Four day camping + hiking trip in northern California’s Redwoods National Park
Note: This is a long post with a lot of photos!
Since moving to Oregon a decade ago, I’ve managed to visit the Redwoods in northern California twice. But each visit was far too short, without time to do any hiking or exploring the area. After spending one night at Elk Prairie campground last year on the way to Yosemite, I knew that I wanted to come back for a longer stay.
This year, I planned a four day return trip with a lot of hiking on the agenda. Three friends and I began the 6-1/2 hour drive from Portland on a Thursday morning in mid-May. We were hoping to beat the crowds and also hoping that it wouldn’t rain the entire time we were there. While it didn’t rain the entire time, it did rain the last two nights of our trip. But it held off during the days when we were hiking, so we felt lucky.
We had two campsites at Elk Prairie campground, which is located in the Prairie Creek part of the Redwoods National Park. Our campsites were next to Prairie Creek.
For this trip, I was planning to bring my one person backpacking tent, but I decided to use my REI Half Dome 2 Plus instead. It’s the first time I used this solo and I loved having the extra space. For me, this is living large while camping.
The first thing I saw when I got out of my tent in the morning was a male elk casually munching on undergrowth in our campsite. He slowly made his way along the road, walking through the campground as if it was part of his regular routine. We knew better than to try to approach him, so we just watched and felt lucky to have experienced a bit of wildlife right at our campsite.
Fern Canyon hike
We planned to do a hike to Fern Canyon, and while it is possible to do a loop hike from the campground, it would be a long day of about 12 miles with over 1,000 ft. gain. We wanted to save energy to do a short hike later in the day, and a longer hike the next day, so we decided to drive to the Fern Canyon trailhead at Gold Bluffs Beach.
On the drive there, we passed the appropriately named “Elk Meadow Day Use Area”. There is no fencing to keep the elk here, but obviously they love this meadow. We saw about 20 elk grazing, paying no attention to us or anyone else who stopped to take photos.
We were early in the season for the Fern Canyon hike. They add seasonal bridges in June, and we were here before Memorial Day, so we knew that we would be fording the creek for much of this hike. We were prepared for the conditions, with two of us wearing waterproof socks with trail running shoes.
After the first 15 minutes, my feet were completely numb from the coldness of the water so I stopped and put on my wool hiking socks and then put the waterproof socks over them. Much better! One of my friends wore waterproof hiking boots and managed to keep them dry for most of the hike until she plunked her boot into a deeper pool in the creek, with the water going over the top of her boots.
There were a few spots with a lot of downed trees. Instead of attempting to climb over them, the ranger had advised us to go around on the sides. There were obvious paths to follow, so it wasn’t difficult.
The stairs in the photo below lead to a trail that makes a loop back to the start of Fern Canyon. However, we wanted to continue hiking through the canyon as far as we could go. The hike in was so amazing that we preferred to go back the same way so we could continue the unique experience.
I’m not sure how many times we crossed the creek to reach the trail on the other side, but it was a lot.
heading back out of the canyon
Short hike on the Prairie Creek and Foothill Trails
After Fern Canyon, we headed back to camp and did a short hike on the Prairie Creek and Foothill Trails. There were very few people until we crossed the road and were near the “Big Tree”.
The trail from the campground to the Visitors Center has some of the largest trees in the park.
We saved the longest hike for last – a loop that starts on the Rhododendron Trail and connects to the Foothill Trail via the rugged South Fork Trail. The park ranger told us this hike is known as an “ankle breaker”, so it was perfect for avid hikers who wanted to take a less traveled trail.
Whenever I’m camping or backpacking, I always enjoy taking photos at dusk as the light changes. These photos were taken at our campsites.