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Walking The Coast

Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, image
Photo caption
The trail in Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is lined with walls covered with ferns.

Hey, hikers! Spring is the finest time to exercise your boots on the trails that meander the California coast. Admire the hills blanketed in juicy green grass, the redwoods climbing into the mist. Join the bees dancing in the perfumed gardens of lupine. Slosh through the singing creeks. Wave to the sea lions, the calling gulls.

We are blessed to have hundreds of wild and beautiful miles of the California coast protected in public lands—state parks and beaches; national parks, seashores, and recreation areas; Bureau of Land Management areas; and city and county parks. Thousands of miles of hiking trails lattice the mountains, canyons, bluffs, and beaches in these diverse entities.

Here, six writers tell us about their favorite walks along this wondrous coast. Whether you follow them or find your own pathways, be sure to check trail and weather conditions before heading for your hike.

I love this 4.5-mile coastal loop trail because it begins in alders and may end with antlers along a foggy beach. But I would not recommend it if you are to the slightest degree averse to green. If there is in your sensibility any such category as "too green," it is probably better to point yourself elsewhere than toward Fern Canyon and these three connecting trails in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. No matter how fond you may be of Roosevelt elk, which sometimes roam Gold Bluff Beach, where the loop begins and ends. No matter that you believe the mottled gray of alder bark to be among nature’s finest finishes, and you think you might like to visit the beguiling trailhead alder grove at Fern Canyon’s mouth. No matter that old-growth redwoods are your very, very favorite plant form, and you have heard that the stately redwood groves above Fern Canyon are among the loveliest in the park. Even if all these things are true, but you can conceive of "too much green," you still might want to leave this loop to those of us who can appreciate it.

For few things are greener than the half-mile notch of Fern Canyon, its nearly perpendicular sides shingled in eight species of ferns, its silence broken only by the burble of the creek and the drip, drip, drip of last night’s fog. The trail beyond climbs to ridge upon ridge of sturdy (and occasionally sunlit) redwoods, and descends to cross dark creeks and wallows thick with huckleberry, waist-high sword ferns, fat eruptions of skunk cabbage, and fern-feathered logs. So when you emerge on the beach again, where a bull elk may be studying you from behind a tumble of driftwood logs, it will seem curious—even impossible—that his proud spread of antlers is not upholstered in emerald moss.

Getting there: Best AAA map: Northern California Section. To reach Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, take Davison Road off U.S. 101, 3 miles north of Orick. After 4 miles, this dirt road dead-ends at a parking lot, the trailhead for the level, 0.7-mile Fern Canyon Loop up Home Creek.

In summer, wooden bridges allow hikers to travel the canyon dry-footed, but these are removed in the rainy season. Near the head of Fern Canyon, hikers can pick up the moderately strenuous James Irvine Trail, which climbs and descends redwood ridges above Home Creek. At 1.6 miles from the beach, the James Irvine Trail connects via the steep, 0.7-mile-long Clintonia Trail to the Miner’s Ridge Trail. This in turn heads west another 0.7 of a mile to rejoin Davison Road 1.5 miles south of the parking lot. Get maps at the Redwood Visitor’s Center on U.S. 101 southwest of Orick. Phone: (707) 464-6101 ext. 5265.

—By William Poole

Several years ago, backpacking along that wild and rugged corridor between Humboldt County’s precipitous King Range and the crashing sea, I picked up an enormous glass fishing float. This pale-jade sphere, encased in meticulously knotted rope netting, weighed 6 pounds. And though I’d only begun my 24-mile journey on California’s longest stretch of roadless coastline, this irresistible treasure became part of the load on my back.Today, it balances on my desk. When my eyes are weary I can rest them on that ball and recapture vivid scenes from this coastal wildlands hike: a raft of gregarious barking sea lions, bonded in body and voice, riding sea swells with flippers raised as sails for thermal regulation; the vast ocean horizon edited through the flukes of a diving whale very close to shore; a den of newborn garter snakes, a Medusa’s scalp in motion; scores of birds (nearly 300 species on the local list) diving, fishing, and playing in mountain thermals; old Indian middens; abandoned lighthouses; and what I imagined as the same lone sea lion, who seemed to tag along for company, swam as I walked, rested the night, and joined me anew each morning.

Like most trekkers, I hiked from north to south, from the mouth of the Mattole River to Shelter Cove with the prevailing winds behind me. But unlike most, I allowed five days to savor the scene and negotiate the landscape—it’s tough going, and you earn your "right to passage" in this natural sanctuary. Underfoot, there’s an ever-changing tidal terrain, from soft sand, pebbles, slippery rocks and boulders to horizontal forests of driftwood. On narrow strands, you consult your tide table before passing. There’s some relief: At infrequent intervals, the trail climbs onto marine terraces and traverses wide, grassy flats. At least a dozen freshwater streams cross the route and there’s a waterfall for most lunch stops.

Getting there: Best AAA map: Northern California Section. The Bureau of Land Management publishes an excellent free map and recreation guide plus a bird list for the King Range National Recreation Area that includes the Lost Coast. Permits required for organized groups. Telephone Arcata BLM: (707) 825-2300.

The best weather is mid-spring to early fall. Between October and April, the King Range, which rises 4,000 feet from sea level in less than 3 miles, squeezes 100 to 200 inches of rain from storm systems.

Unless you want to walk 48 miles round-trip, you’ll need a two-car shuttle. Leave one car in Shelter Cove at the end of Beach Road. Drive north to Petrolia and west on Lighthouse Road to the parking area at the beach.

—By Linda Liscom

Most of us who attended grammar school can remember making nature dioramas—those slightly squashed miniworlds of tissue-paper flowers, plastic birds, and cardboard trees. Each one was lovingly crafted. No two were exactly alike. Imagine walking through a life-size series of these and you’ve got a good idea of what it’s like to hike the Dr. David Joseph Trail in Sonoma Coast State Beach. Located just south of the mouth of the Russian River, this 3-mile footpath runs from sheltered valley to ocean beach, shifting often in temperature and elevation along the way. The result is a back-to-back series of distinct eco-zones—redwood forest, oak woodland, coastal grassland, and tidal zone—each hosting a unique ensemble of plants, flowers, and critters. No two are exactly alike.

The trail begins at the Pomo Canyon environmental walk-in campground, open April through November. Diorama 1 is a shady redwood grove smelling sweetly of damp mulch and dark soil. Almost immediately the trail begins its 700-foot climb, winding up past moisture-loving ferns. As you rise above the valley floor, the redwoods begin to loose a little girth around their trunks, shifting slowly to Diorama 2, a collection of oaks and bays sharing the sunshine with small flowers and poison oak. By Diorama 3, the forest has bowed out to waving grasses and isolated patches of crumbling rock. Twittering birds perch on swaying stalks or dart through the scrub. Morose-looking cows stand knee-deep in the fields, paying little heed to passing hikers.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact spot at which the ocean becomes a tangible presence, but somewhere high in the grasslands a certain saltiness on the wind announces the Pacific. The smell acts like a drum roll: When you finally crest the ridge and spot the shimmering, blue-gray expanse below, it’s difficult not to break into a half-gallop. It’s straight downhill from here anyway, then a quick look-left-look-right dash across Highway 1 and down a path to Diorama 4, Shell Beach. All rough sand, high cliffs, and cold, crashing water, this is a beach in the true Northern California sense—a place to turn into the wind and appreciate nature’s force. Scavenge on the tide’s edge or enjoy a bundled-up picnic before heading the 3 miles up and over the ridge again, and back down through the shifting scenes.

Getting there: Best AAA map: Mendocino and Sonoma Coast Region. To reach the Pomo Canyon trailhead, turn east from Highway 1 onto Willow Creek Road, located just south of the Russian River, right next to the Sizzling Tandor Restaurant. Continue on Willow Creek Road for about 2.5 miles until the road forks, then veer right at the Pomo Canyon sign. The campground is a half-mile further. Note that from December to March, this last half-mile is closed; park your car at the gate (do not block it) and walk in. A $5 day-use fee is collected. It is possible to avoid the fee by parking for free at Shell Beach and doing the hike in reverse. For information on the trail, the camp-ground, or road conditions, phone the Bodega Dunes Entrance Station: (707) 875-3483.

—By Kristina Malsberger

In early January I was still reverberating from post-holiday-stress-syndrome, so ignoring an ominous wall of black rain clouds, I called my friend Lisa and we set off for Point Reyes to hike off the shopping hordes, the movie lines, the churn of visiting relatives.

As we pulled up

to the Bear Valley Visitor Center, the dark clouds threatened, but behaved. For the first 4 miles down the Bear Valley Trail to Arch Rock, we crunched along the gravelly path, side-by-side under a canopy of mixed Douglas fir and buckeye. Breathing deep the damp forest, I began prattling on about my 12 days of Christmas: late-night runs to Target, five adults wasting a lovely afternoon in a dark movie house to mollify a child, too much rich food.

The Bear Valley Creek ran thick with rainwater alongside the trail; twisted limbs of trees covered in brilliant green moss hung over the water. I complained about the holiday afternoon I frantically searched for some activity to engage eight different minds with eight different interests.

As we made our way down the trail, dark clouds dissolved into white tufts and blue skies. At the tops of easy inclines were meadows filled with incandescent green grass. I heard myself muttering about the day-before-Christmas shopping frenzy. As we turned a corner at the end of a gradual decline, the tree-thick canyon gave way to a scrubby open coastal hillside with views across the seashore to Drakes Estero and the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Waves crashed below the cut-away cliffs. Lisa kept listening.

The sun began to warm the cool air as we took a right turn on the Coast Trail. I told the story of the night my family grumbled because my apartment was cold, and then of all of us huddled around my fireplace, laughing when the delivery man dropped our pizza on my front steps. Walking along, we soaked in the new sunshine, and turned up the Sky Trail for a single-file 4-mile climb up Mt. Wittenberg.

We scrambled on top of a craggy rock to eat some lunch. Sun and clouds created a spectacle of blue-green stripes on the Pacific. The ocean glinted silver near the Farallon Islands. I talked about the day my brothers and I skated lazy loops, arm-in-arm, around our favorite old ice rink in Berkeley. After a while, the Point Reyes cold seeped through to our skin, so we climbed on through forests of tall pines and eucalyptus.

At the top of the trail we met a trio of deer, silhouettes frozen, watching us from just beyond a grass-covered ridge. A few steps down the steep Mt. Wittenberg Trail, the gray clouds moved in and opened. We pulled on slickers and moved on in the rain, falling straight and silent. Soon a thick canopy of trees offered shelter, and a cushion of damp pine needles softened our steps. I didn’t talk much any more. I didn’t need to.

Back at the visitor center, we shook off the water, climbed in the car, and drove home.

Getting there: Best AAA map: Bay and Mountain Region, with detailed inset of Pt. Reyes National Seashore. This loop covers 10.5 miles. Trailhead is at the Bear Valley Visitor Center in Olema. Phone: (415) 663-9029.

—By Maria Streshinsky

I’m not much of one for hikes. My husband Bill, the weekend warrior, is always in the mood to drive out of the city for a bracing spring trek. He puts on his Giants cap, fills his water bottles, and then peels my fingers off the couch leg and stuffs me in the car, throwing my Timberlands in after me, saying, "Nonsense! The rain will stop in a minute. It’ll do us a world of good to get out. "In self defense, I found a walk right in San Francisco, along the crumbling, plunging, gray-green cliffs of Land’s End. When I come out here, I can feel the whole American continent at my back, not to mention my eager husband saying, "I love this!"

Left behind are the ambulance sirens and bustle of the city. When I was in college, I’d come out here to be melancholy and try to read Proust in the original. It’s so quiet you can almost hear the smack of the ball from the unseen golf course up above, hear the far-off murmuring of occasional other hikers.

Bill is always ecstatic to be out, exclaiming over the wildflowers, quoting Robert Frost, urging me to the edge of the cliff, showing me how at low tide we can see the periscope of a submarine that sank here. Probably Sean Connery in Red October, trying to defect to a town with really good French bread.

The dirt path winds above the sea until we come to Seacliff, a stately Mediterranean neighborhood that curves around the cove, keeping its back resolutely to the more plebian Richmond District. Robin Williams lives here, and with any luck will be out sculpting his cypress trees.

I am always ready to turn around at this point, hoping to fool Bill into thinking this is the end of the trail, but he’s already striding on toward the Golden Gate Bridge. At the trail’s north end, under the shadow of the bridge, are the naked people, too busy playing frisbee to pay attention to a smiling man in a Giants cap who appears to be dragging a protesting woman by one leg.

The whole walk takes only a couple of hours, and afterward you can do something sedentary, like see a double bill at the nearby Balboa theater.

Getting there: Best AAA map: street map of San Francisco. The trailhead is at the Merrie Way parking lot, off Pt. Lobos Avenue (the far-western continuation of Geary Blvd.) up the hill from the Cliff House. From here a 3-mile walk will take you to the Golden Gate Bridge.

—By Adair Lara

I watched Sarah take the cure along Big Sur’s Pine Ridge Trail. For several years, her husband Arnie—my cousin—and I have backpacked into the mountains of California. For a week my cousin drops his corporate persona and becomes a regular backwoods guy. Sarah lives each trip through the opportunistic caterpillar, stray duff, and woodsmoke that hitchhike home on Arnie’s gear.

One recent summer weekend, Sarah agreed to a three-day go at this activity that transforms her husband into a paragon of serenity. I chose for us the Pine Ridge Trail, reached along the bluff-jumbled Big Sur coast. On this popular trail, Sarah would have lots of company as we traversed redwood-shaded glens and fern-filled gullies, held our ear to the roar of Big Sur River’s cascades, gazed across a canyon to chaparral-mantled Mt. Manuel, admired skeletal outcroppings bulging from the Rubenesque Santa Lucias.

Winter had been wet, so backcountry river and stream beds would be refreshingly swollen. And the plum: Sykes Hot Springs, tucked deep in the Ventana Wilderness. All this to distract from our labor up and down the trail’s unrelentingly steep grades.

I knew we were in trouble the first mile when Sarah said, "So, this is what you do all day, just walk?" I quickly pointed to lingering wild iris, the carpet of redwood sorrel creeping under its namesake tree, a surprise pile of coral-tinged flicker feathers. How lucky we were to spot columbine, a fairy lantern in midsummer, I exclaimed as we traversed an open marble-stone slope. Sarah wiped sweat with a bandana and I could tell what loomed for her were intense dry heat, hot spots on her feet, sore shoulders, tight calves.

Seven miles out, at Barlow Flat, we pitched tents beside the Big Sur River near tanbark oaks, bays, maples, alders, sycamores. After several soaks in the river’s green-tinted swimming holes, Sarah was talking to Arnie and me again.

Next morning, we day-hiked 3 miles farther (one-way) to the legendary, if funky, hot springs. At the Big Sur River, you have to choose a boulder-hop or calf-deep wade to do the final half-mile to the hot springs. Dun-colored sandbags that look old enough to be, well, historic, section the 100°F springs into stone-lined basins. All the mystique of Sykes has to do with location—remote gushing waters in this temple, the Ventana Wilderness.

A young man sharing our tub said to Sarah, "How about a foot massage?" I saw shades of corporate disapproval cloud my cousin’s face as his wife floated her swollen feet, one at a time, into the hands of the stranger, taking her cure. Pine Ridge was, after all, her first—and last—backpack trip.

Getting there: Best AAA map: Monterey Bay Region. Pine Ridge trailhead is right off State Route 1, at Big Sur Station, a visitor center just south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, 26 miles south of Carmel. Self-pay $4 per night for parking. Campfire permits (no charge) required—pick up day of trip at the visitor center, where you also can get a handy topo, check trail conditions, and find out about the several camps along Pine Ridge. Phone: (408) 667-2315.

Camille Cusumano

Photography courtesy of Th.held/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in March 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.