Saturday, November 19, 2016

Hiking between walls of moisture-dripping ferns and mosses: Fern Canyon

Fern Canyon, Humboldt County, California
Slippery, foot-bridge-enhanced trail through Fern Canyon, Humboldt County, California
When visiting the coastal redwood forests of northern California, you are getting used to tilt your head far back to scan the giant trees from root to crown. You want to tilt your head for something else? What about an excursion to spectacular Fern Canyon within Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park? This is a deep gorge, where you will experience a unique botanical adventure by tilting your head (and camera) for California native ferns and mosses clinging to steep cliffs. And if your neck gets stiff, there are plenty of ferns to approach that hang from the lower walls alongside the creek bed.

From the trailhead at the end of Coast Bluff Beach Road, you will arrive at the opening of the stream canyon after a short northbound hike between the beach and bluffs. Level Fern Canyon Trail follows Home Creek, which carved out the canyon through sedimentary soil. River sandals or waterproof boots are the footwear of choice. The creek trail is generally passable; but after a rain storm, especially in winter, a flood may rush through. Foot bridges are installed over the creek during summer months. Year-round, water is dripping down the rock faces, creating a fern paradise, which is the home of dippers and amphibians, including the Pacific giant salamander and the northern red-legged frog.

Fern with radiating fronds at canyon cliff
The natural history of Fern Canyon is briefly summarized on an educational panel near the trailhead:

Millions of years ago, a retreating sea left these coastal bluffs behind. Waters draining to the ocean sculpted the rocky formations into sheer canyon walls. Some of the exquisite ferns now clinging to the steep, shadowy cliffs are ancient species whose ancestry can be traced back 325 million years.

The canyon is now shrouded with lush five-fingered ferns, dark green sword ferns, and delicate lady ferns. Scouring winter floods periodically rush through the canyon, sweeping debris from its floor. Spruce and red alder saplings often survive for a few years on small terrace ledges, but they rarely reach maturity before falling off or being swept away.

Seeping waters supply year-round dampness for the dense foliage and provide habitat for a diverse mix of moisture-loving creatures such as salamanders, frogs, and dippers. Several perennial waterfalls cascade from the canyon rim, adding to the cool, moist canyon microclimate.

Fern Canyon, Humboldt County, California
Visitors entering Fern Canyon at its opening near the coast

The Fern Canyon Loop Trail offers round-trip hiking—including a creek and a rim paths. After flooding or a landslide event, however, visitors will find it advisable to return via the route they walked into the narrowing canyon.

Getting to the coast-side trailhead for Fern Canyon
The coast-side trailhead is accessible via unpaved roads. It is located at the midsection of Gold Bluffs Beach. Take Davison Road, which connects Hwy 101 north of Orick with the beach. Find the Entrance Kiosk at the ocean side after driving about 3.5 miles northwest-bound along Davison Road. The kiosk is about half-way between the Davison Road/Hwy 101 junction and your destination. Once through the entrance, follow Gold Bluff Beach Road north toward its dead-end, which is the trailhead to the Gold Bluffs Coastal Trail and the Fern Canyon Loop Trail. Although a relatively remote location, Fern Canyon (and the road and short coastal trail section leading to it) often gets overcrowded in summer.
Fern Canyon can also be reached from the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park visitor center via a five-mile-long hike (one way) on James Irvine Trail.

References and more to explore
[1] California's Redwood Coast: Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods SP [].
[2] Phil Rovai (park ranger): Fern Canyon: The Real “Lost World” at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park [].

Ferns with waving fronds clinging to a steep wall of Fern Canyon