Exploring Humboldt’s Illustrious Fern Canyon

Walking through Fern Canyon, hikers are greeted with 40-50 foot high walls covered in five fingered ferns, sword ferns, and delicate lady ferns

By Ryan Loughrey

The Northern California coast defies the stereotype of the typical Californian beach. We don’t have red swim-suited Baywatch lifeguards, boardwalks, or an excessive amount of long-boarders. What we have is pristine geological beauty, dense redwood forests, and quaint coastal towns with their own personalities.

Our quick, impulsive trip led us to the coast. TLDR: We couldn’t find a campsite and ended up staying in a hotel in Crescent City, explored Fern Canyon, and lunched at the Trinidad Eatery on their famous clam chowder.

Although we didn’t visit it on this trip, for anyone else wanting to escape to the Pacific, the Patrick’s Point State Park has some of the most beautiful campgrounds and beaches for my money. Wedding Rock offers grand views of the ocean, and Agate Beach and the trail to get there can occasionally provide glimpses of faint, bioluminescent insects if observers are keen and the timing is right.

Still, we were a little short on time, so we ended up leaving from Redding around 6 and headed west on 299. Although we heard rumors of delays, much of the construction just west of town had been completed or halted since it was the weekend. There was only one place where flaggers had to stop us and the highway was one lane, no doubt due to the many rockslides the highway has suffered over the course of this winter.

We arrived in Trinidad just as the sun was setting. Of course, it would have been wise to find a place to camp before stopping to enjoy the sunset, but that what good is wisdom if you miss out on the grandeur of the natural world? So we stopped at Murphy’s, the grocery store in Trinidad, to pick up some light snacks, and drove to the beach.

We were racing the sunset. The sun was dropping fast, and we had to make sure we were set up to enjoy it. Barely in time, we were laying on a blanket in the sand, bare feet and excited, facing the brilliant orange and pink sunset. I remember the last rays of the sun peaking over the ocean, the moment too perfect to capture, too great to have missed. I walked up to the water, standing in place and letting the waves charge, waver, and retreat over my feet, time and time again. It was cold, but the kind of cold that simultaneously wakes you up and puts you in an almost meditative trance. Once more, I found the kind of solace that can only be offered at the beach. The respect for the immensity of the forces of the natural world, the humbling fact that our lives are so short and so small compared to the geologic timeframe of millions of years, and the strange peace of being okay with this.

After the last specks of light had disappeared, we departed. We headed north up the 101 with the optimistic thought that we would find a place to camp before running out of fuel. After it became clear we would not, we stopped at a gas station at Klamath around 11:00 pm, and I have never been so grateful to find fuel. We continued north, exploring each campground and finding them all full, until finally, exhausted from the drive, we stopped at a cheap hotel in Crescent City to rest.

To get to Fern Canyon, there is an entrance fee of $8. We followed the drive, and even passed a few brave mountain bikers who had parked perhaps at Gold Bluffs Beach and rode to the trailhead.

Walking through Fern Canyon, hikers are greeted with 40-50 foot high walls covered in five fingered ferns, sword ferns, and delicate lady ferns. As you can tell, it was aptly named. During the summer months, small wooden footbridges cross the stream that meanders through the canyon. Still, occasionally hikers will be greeted with slick logs or bridges whose support has eroded away, and droop into the cold water. In other words, be prepared to potentially get your feet wet. Some wear waterproof shoes, and others embrace it and wear sandals, trudging right through. Children see it as a game, akin to the-floor-is-lava, and so they hop along with mock fear from the water. When I came in winter, there were no foot bridges, so the only choice was to find the shallowest places with the sturdiest rocks, and hop, slog, or leap to get across.

It is like walking back in time, and indeed films set in the prehistoric age have been filmed here. Savvy film buffs (or probably casual cinephiles as well) know that The Lost World: Jurassic Park was filmed here, in addition to two dinosaur documentaries produced by the BBC and Imax.

Dinosaurs once roamed here and attacked Dieter Stark #jurassicpark2 🌱

A post shared by 🐚🐝 (@sn.millr) on

The hike through is simple, and we went as far as we could, until the overgrowth was too thick for us. We found some decrepit looking stairs, and found a cutoff that climbed to the James Irvine Trail. Note: As we got to the junction with the James Irvine Trail, we noticed signs that this trail was closed and under construction. Too late to turn back, we walked along the James Irvine Trail back to the entrance of Fern Canyon, and then back to the car. We passed a few brave mountain bikers as we were descending down the hill with ease as they were climbing with effort.

It was still early in the day, so we decided to get some lunch before heading back home. One of my favorite places is the Trinidad Eatery. They have clam chowder bread bowls and cold beer, and it was the perfect lunch. While waiting to be seated (we had come during a lunch rush, and the place was appropriately busy) there is a small gift shop that has everything from confections to postcards to banana slug chocolates.

After lunch, I felt sluggish and Kiva offered to drive. We wound back on 299, listening to good music as well as old episodes of the Daria, Mitch and Ted show (radio hosts from Portland that Kiva had grown fond of) that she downloaded. I napped lazily in the passenger seat, full of good food and content from a quick weekend well-spent.

With more time, there are always more places worth a stop on the northern California Coast. Trees of Mystery, very family friendly and touristy, is cute for those unaware of the majesty of our Redwoods. Aforementioned Patrick’s Point, with Agate Beach and Wedding Rock and great camping. And Lost Coast Brewery, which we didn’t have time to tour this time around. Moonstone Beach, with good rock climbing and skimboarding. Of course, there are others that are known to locals only, I’m sure. Beaches that are hidden and wish to remain that way, and for good reason. So don’t forget, if you are going to enjoy the natural splendor, bring bags to pick up after your dogs, pack out your trash, and keep northern California wild and beautiful.

Directions to Fern Canyon (thanks to Redwoods.info)

* From Hwy 101, drive approx. 2 mile north of Orick to Davison Road and turn left.

* Follow through Elk Meadow and onto dirt road (motorhomes and trailers are not allowed on this road). Follow this spectacular scenic drive for 6 miles until you reach the Gold Bluffs Beach kiosk. Pay the $8.00 day use fee (cash or check only). California State Park and National Park Service passes are accepted.

* Follow the road along the beach for another 3 miles (fording through several small streams — do-able by car) until the parking lot at the end.

* The trailhead to Fern Canyon is there, about 1/4 mile from the actual start of the canyon.

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California


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