Fern Canyon. Photo by William Sullivan.

Spring for the Redwoods

Head down to the California coast for tall tree hikes

Get the jump on summer with a spring fling to California’s Redwood Coast. The season there is now in full sprout, but the crowds haven’t yet arrived, so you can get campground reservations, and hiking trails don’t yet require permits.

Here’s my recommendation for a getaway: Visit the recently rediscovered Grove of Titans on a spectacular steel walkway. Then sneak into Fern Canyon’s slot-like gorge before the reservation system starts.

Some of California’s best redwood groves were rescued as state parks in the 1920s. In 1963, the world’s tallest trees were discovered just outside the state parks, in an unprotected grove on Redwood Creek. Outrage over plans to log those trees led to the creation of Redwood National Park, a 50-mile-long strip of coastal land. Today the old state parks are surrounded by this long, narrow national park like Christmas presents in a tube sock.

Although Native people of the Tolowa Dee-Ni’ Nation have known about the largest trees for ages, impressive groves are still being “discovered” by the outside world. Researchers from Humboldt State University failed to notice the Grove of Titans until 1998. After the grove became an internet sensation, the Save the Redwoods League partnered with Jedediah Smith State Park to keep crowds from trampling the soft ground near the largest trees. Although redwoods seem mighty, their roots are shallow and fragile. Hurting the roots weakens the entire tree.

The trail that opened to the Grove of Titans in 2022 is an engineering marvel, with a quarter mile of raised steel walkways.

Part of the fun of this trip is discovering Howland Hill Road, the rugged dirt track that meanders through giant groves to the trailhead. To find it from Crescent City, drive Highway 199 toward Grants Pass 11 miles. Beyond the Jedediah Smith park information center two miles, turn right on South Fork Road for half a mile. Just beyond a bridge, fork right on what becomes Howland Hill Road.

After 2.3 miles on Howland Hill you’ll pass a turnoff for the Stout Grove, another famous stand of giants. But to see the titans, continue 1.4 miles on potholed Howland Hill Road. Beyond a Mill Creek bridge, park as near as you can to a restroom on the left near the poorly marked trailhead for the Grove of Titans. Parking is tight, so you may have to drive a bit to find a pullout with space.

The trail starts 100 feet north of the restroom at a “Mill Creek Trail” sign. The path climbs through a great, ferny rainforest where redwoods tower above delicate white spring wildflowers: stalks of wild lily-of-the-valley, shamrock-leaved oxalis and big, triple-leaved trillium.

After 0.7 miles you’ll reach the start of the raised steel walkway. Keep left at junctions for 0.1 miles to the turnaround loop at the Grove of Titans. On the way back, keep left again to find a creek bridge for the Mill Creek Trail (turn back here to stay on the walkway), and a Mill Creek viewpoint before returning to your car.

The next hike I’m going to recommend, to Fern Canyon, is so popular that in the summer only 55 trailhead parking permits are issued a day. Before May 1, however, the only limitation is whether you want to pay $12, drive through a six-inch-deep creek, and wade up a watery slot canyon.

The Fern Canyon trail is on traditional Yurok land. On the drive south you’ll pass Yurok casinos along the Klamath River. You may also see a symbol of the tribe’s growing influence flying overhead.

The Yuroks have made a priority of reintroducing California condors. In 2022 six of the gigantic scavengers were released here, near the mouth of the Klamath River. With 9-foot wingspans, condors can easily soar 100 miles in search of carrion. The official range for the new birds includes all of Oregon, as far north as the Columbia River.


Boy Scout Tree Trail. Photo by William Sullivan.

Big though they are, condors are unable to kill even a mouse. They rely on predators — historically, wolves — to leave carcasses for them to finish off. One of the condors’ modern threats is lead poisoning from the bullets left in dead or wounded animals. Lead ammunition has been banned in some parts of the scavengers’ range, but not yet in Oregon.

Fern Canyon is in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, 30 miles south of Crescent City. Hwy 101 detours around the state park, but it’s not really longer to drive through on the Drury Parkway, a road lined with big redwoods.

After driving 9 miles on the parkway, stop at the Elk Prairie Visitor Center, beside a campground entrance on the right. Some people prefer to start the hike to Fern Canyon here, although it’s a 10-mile round trip, because this longer route never requires a permit. Parking at the visitor center has a 30-minute limit, but if you drive on 0.1 miles toward the picnic area there are spots where you can park all day.

If you’re ready for a 10-mile hike, set out from a big trailhead signboard 100 feet from the visitor center and follow signs for the James Irvine Trail 4.3 miles to the Fern Canyon loop. On your hike back you might return via the Clintonia and Miner’s Ridge trails through some of the park’s grandest redwood groves.

To find closer trailheads for Fern Canyon, drive the Drury Parkway south from the visitor center one mile, continue south on Hwy 101 for 2.2 miles, and turn right on Davison Road. After just 0.4 miles, this becomes a one-lane gravel road closed to trailers and motorhomes over 24 feet long. After 3.4 miles there’s a fee booth where you have to pay $12 in cash or by check — not by card. From May 1 to Sept. 30, the rangers here check that you have printed out a copy of your required reservation, which must be acquired online at RedwoodParksConservancy.org no later than noon the day before your visit.

Two miles beyond the fee booth is the Gold Bluffs Beach parking area, where you could park and walk the road ahead one mile. If you drive onward through the creek ford, note that this final mile of the road is gated closed half an hour after sunset. At road’s end, the Fern Canyon trail continues straight 0.2 miles to Home Creek. Wade up the creek through the canyon 0.4 miles, where steps climb up to the left to a T-shaped junction with the James Irvine Trail. For the shortest loop, turn left to return to your car. If you have more time, turn right for 1.5 miles and then keep right on the Clintonia and Miner’s Ridge trails to hike through colossal redwood groves back to the ford at Gold Bluffs Beach.

The scientific name for the redwood species is Sequoia sempervirens — always living. Even when a redwood is cut, a circle of shoots will sprout from the stump. A spring trip to the Redwood Coast can be a lesson in resilience. The giant trees don’t die easy.

 William L. Sulllivan is the author of 23 books, including The Ship in the Woods and the updated 100 Hikes series for Oregon. Learn more at OregonHiking.com.