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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Indian Sands Loop (Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, OR)

Indian Sands Loop, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, January 2021

The Indian Sands area, situated near the middle of Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, is a collection of crisp, windswept dunes, towering headlands, and thundering coves along the southern Oregon coast. Starting and ending at the Indian Sands Trailhead (mile marker 348.6 on Highway 101), a brief but beautiful circuit combines the sunny sands with thick forest cover, with terrific ocean views throughout much of the moderately-difficult hike.

Map of Indian Sands Loop, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

The large and gravel parking lot for Indian Sands is well-marked and situated roughly nine miles northwest of Brookings, Oregon and 19 miles south of Gold Beach in Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor. Park anywhere in the lot, but note that there are two trails that begin from this point: a wide, southbound route (after the entrance, to your left), which leads into a grove of tall Sitka spruce, and a northbound, narrower route, which is quickly enveloped by the dark forest. These are the start and end to the hike, respectively. Heading in the clockwise direction avoids a crushing ascent up a steep slope.

Taking off on the route toward Indian Sands

Taking the southbound track, the trail begins as a mild walk through an impressive stand of spindly conifers, with occasional ferns and salal dotting the understory. The modest descent, however, turns quickly into a sharp and precipitous decline, a drop that requires slow and careful deliberation, especially in the presence of mud or other moisture.

The downhill ends at a trail junction about 2/10 mile; head right on the Oregon Coast Trail, a nearly 400-mile route that traverses the length of the state’s rugged coastline. Continuing to decline, but at a much more gently clip, the trail quickly emerges into a clearing, where the dirt gives way to clumpy sand and views of the Pacific Ocean open up to the west.

Indian Sands and the Pacific Ocean beyond

Heading in a northwesterly direction, the Coast Trail passes a neon-green sign on the right (titled “188”—used to signal one’s location in case of an emergency) and then leaves the dense stand of stubby shore pines behind. Ahead is the heart of Indian Sands, an attractive, cliffside shelf of gently sloping dunes. Here, footsteps fan out in nearly all direction, and the main track is temporarily difficult to discern. But this is also a fantastic area to explore.

Thunderous cove at Indian Sands

Heading left for five minutes leads to an outcrop with views of seaside natural arch to the south, while heading straight—out toward the ocean—leads to a series of rocky crags, separated by deep chasms, where the swirling sea creates thunderous waves and froth.

Panorama at Indian Sands

The onward track bears right (north), dropping to clear a sandy bowl before heading toward what appears to be a dusty passage between the main hillside and a rugged peninsula. The passage turns out to lead to a dropoff: the cliffs give way to another scenic inlet to the north, where a minor drainage drops sharply to the ocean, with several sea stacks just out to sea. One can also see north up the coast toward Thomas Creek Bridge, China Beach, Thunder Rock Cove, and the Natural Bridges area, although all are obscured by the jagged angles of the cliffs.

Raucous ocean from the saddle at Indian Sands

Even as the sands give way to impassable cliffs, the trail continues onward by cutting sharply to the right. Follow the footsteps leading up a narrow track that hugs the scrubby hillside, then runs through a trio of evergreen arches, formed by the windswept spruces that envelop the sea-facing slopes.

Spruce-lined archway on the Oregon Coast Trail
Cove along Indian Sands loop

After the arches, hikers start to get a better view of the ravine to the east—your exit route. After a fourth, dark tree tunnel, the path crosses a minor stream that often bleeds into the trail itself. Now ascending steadily, the trail cuts left and enters a dim upland gully. Upon hearing the highway noise up ahead, the route forks; head right, leaving the Oregon Coast Trail behind—but not before briefly detouring to the left to observe a small waterfall, dropping gracefully into the wider creek below. (Note: Heading left, across the creek, leads toward Crook Point and Thomas Creek Bridge.)

Small waterfall in the dark forest north of Indian Sands

From the junction, a network of trails bears uphill—all paths generally lead to the same place, although the trail that hugs the highway before contouring southwest is the easiest and avoiding unnecessary descents. Follow this track as it snakes through dense forest and returns to the Indian Sands parking area at the northbound entry point.

This moderately challenging loop hike takes roughly one to two hours to complete: that is, if you take the time to explore the Indian Sands area and its many wild features. Speedsters can certainly finish in less time, but what is the fun in that?

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Thunder Rock Cove Loop (Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, OR)

Thunder Rock Cove Loop, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, January 2021

Southwest Oregon’s Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor features some of the finest stretches of shoreline on the Pacific coast of the United States, and the short-but-spectacular Thunder Rock Cove Loop traverses one of its most picturesque pockets. The brief circuit skirts towering bluffs that plunge into Thunder Rock Cove (a.k.a., Seal Cove), approaches a seaside natural bridge, and features open views of the swirling Pacific Ocean. Along with nearby Natural Bridges, this is a must-see destination between Brookings and Gold Beach, Oregon and is best viewed in the morning or midday sun.

Map of Thunder Rock Cove Loop, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

Start and end the brief Thunder Rock Cove Loop at the Thunder Rock Cove Trailhead, an unmarked but popular parking area along Highway 101 (Oregon Coast Highway) (mile marker 347.8), roughly 11 miles north of Brookings and 17 miles south of Gold Beach. The graveled turnoff is situated just north of the signed pullout for Natural Bridges and features a large trail marker that indicates you are in the right place.

Start of the Thunder Rock Cove Loop

Take the path heading north from the parking lot: this is part of the lengthy Oregon Coast Trail, which transits the entire length of the Oregon shoreline. After traversing a short bridge and entering the spruce-and-fern-lined forest, bear left at the initial junction. (Note: Many hikers head right to reach nearby Secret Beach, a longer and more arduous hike.) Beyond, there are several spurs off to the left, leading to vistas of Thunder Rock Cove (a.k.a. Seal Cove), where the swirling sea cuts through a natural bridge carved in the ancient rock below. This picturesque spot is tantalizingly beautiful, with the turquoise waters lapping up against sheer vertical rock faces.

Looking down on Thunder Rock Cove

The views of the cove and archway improve as the trail continues, especially after the loop path descends a set of switchbacks along a fern-clad slope. Minutes later, the path leads out to a small, spruce-clad peninsula with magnificent views, especially to the west, where the sea seems to converge from all directions on a shallow basin, protected by sea stacks several hundred yards distant from the coast. Hikers can also see northward in the direction of Miners Gulch, Secret Beach, and Spruce Island, although none are quite visible due to the angle of the coastline.

Natural bridge in Thunder Rock Cove
Swirling sea near Thunder Rock Cove

Intrepid hikers can continue out—sharply downhill—to the natural bridge, but most hikers will want to continue northward from the peninsula, following a narrow but discernable trail that hugs the cliffsides. The rest of the hike has no real ocean views but cuts through a dense forest of Sitka spruces and other conifers, with the understory lined by sword ferns.

At ½ mile, the loop trail climbs steeply back toward the start, then bears southeast through a sea of ferns to a trail junction at 6/10 mile. While heading left leads to Secret Beach, the loop trail continues right, quickly reconnecting with the initial junction. From here, bear left and, within a minute, return to the parking area, having completed the short but scenic hike.

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Cape Ferrelo Loop (Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, OR)

Cape Ferrelo Loop, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, January 2021

For 296 miles, the restless Pacific Ocean laps up against the Oregon Coast, producing chilly beaches, windswept rock outcrops, and imposing sea stacks. While some more peaceful, wide-open beaches may be found further south in California, the word that best describes the Oregon seashore is rugged. What Maine’s Acadia National Park is to the eastern seaboard, the coastline of the Beaver State is to the west: picturesque and mysterious, the jagged bluffs and craggy capes of the Oregon Coast are an excellent hiking destination.

The stretch of coast in southwestern Oregon is particularly spectacular, highlighted by the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, which covers 12 miles of coastline between the towns of Brookings and Gold Beach. The park’s closest circuit hike to Brookings is the Cape Ferrelo Loop, which covers a little over a mile and is a relatively easy jaunt. From the headland, hikers get panoramic, unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean and the surrounding shoreline to the north and south, making this a must-see destination along the Oregon Coast Highway.

Map of Cape Ferrelo Loop, Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

There are more than a dozen trailheads in southwest Oregon’s Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, and Cape Ferrelo Viewpoint is the second southernmost of the bunch. From central Brookings, follow Highway 101 (Oregon Coast Highway) northward for roughly five miles; after passing the turnoff for the Lone Ranch Picnic Area, look for the marked spur road to Cape Ferrelo Viewpoint. Follow the paved track to its end, culminating in a circle with parking along the curb. (Note: If coming from Gold Beach or the north, follow Highway 101 to mile marker 351.9.)

At the parking area, visitors will observe the Oregon Coast Trail (which spans the entire coast of Oregon) heading both north and south. Follow the southbound track, which immediately cuts through a thicket of dense hedges—this is salal, a waxy shrub that is ubiquitous along the Oregon coast. Towering above is a stand of Sitka spruce, the most common conifer in the area.

Start of the Cape Ferrelo hike

After about 200 yards, the trail splits at an unmarked junction. Heading left is a short spur that leads to a bench overlooking Lone Ranch Beach, with numerous sea stacks beyond. On clear days, one can see as far as Crescent City and the northern California coast.

Viewpoint overlooking Lone Ranch Beach

Yet this is only a teaser for the viewpoints to come, so backtrack to the junction and turn left on the other fork, continuing toward Cape Ferrelo. From here the onward trail enters a dark passage—a tunnel in the trees formed by a thicket of Sitka spruce—producing a brief spooky feeling as hikers continue. Beyond the tunnel, the landscape opens up, revealing views both southward and to the north. Here there is another junction, with the main trail heading straight while a grassy path comes in from the left. This is the start of the loop section.

Entering the spruce tunnel

Bear right first, climbing up and over a small hillock, then descending to an open plain. One can begin to see the edge of the cape by now, and the well-trodden track continues westward toward the ocean. At ¼ mile (not including the initial spur), there is a lean sign for the Coast Trail; continue straight as the path treads closer to Cape Ferrelo.

Approaching Cape Ferrelo

About 2/10 mile later, the trail reaches the tip of Cape Ferrelo, where the flat grasslands of the headland give way to near-vertical cliffs, dropping several hundred feet to the turbulent ocean below. While the views due west are of endless sea, one can see more sea stacks to the north and south.

Northward view toward House Rock headland

Up the coast, the shoreline juts out briefly at House Rock, with the onward shore obscured by the spruce-lined bluffs. The continuing trail wraps around to the south, providing even better vistas of the Brookings area, with Twin Rocks and Goat Island visible in the distance.

Southward view of the cove at Lone Ranch Beach

From this southward view, the trail begins to fade, and multiple paths bear off in different directions. It is thus a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure to complete the loop; generally hugging the hillside, descending briefly (but not too much), is a good move. This eventually connects back with the grassy path that reconnects with the second junction near the start of the hike. From here, pass again through the spruce tunnel and pass the initial fork to return to the trailhead.

Northerly view again

All told, the Cape Ferrelo Loop is a relatively easy, one-mile stem-and-loop with magnificent seaside views and offers a nice introduction to the extensive trail system of Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor.

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Boy Scout Tree Trail to Fern Falls (Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, CA)

Boy Scout Tree Trail, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, January 2021

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.

Map of Boy Scout Tree Trail, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

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.

Near the start of the Boy Scout Tree Trail

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.

Setting out into the redwoods

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.

Old growth redwoods along the Boy Scout Tree Trail

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.

Redwoods within the first mile of the hike

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.

Redwood stand near the middle of the hike

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.

Descending through an old growth redwood grove

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.

Massive redwood at about 2.0 miles

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.

Fern Falls, the hike’s terminus

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.

More redwoods shots

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.

Extra credit

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.

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Piestewa Peak (Phoenix Mountains Preserve, AZ)

Piestewa Peak, Phoenix Mountains Preserve, November 2020

Piestewa Peak (2,608’) is the second-highest summit in the Phoenix Mountains, a smattering of cactus-covered peaks in the heart of Arizona’s largest metropolis. Situated inside the Phoenix city limits, Piestewa Peak is extremely popular, but the panoramic views across nearly the entire metropolitan area make the crowded climb worthwhile. Along the way, the wide, impeccably-manicured trail passes hundreds of southern Arizona’s iconic saguaro cacti and mounts several jagged rock outcrops. The route to the summit climbs relentlessly, gaining 1,168 feet in elevation, but is relatively short at 1.1 miles. The peak is named for Lori Piestewa, who was the first female Native American soldier in the U.S. military ever killed in combat and the first woman in the U.S. armed forces to die in the Iraq War in 2003.

Map of Piestewa Peak hike, Phoenix Mountains Preserve; source: visitphoenix.com (https://www.visitphoenix.com/things-to-do/outdoors/biking-hiking/phoenix-mountains-preserve/)

The hike

Phoenix Mountains Preserve comprises several non-contiguous units arrayed across north-central Phoenix, but the hike to Piestewa Peak is in the main, largest unit at Phoenix Mountains Park and Recreation Area. From East Glendale Ave/East Lincoln Drive, turn on to East Squaw Peak Drive and follow it past the entrance gate. Park in the first major parking area on the left. (Note: If full, there are plenty of other parking areas along the road with connector trails leading to the start.) Look for the trail sign at the southwest end of the parking lot; this is the start of the 1.1-mile Summit Trail, which hikers will follow all the way to Piestewa Peak.

Start of the Summit Trail toward Piestewa Peak

With the peak towering high above to the north, the Summit Trail (also doubling as Trail #302—Freedom Trail for now) begins climbing, heading northward first before reaching a first trail junction. The route continues up to the left, climbing westward to an initial set of switchbacks. The neatly-crafted path leads up to a bench with views of Phoenix at 2/10 mile, then settles into a northerly tread, continually climbing stony steps.

Looking down at the parking area at Phoenix Mountains Park

As the trail reaches a low saddle, the slope down to the right is dotted with saguaro cacti of various shapes and sizes, and hikers also get their first views down into the drainage to the west. By now, the skyscrapers of downtown Phoenix are in full view, with the city bounded by South Mountain and the Estrella Mountains to the south.

Views south toward Phoenix from the Summit Trail

From here the Summit Trail ascends the steeply sloping ridgeline, switchbacking up to a second bench and then two more at a trail junction at 0.55 miles. Here the Freedom Trail drops sharply off to the left, while the Summit Trail continues right and resumes the steady climb. Hikers can now see even further off to the west, where the heavily-populated plains stretch all the way to the White Tank Mountains.

Beyond the junction, the trail enters a brief steep stretch, but, after swinging around to the west side (nice and shady in the morning), the incline suddenly disappears, providing a mild respite from the steady ascent. This is a nice area to examine the jagged, angular rock—composed of a very old metamorphic layer that is primarily schist. As for the flora, in addition to the saguaros, one can spot ubiquitous creosote, mesquites, and ocotillos, as well as barrel, hedgehog, and prickly pear cacti.

Slopes of Piestewa Peak, with Saddleback Mountain in the distance

After treading along the west flank of the ridgeline, the trail returns to switchbacks with open views to the west, south, and east. By now, one can easily make out Camelback Mountain (2,706’), the highest peak in the Phoenix Mountains. Tall saguaro thrive up and down the spine of Piestewa Peak as hikers climb higher. At about the one-mile mark, visitors reach the steepest section; from here it is a sharp ascent up large stony stairsteps to a narrow notch. After wedging through the cleft, hikers are greeted with a choice: left or right to the various pinnacles of Piestewa Peak.

Views northeast across Phoenix Mountain Preserve

The panoramic views from Piestewa are simply excellent, as nearly the entirety of the Phoenix metropolitan area unfolds below in all directions. In addition to the usual southward and westward views, the frame looking north opens up for the first time on the hike: beyond the Phoenix Mountains lies Scottsdale, the Cave Creek area, and the McDowell and New River Mountains. On the horizon to the southeast, the Phoenix Valley stretches in the direction of Tucson, with the suburbs of Chandler, Gilbert, and Mesa in the foreground. Due east, one can see toward Tortilla Flat and the Superstition Mountains.

There are likely to be many other hikers at the peak on a busy morning, but the various summits offer a place for everyone to sit and take in the vistas. The toughest choice is deciding which way to face.

Phoenix from Piestewa Peak

When ready, return the way you came—this is a one-way hike. The downhill is, of course, easier than the steady climb, but watch your step as you descend the steps with deep troughs. All told, the out-and-back clocks in at about 2.2 miles, a roughly 2- to 3-hour journey.

Saguaro cacti from the Summit Trail
Camelback Mountain and the parking area from the Summit Trail
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Mastodon Peak Loop Trail (Joshua Tree National Park, CA)

Mastodon Peak Loop Trail, Joshua Tree National Park, October 2020

Mastodon Peak is a rocky knob in the Cottonwood Mountains of southern Joshua Tree National Park, situated in the Colorado Desert of southern California. From the modest summit, hikers gain 360-panoramic views, with the Eagle Mountains unfolding to the east, Cottonwood Mountains to the west, and Salton Sea to the south—miles of classic southwestern desert, replete with the iconic Mohave yucca, ocotillo, red barrel cactus, and other desert plants. The moderately-difficult Mastodon Peak Loop Trail forms a 2.5-mile circuit, passing through the wild oasis of Cottonwood Spring before climbing to the summit, then descending to a maze of sandy drainages, surrounded by Joshua Tree’s iconic chunky boulders. This is worthy stop for travelers driving on Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and Phoenix and, located near the southern boundary of the park, is considerably less-crowded than the desert Disneyland that is Joshua Tree’s Park Boulevard area.

Map of Mastodon Peak Loop Trail, Joshua Tree National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

Cottonwood Spring, which serves as the trailhead for this hike, is located in the Colorado Desert, one of the two deserts that meet in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. While the namesake Joshua trees are absent in the Colorado Desert, beautiful desert oases are more abundant, and the Cottonwood Spring Oasis is one of the most easily-accessible. From Interstate 10, take Exit 168 and follow Cottonwood Springs Road northward for nearly seven miles, passing through Cottonwood Canyon. Bear right at Cottonwood Visitor Center, then follow Cottonwood Oasis Road to its end, parking at the trailhead at Cottonwood Spring. From here, a clearly marked trail heads eastward toward Mastodon Peak and Lost Palms Oasis. Take this route as it descends quickly into Cottonwood Spring Oasis.

Approaching Cottonwood Spring Oasis

Nestled in an otherwise dry drainage in the Cottonwood Mountains, Cottonwood Spring Oasis is a lush paradise dotted with California Washingtonia (a.k.a. “fan palms”) towering dozens of feet high. Interspersed among the palms are namesake cottonwood trees, also fed by Cottonwood Spring, a rare source of water in the arid Colorado Desert. Cottonwood leaves turn a beautiful golden yellow in fall. The spring itself came to life via earthquake activity, which allowed water to seep out from the earth’s surface, creating the shady oasis seen today.

Beyond Cottonwood Spring Oasis, continue southeast on the Lost Palms Oasis Trail, which doubles as part of the Mastodon Peak Loop. The wide, easy-to-follow trail climbs gradually out of the sandy ravine, ascending a set of stairs at about 2/10 mile. (Note: A brief spur on the right leads to an example of bedrock mortars developed by the native Cahuilla people who used to dwell here.)

The Lost Palms Oasis Trail passes between two ocotillos

Slight variants on sagebrush, saltbush, and creosote predominate in the Colorado Desert, but more prominent plants—including Mohave yucca, California barrel cactus, buckhorn and pencil cholla, and ocotillo—become increasingly visible as the trail proceeds. After passing through a pair of ocotillos, the trail descends a set of stairs to clear another wash before ascending again to a basin with lots of spiky yucca plants. By now, hikers also start to get more open views of the surrounding Cottonwood Mountains.

Lost Palms Oasis Trail

The trail continues to climb to a junction at 7/10 mile, where the Mastodon Peak Trail bears off to the left. Take this turn and ascend through a rock garden and stony notch, with the summit of Mastodon Peak (3,285’)—one high outcrop among many—visible ahead. The rock formations of the area are the result of faulting and weathering, while the orangish hue is a product of chemical changes that have occurred when the mineral components of the metamorphic rock combine with water.

Climbing through the rock garden toward Mastodon Peak

There are a couple points in this section where the trail is harder to follow: keep your eyes peeled for trail cairns and rock dividers that keep hikers on the right track. After ascending a set of crumbly slopes, a spur trail leads off to the right: this unmaintained track leads to the summit of Mastodon Peak.

The final ascent requires some modest rock scrambling along the backside of the peak but is not particularly strenuous. Those reaching the summit are rewarded with wide-reaching vistas: north and west across Pinto Basin to the Hexie Mountains, east to the high Eagle Mountains, south across the Cottonwoods toward Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea, and west to Cottonwood Basin, with the Mojave Desert beyond. A mere mile from the trailhead, this summit panorama packs quite the punch for relatively little effort.

Views northwest toward Pinto Basin and the Hexie Mountains

Retrace your steps back down the spur trail to the main track, this time turning right to continue on with the loop. (Note: Follow signs for the campground.) After hugging the mountain on the right, the Mastodon Peak Loop Trail descends to the long-abandoned Mastodon Mine, a gold mine which—like nearly all mines in the area—provided brief but ephemeral hopes of profit.

Remains of Mastodon Mine

From the mine, the trail drops to a sandy wash at 1.45 miles. Follow the arroyo for around ¼ mile, then leave the wash on the right, descending again—amid gargantuan boulder—to a larger wash at 1.9 miles.

The trail leaves this drainage again on the right at 2.05 miles, after which the trail follows a narrow track into a side ravine with more palms, cottonwoods, and—curiously—non-native eucalyptus trees. Emptying into yet another wash, follow the sandy basin to a trail fork. Stay left, following the wash into a wider drainage with lots of creosote bush. Just before reaching Cottonwood Oasis Road, look for a marked path heading off to the left, which leads back to the road just short of the parking area. This is the end of the 2.5-mile hike.

Skirting around toward the end of the hike, with Cottonwood Campground and Visitor Center visible ahead

The Mastodon Peak Loop Trail is a moderately-difficult trek that should take between 1 ½ and 2 ½ hours. Of course, it’s best to avoid summer—but if you are in the area during the brutal hot months, plan to hike early in the morning.

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