December 19, 2006.
The California redwoods are contained within a web of National and State parks, each with their own regulations, styles and accommodations. The only one that appeared to have any buildings open was the Prairie Creek State Park.
I awoke early for another cold breakfast of Muesli and milk, accompanied with some minor stretching to alleviate the soreness from sleeping crumpled in the car. I drove several miles to the park’s visitor center for a map and hiking suggestions, only to find it closed. This wasn’t a complete disappointment, however. I always enjoy funny signs, and so I was highly amused to see a brown sign indicating what station I should tune my car radio to for “Elk Information.” How ridiculous. Not a minute later, I notice an elk chilling in someone’s front yard just behind the sign. Cool! My first elk sighting.
The route: John Irvine Trail to Fern Canyon to the beach, then returning via John Irvine, Clintonia and Miner’s Ridge.
The temperatures were cold, especially under the thick tree cover. I began the hike in a hat, gloves, and jacket, but the layers quickly came off once I started picking up the pace. The terrain was gently rolling, very minor ups and downs here and there as the path wove through the towering trees. It was next to impossible to exactly capture the essence of the place because everything was so gigantic. Picture Jurassic Park: large, cascading ferns, thick trees stretching their bare trunks up to the sky, faint beams of light passing through the canopy overhead. Just no dinosaurs that I could find.
Along the way I had to cross some particularly sketchy wooden bridges and platforms which had broken beams everywhere. I tried to stick to the edges where the boards were nailed together, hoping for more stability there. I imagined myself plunging through a rotten board, hanging by my fingertips above a 200 foot gorge, Indiana Jones-style, my legs flailing about and crocodiles snapping their jaws ferociously at the bottom. Lucky for me, most of the bridges were about 3 inches above shallow streams, so my chances of survival were pretty good. No chance of a handsome, wild explorer coming to my rescue however :). Aah, the mind does wander after days of traveling alone.
Near the end of the journey to the beach I came to the Fern Canyon junction, which would cover the last 0.5 miles. Canyons are always inviting to me so I gladly left the well-trodden John Irvine trail behind. Almost immediately I had to climb over significant blowdown and re-find the trail. I was loving it. I followed the trail down a short, steep slope that deposited me in the base of this narrow canyon. For awhile, I could follow the tread along the stream, but eventually it disappeared. I assumed that continuing along the canyon bottom would lead me to the ocean so I picked my way over the smooth rocks as I gawked at the fern-draped walls of basalt on either side of me. I could hear the booming sounds of waves getting louder, which reassured me that I was headed the right way.
In many places I happily splashed through ankle-deep water, confident that my footwear was watertight after my experiences yesterday. There were many twists and turns that ultimately brought me to a wide canyon and a link to the beach trailhead. Several cars were parked here but I didn’t run into any people.
I followed a herd path across the yellow grass towards the ocean. This brought me to an impassible channel of water that dumped into a large pond to my left. These bodies of water lay in between me and the beach. Damn. What now?
Not about to be thwarted by mere water, I trekked through the grass, following well worn deer and elk trails slong the water’s edge and around a few stands of trees. After a short while, I found my opening and crossed over from trees and grass to beach sand. Picking up the trail of a large wading bird I plopped my gear by some driftwood and yet again enjoyed the sights and sounds of the majestic Pacific Ocean. The warm sun felt especially nice after spending all that time in the dark, damp forest.
But all good things must come to an end, so I headed back through the grass where I unknowingly took a shortcut out to a road which led me back to the woods. Soon I encountered a few groups of hikers, including two guys who gave me nasty looks when I said hello. Wow. I so much prefer having the woods to myself. I took a slightly different route back to my car, hoping for some more interesting walking and less creepy people. This route had somewhat more blowdown to negotiate, which, oddly enough, makes me happy. And I didn’t come across any other humans which was a big bonus.
I was back at the car by early afternoon, so I drove to a nearby wayside to make a sandwich and gulp down some V8. The rest of my driving today would take place along scenic route 199, which was simply spectacular. This road follows the Smith River for quite a ways, which is the greenest river I’ve ever seen. The woman at the Info Center (who was surprised anyone was coming in to see her today!) said it is because of the serpentine present in the riverbed.
The Info lady also directed me to a 0.2 mile nature trail just up the road where one can view the Darlingtonia californicus,a carnivorous plant. This unusual species is found in a bog that is easily accessible from the road. I couldn’t believe how big these guys were! It was certainly an amazing place, but it was cold, and I had lodging to find.
I’d counted on staying at a state campground near Oregon Caves, but I found that (shockingly) both of the nearby places were closed. Driving back the way I came, I came across a motel/campground that was open and asked for a tent site. The woman in the office looked at me like I was nuts but with some pleading I managed to secure a site, for free, paying only $5 for a huge portion of firewood. I was psyched to be able to have a fire to warm up this chilly night and to make some hot food. After at least 30 minutes of fighting with frozen hands and frozen wood I got a roaring blaze going at my campsite.