Your feet will get wet, your car will need washing and you won't mind. That's just one measure of what awaits on the short, scenic hike through Fern Canyon in Humboldt County's Prairie Creek Redwood State Park.
The Fern Canyon Loop Trail, which neighbors Gold Bluffs Beach, measures barely a mile. The altitude change is only about 150 feet. But the path takes you up a narrow canyon into a primordial jumble of greenery between walls that rise 50 to 80 feet on each side, nearly straight up.
If the scene seems familiar, that's understandable. Parts of "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" were shot here 25 years ago, as were parts of the BBC's "Walking With Dinosaurs." A special-effects team added the film's scampering dinosaurs in postproduction, but as you splash along now, it will be easy enough to imagine a Spinosaurus or Ceratosaurus lurking behind the next log.
It's also easy to recognize that you're far from Southern California — because there's water everywhere.
The walls weep. The fronds drip. Home Creek riffles through the canyon and underfoot. Unless you're a wizard at hopping rock to rock and balancing atop loose logs, your feet and ankles will get wet. Maybe your shins too. (Bring water shoes.)
Sword ferns, five-fingered ferns, lady ferns, chain ferns, deer ferns — they all mingle here, along with northern red-legged frogs, Pacific giant salamanders and sometimes Roosevelt elk. The tall trees throw deep shade, but photographer Myung Chun and I hit sunny patches too.
I felt guilty enjoying such a rare setting after such a short, easy walk. But I got over it.
"We've done Yosemite and seen the sequoias. But we wanted to see the redwoods. They're different. And this is beautiful," said hiker Jim Newton, who had come with his family from Maryland.
The second half of the loop is a more conventional route through Sitka spruce forest on higher ground. When I finished, I turned around to rehike the wet bit.
And I didn't feel guilty doing it, because this summer, rangers are experimenting with a cap on summer traffic on this route. For the first time, rangers are requiring summer visitors to either book their canyon-adjacent parking in advance or hike into the canyon from the park visitor center, a 10-mile round trip on the James Irvine Trail.
The requirement remains in place through Sept. 30. The day-use fee is $12 cash at the entrance, whether you come during summer or not. No dogs allowed.
Under the new system, rangers issue half-day reservations to 35 cars for 8 a.m. to noon, 35 more from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 20 all-day reservations. That means no more than 90 cars per day on the usually muddy access road — a dramatic change from 2019 and 2021, when rangers counted an average of about 250 cars per day. On those days, rangers say, the canyon was thronged with hikers.
The new booking requirement, a pilot program, might cut down on spontaneity, but it follows a national pattern. Facing waves of stir-crazy pandemic-era park visitors, including many first-timers, rangers across the U.S. have been adding restrictions in a bid to fend off damage and overcrowding. (The summer's day-trip reservation requirement in Yosemite National Park through Sept. 30 is part of the same trend.)
Chun and I arrived about 1 p.m. with the afternoon shift of hikers. I spoke with many, and heard no complaints about the reservation requirement or the foot traffic.
"I love to see people falling in love with nature," said Kim Hill of Washington, D.C. "But I kind of want them to fall in love with nature while I'm not there."
If park officials decide the booking requirement is a success, it's likely to return about May 1 next year.
Whenever you go, don't underestimate the drive to the Fern Canyon trailhead on Davison Road. It's a 7.5-mile, all-dirt access route that often features two shallow stream crossings (depending on the weather). Rangers recommend but don't require SUVs and high-clearance vehicles. On the sunny day that we came, we made it up the road in a rented Chevrolet Malibu, no problem.
Footnote for hikers who hate company: Davison Road will close for grading Sept. 26-30. So if you want to be alone or nearly alone in the canyon, wait until that week. Then hike 5 miles into Fern Canyon from the park visitor center on the James Irvine Trail (and 5 miles back out).
If you go
Where to hike: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, 127011 Newton B. Drury Parkway, Orick, California; (707) 464-6101.
Where to sleep: Trinidad Inn, 1170 Patrick's Point Drive, Trinidad, California; (707) 677-3349. Nine rooms. I paid $123 for the smallest. Reservations by phone only.
Trinidad Bay B&B, 560 Edwards St., Trinidad; (707) 677-0840. Great view of the bay, pier and seastacks below. Four rooms, typically about $325-$395. nightly.
Where to eat: Once you get north of Arcata in Humboldt County, California, the dining options dwindle. We had one lunch and one dinner at Lighthouse Grill(355 Main St., Trinidad; (707) 677-0077). I've eaten well before at nearby Heady's Pizza and Pour (359 Main St., Trinidad; (707) 677-3077) but this time the inside was crowded and it has no patio seating, so we steered clear. If you need breakfast at 7 a.m. try Murphy's market and deli (Main and View streets, Trinidad; deli (707) 677-9473).