See It All
This is one of the premier long hikes in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Most of it takes place in the Murrelet State Wilderness. Any visitor who spends a few days in the park can't help but hear about the marbled murrelet, the only seabird that nests in old growth trees. Considering old growth redwoods are endangered, the marbled murrlet's plight is indeed dire. The crow-sized bird faces predation from crows, Stellar's jays and ravens prey on the murrelet's eggs and chicks. These corvids thrive at the forest boundary, and man has been all too eager to increase forest edge habitat. This is good for the abundant populations of jays and ungulates, but bad for the marbled murrelet. The wilderness encompasses thousands of acres of pristine old growth redwood forest that also features beachfront cliffs, a quarter-mile-wide beach that stretches as far as the eye can see, and moist riparian canyons.
I started this hike at the Elk Prairie Campground, but is also accessible from the half-dozen parking areas along the campground road. The Redwood Access Trail starts at the campground between sites 26 and 28. The trail heads about 2/3 mile to a footbridge over Prairie Creek which had a lot of water in even this dry year. The bridge is only installed during the summer. The Nature Trail starts on the other side, and it switchbacks a hundred feet up before heading down to reach the James Irvine Trail about a mile in. James Irvine heads north and soon ascends the ridge to the west. The entire trip so far has been in a sublime old growth forest, and a few Douglas fir join the giants as you near the top of the ridge 2-1/4 miles in and 630' ASL. The trail meanders gently down as it follows the top of the ridge through the forest for another mile before switchbacking down to Squasham Creek. The redwoods are replaced by a riparian gallery forest along the creek before the trail reaches Gold Bluffs Beach 5.5 miles in. There's a nice campground here in front of the fir covered cliffs.
There are a lot of large pieces of driftwood that make great rest spots up and down the quarter-mile-wide beach so put in a little effort to walk through the sand to some solitude. The next leg is about 1.5 miles north along the coast. The easy and boring way is to take the Coastal Trail at the base of the cliffs in the shade of tall trees that block your view of the coast. The cool and exciting way is to trudge through the loose sand (firmer down by the surf) along the surf zone to see what you can see. Not only are there gorgeous views up and down the coast in both directions, but harbor seals in the surf and marine debris washed up on the sand.
The next leg is through Fern Canyon, and you'll have to find its entrance without the aid of many markers. There is a small parking area (the Coastal Trail doubles as a dirt road to cars that pay to drive into Gold Bluffs Beach to the south) that's obscured by tall vegetation, but it's there.
Fern Canyon is only about 200 yards long, and has straight-sided walls covered in ferns. There are at least 2 different species of fern here as the trail joins the James Irvine Trail which travels moderately uphill up the short Hope Creek drainage. The Clintonia Trail branches off uphill to ascend the ridge up to the Miner's Ridge Trail. It's just over 4 miles back to the campground from this point, but mostly downhill as the afternoon shadows get longer and longer until all traces of the sun are erased from the forest floor. You may notice how quiet it's gotten as the majestic old growth redwood forest transitions from day-shift to night-shift, so enjoy it as you finally reach the Nature Trail that will take you back the final mile to camp.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.