Field Trips: Fern Canyon

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Fern Canyon is a lush little feature of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park— a tiny winding canyon whose dripping walls are lined with soft ferns and vibrant mosses.

The park is located very northwest corner of California, nestled against Redwood National Park.  The two parks are managed together, as part of the “Redwood National and State Parks.”  It’s a substantial six hour drive north from San Francisco or Silicon Valley, but as you will see, it’s unique, and arguably worth the trip.

 


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The trailhead to Fern Canyon is at the end of a long gravel road in the park, at a parking lot on the beach.

The trail begins at the tree line, just past the tall grasses. The groves of giant coastal redwoods are found a few miles inland, in damp coastal forest areas, kept moist by fog, rain, and cool air.  In the forest here at the beach, it’s yet more damp and moist— perfect conditions for happy ferns and mosses.

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Eight species of ferns have been found in the canyon.  Apparently a handful of amphibian species as well, although we didn’t see any on our visit.

Separate signs, posted everywhere near the trailhead, warn you not to approach the wild elk that were wandering over the beach grasses.

 

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Only a few hundred feet down the trail, the climate shifts dramatically.  It’s an open, airy forest with light scrub, skinny trees, and (yes) a few ferns.  The trail comes to a little creek, and the trail markers indicate for you to follow it upstream.  And so you do.

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And suddenly, it’s magical.

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If you visit Fern Canyon, there’s one important thing to remember: bring a pair of hiking shoes or old tennis shoes that you don’t mind getting wet.

While much of the path can be traversed along river stones with dry feet, there are also quite a few places where you need to walk through brisk, ankle-deep water to get a little further upstream.  And, the river stones aren’t quite smooth or small enough that walking barefoot would be very comfortable.

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And while the trail is relatively short, and not particularly challenging—good for kids, even —there are few places where you need to walk over slippery logs and sections of dirt trail, and so hiking shoes or tennis shoes will handle the path better than most sandals.

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As you walk further into the canyon, the canyon walls start to get taller, and more densely filled with ferns and mosses.

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Looking up at the canyon walls, you can begin to see why: There’s a steady drip of water draining from the forest floor above the canyon, down the walls, keeping the the plants cool and wet.

 

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In the places where the water drips most heavily, you find more mosses than ferns.  In this little waterfall of a spot, where the water was visibly dripping off the faces of the moss, we even saw a little rainbow.

 

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The most common fern in the canyon is the western maidenhair fern, also known as the five finger fern, amongst other common names.  In some places the walls go up fifty feet covered with these ferns— note the humans for scale.

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The whole of the trail is only a mile or so, but it can feel like much more as you walk slowly, taking in the sights, and watching your step through the wading portions of the hike.

So, if you should have occasion to visit northwest California and have a little time to spare at the Redwood Parks, be sure to visit the tall trees, but also take a little time to admire what majesty comes from such little plants, here at Fern Canyon.

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