Fern Creek – Dipsea – Sun Trail Loop (Muir Woods National Monument, CA)

Fern Creek Trail, Muir Woods National Monument, April 2021

Sure the towering California redwoods are lovely, but Muir Woods National Monument on the Marin Peninsula has become almost comically crowded, mobbed by throngs of locals and visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area alike. Visitors must now have advance reservations to park at the main entrance and wait in an often-lengthy line to pay the entrance fee at the small Visitor Center. Yet there are ways to experience Muir Woods while minimizing the hassles: the scenic loop hike described here starts along Panoramic Highway, dropping into the Redwood Creek drainage by way of the much less-crowded Fern Creek Trail. After a short spurt through the crowded gut of the park, the route then climbs the Dipsea Trail to the beautiful Sun Trail, which—as the name suggests—sports marvelous views of the surrounding hills. No reservations required—just lovely scenery in the world’s most famous redwood preserve.

Map of Fern Creek – Dipsea – Sun Trail Loop, Muir Woods National Monument (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

This 4.7-mile circuit begins and ends near the Mountain Home Inn along Panoramic Highway, situated about 1.5 miles north of the turnoff to Muir Woods National Monument. There are several parking areas around here, all on the left side. The preferred spot is actually across the street from the California Alpine Club (see map), a short distance southeast of the inn. A couple graveled shoulders allow for free parking just south of the club. (Note: If hiking on a weekend, arrive early, as most spots are taken by 9 or 10am.) Down to the west is the Redwood Creek drainage, which runs through Muir Woods and Mount Tamalpais State Park.

Across from the Alpine Club, there is a clear dirt path connecting quickly with the Panoramic Trail. Bear left and follow this track for 300 feet or so to a subsequent junction, where hikers should bear right on the winding Canopy View Trail. After a series of steps and switchbacks, the route eventually settles into a southward descent, plunging into the shady forest where hikers will spend the next few miles. Amid the dense thicket of bay and oaks, small redwoods begin to dot the landscape, along with ubiquitous sword ferns, a staple of the Bay Area. At 0.35 miles, the trail forks again; head right on the Lost Trail, a steep route with a seemingly endless set of wooden stairs.

Shedding nearly 500 feet in less than a half-mile, the Lost Trail finally reaches the Fern Creek drainage at 8/10 mile, where hikers are greeted with another junction. With a long bridge off to your right, head left and follow the Fern Creek Trail for 4/10 mile, crossing the stream (on sturdy footbridges) twice. Here the redwoods grow larger and more impressive, hugging the banks of the flowing stream.

Fern Creek crossing

The Fern Creek section is the last bit of relative solace before catching up with the masses, who are mostly entering from the Muir Woods entrance. After crossing into the national monument at 1.1 miles, bear left at the junction with a paved path—the Redwood Creek Trail—which leads all the way to the parking area at the entry to the park.

Redwood sorrel dots the understory in Muir Woods

Following its namesake waterway, the Redwood Creek Trail encounters many of the largest trees in the park, some of which are found in the lovely Cathedral Grove. Lovely redwood sorrel blankets the understory (as well as ferns, of course). Hikers have the option of bearing right at Bridge 3 and following the west bank of Redwood Creek (this tends to be less crowded), but the quickest route is to continue straight, passing through Founder’s Grove en route to the café, gift shop, and Visitor Center on the left.

Gently stroll through the redwoods

From the Visitor Center, onward hikers should exit and cut across the accessible parking lot to a bend in Muir Woods Road, where one should stay right. Follow the path paralleling the road, then—at the sight of the main parking lot on the right, bear left, crossing the road toward the “administrative area,” which sports several ranger vehicles and warehouses. Here the marked Dipsea Trail bears off to the right, quickly leaving the road and following a partly graveled path back up a south-facing slope.

The trail gets gradually steeper as it ascends several staircases and briefly opens up at a very small parking area along Muir Woods Road at about 2.4 mile. Stay straight—cutting through the lot—resisting the temptation to head right on the wide but unmarked gravel road. Quickly the Dipsea Trail returns to single-track, following a mostly shady hillside in constant earshot of the road. At one point, the trail passes below a high reinforcing wall, followed by a short wooden boardwalk. From here it is another steady climb to a crossing of Muir Woods Road.

Poppies along the Sun Trail

The onward Dipsea Trail, just before ending at Panoramic Highway, reaches a trail junction at around 3.1 miles. Take a hard left on the Sun Trail, one of the highlights of the hike. This stunning single-track immediately rises to heights with open views of the Redwood Creek drainage, with the various ridges of Mount Tamalpais State Park beyond. In spring, the hills are dotted with poppies, lupine, and other brilliant wildflowers.

Sunny views from the Sun Trail
Spring wildflower bloom with Redwood Creek drainage beyond

After this exceptionally scenic section, the Sun Trail ends at the confluence with a graveled road, where hikers should briefly bear left. The onward road leads down to the Nature Friends Tourist Club, while the path—now a single-track again—continues right as the Redwood Trail. Passing behind the Tourist Club to the left, the shaded path meanders for a quarter-mile or so before continuing a surprisingly steep climb, eventually emerging back above the trees.

View from Panoramic Trail near the start

After intersecting with the Panoramic Trail at about 4.5 miles, bear left and continue back toward the initial pair of junctions: bear right at each, ascending back to Panoramic Highway, where the hike ends.

Allot 3-4 hours for this pleasant and moderately-difficult walk, beginning and ending near Mountain Home Inn.

Extra credit

There are several other nice redwood hikes in the area, including the nearby Dipsea-Steep Ravine Trail Loop (4.2 miles), Ben Johnson-Bootjack Trail Loop (6 miles), and Steep Ravine-Matt Davis Trail Loop (6.6 miles).

Posted in California, Marin, Moderate Hikes, Mount Tamalpais State Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hetch Hetchy to Wapama Falls and Rancheria Falls (Yosemite National Park, CA)

Rancheria Falls, Yosemite National Park, March 2021

In early spring, even as much of the Sierra Nevada remains blanketed in snow, the Hetch Hetchy area of Yosemite National Park is often snow-free, making it an attractive spot for early-season hiking and backpacking. One of the more popular routes is the 5-mile out-and-back to Wapama Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in California. Adventurous hikers can follow Hetch Hetchy Reservoir farther east to multi-tiered Rancheria Falls—a worthy destination for a long day hike or overnight backpack. The sun-soaked trail to Wapama and Rancheria Falls is mostly mild, with relatively limited elevation gain, but should probably be avoided in full summer, when temperatures at Hetch Hetchy regularly top 90 or 100 degrees. (Note: Hetch Hetchy is open daily from 8-5; backpackers must obtain a wilderness permit and park in the backpackers’ lot.)

Map of Hetch Hetchy to Rancheria Falls, Yosemite National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

Hetch Hetchy Valley in California’s Yosemite National Park is of course most famous for a controversy in the early 20th century: after a fierce debate between preservationists (led by John Muir) and residents of San Francisco, Congress pass a law in 1913 that allowed for the damming of the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy Valley. The result was the 430-foot O’Shaughnessy Dam and the 1,200-acre Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which continues to provide drinking water for the city of San Francisco today. Even as the river was dammed, the controversy over Hetch Hetchy helped propel support for the modern environmental movement.

Reaching Hetch Hetchy today requires a winding but entirely paved drive along the Hetch Hetchy Road, entering Yosemite National Park just north of the town of Mather, California. Backpackers should check in and acquire their permits at the Hetch Hetchy Entrance. (Note: While walk-up backpacking permits are free and easy to acquire during the winter season, advance reservations are recommended for trips from May-September. No permit is required for day hiking.) From the entrance, the road gradually descends into the Poopenaut Valley, ending in a one-mile loop that forms a circuit around the main entry area for Hetch Hetchy. Overnight backpackers should park in the lot at the start, while day hikers should continue clockwise around the one-way loop to the parking area overlooking O’Shaughnessy Dam. This is perhaps inconveniently named the Beehive Meadows/Rancheria Falls/Miguel Meadows Trailhead.

From the parking area, make your way across the concrete rim of O’Shaughnessy Dam to begin the hike to Wapama and Rancheria Falls. Off to your left, a look over the curvature of the dam offers an excellent view downstream, where the Tuolumne River continues its winding path down toward the Central Valley (where it is dammed again and eventually flows into the San Joaquin River).

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir from O’Shaughnessy Dam

Off to the right, however, is the real show: a deep blue reservoir bounded on either side by towering granite cliffs. The prominent summit on the right is Kolana Rock (5,772’), situated across the reservoir from Hetch Hetchy Dome (6,197’). At least through spring and early summer, one can also spot Wapama Falls, cutting through a cleft to the west of Hetch Hetchy Dome. Next to Wapama is the much thinner Tueeulala Falls, which is only seasonal. It’s hard to argue, even with the controversy over the manmade reservoir, that this valley isn’t beautiful—and the vistas only improve as the trail continues north and west toward the waterfalls.

After crossing the dam, the wide route enters a dark and muddy tunnel; it is not long enough to require a headlamp, but watch your footing as the tunnel often sports small pools of water. Once out the other side, the graveled path passes an informational sign on the left with a map of the area. Most hikers will be heading to Wapama Falls, with anything beyond considerably less-trafficked. After first hugging the banks of the reservoir (supported by clusters of boulders below), the trail begins to climb mildly, in and out of scrubby pines and other vegetation.

The author at Hetch Hetchy

The first notable uphill at ¾ miles has some stone steps and leads to a wooden bridge, with a seasonally-flowing cascade on the left. The small falls are close enough to the trail to dip your head (refreshing on a hot day). Soon another, the trail to Wapama Falls reaches a fork, with the strenuous route to Beehive and Miguel Meadows leading left. Stay right as the route skirts several flat, open slabs of granite—quite popular with amateur photographers hoping to trend on Instagram. It is undoubtedly beautiful, of course, with hikers now able to see farther up the reservoir toward the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.

After weaving in and out of several brushy areas, the now-narrow and rocky trail traverses a second seasonal stream at about 1.5 miles, with a multi-tiered waterfall above to the left (Note: The waterfall here is often confused from Tueeulala Falls—even on topo maps—but the real Tueeulala Falls is farther on. Some have called this “Hetch Hetchy Falls.”) The crossing is made easier by a few well-placed stone blocks. The trail thereafter, however, temporarily disappears, with few to no markers of onward travel. Keep heading roughly straight (along the flat granite), however, and eventually the well-manicured path will reemerge.

Looking east into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

After nearly two miles in mostly open sun, a shady stretch at 1.8 miles is a welcome sight. From here the trail drops a level down via a set of switchbacks. At about this time, Tueeulala Falls is visible up on the cliff to the left, although mysteriously it is unclear where the flowing water comes out (seeps into the rock? subterranean channels?).

Of course, these minor waterfalls are merely teasers for the main event—Wapama Falls—the roar of which becomes more and more audible as the trail approaches. After a rather steep and rocky descent at 2.3 miles, the trail reaches the first of a set of bridges at the base of Wapama Falls, where Falls Creek fans out into a minor delta. At the height of its flow (typically in May or early June), the volume of water at Wapama Falls is sometimes so high that onward passage is impossible. (Note: Don’t do it—several people have died trying.) Most of the year, however, the bridges are open, offering an up-close view of the various chutes at the base of the towering falls.

More than 1,000 feet, Wapama Falls is one of the top ten tallest waterfalls in California, and its high volume makes considerably more impressive than some nearby chutes that are taller but weaker. The main drop comprises a set of two powerful inundations cutting through a cleft high up along the granite cliffs, after which the water fans out in several directions. A set of five different bridges is required to traverse all the various branches; each offers an opportunity to get near to the falls’ cool spray. Down below, the falls end by pouring into the deep blue reservoir.

Wapama Falls and one of its offshoots

Being the primary hiking destination in the area, Wapama Falls is likely to be crowded, especially in summer or on nice weekends. But the crowds thin out considerably as the trail continues past the waterfall, narrowing and traversing a rock field before tracking in and out of more welcome shade. During the subsequent stretch, the entry route and dam gradually fade from view, and the path rounds a corner with better views up the Tuolumne drainage to the southeast.

Hetch Hetchy with snowy Smith Peak beyond

At 2.9 miles, the path ascends a set of switchbacks and then spends the next quarter-mile or so traverses a beautiful grassy shelf with excellent views of the reservoir and Kolana Rock. Ahead, one can begin to make out the drainages of Tiltill Creek and Rancheria Creek.

Beautiful grassy shelf along the trail
Peering out at Hetch Hetchy and Kolana Rock

Another uphill at 3.75 miles leads up another level, but the trail soon reverses course by dropping down a set of switchbacks at about 4.1 miles, followed by two more about 350 yards later. At 4.5 miles, the path crosses another seasonal stream with some minor falls.

Approaching the Tiltill and Rancheria drainages

Switchbacks mark the start of a steady descent to Tiltill Creek at 4.9 miles. At 5.1 miles, the trail traverses a set of bridges over the relatively high-volume stream. The creek sports its own rather impressive waterfall, though it is hard to see without a potentially sketchy scramble through the brush to the cliff’s edge.

Tiltill Creek Falls

From Tiltill Creek, the trail to Rancheria Falls climbs steadily, emerging out of the shady woods and back to a manzanita-lined knob between the two drainages. Just after cresting the ridge, a short spur on the right leads to the first views of Rancheria Falls—or at least a small part of it. Many call it quits at this spot, where the rushing water of Rancheria Creek spills rather gently over an apron of granite. Camping is also relatively popular in this area as well.

Lower Rancheria Falls from the trail

However, there is much more of the falls to see if one continues onward, following the trail as it bears east and then north. After passing a wooded area leading to other camping spots on the right, hikers briefly turn away from the sound of the stream, but then continue on an eastward path that is relatively level. (Note: As of March 2021, a large tree had fallen on the path here, requiring hikers to detour through the dense manzanita thicket to get around the obstacle.)

At about 6.2 miles, hikers reach another trail junction: the path left leads up a sharp slope toward Tiltill Valley, Lake Vernon, and beyond; the rightward path bears east toward Pleasant Valley (and eventually Tuolumne Meadows). Stay right, climbing to cross another seasonal stream and then reaching a footbridge over Rancheria Creek, the suggested turn-around point for the hike.

Part of Rancheria Falls up close

From the footbridge, hikers get an excellent view down the rushing waters of Upper Rancheria Falls, tumbling down a series of ledges to the forest below. With Kolana Rock and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir visible in the distance, the area around the footbridge is an excellent place to camp for the night.

Not a bad campsite for the night!

All told, it is about 6.4 miles to this point from the trailhead; heading back would make for a nearly 13-mile day hike or relatively leisurely two-day trip.

Morning at Rancheria Falls
Along the route back
Posted in California, Moderate Hikes, Yosemite National Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Kelly Lake, Coit Lake, and Pacheco Falls Loop (Henry W. Coe State Park, CA)

Pacheco Falls, Henry W. Coe State Park, March 2021

Central California’s Henry W. Coe State Park is a popular destination for Bay Area backpackers seeking to condition during the winter/spring season for trips to the Sierra Nevada later in the year. In fact, the terrain at Henry Coe is so rugged and challenging that it has often been quipped that backpackers do not go to Henry Coe to train for the Sierras; rather, they go to the Sierras to train for Henry Coe. Multi-day loop options abound in this 87,000-acre tract, the second-largest state park in California. The tough, two-day (or a more comfortable three-day) journey outlined below leads up and over several high ridgetops, with sweeping views of the central Diablo Range, and visits pleasant Kelly Lake, Coit Lake, and Pacheco Falls before looping back to Hunting Hollow. Tackle this 20-mile trek in spring when the temperatures are mild, wildflowers are in bloom, hillsides are verdant, and streams (including beautiful Pacheco Falls) are flowing. (Note: Obtain a walk-up backpacking permit at the trailhead; it costs $5 per person per night, plus a $6 parking fee. Bear canisters are not required, but a free California campfire permit is needed if you plan to operate a camping stove.)

The hike

The following description covers the 20.1-mile circuit (including the worthy out-and-back spur to Pacheco Falls) in two full days, with a night spent at Wood Duck Pond, situated on a grassy shelf just above the Pacheco Creek drainage. The trek starts and ends at the Hunting Hollow Entrance, accessed by way of the Gilroy Hot Springs Road heading east from Gilroy, California. Turn right at the entrance sign and park in the large, gravel lot, which has some pit toilets and several interpretive waysides offering information on Henry Coe State Park. While considerably less crowded than the headquarters area at Coe Ranch, Hunting Hollow still sees a steady stream of mountain bikers and intrepid backpackers looking for a more rugged alternative to the more popular camping spots in Henry Coe (e.g., China Hole, Poverty Flat) to the north.

DAY 1: Hunting Hollow to Pacheco Falls via Kelly Lake and Coit Lake (10.7 miles)

Once you have paid your camping fees and readied your backpack, hikers should begin hiking clockwise around the loop, which stitches together several fire roads and single-track trails over the course of the two days. Heading clockwise prioritizes easier ascents on the first day—although of course easy is all relative in this difficult terrain, where ups and downs are a continual challenge for even the fittest hikers.

Counterintuitively, heading clockwise actually means leaving the parking lot and returning to the paved Gilroy Hot Springs Road, following it north into the park for two miles. This initial, mild stretch is relatively dull but made more interesting by the flowing waters of Coyote Creek, which gives life to various sycamore trees that dot the drainage. At the two-mile mark, the road continues across a low-clearance bridge toward Gilroy Hot Springs; however, hikers should bear right without crossing the creek, following instead a dirt track where a sign officially welcomes one into Henry Coe State Park. (Note: This is the “Coyote Creek Gate,” an official trailhead but where the absence of parking requires visitors to effectively visit only on foot.)

Bridge at the Coyote Creek Gate

Now on the wide and graveled Coit Road, hikers skirt the brushy drainage of Coyote Creek on the right, then approach a trail fork at 2.1 miles. Bear right on the Spike Jones Trail, which begins as another wide double-track, climbing to a clearing with a pit toilet; here the road suddenly ends, with the onward trail doubling back to the south as a single-track. Rounding back to the north again, the trail climbs steeply and forks again. Bear left this time on the Grizzly Gulch Trail, which will serve as your primary route up Wasno Ridge for the next 2.5 miles.

Enjoy the densely wooded stretch that follows, as consistent shade will be at a premium for much of the rest of the loop. After 1/3 mile of pleasant, largely level hiking along north-facing slopes, the trail drops to clear the Grizzly Creek drainage, which holds water in the spring but may dry up completely during the hot summer months.

Crossing Grizzly Creek drainage

Just beyond, about 2.7 miles from the start, the longest climb of the up-and-down circuit begins. Starting as a gently winding path amid side drainages of Grizzly Gulch, the ever-climbing path quickly steepens and passes in and out of patches of oak/bay woodlands. Looking back as the track ascends a sharp ridgeline, one can begin to see above the trees and down Grizzly Gulch and the Coyote Creek watershed, with heavily-vegetated Palassou Ridge off to the west.

Grizzly Creek and Coyote Creek drainages from the Grizzly Gulch Trail

The terrain in these southern reaches of Henry Coe is noticeably different from the more-visited area around Coe Ranch, where there tends to be thicker vegetation, more ponds and streams, and a richer diversity of plant life. By contrast, Grizzly Gulch is largely rimmed by sunny fields and patchy oaks and bays, offering more consistent open views of the surrounding hills.

At the 3-mile mark, the trail splits again, with the lesser-travelled Cullen Trail heading left. Stay right on the Grizzly Gulch Trail, which continues its relentless climb up another protruding crumple in the steeply-sloping hillside. In another half-mile, another junction ushers in a brief respite; staying right at the fork with the Tower Trail, the Grizzly Gulch Trail briefly levels off, even descending at times to clear minor ravines.

Onward travel on the Grizzly Gulch Trail along Wasno Ridge

The subsequent section is particularly beautiful as views across much of Grizzly Gulch open up and the trail skirts hills of brimming wildflowers and multi-hued rock outcrops. At 4.6 miles, the trail crests a windswept saddle, and hikers should bear left on the Dexter Trail, which marks the final climb to the top of Wasno Ridge.

Climbing the Dexter Trail to Wasno Ridge

The narrow Dexter Trail gains 400 feet in about 4/10 mile before briefly descending and intersecting with Wasno Road at 5.2 miles. By now, hikers have climbed more than 1,500 feet—no joke with full backpacks—and are rewarded with the hike’s first look over the crest of Wasno Ridge to the north.

View southeast into Kelly Creek drainage

In the aftermath of the SCU Lightning Complex fires (August-September 2020), parts of the terrain north and east of Wasno Ridge appear scorched and tired. Many of the digger pines appear dead with browned needles, while scores of live oaks are charred irreparably. Yet the devastation was fortunately only partial: patches of blackened earth are interrupted by brilliant green hillsides, suggesting that the beauty of the rolling hills of Henry Coe—despite being at the heart of the SCU fire—stubbornly refuses to go away.

Burned area along Coit Road, viewed from Wasno Ridge

After taking a breather atop Wasno Ridge, bear left on Wasno Road and follow it northwest for 2/10 mile. Head right on the Kelly Lake Trail, a grassy track leading down the northern slopes of Wasno Ridge toward its namesake, dropping down through a gaggle of mostly healthy oaks.

Kelly Lake from above

After nearly a mile on this pleasant trail, hikers reach the pretty western shores of Kelly Lake, a manmade reservoir fed by Kelly Creek. Unlike other lakes in the area, the banks of Kelly Lake are relatively free of reeds, allowing for open views across the calm waters, which are stocked with varieties of fish.

Kelly Lake from the dam

Down Kelly Creek Canyon to the north, there are a few shaded areas for camping, as well as a pit toilet. Follow the dam northeast, then bear left and make your way toward the restroom, bearing right on Coit Road, which leads up the scarred ridge to the east.

The subsequent climb up to the crest of Willow Ridge is relatively brief but, given its location 6.5 miles into the hike, can feel rather tiring with a full backpack. The wide, gravel Coit Road edges its way through several burned areas, with views back to the west toward Wasno and Mahoney Ridge. After gaining around 300 feet in elevation, the road approaches a low pass with an abundant wildflower bloom (in spring); stay straight as Coit Road bisects Willow Ridge Road and the Crest Trail, with the onward track gradually descending to the next drainage.

Around 7.5 miles from the start, hikers get their first glimpse of Coit Lake, the second reservoir encountered on the hike. A marked spur trail leads to another restroom, a picnic table, and the banks of the lake, which—unlike Kelly Lake—was caught in the crossfire of the SCU burn. As a result of the fire, the lake is lined with unattractive black scars—the remnants of an extensive system of reeds that fell victim to the flames. Nonetheless, the lake is reasonably pleasant and perhaps a decent place to stop for a break before pushing on toward Pacheco Falls.

Coit Lake

From the turnoff to the lake, Coit Road continues eastward up a pleasant valley lined again with live oaks, passing the small Fish & Game Pond on the right. While the Henry Coe map appears to show a shortcut here (and there is a sign for it), the poorly-defined trail is not easy to find. Instead, continue along Coit Road as it winds gradually up to the top of Coit Ridge, intersecting with the Wagon Road at 8.1 miles.

Rolling hills along Coit Road

At last, hikers get their first views down into the Pacheco Creek drainage, as well as a broad vista across the Diablo Range to the east. While the hike to this point has been pleasant enough, it is at this point—looking across the vast landscape of protruding hills—that hikers will finally feel they are in the wilderness. Looking east, Pacheco Ridge and Walsh Peak (2,040’) are visible below, with the Mustang Peak (2,263’) area farther on. To the south, hikers get a good look at Burra Burra Peak (2,281’) and Rock Springs Peak (2,275’). (Note: Curiously, the high peaks on the horizon to the east and south are actually on private land outside the park, but they give the allure of endless mountains.)

View east toward Burra Burra Peak, the Dowdy area, and Rock Springs Peak

The views improve as hikers bear right on the Wagon Road and then, about 350 yards later, head left on the Live Oak Spring Trail. This wide track descends gradually, around a couple sharp curves, into Pacheco Creek Canyon, passing a spur to the left at 9.2 miles. Continue toward the falls, hiking up and down to a spur at 9.5 miles, where the Pacheco Falls Trail bears right and begins a sharp descent toward the intended destination.

Descending toward Pacheco Falls

At 9.75 miles, hikers can peer down at their campsite for the night: Wood Duck Pond, a small but pleasant watering hole situated on a grassy shelf above the canyon floor. By mile 10, hikers arrive at the pond, tired and exhausted from a challenging day.

Looking down on Wood Duck Pond and the Pacheco Creek drainage

Set up camp for the night, then—if there is still some evening light—continue down the trail as it drops steadily through thick woods to the rocky notch harboring Pacheco Falls, 10.4 miles from the trailhead (otherwise, visit in the morning). This seasonal waterfall drops through a narrow rock cleft, ending in a magnificent pool lined with vegetation (including some poison oak).

Pacheco Falls

The flow is obviously best in spring after heavy rains, although the pool and shady drainage—even sans falls—are likely to be pleasant enough in summer as well. Campers can get fresh water (to filter) at Pacheco Creek before heading back uphill to Wood Duck Pond for the night.

Camping at Wood Duck Pond

DAY 2: Pacheco Falls to Hunting Hollow via Wagon Road and Steer Ridge (9.4 miles)

At 9.4 miles, the second day’s walk is shorter but no less challenging than the day prior, including a climb back to Coit Ridge, descent to Grizzly Gulch and Tule Pond, and difficult traverse of Steer Ridge before returning to Hunting Hollow. Once ready, make your way back up the Pacheco Falls Trail, then retrace your steps back along the wide Live Oak Spring track to the Wagon Road atop Coit Ridge (1.7 miles). This time, bear left, traversing new ground as the wide road bears southward and sports excellent views much of the way.

As Wasno Road winds to the south, it bounces back and forth between eastward and westward vistas. While the terrain to the west is largely wooded (and much of it burned), the expansive views to the east are some of the best of the hike. The two peaks in the foreground are Burra Burra and Rock Springs Peaks. Beyond the park boundary and slightly to the south, a taller range of 3,000-foot peaks dominates the skyline, including Cathedral Peak (3,480’) and Mariposa Peak (3,448’). The Diablo Range continues southward for dozens more miles, extending into southern California.

View from near the junction with Center Flats Road

Stay straight at the next two trail junctions—with the Crest Trail (2.3 miles) and Rattlesnake Trail (2.5 miles)—then follow the Wagon Road as it descends gradually along an east-facing slope, reaching a prominent intersection with the Center Flats Road at 2.8 miles. Stay right, continuing southwest along a mild section with some limited westward views into the Kelly Creek drainage. At 3.8 miles, after a short uphill, the road forks again and a pit toilet offers hikers a bathroom stop.

Bear right on Wasno Road, looking back to the north at Wasno Pond down in the gully below. From here the road climbs steadily to clear the ridgeline; at 4.4 miles, bear left on the Tule Pond Trail, a pleasant single-track that hugs a grassy, descending slope for 7/10 mile, ending at a crossing of Grizzly Creek (likely to be little more than a trickle here) and a junction with the Grizzly Gulch Road.

Tule Pond Trail

Hang a right at the junction, then pass Tule Pond on your left. This small and austere pond is teeming with small turtles and other critters and makes for a nice lunch stop before the final push up and over Steer Ridge.

Tule Pond

Beyond the pond, follow the road to the junction with the Serpentine Trail. This winding path climbs 600 feet in 9/10 miles, a tough ascent that is the last significant climb of the hike. Transitioning from the shielded valley to the exposed and windswept hilltops, the Serpentine Trail ends atop Steep Ridge at 6.3 miles; bear right on Steer Ridge Road, enjoying excellent views south and west down to Hunting Hollow and Osos Ridge, with the vast Santa Clara Valley beyond. (Note: Across the valley are the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.)

View southeast from the Serpentine Trail

With Grizzly Gulch to your right and Hunting Hollow down to your left, bear westward on Steer Ridge Ridge as it ascends and descends gravelly slopes. There are a number of ways from here to return to the trailhead, but the shortest is to stay straight on the road until it turns to a narrow, steep track (Steer Ridge Trail) at 8.0 miles. This means ignoring the spurs to Willson Peak, Middle Steer Ridge, Spike Jones Trail, and Jim Donnelly Trail in turn.

South across Hunting Hollow to the Santa Clara Valley

As the trail descends sharply down the western flank of Steer Ridge, hikers get their first views north up Coyote Creek to Pine Ridge, where a close eye can pick out the barn at Coe Ranch, the main park headquarters and most popular trailhead in Henry Coe. (Note: See here and here for trails in this area.)

Coyote Creek drainage with Pine Ridge and Coe Ranch in the distance

The last 1.4 miles of the hike entail a brutal descent, shedding 1,300 feet in elevation with no real bends or switchbacks to speak of. (Note: If steep inclines are bad on your knees, consider taking the longer but more gradual Jim Donnelly Trail.) The declivity is crushing, but the determination of reaching the end helps propel hikers back to Hunting Hollow.

Final descent toward Hunting Hollow

Just before the parking area, cross Hunting Hollow Creek, then climb for 30-40 yards to return to the trailhead. All in all, the 20-mile round-trip to Pacheco Falls is certainly one of the more challenging overnight options in Henry Coe State Park (comparable perhaps to the out-and-back to Mississippi Lake). Particular in spring, however, the strenuous hike is worth the effort, allowing for exploration of a remote and relatively little-used section of the Diablo Range.

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Madrone Soda Springs – China Hole Loop (Henry W. Coe State Park, CA)

China Hole, Henry W. Coe State Park, March 2021

The second-largest state park in California, Henry Coe State Park spans 87,000 acres of rolling hillsides and stream valleys in the central Diablo Range. Most visitors stick to the “Western Zone,” accessed from the Coe Ranch Headquarters and Campground on Pine Ridge. A number of full-day hikes start and end here, including the 10.6-mile Middle Ridge – Manzanita Point Loop, as well as this slightly shorter and easier circuit leading down Soda Springs Canyon to China Hole, a popular swimming hole. As with many hikes in the park, there are longer and shorter variants—but this version covers 9.6 miles, prioritizing single-track over the usually wider and duller fire roads wherever possible. (Note: Springtime is the best time to hike in Henry Coe, when the temperatures are mild, wildflowers are in bloom, hillsides are verdant, and streams are flowing.)

Map of Madrone Soda Springs – China Hole Loop, Henry W. Coe State Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

Examining a map of California’s Henry Coe State Park, it appears at first glance to show a network of roads crisscrossing the vast landscape. These are indeed roads, but they are rugged fire tracks inaccessible by car. The constellation of dirt fire roads combines with the park’s many single-tracks to form a complex web of hiking trails. Access to the park is limited to three entrances/parking area: Coe Ranch, Hunting Hollow, and Dowdy. Coe Ranch Headquarters is by far the most popular and includes a quaint visitor center, small store, and decent campground.

The drive to Coe Ranch is itself an adventure, rising more than 2,000 feet from the town of Morgan Hill in Santa Clara Valley. (Note: Take Exit 366 from Highway 101.) Thus the trailhead is already at around 2,600 feet, with expansive views across part of the Diablo Range from the start. Park in one of the many small lots around the Visitor Center.

Coe Ranch Headquarters to Manzanita Point Group Camps (2.6 miles)

From the Visitor Center, bear east across the entry road, then pass through the fence at the start of the Corral Trail, the main track leading into the interior of Henry Coe. This lovely single-track dips to cross a short bridge, then bears eastward, skirting a handful of additional ravines before coming to a trail junction at about 6/10 mile.

Trailhead at Coe Ranch

Instead of heading straight or left toward the wide Manzanita Point Road, bear right instead on the more scenic Springs Trail, a beautiful track that rims the southern flank of Pine Ridge. Terrific views abound as hikers skirt the open Arnold Field: views extend south across Soda Springs Canyon, Cordoza Ridge, the Coyote Creek drainage, and the southern reaches of the park.

Soda Springs Canyon from Springs Trail

Stay left at the junction with the Lion Spring Trail, then weave in and out of a set of spring-fed gullies, gradually descending to a second junction with the Manzanita Point Road at 1.8 miles. This time, onward travel requires temporarily leaving the single-track and heading southeast on the fire road en route to the Manzanita Point Group Camps. The next half-mile is somewhat drab as the wide track gradually sheds elevation, passing spurs to the Blue Oak Horse Camp, Bass Pond, and Group Camps #1-5. At about 2.6 miles, in the heart of the group camp area, there is a pit toilet, water station, and a four-way junction. Bear right, just beyond the toilet, leaving the road in favor of the narrow Madrone Soda Springs Trail.

Madrone Soda Springs Trail, Soda Springs Canyon, and China Hole (2.1 miles)

Back on single-track, the Madrone Soda Springs Trail crests a grassy ridge and then begins a sharp and steady descent, shedding around 700 feet in less than a mile. First bearing southeast, the route then settles into a series of winding bends, dropping into Soda Springs Canyon and leaving the sunshine behind. The diversity of flora expands as hikers drop into the riparian area fed by Madrone Soda Springs (and other natural springs upstream). At 3.5 miles, the trail forks as the stream comes into view on the right.

Stay left at the junction, continuing down Soda Springs Canyon. In addition to a variety of tree and shrub species, California newts can be seen in winter and early spring migrating to and from the slithering stream.

Newt closeup

After passing remains of a stone structure on the left, hikers skirt the north bank of the drainage, traversing a cut between high boulders at 3.9 miles. Off to the right are the wooden ruins of another, larger structure that once sat right above the creek. This presumably was part of the old mineral springs resort once situated in this drainage in the late 19th century.

Rock outcrops along the Mile Trail

In the subsequent 7/10 mile, hikers will cross the creek 10 or 12 times as the canyon drainage becomes increasingly choked with moss-laden boulders. A rocky hollow with flowing cascades at around 4.3 miles is particular inviting. The narrow trail eventually settles back on the northern banks of the creek and passes the confluence with Coyote Creek (obscured from view) at about 4.5 miles.

Still pool along Coyote Creek

Just beyond, as hikers follow Coyote Creek northward, the stream fans out, creating occasional, turquoise-tinged ponds that make for nice swimming holes on a hot summer day (although likely to have low water levels by late summer). At 4.8 miles, head right at the junction to drop to China Hole, where a rocky beach gives way to a deep and multi-hued pool, fronted to the east by an anvil-shaped rock that towers more than 15 to 20 feet above the water.

China Hole is a popular camping destination, as well as a local swimming hole in summer. The pool drops as far as 7 to 8 feet deep, yet the spring-fed waters are often crystal clear, making the area an attractive and surprising sight in this otherwise scrubby area of the Diablo Range.

China Hole to Manzanita Point Group Camps via China Hole Trail (2.5 miles)

After exploring the stony ledges around China Hole, head back the way you came to the junction with the trail to Madrone Soda Springs. Head right on the China Hole Trail, which begins a scenic climb back toward Manzanita Point, rising quickly to a set of bluffs with expansive views across the Coyote Creek drainage to Jackass Peak (1,784’) and the Narrows area, where the East Fork of Coyote Creek comes in from the east.

View from the bluffs
China Hole Trail looking south

After skirting northward, the trail switchbacks to the south, continuing to climb, eventually leaving behind the open, grassy slopes dotted with oaks. The scrubby chapparal beyond rarely rises above 6-8 feet, and the views continue as hikers reach Manzanita Point and a junction with the Cougar Trail at 6.2 miles. By now one can see southward down the Coyote Creek drainage toward Mahoney Ridge and Wasno Ridge.

View south down Coyote Creek drainage from Manzanita Point

Stay straight on the China Hole Trail, which briefly follows the south-facing slopes looking down into Soda Springs Canyon, then switches to the north side of Pine Ridge, cutting through a manzanita-lined forest. Stay right at the junction at the 7-mile mile mark (the trail left leads to Group Camps 8-10). Minutes later, the trail emerges out into the open at the heart of the group campsite area, and the China Hole Trail merges with Manzanita Point Road again at the pit toilet.

Manzanita Point Group Camps to Coe Ranch Headquarters (2.4 miles)

The final leg leads hikers back on Manzanita Point Road over familiar territory, gradually rising to clear Bass Pond and the spur to the horse camp again. Eight miles into the hike, trekkers will reach a five-way junction, where the Springs and Forest Trails merge with Manzanita Point and Poverty Flat Roads. Bear right on the Forest Trail, a single-track which offers passage back toward Coe Ranch. While not as scenic as the Springs Trail, this narrow path weaves through pleasant woods (per its namesake) with occasional views north toward Middle Ridge.

After gradually gaining elevation, the Forest Trail ends back at Manzanita Point Road again. Cross the dusty drive and return to the Corral Trail, turning right for the final return to Coe Ranch. Follow the winding Corral Trail for a little over ½ mile, finding oneself back at the trailhead after 9.6 miles.

This lengthy hike will take much of a day for most hikers, although the ambitious can add on more mileage to their liking (perhaps adding trips into the Narrows or to Poverty Flat). Do not underestimate the difficulty of hiking in Henry Coe, however, especially in the summer, when blistering heat combines with tough elevation gain. The area is much more manageable—and prettier—in early spring, when the various ridges sport green grass and wildflowers and the streams are flowing nicely.

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Middle Ridge – Manzanita Point Loop (Henry W. Coe State Park, CA)

Middle Ridge Trail, Henry W. Coe State Park, March 2021

At 87,000 acres, Henry Coe State Park is the second largest state park in California and offers a beautiful landscape of rolling hills and woody ridges in the Diablo Range southeast of the Bay Area. Lacking any towering peaks, Henry Coe is nonetheless extremely rugged, with nearly every hike in the park entailing considerable elevation gain and loss. A fine introduction to the park’s oft-travelled “Western Zone,” the hike described below traverses Middle Ridge and Pine Ridge and dips to the Coyote Creek drainage, forming a roughly 10-mile loop. There are many options for longer or shorter variants – but this circuit tends to prioritize single-track trails where possible and opts for a more scenic alternative (the climb to Manzanita Point) over the relatively dull Poverty Flat Road. (Note: Springtime is the best time to hike in Henry Coe, when the temperatures are mild, wildflowers are in bloom, hillsides are verdant, and streams are flowing.)

Map of Middle Ridge – Manzanita Point Loop, Henry W. Coe State Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

Examining a map of California’s Henry Coe State Park, as it appears at first glance to show a network of roads crisscrossing the vast landscape. These are indeed roads, but they are rugged fire tracks inaccessible by car. The constellation of dirt fire roads combines with the park’s many single-tracks to form a complex web of hiking trails. Access to the park is limited to three entrances/parking area: Coe Ranch, Hunting Hollow, and Dowdy. Coe Ranch Headquarters is by far the most popular and includes a quaint visitor center, small store, and decent campground.

The drive to Coe Ranch is itself an adventure, rising more than 2,000 feet from the town of Morgan Hill in Santa Clara Valley. (Note: Take Exit 366 from Highway 101.) Thus the trailhead is already at around 2,600 feet, with expansive views across part of the Diablo Range from the start. Park in one of the many small lots around the Visitor Center.

Coe Ranch Headquarters to Middle Ridge Trail (2.5 miles)

To start the loop hike (in a clockwise direction), head north and turn right on Manzanita Point Road, climbing for about 200 yards to the end of the paved track. Bear left on the dusty single-track path—the Monument Trail—which immediately begins to climb and switchback up a grassy hillside with partial views to the southeast. Hikers will quickly begin to notice a striking diversity of flora, including shaggy gray pines, manzanitas, toyon, and a spate of the East Bay’s typical oak and bay trees. In spring, multi-hued wildflowers are in abundance, including, most prominently, the magenta-colored Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora).

Bench along Monument Trail on a foggy morning

After gaining about 200 feet in elevation, the trail reaches a fork at ½ mile. While the quickest onward route is to stay straight, hikers seeking to view the Henry Coe Monument should bear right, quickly reaching an intersection with the wide Hobbs Road. The modest monument lies just across the road, a memorial to the local rancher Henry W. Coe, who claimed this area as his ranchland from the 1850s. After the property was passed down through two generations, Sada Coe Robinson (Henry W.’s granddaughter) deeded the ranch to Santa Clara County in 1953; the area became a state park—California’s second largest (behind only Anza Borrego Desert State Park)—shortly thereafter.

After checking out the monument, head north on Hobbs Road as it begins a gradual—then steep—descent to the Little Fork of Coyote Creek drainage. The iconic manzanitas and madrones are increasingly mixed in with the pines, oaks, and bay as the hike continues, and hikers eventually dip to cross the Little Fork at 1.5 miles. (Note: This is likely to be dry in summer.)

Immediately after the crossing, there is another trail junction. Head right on the Frog Lake Trail, a single-track that begins a relatively mild and winding ascent of Middle Ridge, passing the namesake Frog Lake at 1.7 miles. The lake, at least in spring, is surprisingly charming—and perhaps a decent place to fish. True to its reputation, one can often hear the loud ribbit of frogs in and around the water (though they go conspicuously quiet when humans approach!).

Frog Lake

At the lake, bear right, hugging the southern banks of the reed-choked lake, then continue the climb to Middle Ridge. The subsequent 8/10 mile covers about 300-400 feet in elevation gain, passing a turnoff for the Two Oaks Camp. At 2.5 miles, hikers reach a junction that provides access to the Middle Ridge Trail, the main thoroughfare for about the next 3 ½ miles.

Middle Ridge Trail to Poverty Flat (3.75 miles)

Heading southeast along the hilltops, the Middle Ridge Trail descends steadily to a grassy saddle with open views across the Little Fork drainage to Pine Ridge at 3.1 miles. From here the track climbs again, cresting a scenic hilltop at 2,700 feet before descending again amid windswept manzanita bushes and monkeyflower. (Note: Along the way, one might notice patches of torn-up earth: this is the characteristic mark of wild boars, which are relatively common in this area.) At 3.75 miles, the trail forks, with the Fish Trail—a shortcut back to the Visitor Center—bearing off to the right.

Descent along Middle Ridge Trail

Stay left on the Middle Ridge Trail, entering one of the hike’s most scenic stretches, where rolling pastures yield wide-ranching views across the Diablo Range to the east. In winter and early spring, the oaks are devoid of leaves but the hillsides are verdant and lovely, inviting hikers to stop for a snack and a view.

Eastward view along Middle Ridge

At 4.4 miles, the trail abruptly cuts left, passing through an old fence line and beginning a long and steady descent down to the Middle Fork of Coyote Creek drainage. Off to the left, across the valley, is mighty Blue Ridge, one of the tallest in the park (capped by Mount Sizer at 3,216’). The largely wooded decline passes scores of manzanita, madrone, oak, and California bay trees. Just before reaching the drainage, there is a particular steep but short descent, followed by a welcome flat. Through at least late spring, there is likely to be a decent flow of water at the junction of Little Fork and Middle Fork, and hikers should rock-hop across the stream at 5.8 miles.

Just beyond is the first of several campsites at Poverty Flat, a pretty riparian area once roamed by homesteader Joseph Finley, who had difficulty growing crops here (hence the name) but nonetheless held out on selling the property to Henry Coe. (Note: If you are backpacking to Poverty Flat, these campsites should be reserved upon arrival at Coe Ranch HQ.) Within minutes, the Middle Ridge Trail crosses back over Coyote Creek to the south side, then climbs the bank immediately to an elevated floodplain. Here the Middle Ridge Trail ends, emptying into the wide Poverty Flat Road. Bear left (east) on the wide track, which traverses some lovely fields lined by live oaks.

Crossing Middle Fork of Coyote Creek at Poverty Flat

Poverty Flat to Manzanita Point Group Camps (1.8 miles)

At about the 6-mile mark, the road crosses back over the creek to the north bank and then enters the main camping area for Poverty Flat, where there is a water source and pit toilet. Look for a trail marker indicating a junction with the Cougar Trail, which doubles back to the west and traverses the camping area before leading to another stream crossing. While unmarked, the onward trail is visible across the creek.

After traversing the stream for a final time, the single-track Cougar Trail immediately begins to climb. The subsequent ascent is the toughest of the hike, gaining nearly 700 feet in less than ¾ mile, although switchbacks and bends partially ease the pain.

Take your time as the trail climbs toward Manzanita Point, passing through a sea of bay, manzanita, madrone, and oak trees. The shade becomes less frequent near the top of the 7/10-mile stretch, and the tree canopy dissipates completely as hikers approach the junction with the China Hole Trail at the 7-mile mark.

Coyote Creek drainage from Manzanita Point

From here hikers are rewarded with unobstructed views across the scrubby brush toward the Coyote Creek drainage, which bounds southward between Mahoney Ridge and Palassou Ridge in the distance. Chamise, coyotebrush, monkeyflower, and toyon line the China Hole Trail as hikers make their way west (right) en route to Coe Ranch Headquarters.

Another terrific view from Manzanita Point

After the fork, the trail briefly follows the south-facing slopes looking down into Soda Springs Canyon before leveling off and winding to the north side of Pine Ridge, with obscured views down toward Poverty Flat and the Little/Middle Fork Coyote Creek confluence. Manzanitas—with their characteristic cold bark and reddish trunks—are ubiquitous in this section.

At 7.8 miles, stay right at the junction (which leads up to Campsites 8-10 in the Manzanita Point Group Camp), then emerge out into the open as the trail passes Campsite 7 on the right. From here the trail merges with Manzanita Point Road, a dirt track that bisects the group campground. There is another pit toilet here and an array of spur trails, including a steep descent to Madrone Soda Springs.

Manzanita Point Group Camps to Coe Ranch Headquarters (2.5 miles)

Bear right on Manzanita Point Road, a wide dirt path that acts as the main thoroughfare back to Coe Ranch Headquarters. At this point, there is no realistic single-track option for the next ¾ mile, so follow the road northwest as it passes spurs for Campsites 1-3, a somewhat pitiful watering hole called Bass Pond, and the Blue Oak Horse Camp. After a brief ascent, the route levels off again and approaches a four-way junction at 8.75 miles.

The quickest way back is to continue straight on the road, but heading left on the Springs Trail offers a considerably more scenic alternative, adding about 2/10 mile to the hike. This single-track gradually climbs in and out of oak-studded ravines, with long stretches of open vistas across Soda Springs Canyon toward Cordoza Ridge to the south. At 9.75 miles, stay right as a spur trail leads left down to Lion Spring. A quarter-mile later, the Springs Trail ends back at an intersection with Manzanita Point Road.

Soda Springs Canyon from Springs Trail

Just before the road, bear left on the signed Corral Trail, the final leg of the journey and a pleasant single-track trail that again weaves in and out of several ravines, including a rocky and precipitous gully where a protective fence and steps have been installed for hikers. From here it is a short walk up and out of another ravine to the end of the hike. The Corral Trail ends right across the street from the Visitor Center and White Barn, capping a 10.6-mile circuit.

Final approach on Corral Trail

This lengthy hike will take much of the day for most hikers. Ambitious trekkers can add additional destinations—such as China Hole, The Narrows, and the Madrone Soda Springs Trail—to the loop, or save these for another day. Do not underestimate the difficulty of hiking in Henry Coe, however, especially in the summer, when blistering heat combines with tough elevation gain. The area is much more manageable—and prettier—in early spring, when the various ridges sport green grass and wildflowers and the streams are flowing nicely.

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Lafayette Ridge Trail to Russell Peak (Briones Regional Park, CA)

Lafayette Ridge Trail, Briones Regional Park, March 2020

The East Bay’s Briones Regional Park is a hiker’s paradise, with dozens of interlocking trails traversing a scenic stretch of hills between the suburban centers of Lafayette, Orinda, and Pleasant Hill. Lafayette Ridge—a lengthy spine that stretches southeast from the Briones Hills—is especially beautiful in spring, when rains turn the usually brown slopes to an attractive green. At all times of year, the roughly three-mile Lafayette Ridge Trail is very popular—but the steady elevation gain tends to thin the crowds after the first mile, leaving hikers relatively alone amid the iconic dips and dives of the ridgetop. A nice, 7-mile out-and-back day hike terminates at Russell Peak, which—at 1,357 feet—offers excellent views of the surrounding area.

Map of Lafayette Ridge Trail to Russell Peak, Briones Regional Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Lafayette Ridge Staging Area in the East Bay town of Lafayette is the trailhead for this easily accessible but strenuous hike in Briones Regional Park. Situated just off busy Pleasant Hill Road, the parking area fills up quickly on weekends, so arrive early or plan for a weekday hike to avoid the masses. What starts at first as a single gravel track heading up the slopes toward Lafayette Ridge quickly splits—and splits again—into a constellation of paths that can be difficult to follow. In general, follow the signs for the Lafayette Ridge Trail, beginning with an initial right-hand bend, then a sharp left on the ascending fire road. Follow this track as it passes under the shade of an oak tree, then cuts almost due south before rounding a sharp right-hand turn, bringing one to the top of a grassy knoll. At ½ mile, the trail returns to a gravel tread; bear left at the junction, continuing as the trail gradually snakes uphill along the south-facing slope.

Lafayette Ridge Trail from near the trailhead

The set of grassy knolls to the east is Acalanes Ridge in Walnut Creek, while the hulking peak to the southeast usually needs no introduction: Mount Diablo (3,849’), the highest and most famous peak in the area. Follow the trail until it reaches a large but long-abandoned ranch with stables on the left. Many hikers turn around here or continue down the access road situated at the next junction. But onward travelers can continue left, rising to greater heights and another junction at 9/10 mile (the Las Trampas-to-Briones Regional Trail bears left). Stay right, climbing again along one of the steeper stretches of the hike.

Mount Diablo from Lafayette Ridge Trail

The trail begins to level off after having gained around 450 feet since the trailhead, with the open slopes offering excellent vistas of Mount Diablo, Las Trampas Ridge, Lafayette Reservoir, and the Berkeley Hills to the south and west. Pass through a gate at 1.3 miles, then stay left as the Lafayette Ridge Trail hugs the south-facing hillside. After briefly traversing the first real extended shade of the hike, the track pops out again at a junction with the Petar Jakovina Trail at 1.6 miles. (Note: Petar Jakovina is an absurdly steep trail leading south to Sessions Road in Lafayette.) Some more shade here offers a nice spot to stop for a breather and a snack before continuing onward.

Stay left at the next two junctions, the first with an unmarked path leading up to Vista Bella Drive and the second being the narrow John Kiefer Trail, which (like the Petar Jakovina Trail) is managed by the City of Lafayette. Stay on the main fire road, continuing to climb but at a much milder clip than before.

Lafayette Ridge Trail

From here the trail traverses a series of ups and downs that extend for two miles. By now the crowds are likely to have largely dissipated, leaving only hearty hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers. Ahead one can start to see the oak-lined Briones Crest, a beautiful stretch of hills that wraps around the park.

Lafayette Ridge Trail approaching Russell Peak (left)

At 2.5 miles, stay right as a more faded path enters from the left, then continue along the natural roller coaster as the hills appear to get larger and larger. After passing a junction with the Springhill Trail at 2.7 miles, the main track crests the namesake point—Spring Hill (1,206’). Continue as the trail drops and then ascends two additional hills in turn, followed by a final, very steep climb to the end of the Lafayette Ridge Trail. (Note: Stay left at the junction with the Buckeye Ranch Trail.) After merging with the Briones Crest and Russell Peak Trails, there are excellent views looking back at Lafayette Ridge, where the winding path that unfolds along the hills below makes for a picturesque sight.

View from the end of the Lafayette Ridge Trail

Now 3.3 miles from the start, bear left on the Russell Peak Trail, following it westward into the woods. About 400 yards from the junction, look for a thin but well-trodden path leading up the hill to the left. This is the short spur to Russell Peak, ending at the shaded summit (complete with a picnic table and fine views). From here, hikers can peer out at Lafayette Ridge, with Las Trampas Ridge, Mount Diablo, and the Berkeley Hills on the horizon.

View from Russell Peak

After resting at Russell Peak, return the way you came—doing most of the elevation change in reverse. All told, this 7.2 mile out-and-back is challenging enough to be considered strenuous, especially so in the hot, sunny summer months. I recommend taking your time, allotting at least 3-5 hours for the entire round-trip journey.

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Ridge Top – Indian Creek Trail Loop (Shell Ridge Open Space, CA)

Ridge Top Trail, Shell Ridge Open Space, February 2021

Winter and early spring is far and away the best time of year to hike in the East Bay, when temperatures are good and the rolling hillscapes—typically brown, dusty, and dry in summer—are lush and verdant. The jade-colored hues in springtime make the Diablo Foothills in the Walnut Creek area arguably a fair match to the beauty of Marin, Point Reyes, and other, more popular Bay Area hiking destinations. One local favorite is Shell Ridge Open Space, a 1,420-acre tract managed by the City of Walnut Creek that, despite never exceeding 1,000 feet, is perhaps more beautiful than the scrubby chapparal of Mount Diablo proper. The featured hike here—which begins and ends at Marshall Drive—climbs the rolling ridgeline of Shell Ridge, then drops to follow the oak-studded drainage of Indian Creek. All in all, this moderately-difficult hike clocks in at just shy of five miles across beautiful terrain.

Map of Ridge Top – Indian Creek Trail Loop, Shell Ridge Open Space; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

Shell Ridge Open Space in Walnut Creek has a plethora of trailheads, but one of the most easily accessible is the Marshall Entrance at the end of Marshall Drive. (Note: Search “Indian Valley Elementary School” on your GPS.) There is plenty of street parking just before the trailhead, and an entry sign offers maps and information on the day use park. An intricate network of trails crisscrosses the Shell Ridge area; this hike covers much of the most interesting terrain, rising to scenic heights before dropping to the quiet and pleasant Indian Creek drainage.

From the trailhead, turn left immediately and climb the wide dirt track as it bends westward and reaches a six-way junction at 2/10 mile. La Casa Via, a residential street (with no trail parking) lies straight ahead, while the Briones-to-Mount Diablo Trail continues left, hugging a wooden fence. Hikers will want to bear right on the Ridge Top Trail (aka Ridge Trail). (Note: Alternatively, hikers can climb the more established road that leads up the southern slope of Shell Ridge to a water tank, but this is steeper and a little less pleasant.)

Starting up the Ridge Top Trail
View back toward Walnut Creek and Concord

The Ridge Top Trail, a narrow and attractive singletrack, gradually ascends the north-facing slope of Shell Ridge, with the Corral Spring Trail visible below. At 6/10 mile, the trail rounds a right-hand bend and then climbs to crest the ridgeline, offering sweeping views southward across Joaquin Ridge and the broad valley beyond, with Las Trampas Ridge beyond. (Note: Here the route from the water tank enters from the right.)

Southwest to Joaquin Ridge, with Las Trampas Ridge and Alamo beyond

Continue left, following a noticeable spine of protruding sandstone, which was thrust upward during the mountain-building event that created Mount Diablo some five million years ago. This area was once covered by sea, as noted by the sporadic presence of seashell fossils in the rock strata of Shell Ridge.

View down Shell Ridge toward Walnut Creek

The Ridge Top Trail proceeds to climb steeply to the first of several summits at 8/10 mile, where a bench facing south offers an opportunity to catch your breath. Beyond this first hilltop is a second, higher summit, with even better views overlooking the Shell Ridge area to the south, Lime Ridge and Suisun Bay to the north, and imposing Mount Diablo to the east.

View of the third summit on Shell Ridge from the second

After this second summit, the trail drops to a marked junction at 1.2 miles. Bear left on the Ridge Top Trail continuation (heading right dead-ends at a third hilltop), then gradually descend the partly shaded hillside to Grinder Gap, where the trail intersects with several fire roads that include the Corral Spring Trail. Stay straight on the singletrack, which rises again and crests a high saddle at 1.8 miles, moving to the south-facing slopes of Shell Ridge.

Ridge Top Trail as it descends to Grinder Gap

Remaining largely in the sun, the singletrack gradually descends again to a drainage fed by Dry Spring, where there is a gate that acts as a cue for hikers to exit left. Here the Ridge Top Trail crosses the broader Costanoan Trail, then wraps 270 degrees around an oak-studded knoll, returning to cross Costanoan again at 2.3 miles. From here the Ridge Top Trail climbs steadily again, rounding a sharp left-hand bend, then over a pass to the hike’s high point (about 850 feet).

Ridge Top Trail

Then it is back downhill again as the trail snakes eastward and south, passing under a set of power lines and encountering a water tank on the left. At 2.9 miles, the Ridge Top Trail ends; bear right on the Briones-to-Mt-Diablo Trail to continue west, en route back toward the trailhead.

The wide Briones-to-Mt-Diablo Trail stretch is perhaps the least interesting stretch of the hike, but it does get progressively shadier as various oak trees fill in around the trail. Stay right at the fork at 3.2 miles, then right again at the junction with the Coyote Pond Trail, just past an open gate at 3.5 miles. After taking another right at the next fork, crest a low gap between drainages and look left for the Indian Creek Trail. This scenic path descends gradually to its namesake drainage, which is effectively dry most of the year but still beautiful in verdant springtime.

Indian Creek Trail

Stay on the Indian Creek Trail as it traverses a junction at Bramhall Pond (dry) at 4.4 miles, then continue as the drainage narrows and the trail increasingly spends time down in the ditch itself. At 4.5 miles, the path ascends a neatly-constructed staircase, with a bench at the top. From here the trail drops again to the wash bottom and follows it past a handful of protruding rock faces to another junction at 4.6 miles. Head right this time, exiting the wash on the popular Fossil Hill Loop Trail.

Indian Creek Trail

Take this wide double-track for roughly 200 yards, then bear left again on the Briones-to-Mt-Diablo Trail, which offers passage back to Marshall Drive. Stay left at the next two junctions, hugging the perimeter of Indian Spring Elementary, then return to your car at the start.

The 4.9-mile trail should take 2-3 hours and, despite some decent elevation gain and loss, is moderately difficult at worst.

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Buckeye – Cruikshank – Salmon Creek Trail Loop (Silver Peak Wilderness, CA)

Upper Salmon Creek Falls, Silver Peak Wilderness, February 2021

The Silver Peak Wilderness covers 31,555 acres of the Santa Lucia Range along the central coast of California between Monterey and Cambria. Hikers can explore the heart of the wilderness area by combining the Buckeye, Cruikshank, and Salmon Creek Trails for a 15-mile circuit that covers diverse terrain—from chaparral scrub to pockets of dense redwood forest—with seaside vistas and flowing streams. A worthwhile spur leads to Upper Salmon Creek Falls, a rarely-visited waterfall that drops into an attractive pool in winter and spring. The loop, which covers more than 3,000 feet in elevation gain, can be completed as a long and arduous day hike. But most will prefer to do the trip as an overnight backpack or even a 3-day trek. Signage along the route is excellent, and there are several established campsites (complete with picnic tables and fire pits): Buckeye, Silver, Lion Den, Estrella, and Spruce Creek. (Note: Yours truly did the trip as a 2-day backpack, camping at Silver Camp—6.2 miles in—but the best sites are Lion Den, Estrella, and Spruce Creek.) This relatively popular circuit is best done in the winter or spring, when water sources are abundant and temperatures are mild. (Note: No wilderness permits are needed, except for the standard California campfire permit—required even for camp stove use. Bear canisters are suggested but not required.)

Map of Buckeye – Cruikshank – Salmon Creek Trail Loop, Silver Peak Wilderness, Los Padres National Forest; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

Primary access to Los Padres National Forest and the Silver Peak Wilderness is via California Highway 1, which follows the Pacific Ocean through Big Sur between Monterey and Cambria. (Note: As of 2021, a significant stretch of Highway 1 was closed due to landslide damage, requiring those travelling from the north to detour south to Cambria, then return north along Highway 1 to reach the trailhead.) The hike begins and ends at Salmon Creek, an inlet along the coast roughly 27 miles northwest of Cambria. This a popular area, especially on weekends, with the majority of visitors headed for Lower Salmon Creek Falls, a 120-foot double waterfall that is one of the tallest in the area. There is parking along the shoulder and in a small lot at the site of the old (long closed) Salmon Creek Ranger Station. Park anywhere, but begin the hike at the Ranger Station parking lot, a short walk down Highway 1 from the trail to Salmon Creek Falls.

The circuit is best done clockwise—covering the Buckeye Trail first—because the climb, while still strenuous, is considerably more gradual than trying to tackling the steep Salmon Creek Trail uphill. (Note: Hikers arriving in the mid-afternoon can still easily reach Buckeye Camp by nightfall; in this case, however, I would recommend spending a second night at Estrella or Spruce Creek.) Visitors can think of the hike as unfolding in three parts: an initial, especially scenic section of the Buckeye Trail that climbs to unobstructed ocean vistas; a second, mostly wooded climb up the Cruikshank Trail to Lion Den and South Coast Ridge; and a third, downhill stretch along the Salmon Creek Trail, with a worthy detour to lovely Upper Salmon Creek Falls. The loop circles around the namesake Silver Peak (3,590’), one of the highest and most prominent peaks in the area.

Buckeye Trail to Cruikshank Trail Junction (5.5 mi.)

The first section covers about 2,000 feet in elevation gain, followed by a steady downhill to the junction with the Cruikshank Trail near the Villa Creek drainage. Starting from the Ranger Station, follow the marked path up through the wooden gate, beginning a short but brutal ascent that is perhaps the hardest of the entire hike. Amid a mix of oaks, bay laurel, and scrubby brush, the Buckeye Trail gains about 500 feet in elevation in just ½ mile, cresting a high, windswept saddle that offers the trail’s first unobstructed views of the vast Pacific Ocean.

View northwest after cresting the saddle on the Buckeye Trail

Once past the initial climb, the vegetation becomes much more subdued—with trees replaced by a mix of various short shrubs, as well as wild yucca plants that flower nicely in spring. As the Buckeye Trail continues westward, the steep slopes give way to Highway 1 several hundred feet below, with the crashing waves of the Pacific beyond. Hikers are thus spoiled almost right away with excellent vistas along what is one of the finest stretches of coastal trail in California.

View south toward San Simeon and Cambria

The next waypoint of interest after a relatively flat and scenic stretch is an opening in a small fence, with the first junction just beyond. Here the Soda Spring Trail joins from the left; stay right on the Buckeye Trail and continue into the Silver Peak Wilderness. The onward route returns to the shade of oak and bay trees, passing a drainage at 1.1 miles that, after rainfall, would form a nice waterfall. (Note: Even in February, however, this was dry.)

The elevation gain along the next mile is relatively modest, and the trail leisurely weaves in and out of rocky ravines, passing the first relatively reliable water source—Soda Spring Creek—at 1.8 miles. Climbing more steadily thereafter, the Buckeye Trail rises to an open and scrubby hillside at 2.5 miles, revealing more excellent views southward, down the coast toward San Simeon and Cambria.

Southward views from the Buckeye Trail

Now steeply ascending, the Buckeye Trail wanders into the first grove of Coulter pines—notable for their wispy needles and massive pine cones; Coulter pine cones are the largest and heaviest in the world. At 3.3 miles, the trail approaches an excellent vista point on the left that has likely been used as a campsite; from here the trail turns away from the coast briefly and begins a descent that sheds about 200 feet.

At 3.6 miles, hikers reach Buckeye Camp, a lovely meadow lined with stubby pines but devoid of ocean views. There are several designated campsites here. The most easily accessible is off to the right, just after passing over a small stream that serves as a seasonal water source. There is a fire pit and picnic table. Other sites are situated farther down the trail, near the west and northern ends of the meadow. As the path reenters the woods, it drops to two designated sites on the left. The path quickly descends to clear the main stream flowing through Redwood Gulch, which is likely—although not assuredly—to carry water year-round.

Many hikers simply camp at Buckeye and then turn around. But onward hikers can continue across the creek, then ascend again, gaining about 300 feet to clear a pair of ridgelines, both of which offer additional vistas of the ocean.

High ridgeline along Buckeye Trail

At 4.5 miles, a spur trail leads to a decent vista (and campsite) off to the left, but the main Buckeye Trail continues right, beginning a steady, winding descent into Villa Creek Canyon. Mostly wooded, there is not much to note about this section, except for one surprising sight just before the junction with the Cruikshank Trail at 5.5 miles: a small but pretty grove of coast redwoods off to the left. Silver Peak Wilderness marks the southernmost reach of these world’s tallest trees (the range extends all the way north to southwest Oregon).

Small redwood grove near the junction

A couple minutes past the redwood stand, hikers reach the trail junction. The Buckeye Trail continues left down to Villa Creek, while the Cruikshank Trail—part two of the hike—bears right.

Cruikshank Trail to South Coast Ridge (3.9 mi.)

The Cruikshank Trail begins by making up for much of the elevation lost during the final stretch along the Buckeye Trail. If still hiking on Day 1, the ascent will not be particularly welcome. After gaining about 600 feet in ¾ mile, the trail finally levels off around Silver Camp. This heavily wooded site is probably the least interesting of the five camps encountered on the hike. A very modest stream allows for water treatment, but don’t count on it in the summer, when it is likely to be dry. A more reliable source—a flowing tributary of Villa Creek—lies about 2/10 mile further up the Cruikshank Trail (although this too may be dry by late summer).

Moss-laden slope along the Cruikshank Trail

Hikers continuing onward from Silver Camp should cross the aforementioned stream, then tread very carefully as the narrow path traverses a set of crumbly scree slopes. While the path is well-trodden and wide enough, a misstep here could send one tumbling down the steep incline into the rock and brush below. Angling northward, then east, the Cruikshank Trail passes a series of rock outcrops with decent views down the Villa Creek drainage to the ocean.

From here the Cruikshank Trail settles into a mild and mostly shaded ascent. (Note: Some have noted that there may be heavy poison oak in this area; in late winter 2021, however, there was little to be found. Perhaps best to wear long pants regardless—and to hike in winter when the undergrowth is less thick.) Instead of rising to a pass visible ahead to the east, the trail abruptly juts right at about 8.2 miles, ascending a group of switchbacks to clear a high ridgeline. This steep section is over relatively quickly, however, and the Cruikshank Trail rises to clear the ridgetop at 8.5 miles.

More limited vegetation allows for more open vistas, with hikers getting a peek back down Villa Creek drainage and ahead toward Lion Peak (3,499’) and the Salmon Creek drainage to the east. The trail also widens and even mildly descends as it snakes eastward across the scrubby chapparal. About 4/10 mile past the ridge, the route reaches Lion Den Camp, an excellent spot (though with a limited, seasonal water supply). While there are several disturbed sites at Lion Den, the best lies up the woody knoll to the right, which offers excellent views toward the coast.

Onward trail heading toward Lion Den

Beyond Lion Den, follow the wide path as it continues east, then ascends rather sharply, culminating at a junction with the South Coast Ridge Road (a dusty, rarely-used track) at 9.4 miles. This marks the end of the Cruikshank Trail and leg two of the journey.

South Coast Ridge and Salmon Creek Trail to Highway 1 (5.7 mi.)

Bear right on South Coast Ridge Road, then emerge at a high gap with perhaps the hike’s best views. To the right, one can see down the Salmon Creek drainage to the coast, with Silver Peak and Mount Mars (2,674’) dominating the skyline. To the left, the views are better: hikers can see clear across the Santa Lucia Range to Burro Mountain (2,827’), Stony Valley, and the San Antonio drainage. On the horizon, one can see past Highway 101 and the Salinas Valley to the southern Gabilan Range.

View east from South Coast Ridge, toward Burro Mountain, Salinas Valley, and Gabilan Range

After soaking in the views, continue straight until one encounters the clearly-marked Salmon Creek Trail on the right. This is the exit route and sheds about 3,000 feet in elevation over the course of 5.5 miles. (Note: Hikers not content to return yet can continue east toward Lion Peak and Three Peaks (3,379’), where there are additional views and a couple of campsites.)

Salmon Creek drainage and Mount Mars

The Salmon Creek Trail begins descending right away, although the switching bends make for a relatively mild incline. Weaving in and out of the sun, hikers regularly gain views down canyon, with Silver Peak dominating the east-facing slope. It is a little over two miles of steady descent from the top to Estrella Camp, a lovely and popular spot situated in a shady glen next to a tributary that flows year-round. There are several places to camp here, although most of them are within striking distance of one another. After rock-hopping over the creek, the trail climbs sharply to another pair of campsites and then continues onward down canyon.

Roughly 6/10 mile beyond Estrella Camp, look for a steep but well-worn path heading off to the right. This track descends to Upper Salmon Creek Falls, a secluded and beautiful spot that makes for a worthy detour. Drop your packs and be careful descending. The trail pops out above the falls; from here it is a 30-foot, Class 2/3 scramble down to the base of the waterfall, where there is a nice bowl-shaped pool. This is a clear highlight of the hike and a nice spot for a lunch/snack break.

Upper Salmon Creek Falls

Returning back to the main trail, continue southward for a half-mile to reach Spruce Creek, a pleasant drainage that converges with larger Salmon Creek. The rocky cascades in this area are splendid, flowing nicely in winter/spring. Just across Spruce Creek is Spruce Creek Camp, where there are a couple sites that sit partly up the hillside above the drainage below.

Onward trail near Spruce Creek Camp

Follow the signs for the onward trail, which—perhaps surprisingly—climbs sharply, gaining about 150 feet in elevation gain before reaching a trail junction at 13.3 miles. Here the Spruce Creek Trail leads left toward Dutra Flat and Three Peaks. The Salmon Creek Trail continues right.

Approaching Highway 1 along the Salmon Creek Trail

Beyond the fork, the Salmon Creek Trail continues to climb briefly, positioning the path several hundred feet above the base of the canyon. Finally, the path settles back into a mild downhill, passing three separate openings in turn, each of which provides a closer view of Highway 1 and trail’s end. But the path remains high above the road until seemingly the very end, when a rock outcrop inaugurates the final descent. Here the trail sheds 500 feet in elevation in about a half-mile, ending finally at a junction with the track to Lower Salmon Creek Falls. Head right to check out the falls, or bear left to reach the hike’s end point. (Note: The path comes out a little north of the ranger station, so, if parked there, follow the road down to one’s car.)

All told, the entire loop—excluding spurs and detours—clocks in at about 15.1 miles. Enjoy this scenic traverse as a long day hike or up to three-day journey. The steady elevation gain offers good practice during the winter season for summer journeys in the Sierra Nevada.

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Miner’s Ridge – James Irvine Trail Loop, including Gold Bluffs Beach and Fern Canyon (Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, CA)

James Irvine Trail, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, January 2021

If ever there was a premier, unforgettable hike in northern California’s Redwood National Park, this is it. The Miner’s Ridge – James Irvine Trail Loop combines long stretches of spectacular redwood groves with a brief jaunt along the Pacific Ocean at Gold Bluffs Beach and an otherworldly experience at Fern Canyon, making for a magisterial 12-mile circuit. The scenery here is lush and verdant year-round, damp with moisture and shaded by thousands of titanic trees. Of course, such a trail is unlikely to lie in secret: the rangers at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, where the loop is located, will tell you that the James Irvine Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the area. But visiting during the off-season (winter/early spring) offers a better experience where the crowds are less dense and views more intimate and spectacular.

Map of the Miner’s Ridge – James Irvine Trail Loop, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

Described as an “All Day-Hike Through Redwoods to the Ocean – and Back,” the Miner’s Ridge – James Irvine Trail Loop begins and ends at the Prairie Creek Visitor Center in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, itself a subset of the broader Redwood National and State Parks. The Visitor Center is situated just off Newton B Drury Parkway, a scenic byway that runs through the heart of Prairie Creek Redwoods. Opposite the Visitor Center are a set of parking areas and the broad Elk Prairie, where the namesake creatures are known to roam.

Facing the small Visitor Center, look off to the right, where a set of five informational signs marks the start of a network of hiking trails. After reading the various maps and signs, head right on the Prairie Creek Trail, a wheelchair-accessible track that weaves through some of the world’s best coast redwoods. (Note: See trail description here for an easier, 2.6-mile loop on the Prairie Creek and Foothill Trails.)

Entry signs at Prairie Creek Visitor Center

Prairie Creek Visitor Center to Gold Bluffs Beach via Miner’s Ridge Trail (4.9 mi.)

Even the first 100 yards of the Prairie Creek Trail are spectacular. Just before crossing a bridge over Prairie Creek, massive, spindly redwoods line the trail on the right. Beyond the bridge, hikers will quickly reach the first of several junctions. Bear left on the broad Nature Trail, leaving the Prairie Creek Trail behind. Now heading west, the path keeps Prairie Creek on the left, then approaches a second junction at about 300 yards. Bear left again, following the signs for the James Irvine and Miner’s Ridge Trails.

The track then immediately traverses a bridge over Godwood Creek, a tributary of Prairie Creek that is lined with ferns. At 2/10 mile, hikers reach a third junction, with the James Irvine Trail bearing off to the right. Take this turn, leaving the easy Nature Trail behind.

Starting down the James Irvine Trail

The James Irvine Trail moves steadily northward, crossing a long boardwalk at 1/3 mile, with a bevy of ferns, redwoods, Douglas firs, and moss-covered bay laurel filling in the dense surroundings. Gently climbing, the trail hugs an east-facing hillside above the Godwood Creek drainage, passing over two more short bridges in turn. The incline steepens as the trail switchbacks abruptly left, then bends right again, reaching a junction at 8/10 mile.

James Irvine Trail as it winds through a stand of redwoods

This trail fork marks the start of the loop portion of the hike. The James Irvine Trail continues right, but I recommend heading left to cover the Miner’s Ridge Trail first. This track treads uphill to the upper reaches of a wooded ridgetop. After cresting the ridge at the one-mile mark, the trail briefly descends, then climbs again at a steady but mild incline. A bench at the “Loomis Grove” at 1.3 miles offers a decent place for a snack break before the uphill continues beyond.

By 1.5 miles, the terrain begins to level off, and hikers may be able to hear (but not see) the distant waves of the Pacific Ocean. As the path descends the west flank of Miner’s Ridge, the composition of the tree canopy begins to change from redwoods to Sitka spruce, commonly found in a narrow coastal belt that stretches northward from California to southeast Alaska. After an abrupt right-hand bend at 2.5 miles, the trail descends sharply to a junction with the Clintonia Trail.

The Clintonia Trail is a short-cut route that connects the Miner’s Ridge Trail with the James Irvine Trail to the north, but taking this way would skip the beach portion and Fern Canyon, two highlights of the loop hike. So stay left on the Miner’s Ridge Trail, passing a massive redwood on the right. In about 1/3 mile, hikers reach another bench in the so-called Owings Grove, an exceptionally beautiful stand of redwoods situated on the flanks of a lush ravine. Rounding this gully is one of the most memorable sections of the hike, with thousands of sword ferns blanketing the hillsides and silent sentinels rising high toward the sky.

In the lush gully with thousands of sword ferns

On the far side of the ravine, hikers pass a sign for the Donald L. Quaife Grove on the right, then the trail continues its descent to the Squashan Creek drainage. At 3.9 miles, the trail reaches the base of the drainage, which is choked with willows. Staying to the right of the main creek, hikers will cross eight short bridges in turn before the trail turns into a broader old road.

Follow this old road to its terminus, where the track merges with Davison Road (aka Gold Bluffs Beach Road), an unpaved but well-trafficked drive used mostly by day hikers heading for Fern Canyon. Onward hikers can continue right along the road to reach Fern Canyon, but a more interesting alternative is to follow the beach for a little over a mile. To reach Gold Bluffs Beach, head left on Davison Road, then, after a couple minutes, bear right at the entrance to the Gold Bluffs Beach Campground.

The campground is notable for having warm water and flush toilets (a rarity in the wilderness!), making for a nice rest stop. Continue across the campground to Gold Bluffs Beach, a wide tract of sand with the vast Pacific Ocean beyond.

Gold Bluffs Beach to James Irvine Trail via Fern Canyon (2.3 mi.)

The Gold Bluffs Beach section can vary widely by season. In summer, at least at low tide, the tufty sands are relatively easy to traverse. In winter and spring, however, the flows of Squashan and Home Creeks make for more significant, but not insurmountable, obstacles.

Heading north from the campground, follow the beach as the waves come crashing in, often leaving a foamy sea suds. After about ¼ mile, Squashan Creek comes in from the right. In winter, traversing the stream will require briefly getting your feet wet (unless you’re a stellar long jumper).

Squashan Creek as it empties into the Pacific

Home Creek poses a greater challenge and serves as the signal for hikers to exit right, returning to Davison Road and the Fern Canyon parking lot. In summer, the creek is much shallower, allowing hikers to follow it inland to Fern Canyon. In winter, however, the mouth of the creek forms deep, chilly lagoons. In this case, exit right, across brushy meadows and through spruce stands, to return to the road. There is no trail, however, and route-finding may require some mild bushwhacking.

Walking along Gold Bluffs Beach, with the Pacific Ocean beyond

Once back on the road, follow it north to its end at the Fern Canyon Trailhead, a large parking lot that is sure to have visitors nearly every day year-round. Fern Canyon is a very popular, short day hike, so don’t expect to be alone. (Note: See here for a description of this shorter hike.)

The Fern Canyon portion begins with a short, 2/10-mile walk along the Coastal Trail, which passes boggy marshes and wooded slopes before descending to Home Creek. Bear right on the creek to enter Fern Canyon. The canyon is lined with wooden planks that allow easier passage in summer, but in winter and early spring, you’re on your own: expect to conduct either some master rock-hopping or embrace the chill over your boots.

The tricky traverse, however, is made worthwhile by the spectacular scenery. A film location for Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, Fern Canyon boasts verdant, 30- to 50-foot walls lined with the namesake shrubs. This includes the five-finger (or maidenhair) fern, which is rather rare, as well as the ubiquitous sword fern.

Fern Canyon

As hikers go deeper into the canyon, the walls gradually close in, with small waterfalls spraying the sides with trickles of water. In winter, some of the ferns take on an unattractive brownish hue, but they rebound easily in spring and summer, returning to their brilliant verdant state.

Traversing Fern Canyon

After negotiating several stream crossings and sandbars, the trail offers one last obstacle: a large tree jam that requires climbing over—or ducking under—the massive trunks. After the blockage, the canyon begins to open up. Look off to the left for the continuation of the Fern Canyon Loop Trail, which climbs sharply, up a set of bends, to a wooden bridge and junction with the James Irvine Trail. This makes for a good stopping point to ring out your wet socks and grab a snack before continuing onward.

James Irvine Trail to Prairie Creek Visitor Center (5.0 mi.)

By now, the hike is more than halfway done (about 7.25 miles from the start), and the James Irvine Trail is relatively mild in terms of elevation gain, so hikers should be able to make good time in returning to the trailhead. Bear right at the junction, following the track back through a redwood grove. After crossing a bridge over a prominent tributary, stay right at the junction with the Friendship Ridge Trail. Traversing the Bissell Grove, the path crosses another bridge at around 7.6 miles, then climbs steeply up a set of stairs. As the trail eventually reverts to a downhill, the redwoods return in full force.

The rest of the James Irvine Trail entails a modest climb, snaking in and out of fern-studded ravines. A bridge at 8.2 miles traverse what looks like a deep and dark chasm, followed a couple minutes later by another traverse over a Home Creek tributary. The trail crosses Home Creek proper at 8.6 miles, then hugs the right bank until reaching a junction with the Clintonia Trail.

James Irvine Trail

Stay left at the fork, climbing to an impressive grove of redwoods situated in a low pass between the Home Creek and Godwood Creek drainages. This area is very flat, eventually settling into a slight downhill tread.

Fallen redwood along the James Irvine Trail

At 10 miles, the James Irvine Trail crosses a bridge over a gully lined with tons of ferns, then it is back uphill gain, following the east-facing slopes of Miner’s Ridge. For a good half-mile, the James Irvine Trail follows a very similar track as the Miner’s Ridge Trail, situated just 100 yards above, before finally merging again with the latter trail at 11.3 miles. This marks the end of the loop portion.

Fern-lined ravine along the James Irvine Trail

The rest is a repeat of the terrain covered in the hike’s first 8/10 mile. Gradually descend to the junction with the Nature Trail, then bear left. Stay right at the next junction (with the West Ridge Trail), then pass back over Godwood Creek and return to the initial junction. Bear right on the Prairie Creek Trail, which crosses its namesake and returns to the Visitor Center, wrapping up a 12-mile trip.

Final approach to the Visitor Center

Expect this hike to take most of a day. While not particularly strenuous, the distance—combined with negotiating the beach and obstacles in Fern Canyon—may be too much to handle for some. For those willing to make the journey, however, the region’s many wonders—stout redwoods, quiet coastal beach, and a wonderland of ferns—are on full display on this excellent hike.

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Natural Bridges (Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, OR)

Natural Bridges, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, January 2021

As if the secret beaches, spectacular cliffside vistas, and crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean were not enough, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor on the southern Oregon coast also boasts a number of natural bridges—iconic archways carved by the sea. The Natural Bridges viewpoint—at mile marker 346 on Highway 1, about 11 miles north of Brookings and 17 miles south of Gold beach—offers distant views of two such bridges. Here the endless force of the sea has carved away part of the vertical cliffs, allowing the waters to seep into a shady cove, shelter from the main, wild ocean beyond. The viewpoint—itself a wooden platform—is a short walk from the parking area, but many will not be content to end there: several steep routes lead down from the Oregon Coast Trail to the sea-facing cliffs and even across the bridges themselves. While crossing the lowest/southernmost bridge is not recommended, hikers can descend sharply down well-trodden paths to the span, where additional coves, arches, and rock islands come into view. The bridges are photogenic and particularly spectacular around sunrise or sunset. (Note: A note of warning: the trails leading down to the natural bridges are not official and can be very steep and sketchy in places; tread carefully and don’t push your luck.)

Narrow pathway approaching the lower bridge
The turnaround point (potentially dubious path over natural bridge ahead)
Thundering cove with another natural arch ahead
Cove and arch to the south
Approaching sunset
Natural bridges
Natural bridges after dusk (from the viewpoint)

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