Together with nearby Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, northern California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park contains arguably the most spectacular groves of coast redwoods in the world. Nearly the entire park, bounded by the Smith River to the north and the town of Crescent City to the west, is covered with old growth redwoods—the tallest, and nearly the thickest, trees in the world. While there are shorter trails in the park (such as Stout Grove) that offer up-close looks at these towering titans, perhaps the best hike in Jedediah Smith is the Boy Scout Tree Trail, situated deep in the woods along the unpaved Howland Hill Road. Here the gentle trail courses in and out of several ravines, lush with ferns and redwood trunks, ending just short of three miles at the modest—but beautiful—Fern Falls. Hike in the offseason to avoid the crowds, and try to walk on a sunny day, when the redwood forest is at its most photogenic.
The Boy Scout Tree Trailhead is accessed from the Howland Hill Road, a 10-mile unpaved track that connects Crescent City with Hiouchi in northwest California, near the Pacific coast. The trailhead is closest—about two miles—to the western end of the road, but travelling the entirety of the neatly-groomed drive is worth the extra effort. In addition to being one of the most scenic redwood drives in California, Howland Hill Road was a primary filming location for the famous Ewok scenes in 1983’s Return of the Jedi.
The trailhead, marked by a sign for the “Boy Scout Tree Trail” on the north side, is rather small, with a restroom and somewhat limited parking. Arrive early to catch a parking spot, or simply park on one of the turnoffs nearby along Howland Hill Road.
Although the trail sign indicates that it is 2.8 miles to Fern Falls, it is in reality more like three miles, but the entire walk has rather mild elevation gain and loss. This allows for a relatively easy stroll through spectacular redwood groves, with the beauty beginning right from the start. Some of the park’s largest and thickest trees line the first quarter mile of the Boy Scout Tree Trail, inviting visitors to take pictures and admire the colossal wonders.
After crossing a short wooden bridge at 2/10 mile, the wide and well-trodden trail begins to climb the south-facing slope, still enveloped by a dense canopy of towering coast redwoods. The understory is dominated by sword ferns, as well as redwood sorrel, a clover look-alike that carpets the soggy floor.
After the steady uphill, the trail rounds a beautiful right-hand bend, hugging a hillside on the left and overlooking a valley of redwoods down to the right. Pass under a fallen redwood at 6/10 mile, then continue along the northwesterly tread as it gradually climbs to clear a ridgeline. After cresting the ridge, the Boy Scout Tree Trail begins a steady downhill at about 9/10 mile.
After a brief period where redwoods are smaller and less common, the magnificent wonders return in full force at a scenic gully encountered at about 1.15 miles. Here the silent sentinels jut upwards in the dozens, and the quiet splendor of the woods is interrupted only by the wind and chirping birds. Although the trail is gradually making its way toward—not away from—the edge of the park, with the town of Crescent City beyond, one would not know it from the serene landscapes here. There are few signs, aside from the well-crafted trail, of human development along these peaceful slopes.
From the fern-clad gully, the trail continues a steady descent, entering a grove again with massive redwoods that match those of the opening stretch in diameter and circumference. This is a particularly scenic stretch, with some of the most magical redwood trees in the world. Around 1.7 miles, the trail descends its first set of steps and traverses a bridge over Jordan Creek, a waterway that helps support the redwoods of the area.
After ascending steps on the opposite bank, there is a brief clearing, with views of a very, very tall tree ahead. From here the route drops to clear a second, smaller drainage at about 1.9 miles. Minutes later, hikers pass what seems like the largest tree of the hike on the right.
With the trail continuing to course steadily downhill, hikers are now high above the noisy drainage of Jordan Creek down to the left. The route passes through another excellent grove at about 2.3 miles and then descends a rare set of switchbacks before traversing another bridge over a minor, lush ravine. (Note: Somewhere around here, although not at all obvious or marked, is the namesake Boy Scout Tree. Other sites suggest the tree is a good distance from the trail and, with all the other impressive redwoods along the route, perhaps not worth the detour.)
At 2.8 miles, the trail descends to the banks of Jordan Creek, which performs a scenic meander resembling an oxbow. From here it is a short walk to the hike’s terminus, Fern Falls.
Although modest in stature (perhaps 15 to 20 feet tall), the tumbling cascade is a satisfying destination, surrounded by ferns and mosses and forming a small pool. (Note: The falls is most impressive during the rainy season in winter and spring.) Again, despite being very close to the western park boundary, this place feels like a world away from civilization.
Perhaps the only downside of this lovely trail is that it is not a loop, requiring hikers to retrace their steps for three miles. This is not terrible, of course, as the shift in light and perspective is likely to give hikers new views of the redwoods. The return journey involves some decent elevation gain of around 400 feet, followed by a steady descent back to the start.
All told, this moderately difficult hike makes for a great half-day hike. Allot about 3-5 hours, depending on pace and allowing for several scenic stops along the way.
If you haven’t had enough redwoods, stop by nearby Stout Grove—also on the Howland Hill Road—on your way out of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Here, a 7/10-mile stem-and-loop hike courses through an impressive grove of some of the area’s largest redwoods.