Most of the time, I don’t save the best for last, especially when it comes to hiking. We usually tackle the best trails first, early in the morning before parks and trails get crowded. I always try to avoid crowds and loud people and I like to make sure I hike the best trails first just in case someone gets hurt, bad weather rolls in, or we get too tired to do everything we planned. This way, I’m covered.
I totally broke my rules when visiting Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, a park of the Redwood National And State Parks complex.
I saved the best trail in the park for last because I didn’t want to feel rushed and it was so worth it. We had seen pictures of the Fern Canyon Trail before we set out on our massive summer road trip, so we knew what to expect. The pictures, however, don’t even come close to doing it justice.
Fern Canyon Trail takes you right into a narrow canyon with 30-50 foot tall, sheer walls that are covered in ferns and mosses. It zig-zags across Home Creek, passes light seasonal waterfalls, and has you climbing over or under fallen trees. In the summer months, several foot bridges are installed along the trail over Home Creek to help hikers keep their feet dry!
Donated to the State by the Pacific Lumber Company, Fern Canyon is so spectacular that Steven Spielberg chose it as a filming location for Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World — when Dieter Stark gets separated from everyone else while relieving himself, and he is chased and killed by a group of Compsognathus, he is running through Fern Canyon! BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs and IMAX’s Dinosaurs Alive! were also filmed in this lush, rainforest-like canyon.
Fern Canyon Trail is a 1.1 mile lollipop loop with 150 feet of elevation gain. Most people, however, don’t hike the full loop and instead, hike out the same way they came to enjoy the canyon again!
Getting To Fern Canyon
Our adventure began at the end of Gold Bluffs Beach Road at the Fern Canyon Day Use Parking Area north of Gold Bluffs Beach Campground. At the trailhead, there is information about the trail and restrooms. From here, we set out on a section of the California Coastal Trail behind the dunes of Gold Bluffs Beach, following it until the right-hand turnoff for Fern Canyon.
You’ll recognize the turnoff by a couple of temporary wooden footbridges over Home Creek — the creek that carved Fern Canyon over millions of years. Just after crossing the second footbridge, the trail enters the mouth of Fern Canyon and the air quickly gets a little cooler.
Exploring Fern Canyon
When you enter Fern Canyon, you can’t help but stop for a bit and simply marvel at the incredible natural beauty that surrounds you. Home Creek babbles as is flows over the rocky canyon floor. Small wooden footbridges provide creek crossings. Perennial waterfalls trickle and flow down the canyon walls.
Mosses thrive in the cool, moist microclimate and eight different species of ferns blanket walls of Fern Canyon. The five-finger fern with its multi-finger design, and the sword fern, with its triangular shape are the most common. You’ll also find deer ferns, licorice ferns, lady ferns, chain ferns, California polypody ferns, and California maidenhair ferns.
According to a park sign:
Millions of years ago, a retreating sea left the coastal bluffs behind. Waters draining to the ocean sculpted the rocky formations into sheer canyon walls. Some of the ferns now clinging to the steep, shadowy cliffs are ancient species whose ancestry can be traced back 325 million years.
The canyon is now shrouded in lush five-fingered ferns, dark green sword ferns, and delicate lady ferns. Scouring winter floods periodically rush through the canyon, sweeping debris from its floor. Spruce and red alder saplings often survive for a few years on terrace ledges, but they rarely reach maturity before falling off or being swept away.
The walk through Fern Canyon is mostly flat, but you’re walking on uneven rocks, across footbridges, and at times through water. A few trees have fallen into the canyon, so at times you’ll have to duck under, or climb over a log or two — which just makes your Jurassic Park adventure even more fun!
At one point, the canyon narrows to less than 30 feet wide. Standing in a small space between nearly 50 foot walls of rock draped in moss and ferns makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
If you’re lucky, and you look down just as much as you look up, you may see a few of the moisture-loving animals that live in the canyon, like salamanders, frogs, and dippers.
Eventually, a small set of wooden stairs peek out of a gap in the ferns on the left side of the canyon. This is where those hiking the entire Fern Canyon Loop Trail exit the canyon.
We quite weren’t ready to leave this magical place, so we kept hiking into the canyon. We kept saying we’d turn around after the next bend, and the next bend, and the next bend. The canyon keeps going for quite a while and it’s all stunning. But eventually we had to turn around and finish up our hike.
We found the stairs once again and began our trek out of Fern Canyon.
The Fern Canyon Loop Trail
After exiting Fern Canyon, the dirt trail climbs up the hillside via a switchback or two, across a wooden bridge, and through a Sitka spruce and Douglas fir forest.
The trail also passes a quiet, secluded meadow that once was the site of a small mining town. We were the only people on this part of the trail, so it was very quiet. Our reward was discovering a massive bull elk peacefully nibbling the grass. He looked at us a few times but we kept our distance and he stayed for a long time. It was pretty magical!
Soon the trail began to drop back down the hillside to meet the California Coastal Trail once again for the walk back to the parking lot.
Know Before You Go
- Fern Canyon is recognized as a World Heritage site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
- The Fern Canyon trailhead is located at the end of Gold Bluffs Beach Road at the Fern Canyon Day Use Parking Area north of Gold Bluffs Beach Campground, 3.0 miles north of Orick and 18 miles south of Klamath. From US Highway 101, take the rough, bumpy Davidson Road west to the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park entrance station, then follow Gold Bluffs Beach Road through redwood forest to the parking lot.
- The trailhead has bathrooms and beach access.
- Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is located off Highway 101 at 127011 Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, Orick, California 95555, 50 miles north of Eureka and 25 miles south of Crescent City in Humboldt County.
- There is an $8.00 day use fee to enter the state park — it’s best to have cash.
- The 14,000 acre California state park protects sandy beaches, open meadows grazed by a herd of Roosevelt elk, a canyon dripping in lush ferns, 75 miles of trails, and stands of the world’s tallest living trees, the coast redwood. It was used as a filming location for Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World.
- Download the Prairie Creek State Park Map.
- There are two campgrounds at Prairie Creek Redwoods that take reservations year-round: Gold Bluffs Beach Campground and Elk Prairie Campground. The latter has accessible cabins for rent with heaters and lights but no kitchen or bathroom. Each cabin has two single over double bunk beds and you must bring bedding. No pets and no smoking in the cabins.
- Dogs must be on a leash no more than six feet long and must be confined to a tent or vehicle at night. Except for service animals, pets are not allowed on trails.
- Two sections of the 1,200 mile California Coastal Trail run through Prairie Creek Redwoods: a 6.0 mile section from Carruthers Cove Trailhead to Gold Bluffs Beach and an 11.0 mile section from Gold Bluffs Beach to Kuchel Visitor Center in Orick.
- Big Tree Trail, Prairie Creek Trail, Revelation Trail, and Elk Prairie Trail are the accessible trails within Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
- Jedediah Smith Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods, and Prairie Creek Redwoods state parks joined with Redwood National Park to form Redwood National and State Parks in 1994. Today, the four parks’ combined 133,000 acres contain 45 percent of California’s old growth redwood forest. They have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and form a portion of the protected California Coast Ranges Biosphere Reserve. They are the only parks in the California State Parks system that accept the Federal Access Pass discount.