A gentle 17 miles loop through old-growth redwoods, fern canyon, and an amazing stretch of the coastal trail, with some beach thrown in to top it off. If you like big trees and old-growth forest, this is about as good as it gets in the US (Olympic NP as the undisputed champion). This loop takes in the best the area has to offer.
Begin this magical hike at the Prairie Creek Visitor Center. This area can fill up during weekends of summer months. Come early. Overflow parking is available on the street.
Head up the Prairie Creek Trail
, which is more heavily used by the standard tourist crowd, and you'll quickly come across a sign that will point you to the left toward the James Irvine Trail
and the West Ridge Trail
. In this hike I recommend taking the West Ridge Trail
out and the James Irvine Trail
back. As such, follow the signs when, again, quite quickly, the signs have you take a right up the West Ridge Trail
. The trail climbs over the first mile, but never too steeply. Enjoy the old growth forest, with massive redwoods and the nurse logs made up of the trees that have fallen over time, becoming complete ecosystems of their own.
After a mile the trail tops out and gently rolls. It is quite easy to follow with a couple of trails (zigzag trail #1 and #2) heading off to the right but everything is well marked. There is a section about 5 miles in, perhaps a mile long, where the forest changes and it is obvious this is no longer old-growth. This section is a bit annoying with the trail being a bit overgrown, but this cleanses the palate for when you get back into the old-growth before dropping down to the coastal trail, after 7.2 miles on the West Ridge Trail
The Coastal Trail is hard-packed dirt and sand, weaving between the coastal plain and the forest, with a few high waterfalls and cascades dropping from the cliffs above. It is an amazing compliment to the forest you just went through and are about to go through. If you hit this at the right time (late July through late Aug) bring a ziploc for some fresh blackberries along the path.
The Coastal Trail stretch ends at Fern Canyon
, a beautiful canyon with walls of Ferns. If you want, before heading up the canyon, continue down the Coastal Trail to access the beach and ocean. (As a note, both Fern Canyon
and the beach can be overrun with people, as there is a parking area for Fern Canyon
. Time is, and you can have both largely to yourself. I hit it mid week in early Nov and there were few people. I hit it again early Aug on the weekend and it was pandamonium. We didn't even go to the beach before we fled into the sanctuary of the woods).
Enjoy the uniqueness of Fern Canyon
. I've never seen anything like it. Continue up the canyon until you see a sign directing you up a set of stairs up to the James Irvine Trail
. From here you are about 5 rolling and beautiful miles back to the trailhead. This is really the cherry on top of the whole loop and what makes it so magical. It flows gently and it is so dense it is as if nature is snuggling you. The footing is soft with just enough root and rock action to keep it playful.
As with all things, this too must come to an end as you drop back down to the Prairie Creek Trail
and the Prairie Creek Visitor Center. If you are anything like me, as you get closer to the TH and begin to hear the voices of the masses, you'll feel a strong urge to turn around and head back into the embrace of these amazing woods.
95% of old growth redwood forests have been cut down. Enjoy this unique preserved gem.