Redwood National and State Parks

November 18-21, 2014

For the past two months we traveled through areas that had few clouds, lots of sun and almost no rain. As we headed north up the coast, that was about to change. More clouds, less sun and a lot more rain were in our future. Now we’ll start to experience winter in the Northwest, which is why we’re here. If we can handle it, we may settle here. If not, we’ll look elsewhere. We’re both hoping we can handle it as we both love the Northwest, west of the Cascade Mountains.

Our last stop in California was Redwood National and State Parks. In an unusual Federal-state partnership, Redwood National Park encompasses three California state parks, Del Norte Coast Redwoods, Jedediah Smith Redwoods, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. We spent time in Prairie Creek and parts of the National Park property.

Although we enjoyed our stay here, we liked Humboldt Redwoods State Park better. That was partly due to our camping right in the middle of the redwood forest and better weather. We had a couple of nippy nights at Humboltd Redwoods so we went to a private campground to get hookups while we toured this area. This meant packing up our gear and driving to the parks.

Visitor Centers

Kuchel Visitor Center

As we rolled up Hwy 101, we passed a big sign saying “You are now in elk country”… and just past the sign, there they were, hanging out on both sides of the road. Then they were in the road. It always intrigues me how one animal seems to step out into the road to stop traffic. That animal stays until the others have crossed then follows them off the road and traffic can resume as normal. We’ve had bison, cows, and now elk do this. The “crossing guard” usually stands in the road and stares down the cars just like human school guards do. It seems weird to see the animals do it. We were quite happy to idle in the road and watch these magnificent animals cross over… which is good, because they took their time.

Elk herd off Highway 101

Elk herd off Highway 101

Shortly after our elk encounter we reached the Kuchel Visitor Center. We had to quickly pull up Google maps/satellite view to make sure we could turn around since we were in the rig with car in tow and you can’t see anything from the highway. They have a large looping parking lot so no worries. We pulled into the empty lot leaving enough space in front of us to angle out toward the exit. Before we made it inside, another car pulled in and parked right in front of us, blocking us in. Seriously? There are like 60 or more empty parking spaces. I ran out and asked them to shift their car and they were gracious enough to do so. The visitor center itself has a little movie room, gift shop and a few displays. It is right on the ocean on a long sandy beach so it has gorgeous views for walking and relaxing. There is a white board listing animal sitings. One said they saw “an” elk. We told the ranger there was a whole herd just down Hwy 101 stopping traffic.

The Ranger on duty was very friendly and helpful and we watched her swear in three Junior Rangers. It made us wish, once again, that our granddaughter was with us enjoying these wonderful parks and learning so many really cool things… like banana slugs. These bright yellow slimy critters are not my favorite thing to meet in the woods but one Ranger explained that they are the heroes of the Redwood forests. They eat everything except Redwood seedlings. They process what they eat and poop it back out as nutrients needed by the forest.

We noticed that these people are really into their slugs. You can buy rubber banana slug magnets (just what I want on my fridge), glass banana slug paperweights, banana slug books, t-shirts and more.

As we walked out of the visitor center we noticed one more car had pulled in… and parked directly in front of our rig blocking our exit. Luckily they came out soon after us and moved so we were able to continue on our way. Next time we plan to point our nose toward the back of the lot so the spaces in front of us are the farthest from the door. We hope to be good unless the lot fills.

Prairie Creek Visitor

This small visitor center had a display that could have come from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. See the bull elk antlers sticking out of the tree trunk? How did they get there?

Bull elk horns embedded in tree

Bull elk horns embedded in tree

One theory is that the horns got stuck when the bull shed his antlers.

That sounds reasonable until you cut the trunk down the middle.

That’s when the bull elk’s skull appears.

Bull elk skull embedded in tree trunk

Bull elk skull embedded in tree trunk

The new theory is that the bull somehow got his rack permanently stuck in the tree, he died, and the tree grew around his skull.

As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating.” To us at least. Not so much for the bull elk.

This visitor center has the movie room, gift shop (with all the wonderful slug items) AND a cartoon slug with slime trail that kids can follow from sign to sign around the room and learn cool nature facts. Holly, of course, followed the slug. Sometimes the kid stuff is way better than the adult stuff. She read the adult stuff too. It was pretty good but it didn’t have any slugs.

There is an Elk Meadow right outside the visitor center as well as trails through the Redwoods. One of their campgrounds is tucked in just behind the visitor center along the back of the Elk Meadow.

Coastal Drive

Klamath Beach Road, where our campground was located, Alder Camp Road, and the Coastal Road form three legs of a scenic triangle. The Coastal Road was unpaved, full of potholes, ruts, and washboard sections.

We stopped at one interesting historical site, a World War II era radar station disguised as a farm. Two cinder block buildings, one shown below, with shingled roofs and fake windows and dormers housed a diesel generator, electronic and radar equipment, and two 50-caliber machine guns. You can see the cinder block walls in the picture, but on closer inspection we were able to see where the weathered wood boards were attached on the outside of the block. All sides were covered in wood and looked like a typical farm building. The back of the building has sections of siding still in place.

World War II radar station

World War II radar station

A little known factoid is that on September 9, 1942 a Japanese submarine launched an aircraft off the coast of Oregon. That plane dropped two 176 pound incendiary bombs on a forest outside Brookings, OR, less than 30 miles from this radar site. According to my research, the Japanese were hoping to start a conflagration. Instead the bombs sheared an oak tree, blew up a fir tree, and scorched a small area where the bombs hit.


We stayed for three days with full hookups at Kamp Klamath, off Hwy 101 just south of Klamath, CA. They accepted Passport America and we saved 50%. They had gravel sites which were fairly level. Our site was flanked by 15 foot pine trees so we had some privacy. Not that it mattered much as there were no more than three other rigs there.

You do have to watch out for the free-range chickens. Fortunately there’s a sign warning you about that. The chickens are very docile, as far as chickens go, and live in an old pop-up camper the owner converted into a chicken coop. Their feed is delivered in a 4-wheeler, which they chased after like children following the Pied Piper.

The owner and office manager were very friendly. The owner gave us half a dozen free-range eggs which were very good. The office manager gave us a bunch of chard, which Holly and I had never eaten. She suggested we saute it in garlic and butter, which we did. We now have a new fresh veggie to add to our “like” list.

There is a quick mart at a gas station just over the bridge in Klamath. They have a few slot machines AND a fast food type place inside. We went in search of Nyquil and returned with dinner and meds. We were pleasantly surprised at how good the fried chicken was. If you need a full fledged grocery store, it is 22 miles north in Crescent City according to the campground manager.


Prairie Creek/Foothill Trail/Big Tree

We caught this trail at the Prairie Creek Visitor Center and crossed the scenic parkway.

Like other redwood forests we hiked in, this one had some amazing sites, like this young redwood whose roots reached around and down a nurse log.

Redwood growing from nurse log

Redwood growing from nurse log

A short side trail took us to Big Tree which is over 300 feet tall and more than 21 feet in diameter. This isn’t even close to being the biggest, baddest redwood. Big enough though. It makes the trees in the forests back home in Maryland look like toothpicks.

Big Tree

Big Tree

While we hiked, the forest became shrouded in fog. It felt almost primeval. Standing amidst these giants made me feel quite small.

Fog shrouded redwood forest

Fog shrouded redwood forest

We eventually came across an almost perfect tree circle. These form when the mother tree is injured or dying and she sends out sprouts which eventually become full grown redwoods. These trees surround the stump or the hole where the mother tree lived. This tree circle was huge with a continuous ring of trees around the central trunk. It would be cool to build a platform up inside the ring where you could sit and meditate on the wonders of nature.

Tree circle

Tree circle

Fern Canyon

The ranger at the visitor center suggested we hike the Fern Canyon loop. He said people come to this park JUST to see that. It is a narrow stream valley with fifty foot walls covered in  ferns. Part of it was filmed for use in Jurassic Park II. It sounded interesting so we decided to give it a go. We drove back out and south on Hwy 101 to Davison Road which took us toward the coast. There was another elk viewing area right near Hwy 101 but no elk were there either time we passed. The road was good, paved, reasonably smooth for the first little bit. Then it got narrow and climbed up into the trees. Then it got more narrow with lots of potholes. Eventually we were on washed out dirt and gravel with mudslide piles in the road. This is an out of the way spot for sure, but they do have a self pay station and a campground for tents and vehicles under 25 feet that is right on the ocean. Several of the sites were occupied.

Once we passed Gold Bluff Beach and the campground we had to cross three streams, which we did although we bottomed out on our hitch receiver a couple of times. The Ranger didn’t mention the stream crossings. He must have forgotten. There weren’t any signs about them either until you were right about to go into the stream. The sign said “stream crossing” – well, duh. There’s a wide, deep rut in front of us with a bunch of water streaming across the road. We didn’t need the sign at that point. I guess the people flying through the chuckholes at more than 2 miles an hour might have come up on it quickly and the sign would help them realize slowing down was a good plan but we were already going about as slow as we could go. We were new at this so we crawled through the streams and continued on our drive until we reached the trail head for Fern Canyon.

Finally. There we were, checking out a nice trail side sign about the canyon when we spotted a large bull elk grazing about fifty feet away. Wow, cool. Then we saw people approaching on the trail behind him and realized he would want to get away from them… and that there was only one way he was likely to go… which was right over the top of us. Wow, not cool.

We didn’t have a lot of escape options either so we quickly got behind that nice sign and waited while he strolled by on the path right in front of us. He was in no hurry so we got a long look at him from less than ten feet away. He was obviously used to people but was closer than was comfortable so he kept an eye on us and we kept an eye on him. We got a really good look at those huge antlers as he went by. The really pointy antlers that he would use if he saw us as a threat.

We spoke softly, “Niiiice elk. Such a handsome elk. We won’t hurt you,” and avoided eye contact which can be seen as aggression. It didn’t help that the ranger had told us a story about a few of the bulls still being in rut (mating mode, ready to fight). One bull had chased a park pickup truck down the road just a week before. So, here we are, watching those killer antlers go by as we hoped that this guy already got his harem and was just enjoying a nice, peaceful afternoon out by himself.

“Niiice elk.”

Bull elk on trail

Bull elk on trail

Once the bull was safely past us and grazing farther along the road, we hiked out toward Fern Canyon. At this point I’d like to point out a few other things that the ranger “forgot” to mention. First, the ranger did not tell us that the trail is not well marked. At no point is there a sign that says “Fern Canyon” or “Fern Canyon Loop Trail” (like it says on the map he gave us). We saw a trail shortly after crossing a stream and took it. Luckily it was the right one. Second, the ranger did not tell us that there is no trail for half the loop. You hike in the stream. We’ve hiked in a river before and it was awesome but we knew we were going to do it then. We were not prepared for this one.

Fern Canyon

Fern Canyon

The canyon was very narrow, maybe 50 to 100 feet wide with walls about 50 feet high. Even with the rain and fog, the fern-covered canyon walls were pretty neat. Five types of ferns draped the canyon walls but we couldn’t tell them apart. There were tons of downed trees in the canyon so we were constantly crawling under and over tree limbs in between crossing the stream. when we were about half way down the canyon it started to pour. There we were slipping on downed trees, rock hopping across the stream AND trying to take pictures without soaking the camera (because the waterproof camera was back at home safe, sound, and dry of course).

Once we hiked out, stuffed our wet muddy bodies into the car, crawled the Subaru back out through the streams and chuckholes and headed up the road, Holly expressed a desire to go back and smack that ranger upside his head for his “forgetfulness.” John was driving and he said no.

So, if it is a beautiful, sunny day and you want to wade in a creek and check out a very cool canyon, this might be the hike for you. Make sure you are in a high clearance vehicle and your map has actual trail names on it.

J & H

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