Deep in California’s wet and wild northwest corner
HIGHLIGHTS: Fifty miles north of Eureka, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park offers sandy beaches and open meadows grazed by magnificent herds of Roosevelt elk. Ferns line canyon walls. Lush stands of the world’s tallest living tree species, the coast redwood, stand in primeval majesty. Iconic black bears, bobcats, mountain lions, spotted owls and marbled murrelets roam here. The movie Jurassic Park was filmed here.
In some redwood parks, you have to drive or hike long distances to see the most impressive trees. Not so here, where stately and bizarre giants (including “cathedrals” and “octopuses”) are just a short walk from the visitor center. A World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, Prairie Creek and the three other parks in the Redwood National and State Parks group protect 45 percent of California’s remaining old-growth redwoods.
ACTIVITIES: The park offers over 75 miles of hiking trails and bicycle trails, a self-guided nature trail, whale watching and picnicking. Have a look at mighty elk or hike the 2-mile Rhododendron Trail in May or June to view the forest splashed with colorful blossoms.
- There’s surf and turf for cyclists on the 19-mile-long Ossagon Trail Loop (external link). The route starts at the north end of the park at milepost 132.9 on Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. Head down a steep hill to the beach on the Ossagon Trail. Pedal along the Coastal Trail/Beach Road past the park kiosk. Head southeast on Davison Road. Turn left on the Streelow Creek Trail and left again on Davison Trail, which leads back to the parkway. Head north on the parkway to the start.
Just for Kids
- When you arrive, pick up a self-guided Junior Ranger Adventure Guide (external link) and a schedule of events at any one of five Redwood National and State Parks visitor centers: from south to north, Kuchel in Orick; Prairie Creek at the south end of the Newton B. Drury Parkway, Jedediah Smith and Hiouchi (open May to September only) off Highway 199; and Crescent City.
- Most of the park’s ranger- or docent-led programs (including campfire talks, forest walks, and Junior Ranger programs) start on Memorial Day weekend and end after Labor Day. Check the schedule for days and times. Aimed at kids age 7 through 12, these programs offer games, crafts, hiking, and exploring with other children.
- If you come in the off-season, you and your kids can independently work your way through the Adventure Guide together. Download the guide (external link), pick it up at a visitor center, or call 916-653-8959 to order a copy.
- Redwood EdVentures: Take a self-guided treasure hunt in many North Coast redwood state parks, including Prairie Creek. Find the final clue and win a cool patch!
- Before your trip, have a look at the Redwoods Learning Center. It offers fun, redwood-themed activities, classroom tools, and ways to get involved in redwoods protection. Redwoods bingo, anyone?
VISITOR CENTER: 50 miles north of Eureka and 25 miles south of Crescent City on Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway off of Highway 101. Open year-round, at the southern end of the parkway.
CAMPGROUNDS: Visitors can stay at either Elk Prairie or Gold Bluffs Beach campgrounds and explore the park via three scenic drives.
- Elk Prairie Campground has 75 family sites and hike/bike sites. Trailers up to 24 feet; campers/motorhomes up to 27. For reservations, call 800-444-7275 or visit reserveamerica.com (external link).
- Gold Bluffs Beach Campground has 26 tent or RV sites and three non-reservable environmental sites. RVs more than 8 feet wide or 24 feet long may not use Davison Road or Coastal Drive. No hookups are available. Call 707-488-2171 for camping updates. For reservations, call 800-444-7275 or visit reserveamerica.com (external link).
- Walk-in campsites are available at Ossagon Creek and near Gold Bluffs Beach. Permits are issued at visitor centers in Orick and Crescent City.
TRAILS: Prairie Creek has 75 miles of trails, ranging from a 0.1-mile stroll to see Big Tree (at mile marker 127.96 on the Newton B. Drury Parkway) to multiday backpacking journeys. A chart in the park brochure lists the options. Bring water, appropriate clothing, and a park map.
- Fern Canyon (0.7-mile loop): Start at the Fern Canyon parking lot beside the dunes of Gold Bluffs Beach. Head up Home Creek to an amazing canyon walled with deer, chain, sword, lady, five-finger and other ferns. It’s mostly a gentle stroll, but you do have to cross the creek several times and clamber over the occasional log. In spring and summer, you’ll be sharing the forest with lots of other people, as well as the occasional dipper, frog, garter snake, or salamander—and squirming mounds of millipedes. At the end of the canyon, head up steps that circle back to the parking lot through a Sitka spruce and Douglas-fir forest. Along the way, you’ll pass a meadow that was once a small mining town. It’s much drier on the upper part of the loop, and seasonally offers good flowers and birding.
- Prairie Creek Trail (up to 4 miles one way): Just east of the visitor center, the Prairie Creek Trail offers an easy walk where big redwoods live, in the flats along a broad, sheltered creek. Watch for spawning salmon and steelhead during the winter and early spring months. It’s 1.4 miles from the visitor center to Big Tree and a little farther to Corkscrew Tree. But you don’t have to go that far: you’ll see wondrous sights all along the way.
- Revelation Trail (0.3 miles): The Revelation Trail encourages visitors to touch, smell, and listen to the redwood forest. Enlightening for everyone, the trail was developed for the visually impaired. Starts just outside the visitor center.
- Big Tree Wayside (0.3 mile): Park at the Big Tree Wayside lot, and head up a paved trail to gaze at Big Tree. Amid all the North Coast giants, the name may seem silly. But this tree (1,500 years old, 304 feet high, 21.6 feet in diameter, and a circumference of 68 feet) is part of a larger conservation narrative.
- Brown Creek Trail–Rhododendron Trail–South Fork Loop (3.6 miles): You’ll feel wrapped in a blanket of silence walking along exquisite Brown Creek; even the trail is soft. History comes alive here, too. To the right of Brown Creek Trail, at about 0.7 miles, a bridge leads to a grove named for German forester Carl A. Schenck. In 1898 Schenck founded the Biltmore School of Forestry, the first educational institution in North America devoted to scientific forest management. Twenty-one concrete posts scattered through the grove honor other important men of the time, including Gifford Pinchot and George Vanderbilt, whose estate in North Carolina was the site of Schenck’s school. Originally each post was placed beside an impressive redwood. But some of the trees have fallen, and some posts have been knocked over. On the left of the Brown Creek Trail, at mile 1.0, is a grove dedicated to landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. In 1928 Olmsted conducted a survey and established criteria that helped shape California’s state park system. He also served as a volunteer advisor to Save the Redwoods League for 30 years. At 1.2 miles, Brown Creek Trail ends at a junction with the Rhododendron Trail. Turn right and head uphill on Rhododendron. After another 1.4 miles, head downhill on the South Fork Trail to return to the start. The Brown Creek–Rhododendron–South Fork loop provides a good mix of ups and downs on a scenic hike of moderate difficulty. For an easier trip, stick with the Brown Creek leg. It’s only 1.2 miles one way, mostly flat.
- ZigZagging (3.5 miles): For an aerobic workout, combine Zigzag Trail #1 and Zigzag Trail #2 with the Prairie Creek and West Ridge trails. You might hear a little noise from cars on the Newton B. Drury Parkway, but the combination of good views and gargantuan trees can’t be beat.
- Carruthers Cove Trail (2 miles): At the north end of the park, the Carruthers Cove Trail takes you down a steep hill through a forest of alder and Sitka spruce. The cove itself is accessible only at low tide. Check tide tables at the visitor center. The cove got its name from a misspelling that stuck. The name was meant to honor Eureka newspaper publisher J.H. Crothers, who owned a vacation home on the hillside above the cove. He bought it from the Anthony Dale Johnston family, which settled here in 1851. Drawn by gold mining at first, the Johnstons later made a living providing food and lodging for travelers on an early beach trail from Crescent City to Humboldt Bay.
- James Irvine Trail–Miner’s Ridge Loop to Fern Canyon, Gold Bluffs Beach, and back (11.6–9.4 miles): The longer route takes you through the redwoods to Fern Canyon and back, retracing as few steps as possible in 11.6 miles. From the visitor center, a park map will help you quickly find the start of the James Irvine Trail, which leads through some of the park’s most magnificent redwoods. After exploring those redwoods and Fern Canyon, walk south along Beach Road, where you may see a peregrine falcon soaring, a Roosevelt elk grazing in a meadow, or a song sparrow singing from a Sitka spruce. In about 1.5 miles, head inland along Squashan Creek to the Miner’s Ridge Trail, a route used by gold miners in the 1800s. Miner’s Ridge leads back to the Irvine Trail and the visitor center. In spring, look for clintonia along the way. Its pinkish-red flowers resemble fireworks on the Fourth of July. For a shorter hike, go out and back on the Irvine Trail, for a total distance of 9.4 miles.
- Hikers and their cars need a backcountry permit, which is available and free at Redwoods National and State Parks visitor centers in Orick and Crescent City. Multiday trips can be planned around the Gold Bluffs Beach and Elk Prairie drive-in campgrounds as well as the walk-in sites at Ossagon Creek and Gold Bluffs Beach.
- Two sections of the 1,200-mile-long California Coastal Trail (external link) run through Prairie Creek: a 6-mile section from Carruthers Cove Trailhead to Gold Bluffs Beach and an 11-mile section from Gold Bluffs Beach to Kuchel Visitor Center in Orick.
MUST-SEE UNIQUE FEATURE OR SEASONAL HIGHLIGHT: Roosevelt elk (Cervus elaphus roosevelti) rut in the fall. Picture 1,200-pound bulls bugling and crashing together with their huge antlers. Park guide Rachel McCain calls it “a Discovery Channel moment.” Don’t miss it.
HIDDEN GEM: Most people come to Prairie Creek for redwoods and miss the spectacular coastline. For a good sample of the latter, try hiking the 2.6-mile Carruthers Cove Trail, which is accessed via the Coastal Drive or Ossagon Creek Trail. Keep in mind, though, that this trail is accessible at low tide only. Tides are posted at the visitor center.
FEATURES ACCESSIBLE TO PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES: At Elk Prairie, some campsites, showers, six trails. Beach wheelchair is available for use at Gold Bluffs Beach; contact Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center in Orick at 707-465-7765.
DOGS: On leash in developed areas. Not allowed on trails.
ENTRANCE FEE: $8 for day-use vehicle entry; no charge to walk or bike into the park.
- Prairie Creek’s visitor center lies 50 miles north of Eureka and 25 miles south of Crescent City at the south end of Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway off Highway 101. Open all year. 707-465-7765.
- Prairie Creek is part of Redwood National and State Parks, which has four park information centers in Orick and Crescent City. 707-465-7335.
- The Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park brochure contains valuable information on the park’s natural and cultural history as well as tips for planning your visit.
- The Redwood National and State Parks website (external link) provides additional information for curious travelers.
- Other good sources of online information are the Redwood Parks Association (external link) and the California Coastal Trail (external link).
California’s Redwood Coast website (external site) offers resources to help plan your trip to Humboldt County.
- If you have an hour: Take a walk on Prairie Creek Trail, just east of the Prairie Creek visitor center. You’ll be rewarded with massive trees and perhaps the colorful sight and buzzing whistle of a varied thrush. On your way to the parking lot near the center, you’ll have an excellent chance of seeing Roosevelt elk.
- If you have half a day: Drive 7 miles out Davison Road (mostly dirt), and take the 0.7-mile walk into Fern Canyon. Expect elk, wind, waterfalls and a dune-covered beach.
- If you have a full day: Hike a 9.4- to 11.6-mile-long loop that starts at the visitor center and takes you through a splendid redwood forest to Fern Canyon, and possibly out to Gold Bluffs Beach.
STOPS: Sharon Rabichow, League Director of Gift Planning, recommends stopping for an overnight stay at the Historic Requa Inn (external link).
Two fun stops on the drive up include Humboldt Lagoons State Park and the Trees of Mystery.
FAVORITE HIKE: Some favorite trails (external link) include Rhododendron, Big Tree loop, Corkscrew Tree, Fern Canyon and the Elk Prairie.
FAVORITE PARK ATTRACTIONS: Fern Canyon and Roosevelt elk.
DON’T MISS: Be sure to visit Redwood National Park (external link).
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Acres Protected by the League: 16,936
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