California Redwoods – Hiking to the Headwater Redwoods

Headwaters Forest was the last major acquisition of Old Growth Redwoods left in the world. Located just a few miles west of Highway 101 in Humboldt county California it is seldom visited but often in the news. The actual groves are primordial and difficult to get to, but you can get to the edge of it all if you are in decent shape and in for a challenge.

The trail head and parking area are located several miles down Elk River Road, the last real exit off Highway 101 when approaching Eureka, California from the south. If you get to K-Mart you just missed it, turn around and go back. And watch for the sharp right after you exit the freeway, if you go up the hill and drive by the fire station, turn around, you missed it again. (Slow down, there are 3 different speed zones coming up, 55 to 45 to 35, the CHP lurk along the road for the unsuspecting.)

Travel Ideas - Headwaters RedwoodsFollow Elk River Road about a mile or so and up the little hill to the chicken foot ( a chicken foot is a three-way fork), take the right hand fork, and drive on for about five miles through green pasture land. Humboldt county has the best micro-climate in the world for growing grass (yeah, that kind too.) The dairy industry is a major part of the economy, the high butter fat milk is sought after by ice-cream manufacturers. Expect to see cows, horses, sheep – watch out for skunks, both dead and alive.

And yes, Martha, that really was a covered bridge we just drove by (on Berta Road). If you want to drive on it you can, or wait, isn’t that another covered bride coming up on Zane’s Road? Both bridges are 52 feet long and built of Redwood in 1936. Berta’s Ranch Road’s covered bridge is the most westerly covered bridge in the United States, Zane’s is a close second.

Go all the way to the end of the road, it dead ends at the trail head. Park your car with some consideration for where the shade will be when you get back from the hike. Be sure to have good hiking shoes, plenty of water, a hat, and sun screen (even if it’s foggy). It is a six mile jaunt to the top of the ridge and a gain of almost 2,000 feet in altitude. The first three miles are pleasantly level, then about a mile of gradual incline, then heavy duty steep for two miles.

The Park Service has provided several informational signs along the way. There used to be a full scale logging community up here called Falk, long gone now, but remnants and ruins remain. Don’t be shy about exploring, but keep in mind the time. Even the gutsy and gung-ho will find the last two miles challenging. And do take a break in the grove with the picturesque and inviting stream running through it. The tranquil sounds of the brook are magical and the cool shade is welcome. If it’s just you and your friends it will be oh so wonderfully quiet.

If you made it to the top, congratulations, not everyone does. Take the little trail to the left and you will have a vista all the way out to the glorious Pacific (on a clear day). Behind your back is the Headwaters Forest proper, your six mile hike was the “string” on a balloon, the balloon, all 7,400 acres is on the southeast side of the ridge you are standing on. Go ahead, wander on down a little, but please be careful, the Redwood Biome is a temperate rain forest, it is wet, slippery, and quite the underfoot tangle. Mind the banana slugs. Watch out for voles.

The most glorious groves are deep within the forest and a good thousand feet down the heavily wooded slope. There is talk of new trails going in soon to make the groves more accessible, and who knows, someday they actually may get around to it. If you do plan on venturing down the slope be extra careful, mind your back trail, and keep an eye on the time, it is the same six miles back to the car. A twisted ankle could put you in the woods at night, and yes, that was bear scat you saw on the trail, they love the prolific blackberries just as much as you do and yes, they do come out to play at night.

You have done something few have done, it’s a tough hike and not a well known trail head. Please remember to take out your trash, and it is always appreciated when you pick up after others. Now that you know the way you can plan an earlier start and a longer stay next time. Meanwhile you have the pictures to share with your friend. You did remember to bring the camera, didn’t you? See you on the trail, good hiking until then.