Of the several beautiful “fern canyons” found along the North Coast, Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is undoubtedly the most awe-inspiring. Five-finger, deer, lady, sword, and chain ferns smother the precipitous walls of the canyon. Bright yellow monkey-flowers abound, as well as fairy lanterns, those creamy white, or greenish, bell-shaped flowers that hang in clusters.
Ferns are descendants of an ancient group of plants that were more numerous 200 million years ago. Ferns have roots and stems similar to flowering plants, but are considered to be a primitive form of plant life because they reproduce by spores, not seeds.
Lovely as it is, the size and shape of Fern Canyon did not occur naturally. Hydraulic miners of the late 19th century turned high- pressure cannons on the canyon walls, washing away the soil in order to uncover gold. Getting hosed left the canyon with a level bottom and narrow, near-perpendicular walls.
Fortunately nature rebounded big-time from this hydro-assault and today there’s hardly a centimeter of canyon wall not smothered in greenery—particularly ferns.
The loop through Fern Canyon is only 1 mile round trip, but a hike you’ll long remember. The trail is of lollipop loop configuration. Hike the whole loop or go to the top of Fern Canyon and return the way you came to repeat the most intriguing segment of the trail.
Expect company, lots of it, in the summer when the wooden footbridges are up and everybody and their brother from Iowa and sister from Italy does this hike. Come back in the off-season when the bridges are down if you want solitude in Fern Canyon.
Directions: From Highway 101, 3 miles north of Orick, turn west on Davison Road. The dirt, washboard road descends logged slopes and through second-growth redwoods 4 miles to the Gold Bluffs Beach and park entry station (day use fee). Drive 4 more miles to the end of the road at a parking lot (which can fill up at the height of the summer travel season) for Fern Canyon Trailhead. Restrooms are here, as well access to the beach.
The hike: The path leads along the pebbled floor of Fern Canyon. In the wettest places, the route follows wooden planks across Home Creek. With sword and five-finger ferns pointing the way, you pass through marshy areas covered with wetlands grass and dotted with a bit of skunk cabbage. Lurking about are Pacific giant salamanders.
A half-mile from the trailhead, the path climbs out of the canyon on wooden steps to intersect James Irvine Trail. A mile or two out and back amidst dense redwood forest is a great addition to Fern Canyon Trail. James Irvine Trail (see hike description) crosses to the south side of the canyon proceeds southeast with Home Creek. The trail reaches the upper neck of Fern Canyon, and continues to its upper trailhead near the park visitor center.
If you continue with the loop, travel 0.25 mile through the forest and loop back around to the mouth of Fern Canyon.