually conceal hidden drainages carved into the alluvial soils. Ancient sequoias, their bark weathered almost grey, and frayed from the elements, endure the ages to tower to the sky, their tall canopy supporting unseen life; endangered and even undiscovered species. And even still, young growth abounds to join the fray as they reach for the heights in search of sunlight somewhere above as though by faith. Even the fallen logs are teaming with life as ferns and shoots of all variety have deposited seed there, and adopted them as their home. Toads, slugs, and newts, wander about enthusiastically in great health, and small bird species populate the shrubbery. This area is a treasure for the ages, very nearly lost.

Roosevelt Elk
 On this hike, we used the James Irvine Trail on the way out to the coast, which eventually brought us out to the inland side of Fern Canyon. A loop trail allows a route either along the top, or down inside the canyon to the creek bed covered in smooth pebbles and sand. The trail at the top doesn’t allow much of a view into the canyon, so the creek route is much more scenic. The route is obscure requiring lots of crossings and meandering along rocks endeavoring to keep footgear dry, and there’s a lot of fallen debris to climb over, or maneuver around, or underneath. If the water level is high you couldn’t do it at all without wading. We almost needed to wade through parts, but these efforts are worth it however, as the canyon is unique and beautiful. There’s about a half mile section with jagged, abrupt, rock walls absolutely covered in ferns. One section has nearly vertical smooth rock walls about 60 feet high thickly adorned with layers of five finger ferns. You will see people here though. There is an unpaved access road that brings visitors to within less than half a mile by vehicle, so expect to have company. I wouldn’t want to bring my car on that road, but an SUV or truck can handle it well. We hiked the canyon, and as we began hiking the coastal trail toward Gold Bluffs Beach, we began to hear some elk calls. We were hearing males trumpeting to each other, attempting to exert a claim over a harem of cows. One out on the marshy sands of the beach, while the alpha male was laying around in the trees with the cows grazing around. I was able to get a few pictures without getting too close. We had lunch at the picnic area there while observing the elk behavior right around the parking lot for Gold Bluffs Beach. We headed back by hiking up the beach road to find the Miner’s Ridge Trail. This route is an equally pristine and captivating trail through the living ancient forest. A fantastic unforgettable day.

Click here to see my pictures on flickr

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Tall Trees Grove

And Dolason Prairie

The other grove that we really wanted to see within Redwood National Park is called Tall Trees Grove. This grove is more remote than Lady Bird Johnson. It's managed almost as though it were a wilderness area. There are several hiking routes which can be used to get there, which is usually the best way to really enjoy the area. But there is also a limited access unpaved road which can take you within about 1.5 miles of the grove. If you want to drive this road you must obtain a pass from the park service by driving to the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Information Center. Located on the coast along highway 101 about a mile south of the town of Orick, this visitor’s center serves as park headquarters. The pass is free, but they limit them to 50 per day during the peak season. This time of year they don’t hand out nearly that many, but you still need to register and obtain a pass. They will provide the combination to the locked gate at the entrance to the road, which is changed every day. Normally we would have wanted to hike in, but on this trip we thought about how great it would be to hike the grove completely on our own, with no one else around at all. In order to beat the crowds, which are very low this time of year anyway, we persuaded the rangers to grant us a pass for the next day so we could get an early start. They usually don’t begin handing out the passes until 9:00am at the visitor’s center. They provided us with the combinations for both days just in case we got there before it got changed. So we planned on hiking the grove early, having it to ourselves, and then hiking the Emerald Ridge and Dolason Prairie Trails as an out-and-back, rather than an entrance route to the grove. Normally it would be a 6 mile hike one way from Bald Hills Road to get to Tall Trees Grove by way of the Dolason route. The other hiking route along Redwood Creek Trail is nearly 8 miles one way.

We were up early the next day and were ready to go by sunup. We drove the 7 miles up Bald Hills Road to the gated Tall Trees access road. Then 6 miles, and about 1200 feet back down to a trailhead and dirt parking area in the heart of the park. The road is a little bumpy, the surface being gravel, dust, and hard pack dirt. It’s also quite narrow in places with lots of bends. We took it slow, but didn’t have any problems with our normal car and tires. On the drive in I spotted some late season redwood orchids on the side of the road. They were already turning back to seed, but I stopped to take some photos anyway because some of them were as much as 7 or 8 feet tall. The tallest ones I’ve ever seen in the Santa Cruz Mountains are maybe 3 or 4 feet tall. We were the only people at the trailhead just like we planned. The trail is in good repair and has good markers in place.

This grove is as close to wild and pristine as possible. The single track trail has some rudimentary markers, but apart from that there are no human influences. The trail meanders through the forest residing on an alluvial flat directly adjacent to Redwood Creek. This location is perfect habitat for the redwoods. The climate is not too cold in winter, nor too hot or arid in summer. The area is not directly exposed to the ocean or the interior valley heat, but has plenty of water, and a channel that ushers in the coastal fog to nourish the trees in summer. The leaf structure of the redwoods functions like a drip system. They also have the ability to assimilate some moisture directly through their leaf system. The alluvial soil has just the right nutrients and qualities for sustenance. The trail makes a loop of about a mile through the glorious forest and thick green undergrowth. There is also access to Redwood Creek and it's rocky sandbars. The trails out near the creek are lined with Big Leaf Maples with their braches covered with thick green mosses. There is a trail section that loops back toward the Emerald Creek junction that uses the rocks and sandbars as an obscure use trail, which requires multiple fording of the creek. We decided not to use that section this time because we were keen to keep our boots as dry as possible. The damp air was making it really hard to dry certain things out once wet. We spotted a flock of common mergansers swimming along the creek foraging for food. They were all females in their non-mating season plumage. We also saw plenty of little toads along the trails, which are a good sign of a healthy ecosystem. It’s hard to adequately describe the ambiance of an old growth forest like this, and adjectives can get well-used when trying to write up hikes of this type. You really need to be there to experience the “spirit” of a place like this, and we especially enjoyed having this time here with all this grandeur to ourselves. We did not see any other people until we were leaving; exactly like we had planned.

After enjoying our time at Tall Trees, we made our way back to the junction with Emerald Creek Trail, and headed toward Dolason Prairie. Emerald Creek is another section of beautiful, deep green, redwood country. The trail descends down to the footbridge at the primordial creek, before beginning to climb back up the ridge on the other side. The trail climbs higher and higher until the woods begin to show more spruce and fir trees. Soon you emerge out into one of the grassy meadows, and you begin to get views out over the coastal mountains. The trail begins switching back into the forest and back out to enjoy a higher perspective on the same basic view. We passed through one section of thick ancient Sitka spruce which finally brought us out for another view to the ridge system to the west. If you study it, you can spot the checkerboard pattern of the legacy clear cutting that lead to the massive 1964 flood. Square patches of much shorter trees are surrounded by a gridwork of very tall older growth as the area slowly recovers. A lot was learned from that disaster. They would never have done that type of clear cutting today. Finally you reach the open meadows of Dolason Prairie, and the remnants of the old Dolason barn. This old barn is listed in the National Register of Historic Places due to the sheep ranching history it represents. We enjoyed the sweeping vistas while imagining thousands of sheep grazing before pristine vistas of wild forested hillsides as they would have been then, around 1914. With rain threatening we heading back down the trail to get back to our car. It never did rain though. On the way back out we spotted a very large owl which flew from a tree down the road ahead of us landing high in another tree along the road. I tried to get a photo, but it took off again before I could get my camera out again. Judging from the size of it, I think it must have been a Great Horned Owl, but that's really just a guess. The wing span was huge.

Click here to see my pictures on flickr.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Redwood National Park

After checking out Lost Man Creek we still had lots of time left in the day, so we decided to head deeper into Redwood National Park. We drove south to Bald Hills Road; the only paved road in the park. There are two main old growth groves in this park that we were interested in. The Tall Trees Grove is more remote, and is far from any paved road. You can hike to it from various routes, or you can obtain a pass to use the unpaved access road that takes you down within about 1.5 miles. We thought Tall Trees deserved an earlier start than we had, so we opted for the more accessible Lady Bird Johnson Grove.

Turning up Bald Hills Road from the highway (101), the road shortly begins climbing, and winding its way up the ridge system. The paving is marginal, hastily repaired, and bumpy, but passable. The many curves are fairly sharp. About 2.7 miles brings you to the trailhead for the Lady Bird Johnson Grove. Redwood National Park was commissioned in 1968 under Richard Nixon, and the dedication was attended by Lady Bird Johnson, who was actually quite an advocate for preserving nature. Thus; this grove was named after her. Ironically, this park was created due in part to the publicity created in 1964 when Humbolt County, the Trinity River, and Redwood Creek had a massive flood. The over-harvesting of timber, especially redwood, had severely compromised the washboard terrain. Heavy tropical rains sent massive volumes of silt flowing, clogging the watershed, which caused flooding of near biblical proportions. Today there are signs along the highway showing the 1964 water level being 10 feet overhead. Only then did the threat of wonton destruction of irreplaceable old growth forests become real to general public, and more importantly, to the political machine of the period. If not for that disaster, perhaps there would not have been any old growth left at all on the north coast, where it is the most pristine and beautiful.

The trail is not a lengthy hike. Including the entrance trail it’s still less than 2 miles, and there is virtually no elevation gain. But this is not a trail to ramble through, making distance with one eye on the clock and the other on the map. This is a place to quietly stroll and savor, lift your head up, and drink it in. I almost don’t want to show my photos of this grove because there is virtually no chance of capturing its spirit. Tricky lighting balance, intricate textures, delicate coloration, and deceiving perspectives all combine to make it something you simply have to experience. The trees are not monstrously huge, but the overall character of the grove is captivating. It would be challenging to attempt to portray the essence. The trail is very developed and smooth, but not enough to detract from the deep woods ambiance. The breeze makes a delicate music high within the thick array of leaves and branches, and the sunlight glints in needle-like shafts as you move along imbuing the aroma. We saw very few other people on the trail. That’s one benefit of being here during the quiet season. I don’t know exactly how much time we spent there, but it was hard to leave. We decided we still had time to check out the lower section of The Redwood Creek Trail before heading back to camp.

There is a signed turn off only about half a mile in from the highway that leads to the trailhead for lower Redwood Creek Trail. Our car was the only one in the parking area. Crossing a rustic little bridge, the trail begins in impressive stands of Big Leaf Maple, and Alders which are covered by thick mosses, and carpeted with ferns and leafy vegetation. Along the way there are a few even more impressive large redwoods. There are a few little tributary creeks flowing into the main Redwood Creek which provide the backdrop of flowing water sounds. The trees, mosses, leaves, and vegetation are so thick, the trail feels almost primordial. The first 2 miles or so are under thick shade before the watershed opens up along the rocky sandbars of the main creek exposing you to sunshine. This trail could be hiked 8 miles into the Tall Trees Grove, but we were not going that far. We had obtained a pass for that grove for the next day. We hadn’t hiked a lot of miles that day, but we were more than happy with the quality of the experience. A restful day like this is good for the soul. The next day we would be headed for Tall Trees Grove and Dolason Meadow.

Click here to see the pictures on flickr