- Date: February 17, 2018
- Location: Northern California
- Start: Prairie Creek Visitor Center; Stout Grove Trailhead
- Distance: 11.5 miles (Prairie Creek); 5.6 miles (Jedediah Smith)
- Duration: 2 hours 25 minutes at Prairie Creek (breaks not included); 1 hour 17 minutes at Jedediah Smith (breaks not included)
- Type: Balloon route (Prairie Creek); out-and-back (Jedediah Smith)
- References: Redwood Hikes
My eyelids flickered open slowly as I sat curled up in the front passenger seat, huddled beneath the fleece blanket that lives in my car. Peering out the window, I realized we were close. It’s not called the Redwood Highway for nothing. Our post-work, all night commute was finally coming to an end. Soon, I wouldn’t be gazing through a glass pane at the primeval giants lining the road. Soon, we’d be able to step out of the car and run amongst them.
Our weekend run-cation in Northern California was a relatively spontaneous one. I was originally supposed to host a snow camping event for PNW Outdoor Women and Mack was registered to run a race in the Chuckanuts. Unfortunately, an impending winter storm forced me to cancel my event and Mack’s race was canceled due to a fatal plane crash on the course. Weather was looking horrendous throughout Washington and Oregon, so it only seemed logical to head south.
Miners’ Ridge and James Irvine Loop
Our first adventure of the day was exploring Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, a place that holds a particularly special place in my heart. Back in 2012, when I packed up my Honda Civic and made the drive up from Yorba Linda to Portland to move in with Mack, this was where I stopped on my second day of driving. Having just graduated from college and uprooted myself from my family, I was filled with anxiety about the new chapter I was about to embark on. Those hours spent in Prairie Creek brought a sense of peace and stillness that I hadn’t experienced in months. I was excited to be back to share the wonder of this place with Mack.
We started the loop shortly after sunrise while the park was still quiet and were immediately greeted by some of the most magnificent redwoods right outside of the visitor center! The golden grasses of Elk Prairie across the way were soon out of sight as we delved deeper into an ancient forest of redwood and spruce via James Irvine Trail. The forecast for the day called for rain, but Prairie Creek remained steadfastly sunny. The light bursting through the tree canopy only added to its idyllic quality.
Ironically enough, the most magical part of Prairie Creek had nothing to do with the coastal redwoods! After a few miles on James Irvine, we descended into Fern Canyon, following Home Creek’s narrow path through towering walls densely coated in a lush layer of ferns and mosses. We had an absolute blast scrambling over downed trees and splashing through the creek (which served as the only trail surface at times). My 90’s nerd-child self delighted in the fact that I was getting to channel my inner Julianne Moore/Sarah Harding and explore a scene from The Lost World: Jurassic Park, too! The vertical walls became lower and lower until we were eventually spit out onto the grasslands of Gold Bluffs Beach.
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past, I hate running on the beach. Sand is one of my least favorite surfaces in general. I tried to convince Mack that it would be more fun to just do an out-and-back and return the way we came (mostly because I wanted to see Fern Canyon again). Unlike me, Mack is more of a beach person and enjoys getting his ass kicked trying to run in the sand. He encouraged me to continue the short 1.5 miles to Miners’ Ridge Trail. We were only there for the morning afterall. Wouldn’t it be nice to see another part of the park?
I’d naively expected Miners’ Ridge Trail to be similar to–if not a spitting image of–the James Irvine section, but it felt surprisingly different, possessing a greater air of mystery even. Everything seemed darker and more dense, from the trees themselves to the lush underbrush covering the forest floor. The trail does sit a bit higher in elevation than James Irvine and spends less time along a creek. I imagine this contributes to its pleasantly contrasting qualities. We were definitely happy to have experienced a different section of the park as opposed to completing a return along the same route. Back at the car, the crowds were starting to pick up. After a small snack/early lunch we were back on the road headed to our next running destination.
Stout Grove and Mill Creek Trail
As per usual, we’d taken longer than expected to complete our first route. In addition, we also took a wrong turn on the way to the Stout Grove Trailhead and had to backtrack. We didn’t arrive until after 1 pm. We originally planned to do a longer route here along Mill Creek to reach Nickerson Ranch Trail and the Boy Scout Tree Trail. Although we ended up cutting the mileage by over half, the small amount of the park that we did explore was still enough to experience its beauty and quiet majesty.
We started out in the Stout Grove, a short stroll from the parking area. Its not known for having the tallest trees of the Redwood State Parks, but its certainly an impressive and unbelievably scenic stand, even more so than any section of Prairie Creek (in my personal opinion)! It was also surprisingly lacking in crowds and tourist groups, and there weren’t any trailhead kiosks and signage present. Their absence gave the entire grove a more wild, untrammeled feel (despite the existence of a trail). I could’ve wandered around this half mile loop for hours and still be in constant awe by the end. There was still the Grove of Titans to see though, so we moved on and planned to complete the short loop on the way back to the car.
After crossing the unexpectedly frigid waters of Mill Creek, we continued on Mill Creek Trail, passing through another, more hidden grove of redwoods. The subsequent miles were a little less interesting until the titans came into view. Unlike Stout Grove though, the Grove of Titans are more spaced out rather than densely packed together. The thick underbrush made them difficult to spot at times and the largest of the trees were off-trail. The photos below definitely don’t do justice to their grandiose stature, but staying on the trail was necessary to protect the fragile landscape from further erosion. We turned around just short of Howland Hill Road (where most people start the Grove of Titans hike) as the forecasted rain finally hit.
Re-entering the Stout Grove felt like returning home to a place of comfort and warmth (despite the fact that it was still cold and wet outside). Our “run” through the grove before returning to the car was more of a slow and stately jog in order to truly connect with the timelessness of these silent guardians that have stood watch for (potentially) hundreds of years. Of all the areas (of both parks) that we’d explored throughout the day, this was my favorite. It was a fitting place to end our mini-tour of the Northern California coastal redwoods.
We meant to include a second day of adventure running on the Southern Oregon Coast, but, unfortunately, the winter storms up north made their way down to us. We woke up in a rest stop to torrential rain, several periods of hail, and even some snow when we started the drive! A tickle in my throat (which, by the next day, turned into a debilitating cold and fever) further convinced me that our run just wasn’t meant to be. Thankfully, as we drove back up the 101, the weather let up briefly and allowed us to explore a couple highlights of the Oregon Coast Trail that we’d hoped to run. To put it simply, they were nothing short of amazing, and I was more than a little sad that we’d bailed on our plans (until the weather moved back in and I remembered we had good reason). It wasn’t quite the Sunday we envisioned, but we still had Saturday’s magical redwood tour and now we have more reason to plan another coastal adventure down this way in the future.