About Fern Canyon Waterfalls
The Fern Canyon Waterfalls was kind of our waterfallers excuse to experience firsthand this popular fern-filled narrow canyon in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
Rather than having a singular waterfall that would typically act as the destination of a hike, the waterfalls that we encountered here were merely side attractions to the Fern Canyon itself.
That said, in order to see the waterfalls flow, we had to deal with a catch-22 situation where the increased water would have meant more difficult trailhead access as well as a much wetter experience.
Heck, our late season visit towards the end of November was under low waterflow conditions.
Therefore, we didn’t see many any waterfalls flowing within the canyon, but we did see streaks where they would have flown as shown in the picture above.
And even on that visit, both Julie and Tahia got wet despite their efforts at trying to stay dry on the numerous stream crossings of Home Creek while traversing the floor of Fern Canyon.
So that gives you an idea of how wet it can be here.
To complete the Fern Canyon experience, we also hiked the James Irvine Trail, which skirted along the northern rim of Fern Canyon.
We went as far as a footbridge over Home Creek (well upstream from the depths of Fern Canyon itself), where we spotted a small waterfall barely visible through the overgrowth below.
While our late November 2020 visit provided us with a teasing glimpse of what Fern Canyon was like in the low season, I’m definitely keen to come back to see what this place would be like under wetter conditions.
Details of the Catch-22 Situation
I’d imagine that Fern Canyon would harbor more active waterfalls that what we saw under rainier or wetter conditions.
That said, under such conditions, we’d likely have to come prepared with waterproof boots or even rain boots while exploring Fern Canyon.
The park authorities may also close access to the interior of Fern Canyon if Home Creek runs too high or there’s too much risk of landslides or falling trees.
Moreover, the access to the nearest trailhead for Fern Canyon was at the end of the unpaved Davidson Road (see directions below).
However, an unbridged stream crossing of Squashan Creek (as well as two other branches of that creek) may prevent low clearance vehicles from continuing if there’s too much water or there’s too much bank erosion causing the vehicle to bottom out.
If that happens, then we’d have to hike the last 1.2 miles (2.4 miles round-trip) to avoid a stranding from a disabled or stuck vehicle at these crossings.
There’s also a gate before Squashan Creek that park authorities can close if the authorities deem the conditions to be too dangerous for even high clearance vehicles.
Experiencing Fern Canyon
I observed that most people who come to the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park primarily do so to visit Fern Canyon.
Indeed, we already started to see quite a few people starting to use the trails before 9am, but we saw lots of families here later in the day towards the late morning and early afternoon.
Starting from the parking lot at the end of the Davidson Road, we went around 0.2-mile on a well-used developed trail before reaching the mouth of Fern Canyon.
From there, we had a choice of crossing a small plank acting as a footbridge over Home Creek to continue to the James Irvine Trail as well as continue on the Davidson Trail, or we could go right up Fern Canyon.
Obviously, the best way to experience Fern Canyon is to do so by walking within the canyon so we bypassed that plank bridge and started going upstream into the Fern Canyon itself.
Immediately, we had to negotiate unbridged crossings of Home Creek during our visit though I’ve read that during high season they might put back more of those plank bridges at most of these crossings.
We had to have gone through at least over a half-dozen of these stream crossings, but the deeper we went into Fern Canyon, the more pronounced the fern-covered walls were.
Also, early morning seemed to be a magical time to make our visit because there were far fewer people (so it was easier to socially distance), and the rising sun seemed to pierce through the mist and coastal fog in a very atmospheric way.
At roughly 0.3-0.4 miles into Fern Canyon, we then encountered perhaps the most dramatic part of Fern Canyon where there was a streak belonging to one of the Fern Canyon Waterfalls.
Just beyond this really scenic stretch, the canyon made a bend to the right after two more crossings of Home Creek, where we then encountered a landslide obstacle where several trees fell into Fern Canyon.
Given our lack of preparedness, I didn’t feel confident that Julie and Tahia could make it past this obstacle without getting wet so we ultimately turned back.
However, it turned out that perhaps with a little persistence and preparedness, it really wasn’t that bad of an obstacle to continue on.
For just beyond this series of fallen trees, Fern Canyon started to open up, and after another 0.1-mile, I noticed a couple of temporary signs pointing to an ascending trail on the left.
After a brief ascent along the northern rim of the canyon, it eventually joined up with the James Irvine Trail.
At this point, I had the option of going left to return to the mouth of Fern Canyon and the plank bridge there, or I could continue to the right to go further upstream along Home Creek.
Experiencing the James Irvine Trail
Back at the mouth of Fern Canyon, we were able to hike up the James Irvine Trail shortly after crossing a plank bridge over Home Creek.
We then followed a series of steps ascending the north rim of Fern Canyon, where the trail then followed it deeper into the forest full of ferns and redwoods.
Because we were on the rim of Fern Canyon, this trail felt more like a typical forest trail, and we’d no longer get to be surrounded by canyon walls covered in ferns, which made Fern Canyon so popular.
Under much wetter conditions where Home Creek could be swollen, the James Irvine Trail would be the more benign alternative.
Anyways, after ascending the steps, we followed this mostly level trail to a signposted junction at about 0.3-mile.
This junction was with the upper end of the Fern Canyon hike, but we continued straight ahead to remain on the James Irvine Trail.
In another 0.4-mile, the James Irvine Trail junctioned with the Friendship Ridge Trail, and in another 0.1-mile beyond that junction, we then reached a footbridge over Home Creek.
This footbridge contained a pair of seats as well as a memorial commemorating John Glascock Baldwin, but it also seemed to yield a very obstructed view of a small waterfall spilling into Home Creek.
It was hardly something worth going out of the way for, but I’d imagine under wetter conditions, the waterfall would be even more conspicuous.
Overall, we wound up hiking about a mile round-trip on the James Irvine Trail, but if you combine that with the Fern Canyon adventure, then we ended up hiking up to 2.4 miles round-trip.
Given the problem-solving involved with the stream crossings in Fern Canyon, we ended up spending about two hours on this hike.
Extending A Visit
It turned out that Fern Canyon wasn’t the only attraction in this section of the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
Indeed, we had the option of walking from the parking lot at the end of Davidson Road towards the pristine Gold Bluffs Beach.
And we also had the option of continuing the hike further north of Fern Canyon along the Davidson Trail towards the Gold Dust Falls, which were a series of three attractive waterfalls.
These waterfalls are the topic of a different write-up, but if you combine the hike described on this page with the Gold Dust Falls, then you’re looking at spending at least a half-day away from the car.
The Fern Canyon Waterfalls reside in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park near Orick in Humboldt County, California. It is administered by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.
I’ll describe how we drove to Fern Canyon from Arcata since that was the most significant city or town before the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
The village of Orick was actually closer to the entrance of the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, but I’d argue it wasn’t a significant enough town to act as a base.
So from city of Arcata, we drove north on the US101 for about 37 miles to the Davidson Road / Elk Meadow turnoff on the left.
This turnoff was about a mile north of Orick.
Then, we turned left onto the Davidson Road, where it became unpaved shortly after passing through Elk Meadow.
Next, we continued on the unpaved Davidson Road for about the next 5 miles to the Day Use Parking Area right in front of a gate before an unbridged crossing of Squashan Creek.
If the creek crossing is too risky to proceed in a low-clearance passenger vehicle, then this Day Use Parking Area would be the end of the drive.
However, if the creek had low enough flow, and the erosion on the road wasn’t too bad, then it’s possible to drive the remaining 1.2 miles to the end of the Davidson Road and park there.
Overall, it took us about 80 minutes to make this drive though we did have about a 5-10 minute delay when a herd of elk blocked traffic on the US101.
There was an $8 parking fee during our November 2020 visit, which was collected at a kiosk roughly 2 miles before the unbridged Squashan Creek crossing.
For geographical context, Arcata was about 35 miles (over 30 minutes drive) south of Orick, 9 miles (about 15 minutes drive) north of Eureka, 142 miles (3 hours drive) north of Fort Bragg, about 151 miles (under 3.5 hours drive) north of Mendocino, 143 miles (over 2.5 hours drive) north of Willits, 225 miles (about 4 hours drive) northwest of Santa Rosa, and 279 miles (about 5 hours drive) north of San Francisco.
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