The summer camping season is well underway, and what better way to escape the heat of California's Central Valley than to head for the north coast? The northern "Redwood Coast" of California offers a cool, foggy, forested respite for those of us who reside in the warmer and drier parts of the state. Redwood National and State Parks offer a selection of campgrounds and a network of hiking trails to suit all types of outdoorsy folk, from tent campers and backpackers to day hikers and sightseers. If you're into rugged coastline, lush redwood forests, wildflower meadows and herds of roaming elk, then Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, located about an hour north of Eureka on Highway 101, is the place for you.
During a recent trip, Eric and I spent several days at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, hiking and observing the local flora and fauna. We camped for two nights at Gold Bluffs Beach campground and two nights at Elk Prairie campground, both of which exceeded all expectations.
The small campground at Gold Bluffs Beach is nestled among dunes just a couple hundred yards from the breaking surf. Above the campground are the "gold bluffs," which prospectors mined (with little success) during the late 19th and early 20th century. The campground is accessed by Davison Road, 5 miles of steep, winding, rough unpaved track through the forest. To add one extra element, the road was wet and muddy when we drove in, which greatly added to our adventure (and Eric's trepidation). Even so, our little Corolla managed just fine, and we saw plenty of other small two-wheel drive cars at the campground. (No trailers of any kind are allowed on the road, and vehicles must be no wider than 8 feet and no longer than 24 feet. Trust me, this rule is in place for a reason!) One mile from the campground is the trailhead to the popular Fern Canyon, so despite it all, the road is heavily trafficked.
The view from the Gold Bluffs Beach campground can't be beat. Choose a site facing the ocean (reservations are required May through September) and you'll have an unobstructed view of the mighty Pacific all to yourself. Provided the weather cooperates, the sunsets here are phenomenal. (In the event that the weather does not cooperate, be prepared for heavy, misting fog that has the penetrating capability of a soaking rain. Put the rain fly on your tent regardless of the weather, and bring a raincoat and waterproof footwear. We were certainly glad we were prepared!)
Rain, fog or shine, the sea is always magnificent, and falling asleep to the sound of breaking waves is an experience you'll not soon forget.
In the morning, don't be surprised if you find large (very large) elk tracks in the sand not too far from your tent! Roosevelt Elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) roam the campground freely, browsing as they move across meadows between the forest and coastal strand. They may look tame, but they are very much wild; like all other wild animals, do not approach the elk and never feed wildlife.
Because California's redwood forests are home to the endangered Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) Prairie Creek Redwoods and all other redwoods state and national parks have adopted a serious policy for protecting these special birds. Marbled Murrelets are small sea birds; they belong to a group known as alcids, which includes puffins, murres and auklets. While they spend most of their lives at sea, Marbled Murrelets nest high in old growth redwood trees (a curious habit that is unique among seabirds, and was not discovered by scientists until 1974) and both eggs and young are vulnerable to predation by corvids - that intrepid group of birds that includes crows, ravens and jays. Predatory corvids are drawn to campgrounds and picnic areas by the food scraps and garbage that people leave behind. With a virtually unlimited, unnaturally rich supply of food at their disposal, crow, raven and jay populations have experienced significant growth, resulting in artificially high numbers of these individuals. This translates to an artificially high number of murrelet predators, and a decrease in the already threatened murrelet population.
To combat this problem, parks require that visitors watch a short video on keeping campsites "crumb clean," as well as sign a statement acknowledging that you understand the rules and will be responsible in keeping your campsite free of garbage, food scraps, unattended food and anything else that might attract corvids, down to the very last crumb! It may sound extreme, but it's really common sense and good practice to follow anytime you are anywhere in nature, in keeping with the "Leave No Trace" ethic. The campgrounds also require that you store your food and other scented items (like toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) in the bear-proof lockers provided, or out of sight in your vehicle.
The campsites at Gold Bluffs Beach are equipped with picnic tables, fire rings and bear-proof lockers. The campground has potable water spigots, flush toilets and hot showers (a real luxury!) And of course, don't forget the incredible views!
For more information, visit Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park's website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=415