Big Schloss (George Washington National Forest, VA/WV)


Big Schloss, George Washington National Forest, October 2017

At 2,964 feet, Big Schloss is not the highest peak on Great North Mountain—which stretches for 50 miles along the Virginia-West Virginia border—but it is arguably the grandest. Named for the German word for palace or castle, Big Schloss offers panoramic views of some of the most beautiful terrain in the mid-Atlantic: rugged hillsides, majestic valleys, and endless mountains on the horizon. The downside of these renowned vistas, of course, is considerable foot traffic; the moderate, 2.1-mile hike to the peak can be crowded on weekends. This castle in the sky is extensive, however, offering a place for everyone to sit and soak in the tremendous scenery at the summit.

Big Schloss trail hike information George Washington National Forest

Big Schloss trail map George Washington National Forest

Map of Big Schloss hike, George Washington National Forest; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The hike to Big Schloss begins at the Wolf Gap Campground, situated right on the state boundary in George Washington National Forest. (Note: The campground is a 14-mile drive from either Wardensville, West Virginia to the northeast or Woodstock, Virginia to the southeast.) Park at the turnoff for Wolf Gap, then walk clockwise around the paved campground loop drive to reach the trail’s start (or simply follow the crowds).

For now on the West Virginia side of the border, the route to the summit begins by following the Mill Mountain Trail for 1.9 miles. The path bears northeast from Wolf Gap, climbing gradually but steadily through a forest of maples, oaks, and beech trees. After rounding a right-hand bend at ¼ mile, the incline steepens as the trail climbs the western slopes of Mill Mountain.


Ascending Mill Mountain

Mill Mountain constitutes a small section of Great North Mountain, a larger area that is better understood as a mountain range than a single peak. Great North Mountain, in turn, is part of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians, characterized by their long mountain belts, separated by green, parallel valleys. They owe their formation to a mountain-building period around 300 million years ago.


Following the ridgeline to Big Schloss

The Mill Mountain Trail passes batches of mountain laurel and switchbacks up the hillside, with some limited views back to Wolf Gap and the slopes of Tibbet Knob (2,930’). A hefty rock cluster appears on the right at 6/10 mile, while the trail cuts left and levels off slightly. Pushing eastward, the trail crests the ridgeline at the ¾-mile mark. Cutting left, the trail follows a relatively thin spine with views in both directions—west and north into West Virginia and east and south into Virginia. The best views are to the right, overlooking the Stony Creek watershed in the direction of Little Schloss (2,624’) and the Shenandoah Valley.


View east to Little Schloss and the Shenandoah Valley

Heading northeast along the ridgeline, the trail descends gradually with intermittent views to the east. Clumps of Tuscarora sandstone dot the mountaintop; this hard layer of rock resists erosion and caps many of the mountains in this area.

The mountaintop widens at around 1.3 miles as the trail continues through hardwood forest. An uphill section begins at 1.5 miles and gains roughly 80 feet over the next 1/3 mile. Take a right at the trail junction at 1.8 miles, leaving the Mill Mountain Trail for the short Big Schloss Trail.

This final spur to the summit begins with an initial ascent, then levels off as rocky ledges offer the hike’s first unobstructed views of Trout Run Valley to the north and west. Except for a handful of farmsteads, this valley appears virtually untouched by man. Long Mountain (3,128’) forms the opposite flank, while Tibbet Knob rises to the southwest.


Trout Run Valley with Tibbet Knob and Long Mountain

Just beyond, the trail approaches the summit, accessed by way of a wooden bridge that traverses a cleavage in the sandstone. Now in the “keep” of the castle, it is a short climb to the high point, where a 270-degree panorama unfolds. (Note: By now you are firmly within the Virginia state boundary.)


Wooden bridge to the summit knob


Mill Mountain and Tibbet Knob from the summit

The rest of Trout Run Valley is visible to the left, bounded by Long Mountain and Halfmoon Mountain (2,717’) to the north. Mill Mountain continues to the northeast, extending beyond Big Schloss to the highest point in the Great North Mountain range at 3,293 feet.


North to Trout Run Valley, from Big Schloss


Northeast to Mill Mountain, Sugar Knob, and Little Sluice Mountain

The long ridge to the east is Little Sluice Mountain (3,120’), ending abruptly at Little Schloss. Looking down toward the Shenandoah Valley, the mountains cast shadows over a patchwork of farms. East of the valley is Massanutten Mountain, itself outdone by the taller Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park beyond.


Southeast to Shenandoah Valley, with Massanutten Mountain and Blue Ridge beyond


It should take around 1 ½-2 hours to reach the summit, warranting some rest time to eat and admire the beautiful surroundings. Once ready, head back the way you came to complete the 4.2-mile round-trip. The entire hike should take between 2.5-4 hours, depending on pace and the number of breaks.


Big Schloss

Posted in George Washington National Forest, Moderate Hikes, Virginia, West Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Appalachian Trail – Maryland Section 2: Raven Rock Hollow to Wolfsville Road (South Mountain State Park, MD)


Appalachian Trail, October 2017

Maryland Section 2 is almost certainly the least interesting of Maryland’s seven Appalachian Trail (AT) sections. (Note: As delineated by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s Appalachian Trail Guide to Maryland and Northern Virginia.) It does offer variety, however, as it weaves through dense deciduous forest and open fields in a quiet and peaceful section of Maryland. There is also a lot of human history, with remnants of rock walls scattered alongside the AT. The route picks up where Appalachian Trail Maryland Section 1 leaves off, climbing from Raven Rock Hollow to Buzzard Knob and Warner Gap Hollow and finishing four miles later at Wolfsville Road. Through-hikers will find rest at the modest Ensign Cowall Shelter in this section.

Appalachian Trail MD Section 2 hike information

Appalachian Trail MD Section 2 Raven Rock Hollow to Wolfsville Road map

Map of Appalachian Trail – Maryland Section 2, Raven Rock Hollow to Wolfsville Road, South Mountain State Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Day hikers can park alongside the shoulder on Raven Rock Road at the crossing of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Raven Rock Hollow marks a clear departure from much of the Maryland AT, as lengthy South Mountain breaks down into smaller, shorter peaks. Opposite Raven Rock to the north, the southbound AT hugs the road for the first 1/10 mile, with Little Antietam Creek rippling over rocks down to the right.


Crossing Little Antietam Creek

After crossing the stream, the trail leaves the road behind and bears south toward Buzzard Knob (1,560’). While the path does not reach the top of Buzzard Knob, it does climb to a high pass to the east of the summit. After gradually climbing out of Raven Rock Hollow, the ascent begins in earnest at around 2/10 mile. Minutes later, the path surmounts a partly collapsed rock wall, a reminder that this area used to be inhabited by farmers and livestock owners. The climb eases thereafter as the AT crests a woody ridgeline, reaching a local high point at about the ½-mile mark.


Rock wall along the Appalachian Trail

Reaching the pass ushers in a sharp descent of around 200 feet to Warner Gap Hollow. The AT spits out onto unpaved Warner Hollow Road at 8/10 mile; bear left on the road for about 30 yards, then follow the white blazes as they leave the gravel drive and continue south. The path quickly crosses another flowing stream and returns to climbing.

The second ascent is considerably longer than the first, gaining 500 feet in elevation and stretching for about ½ mile before levelling off. The lower reaches of the hillside are dotted with more remnants of old rock walls. At 1.2 miles, the trail passes under power lines, which cut abruptly across the mountain slopes in a straight line bearing southeast.


Power lines along the AT

Beyond the tree cut, the trail weaves in and out of a series of woody ravines, then climbs to the base of a shady slope littered with mammoth boulders. The incline picks up as it clears the cluster of quartzite deposits and skirts the edge of a 10-15 foot wall speckled with green moss. The trail crosses a minor stream at 2.1 miles, then reaches another local high point at about 2.3 miles.

With the sound of zooming vehicles ahead, the trail suddenly bursts out of the woods and traverses a brushy field at 2.45 miles. The field ends at Foxville Road, a relatively busy thoroughfare in Maryland’s high country.


Field leading to Foxville Road

Cross the road and continue on the white-blazed AT as it enters a dense thicket. The trail approaches a second, much larger field awaits at 2.75 miles and begins a ¼-mile jaunt across this scenic, grassy hillside. A thin tree line marks the boundary between Washington and Frederick Counties. Off to the left is a row of farmsteads along the Pleasant Valley Road.


Crossing an open pasture on the AT


Residents of Pleasant Valley from the AT

At the 3-mile mark, the AT reenters the deciduous forest and meanders gradually uphill to the section’s high point (1,713’) at about 3.4 miles. (Note: Here the trail technically enters the jurisdiction of South Mountain State Park for the first time.) Skirting a handful of rocky outcrops, the AT drops to cross a second clearing with power lines at 3.6 miles. The downward slope steepens beyond and passes the Ensign Cowall Memorial Shelter on the right. Stop here for a snack—or, for onward backpackers, a night’s rest. (Note: There is reportedly a spring nearby, though I was unable to locate it; in any case, it’s probably better to filter water back at one of the creeks you have already passed.)


Ensign Cowall Shelter

From here the AT continues down the final stretch. Bear right at the trail fork at 3.9 miles, following the white-blazes as the path bears north. Four miles from the start, blue blazes direct hikers to the left to the local AT parking area; the white-blazed AT ends shortly thereafter, with little fanfare, at Wolfsville Road. This is the end of Section 2, with a much longer, rockier, and steeper Section 3 beyond.

Traversing the 4-mile route to this point should take 2-3 hours one-way. For those lucky enough to have a car parked at Wolfsville Road, your journey ends here. All other day hikers will have to turn back, retracing your steps back to Raven Rock Hollow.

Posted in Maryland, Moderate Hikes, South Mountain State Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sentinel Cave (Lava Beds National Monument, CA)


Sentinel Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, July 2017

Sentinel Cave is the longest of the “easy” caves in California’s Lava Beds National Monument, as well as one of the only lava tubes in the park with multiple entrances. Inside the cave, the roughly 2/10 mile traversed by hikers is relatively flat and wide, making this a good option for small children with an interest in spelunking. Sentinel Cave is a section of what was once the “master tube” for the Headquarters System, the main thoroughfare for lava flowing through a complex network of subterranean passages.

Sentinel Cave Lava Beds hike information

The hike

Sentinel Cave is located near the end of the Cave Loop Road, requiring one to drive nearly all the way around the circuit on the one-way drive. Skip the Upper Sentinel Cave Trailhead and instead park at the Lower Sentinel Cave parking area. (Note: Per the suggestion of a park ranger, this hike enters through Lower Sentinel and exits Upper Sentinel.)


Setting out for Lower Sentinel Cave

The hike begins with a ¼-mile, partly paved track that sets out across desert scrub toward the lower entrance. The towering mound to the southeast is Caldwell Butte (5,197’), one of several cinder cones in this volcanic area. After wrapping around to the north, the trail approaches the Lower Sentinel Cave entrance, a modest rupture in the lava tube that floods the cave with sun. Here the pavement ends, and a stony path leads down into the tunnel.


Lower entrance to Sentinel Cave

Once inside, a well-worn path cuts through a jumble of basalt, while a series of step marks on the right wall indicate various depths of the lava flows that once passed through the tube.


Thick benches in Sentinel Cave

A few minutes into the cave, just as darkness has set in, beams of light pour in again from a beautiful skylight. The roof between the two prominent holes in the ceiling forms a delicate natural bridge.


Looking up at the beautiful skylight

Beyond the sunny cupola, the trail passes through a breakdown jam, and a smaller tube crisscrosses the main passage overhead. The next, left-hand bend features thick benches on either side.

About halfway through the cave, hikers will reach a metal staircase, situated next to the pillar that gave the cave its name: The Sentinel, a modest spire on the right. Above the stairs, the path enters a large room littered with fallen boulders. The trail skirts the right edge of the breakdown.

The next feature of note is a 7-foot pit, guarded by metal railings, that leads down to the cave’s lower levels. Here there is also a tube inside a tube, partly visible looking up-tunnel from just beyond the pit.

Continuing marginally uphill, the path crosses a steel catwalk over a 15-foot chasm. Briefly diverting from the main passage, the trail weaves through a thinner side route that avoids the rocky jumble of the primary, collapsed tube. Soon enough, however, the two tunnels merge and the trail climbs another metal staircase.


Metal bridge over a 15-foot drop

From atop the stairs, you can see the light of the upper entrance ahead. Weaving amid fallen basalt, the trail makes for the exit, emerging out into the sunlight again after about 2/10 mile underground. The Upper Sentinel Cave entrance is notably larger than the lower entry. Straight ahead, Sentinel Bridge crosses over the fallen trench of basalt rock; climbing up onto the bridge offers a good look at the entrance and landscape beyond.


Standing atop Sentinel Bridge

From here, bear right on the paved trail, which leads around 125 yards to the Upper Sentinel Cave parking area. Bear right on the road and follow the drive for another 1/10 mile to the Lower Sentinel Cave Trailhead, where your car awaits.

Allot between 30 minutes to an hour for this loop hike through one of Lava Beds’ best and most easily navigated caves.

Posted in California, Easy Hikes, Lava Beds National Monument | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Golden Dome Cave (Lava Beds National Monument, CA)


Golden Dome Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, July 2017

Unlike limestone caves, lava tubes are usually characterized by their drab, colorless interior. Not so with Golden Dome Cave, which sports shiny ceilings, made possible by tiny bacteria that give the lava tube a golden sheen. Golden Dome Cave is found along the Cave Loop Road in California’s Lava Beds National Monument, a volcanic paradise for cave explorers. Pay attention when navigating the tunnels as the passages form a figure-8, making it easy to walk in circles.

Golden Dome Cave Lava Beds hike information

The hike

Golden Dome Cave is the first cave along the Cave Loop Road after it forks, beginning a one-way circuit. Look for the parking area on the left. The cave entrance—a small skylight that was blasted open around 1934—is a 75-foot walk from the road.


Descending into Golden Dome Cave

Use caution when descending the metal ladder into the cave, as so-called “headache rock” takes its toll on many visitors. Once at the bottom, flip on your headlamp and bear in mind your surroundings: the lava tube heads both north and south. Head in the direction of the slant of the ladder (north), heading into the larger and wider section of the cave, which boasts the best collection of gold, actinomycete-laden ceilings.


Looking back at the skylight entrance

Immediately you will notice the coarse floors, laden with cauliflower aa, a type of cooled lava that is rare in the pahoehoe-dominated cave system at Lava Beds. Watch your footing as the tunnel bears left, then right, and enters a chamber with a partial roof collapse; a well-trodden path weaves through the fallen rocks, which are mostly neatly piled out of the way to the right. Ceiling heights range from 7-10 feet, sparing visitors from having to duck their heads. Small lavacicles extend down from above, while whole patches of gold are visible along parts of the ceiling.


Gold on the ceiling

Just beyond, the trail forks—the broad thoroughfare continues left, while a shorter passage bears right over a foot-high hump. Head right, following the ovular tube past another partial ceiling breakdown. The collapse reveals a smaller, 1-2 foot cleavage on the right.


Golden Dome Cave

The cave then opens up into a room with 12-foot ceilings; in the center of the floor lies a short and plump rafted block, a loose rock that was carried away by lava and hardened in place as the lava cooled. Gold streaks line the left wall, and ornate patches cover a small ancillary tube on the right.


Elaborate ceiling in Golden Gome Cave

Another collapse reveals a cavity flush with gold, while the broader passage splits again. (Note: A left-hand turn connects with the broader channel you left earlier. This is the tie in the middle of the figure-8.) Staying right leads deeper into the cave, into a chamber with excellent lavacicles. The path splits again, but not for long: these two passages meet up again within 15-20 feet.

The ceiling in the next room is coated with gold, arguably the most impressive of the hike. Squeeze through a relatively narrow section to enter the Golden Dome chamber, which has the highest ceilings in the cave but, strangely enough, not as much gold as previous rooms. A pair of dead-end passages marks the farthest accessible reaches of the cave.

The Golden Dome room is the final curl in the figure-8, and continuing around the left-hand bend begins the return journey. This tube has an upper and lower deck, with the former visible high above but well out of reach. A corollary tube bears off to the right, while the main tunnel weaves left through a gold-studded room and up a two-foot lava fall. The ceiling drops to as low as 5 feet in this section.

Now back near the middle of the figure-8, the route passes a large rock fall; the trail keeps to the right side. At the end of this chamber, the path reaches the start of the figure-8, with the tunnel back to the entrance heading right.

Continue straight for 1/10 mile until the sun’s rays begin to shine again. Climb the ladder and exit the cave. (Note: It is possible to continue straight to the south side of the cave, which connects after around 2/10 mile with the Garden Bridges Cave. This section, however, is not as scenic and requires squeezing through a one-foot passage to reach the Garden Bridges section.)

Back out of the subterranean landscape, the parking area is a short walk from the cave ladder. Allot around a half-hour for this caving experience, one of the most unique in the park.

Posted in California, Lava Beds National Monument, Moderate Hikes | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Skull Cave (Lava Beds National Monument, CA)


Skull Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, July 2017

Lava tubes, cavities in the earth once filled with flowing lava, are the principal attraction of northern California’s Lava Beds National Monument, which boasts the greatest concentration of them in the United States. Reaching as wide as 60 feet in diameter, Skull Cave is one of the area’s largest lava tubes and offers one of the easiest caving adventures in the park. Highlights include a dramatic entrance, a natural bridge, and icy floor at the end of the cave.

Skull Cave Lava Beds hike information

The hike

To reach Skull Cave, bear northwest from the Lava Beds Visitor Center on California Route 10 for 1.3 miles, then take a right onto the paved Lyons Road. Continue to the end of the road, where there is parking for the Skull Cave hike and nearby Lyons Trail.

The descent into Skull Cave begins with a staircase heading down into a collapsed section of what was once a “master tube.” This underground channel was the principal highway for lava flowing through the Modoc Crater Lava Tube System; today, the tube is largely a jumble of charcoal-colored basalt, remnants of the old cave roof.


Stream of basalt, the result of a massive roof collapse

Bearing northeast, the trail descends deeper, aiming for the wide aperture of Skull Cave. The cave was named by 19th century spelunker E.L. Hopkins, who reportedly found a large collection of animal bones, including two human skeletons, inside the cave.


Entering Skull Cave

About 50 yards from the start, the Skull Cave Trail zig-zags through the entrance, then hugs the right side of the lave tube as the grade levels out. Once inside, the temperature drops considerably. About 1/10 mile from the trailhead, now in full darkness, you will reach a flight of stairs that brings hikers down to the lower level of the cave, passing directly under a natural bridge.


Stairs and natural bridge in Skull Cave

The hike ends at the ice-covered floor of the lower level, situated at the bottom of the stairs. Once part of the cave tour, visitors are now barred from stepping onto the ice and must instead view from behind a metal grate.


Icy floor at the end of the hike

Once complete—you won’t want to stick around for long in the sub-freezing temperatures—return the way you came, exiting back out into daylight. Allot about 20-30 minutes for this round-trip hike in one of Lava Beds’ easiest caves.

Posted in California, Lava Beds National Monument, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sun Notch Trail (Crater Lake National Park, OR)


Sun Notch Trail, Crater Lake National Park, July 2017

Sandwiched between two precipitous peaks, the Sun Notch Trail is a short and scenic circuit hike in Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park that features five fine views of Crater Lake in quick succession. From the caldera rim, situated atop a cliff that drops more than 1,000 feet, hikers can see Wizard Island, the Phantom Ship, Applegate Peak, Dutton Cliff, and Mount Thielsen. Considered ADA-accessible by the park, the loop nonetheless has steep inclines that make pushing wheelchairs quite difficult.

Sun Notch Trail hike information Crater Lake

Sun Notch Trail Crater Lake hike map

Map of Sun Notch Trail, Crater Lake National Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)


The hike

Sun Notch is situated off the East Rim Drive in Crater Lake National Park at the end of a long bend around Sun Meadow. A small parking area on the north side of the road marks the beginning of the short hike.

From the parking area, the Sun Notch Trail bears northwest through a stand of hemlocks, firs, and pines, eventually climbing to the edge of a sloping meadow. Here the trail splits, marking the start of the loop portion. Head left, rounding the circuit in a clockwise direction. The rocky promontory to the west is Applegate Peak (8,126’); to the east is Dutton Ridge (8,147’), a gently sloping mountain that ends abruptly at Dutton Cliff.


Applegate Peak from the Sun Notch Trail

At about 2/10 mile, the wide and dusty path rounds a single switchback, then bears northeast toward the edge of the cliff. Just past ¼ mile, hikers will come across the first of five viewpoints, a window overlooking Crater Lake with a framed view of the Phantom Ship, a small island that juts 170 feet out of the water.


Crater Lake with the Phantom Ship from the first overlook

The second viewpoint, situated a minute up the trail, provides a clear view across Crater Lake to sharp-sided Mount Thielsen (9,182’), the highest peak in the area. A third vista, just steps farther, peeks through an aperture to the northwest, where Wizard Island (6,940’) and Hillman Peak (8,151’) come into view.


Mount Thielsen in the distance


View of Wizard Island and Crater Lake’s western shores from the third vista

Continuing along the meadow for another 50 yards leads to a fourth overlook on the left. This overlook is particularly dramatic, as the cliffs on the near shore drop nearly 2,000 feet from the summit of Applegate Peak.


Garfield Peak and Cheski Slide from the fourth viewpoint

The fifth and final overlook offers another excellent view of the Phantom Ship and the multi-hued face of Dutton Cliff, an intimidating precipice high above the blue waters of Crater Lake. Further afield, Cloudcap (8,065’) towers over the lake’s eastern shores, with the cliffs around Cleetwood Cove beyond.


Epic view northeast to the Phantom Ship and Dutton Cliff


Close up of the Phantom Ship

At around 4/10 mile, the path begins to turn south, leaving the rim. Cutting across the meadow, the Sun Notch Trail descends back into a wooden patch. Now bearing west, the trail returns to the start of the loop at about 2/3 mile. From here, bear left and continue 1/10 mile back to the parking area.

Allot around 30-45 minutes for this short hike, one of the park’s easiest.

Posted in Crater Lake National Park, Easy Hikes, Oregon | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Crater Lake National Park, OR


Crater Lake National Park, July 2017

Oregon’s Crater Lake, America’s deepest lake, is also arguably its bluest. Fed entirely by rain water and snowmelt, this natural wonder and centerpiece of Crater Lake National Park was formed after the explosion of an ancient volcano—Mount Mazama—about 7,700 years ago. Volcanic features dot the landscape around the lake, including the Pinnacles, a set of now-cooled pumice spires that were once channels for underground steam and gas. The 33-mile Rim Drive encircles the lake, while a bevy of hiking trails offer access to various viewpoints, canyons, and waterfalls. Visit in summer or early fall, as snowpack leads to road closures during much of the rest of the year.


Crater Lake from near the Rim Visitor Center


Wizard Island, accessed by boat from Cleetwood Cove


Crater Lake looking north


Vidae Falls, just off the East Rim Drive


View of Klamath Valley from East Rim Drive


Phantom Ship


View of Phantom Ship, Garfield Peak, and Crater Lake from an overlook on East Rim Drive




Pinnacles Overlook


Posted in Crater Lake National Park, Oregon | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stout Grove Loop (Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, CA)


Stout Grove Loop, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, July 2017

Once one of the area’s best kept secrets, Stout Grove in California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is now one of California’s most popular redwood groves. Even the crowds cannot ruin the beauty, however, of this cathedral-like forest, a dense cluster of towering sentinels that casts a dark shadow over a lush understory. In late afternoon, the sun’s rays peer through the trees at a beautiful angle, making this one of the most photogenic redwood stands in the world.

Stout Grove Loop Jedediah Smith hike information

The hike

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, encompassed by Redwood National Park, is situated just northeast of Crescent City, California, not far from the California-Oregon border. The Stout Grove Trail, named for lumberman Frank D. Stout, begins at the end of a spur off the gravel Howland Hill Road, a 10-mile track running through the heart of the park. The unpaved drive once concealed Stout Grove from heavy crowds…no more, as the allure of one of the world’s best redwood groves now draws visitors from far and wide.

Park at the Stout Grove Trailhead—which is sure to fill up with cars in the summer—and proceed to the trail sign/map. (Note: Alternatively, campers at the Jedediah Smith Campground can cross a bridge over Smith River to reach the grove.) From the trailhead, the paved trail descends steeply into the grove before leveling off at a trail junction after 175 yards.


Descent to Stout Grove

This is the start of the loop portion, and the end of the pavement. Heading right at the fork, hikers are immediately immersed in an awe-inspiring landscape. Vermilion-hued trunks, reaching for the sky, cluster together to form a dense canopy; the ground is laced with verdant ferns and abundant pine needles. Other, smaller trees are rare, allowing for unvarnished views of the redwood giants.


Stout Grove Loop

The grove was made possible by its proximity to Smith River and Mill Creek; the low floodplain is rich in moisture, a boon to the redwoods’ deep and interconnected roots. Different looks bring different light, making each perspective unique. Pictures and words, however, cannot replicate the cool, damp environment or frequent mist that gives the woods an inimitable character.


Looking up at the redwoods

Wide and flat, the trail bears northeast through the grove, bending and weaving amid the titans of the forest. Lightning and windstorms have felled a number of the trees, but their remains give life to mosses and fungi and shelter for iconic, yellow banana slugs, ubiquitous creatures along the California coast.


Downed redwood along the Stout Grove Trail

At 3/10 mile, bear left at the trail junction; the River Trail bears right to the edge of the park. Some of thickest and most accessible trees lie just beyond, many cutting right into the trail itself. Pass a massive, fallen tree on the right just before the trail forks again at the ½-mile mark, where the Hiouchi Trail bears off to the right toward Smith River (and the bridge over to Jedediah Smith Campground). Continue left , heading south toward the beginning of the circuit.


Cluster of redwoods on the Stout Grove Loop

Back at the loop’s start, bear right and climb the steep hillside back to the parking area. Allot at least a half-hour for this scenic hike; spending an hour or more allows for the full experience: strolling slowly through the grove, breathing in the fresh air, and admiring the wonder of these living fossils, monumental trees that have stood the test of time.


Looking up at these wonders

Posted in California, Easy Hikes, Redwood National & State Parks | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yurok Loop Trail (Redwood National Park, CA)


Yurok Loop Trail, Redwood National Park, July 2017

Although sans redwoods, the short Yurok Loop Trail in California’s Redwood National Park features terrific seaside vistas and an ecologically diverse environment along the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Named for the Native American tribe that once predominated in this area, this easy hike explores a dense coastal forest chock full of cypress trees, alders, and ferns, interspersed with occasional hemlocks. Out at sea, False Klamath Rock rises 209 feet from the choppy waters, though blanketing fog can often obscure it from view.

Yurok Loop Trail hike Redwood National Park information

The hike

Lagoon Creek, the trailhead for the hike, is a popular picnic area situated between the northern and southern stretches of the park, located just past the “Trees of Mystery” (popular tourist trap) heading north on Highway 101. From the parking area, look for the trail at the end of a cul-de-sac to the north.


Coastal Trail near the start

From Lagoon Creek, the trail immediately enters a dense patch of willows, oaks, and alder trees. At around 125 yards, the path splits, with the Coastal Trail bearing off to the right. Follow the path to the left, crossing over a short wooden boardwalk. On the other side, the willows give way to coastal scrub, and the path traverses a dark tunnel through the brush. Off to the right, views of Wilson Beach and False Klamath Cove emerge, marked by a cold sandy spit strewn with logs.


Wilson Beach and False Klamath Cove


Looking back at the tree tunnel

Just beyond, the trail climbs to a second trail fork—this is the start of the Yurok Loop, a 0.8-mile circuit. Bear left first, leaving the finest views for last.

From the junction, the narrowing path climbs gradually as the ubiquitous ferns close in. Views of Lagoon Pond to the left are blocked by a dense canopy of coastal alder trees, Sitka spruce, and Douglas firs, key mainstays of Redwood National Park. The moss-covered trees give the forest an alluring and mysterious quality.


Dense forest along the Yurok Loop Trail

At around 4/10 mile, the Yurok Loop Trail embarks on a sharp uphill, climbing 20-30 feet, followed by a second climb of another 10-20. After a brief dip, the ascent picks up again as the footpath begins to bear southwest. With Western hemlocks and Douglas firs off to the left, the trail mounts a bluff and reaches a junction with a partial view of the ocean.


Partial view of the Pacific from the Yurok Loop Trail

Bear right at the fork (unless you are heading to Hidden Beach, down the Coastal Trail to the left). From here the trail climbs gradually as it hugs the top of the bluffs, weaving in and out of patches of firs, alders, and spruce. A clearing at 7/10 miles offers some limited views of the water. At another overlook 1/10 mile farther, False Klamath Rock—the largest outcrop in the area—comes into view.


Yurok Loop Trail

The best vista arrives at 9/10 mile, just as the trail bends eastward. This grassy promontory looks out over False Klamath Cove, False Klamath Rock, and Wilson Rock, with the Footstep Rocks in the distance to the north. (Note: All this on a clear day, of course; otherwise your view is often limited to foggy beach.) A single bench offers a spot to sit and enjoy the view.


At the vista on a foggy day


Wilson Beach and False Klamath Cove

Beyond, the trail bears east and hugs the coastline before descending through a tunnel of trees, returning to the start of the loop section at around one mile. Bear left and retrace your steps through the original 0.15-mile stem, passing Wilson Beach and through the willow patch. Bear right at the final fork and return to the Lagoon Creek Picnic Area.

This mostly easy hike takes between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on one’s pace. Consider it an opportunity to stretch your legs as you transit between the stunning redwoods of the Prairie Creek area to the south and the enticing groves of Del Norte and Jedediah Smith Redwoods to the north.


Clearer view of False Klamath Cove from later in the day

Posted in California, Easy Hikes, Redwood National & State Parks | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prairie Creek Trail – Foothill Trail Loop (Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, CA)


Prairie Creek Trail, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, July 2017

The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.

                          – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Lofty, ethereal, and dramatic, the coastal redwoods of northern California—the world’s tallest trees—offer a distinctive beauty that is impossible to encapsulate in words or photographs. Often shrouded by mist and lined with lush ferns, these giants of the forest keep watch over a damp and mysterious landscape. What’s left of these rare trees—less than 4 percent of the original virgin redwood groves remain—occupy a thin strip between the ocean and the Coast Range. They are close enough to the Pacific to enjoy very wet winters, but far enough away to enjoy shelter from the brutal wind and waves.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park—located inside broader Redwood National Park—boasts arguably the most scenic redwood groves in the world. They are also easy to reach: starting and ending at the Prairie Creek Visitor Center, a combination of the Prairie Creek and Foothill Trails clocks in at just 2.6 miles. Save for the occasional sound of a passing car, the redwood groves along Prairie Creek offer an incredible serenity, a mystical experience enhanced by early morning fog or evening streaks of sun. The Foothill Trail passes fewer groves but features the much-vaunted “Big Tree,” one of the park’s largest redwoods. Better yet, these two hikes are passable by wheelchair, offering a stunning redwood experience for everyone.

Prairie Creek Trail Foothill Trail Loop hike Redwood information

Prairie Creek Trail Foothill Trail Loop hike Redwood map

Map of Prairie Creek Trail – Foothill Trail Loop, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The Prairie Creek Visitor Center is situated just off scenic Newton B Drury Parkway, a 10-mile drive through the heart of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. After acquiring a map at the Visitor Center, head to the start of the Prairie Creek Trail, well-marked and easily-found just outside the center.


Prairie Creek Trail

The first 300 yards of the Prairie Creek Trail cover, to paraphrase a park volunteer we met at the trailhead, arguably the finest stretch of redwood forest in the park. Immediately the titans of the forest are visible on the right, rising high above an understory strewn with verdant ferns. A wooden bridge over Prairie Creek, followed by a short boardwalk section, leads to an intimate grove of imposing redwoods, a sight so wonderful that no photo will do it justice. At 1/10 mile, bear right at the first of several trail junctions.


Redwood grove along Prairie Creek Trail


First trail junction along Prairie Creek Trail

It is not until ¼ mile that Prairie Creek appears again, this time shrouded in brush but flanked by redwoods on both sides. Redwoods in this section come in spurts, with dense groves interrupted by stretches of smaller—and younger—trees: Sitka spruces, maples, firs, and hemlocks. A small bench offers a place to sit at 4/10 mile, although the lure of the redwoods will probably compel you to push on.


Prairie Creek Trail

A slight uphill at around the ½ mile mark gives way to flat terrain again as the trail follows the creek on the right. The path crosses a tricky spot at 6/10 mile where part of the trail has eroded away, creating an obstacle that, while easily bypassed by most, is potentially impassable for wheelchairs (those with assistance could probably make it). Beyond, however, the route returns to wide and smooth tread, passing through a pair of tunnels carved through giant fallen logs.


Bridge over Prairie Creek

The ancient cloud sweepers continue to dot the landscape as the Prairie Creek Trail crosses another bridge at 0.85 miles. With the creek now on the left, a brushy clearing at around the one-mile mark offers a brief respite from the dark and mysterious canopy. Here the path crosses a minor stream blanketed with ferns.


Continuing on the Prairie Creek Trail


Clearing along Prairie Creek Trail

Back in the woods, the trail splits at 1.25 miles. Bear right, leaving the Prairie Creek Trail and approaching Newton B Drury Parkway. The footpath crosses the road at 1.35 miles and becomes the Foothill Trail, the eastern cousin to the Prairie Creek Trail. This trail is also wide and wheelchair-accessible, though arguably a notch less spectacular than Prairie Creek.

Once away from the road, the eastbound path bends south and weaves through dense thicket, though old-growth redwoods are relatively sparse. The redwoods return around the Big Tree Wayside, marked by—you guessed it—a remarkably large redwood on the right. The crowds at Big Tree—fenced off and fronted by a wooden platform—detract from its beauty; far more exquisite redwoods await ahead.


Big Tree

From the tree, stay straight on the Foothill Trail, passing a parking area on your right. Leaving the cars and crowds behind, the trail passes through a dense forest with a relative dearth of redwoods. At one point, the path passes under a stunning constellation of moss-laden bay trees, an otherworldly sight.


Bay trees along the Foothill Trail


Complex web of branches

At around 1.9 miles, the old-growth redwoods return in earnest, with a beautiful grove just off to the left. Mixed in are several redwood look-alikes: Douglas firs and western hemlocks, many of which grow out of the roots of the redwoods themselves.


Redwoods along the Foothill Trail

Cross a service road at 2.05 miles, then enter the Rotary Memorial Grove, a tranquil garden of titanic trees, complete with several benches for rest and relaxation. Just after passing under fallen tree, the Rotary Memorial Grove plaque is found on the left, with soaring redwoods as its backdrop.


Rotary Memorial Grove


Towering redwoods along the Foothill Trail

The trail reaches its crescendo when it passes a particularly mammoth trunk on the left at 2.35 miles. Beyond, the open fields of Elk Prairie come into view, and the trail forks; bear left and cross a bridge over Boyes Creek. Less than a minute later, follow the path as it bears under the Newton B. Drury Parkway. From the other side, follow the wide, gravel path as it approaches the Visitor Center parking lot. By 2.6 miles, you have completed the loop, back at the trail’s start.

Allot at least 1.5-2 hours for this magical hike, a terrific introduction to the coast redwoods of the Prairie Creek area.

Posted in California, Easy Hikes, Redwood National & State Parks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment