Fern Canyon Waterfalls

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park / Redwoods National Park / Orick, California, USA

About Fern Canyon Waterfalls


Hiking Distance: 1.2-2.4 miles round-trip
Suggested Time: 60-90 minutes

Date first visited: 2020-11-21
Date last visited: 2020-11-21

Waterfall Latitude: 41.40249
Waterfall Longitude: -124.06126

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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.

Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_062_11212020 - One of the streaks where Fern Canyon Waterfalls would flow into the fern-covered canyon itself
One of the streaks where Fern Canyon Waterfalls would flow into the fern-covered 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.

Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_055_11212020 - Julie and Tahia at a particularly scenic part deep within Fern Canyon
Julie and Tahia at a particularly scenic part deep within 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

Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_039_11212020 - Fern Canyon can be a wet experience even late in the Autumn Season like what's shown here.  So imagine how much wetter it would be when Home Creek flows higher in the Winter and Spring
Fern Canyon can be a wet experience even late in the Autumn Season like what’s shown here. So imagine how much wetter it would be when Home Creek flows higher in the Winter and Spring

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).

Drive_to_Trillium_Falls_003_iPhone_11212020 - Looking back at the unbridged crossing of Squashan Creek on the Davidson Road. This was in low flow, but under wetter conditions, I can easily foresee this crossing being impassable to most low-clearance 2wd vehicles
Looking back at the unbridged crossing of Squashan Creek on the Davidson Road. This was in low flow, but under wetter conditions, I can easily foresee this crossing being impassable to most low-clearance 2wd vehicles

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.

Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_026_11212020 - The Fern Canyon experience started with a brief 0.2-mile stretch along the Davidson Trail where it traversed through open scenery with crashing waves heard in the distance and moss-covered trees and ferns flanking one side of the footpath
The Fern Canyon experience started with a brief 0.2-mile stretch along the Davidson Trail where it traversed through open scenery with crashing waves heard in the distance and moss-covered trees and ferns flanking one side of the footpath

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.

Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_028_11212020 - Entering the mouth of Fern Canyon, where we deviated from both the Davidson Trail and the James Irvine Trail to go right upstream within the canyon itself
Entering the mouth of Fern Canyon, where we deviated from both the Davidson Trail and the James Irvine Trail to go right upstream within the 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.

Thus, we found ourselves wishing that we had brought rain boots (well, my waterproof Vasque boots did the job) along with trekking poles for balance.

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.

Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_060_11212020 - Looking directly at a noticeable streak in the canyon wall at a particularly dramatic part of Fern Canyon
Looking directly at a noticeable streak in the canyon wall at a particularly dramatic part of Fern Canyon

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.

Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_059_11212020 - This was the landslide obstacle that turned us back within Fern Canyon though in hindsight, we probably could have slowly figured out a way to stay dry while getting past it without needing to backtrack and go through all those stream crossings again
This was the landslide obstacle that turned us back within Fern Canyon though in hindsight, we probably could have slowly figured out a way to stay dry while getting past it without needing to backtrack and go through all those stream crossings again

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.

Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_076_11212020 - Julie and Tahia crossing the plank bridge over Home Creek at the mouth of Fern Canyon to continue towards the James Irvine Trail
Julie and Tahia crossing the plank bridge over Home Creek at the mouth of Fern Canyon to continue towards the James Irvine Trail

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.

Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_092_11212020 - Julie and Tahia continuing along the James Irvine Trail as the morning sun produced dazzling god beams between the firs and redwoods
Julie and Tahia continuing along the James Irvine Trail as the morning sun produced dazzling god beams between the firs and redwoods

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.

Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_122_11212020 - This was the small waterfall that we saw spilling into Home Creek as seen from a footbridge along the James Irvine Trail, which also acted as our turnaround point
This was the small waterfall that we saw spilling into Home Creek as seen from a footbridge along the James Irvine Trail, which also acted as our turnaround point

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.

Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_468_11212020 - In addition to Fern Canyon, it was easy to extend a visit by checking out the pristine Gold Bluffs Beach
In addition to Fern Canyon, it was easy to extend a visit by checking out 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.

Authorities

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.

Drive_to_Golds_Bluff_Beach_021_iPhone_11212020 - The drive to Fern Canyon involved taking the unpaved Davidson Road, which started to become unpaved shortly after passing Elk Meadow
Drive_to_Golds_Bluff_Beach_025_iPhone_11212020 - Driving through a pretty thick grove of firs and redwoods along Davidson Road where not much sunlight makes it through the forest canopy
Drive_to_Golds_Bluff_Beach_034_iPhone_11212020 - Continuing on the unpaved Davidson Road as the scenery opened up a bit as we got closer to the unbridged stream crossing of Squashan Creek
Drive_to_Golds_Bluff_Beach_036_iPhone_11212020 - Passing by a couple that decided to walk the final 1.2-mile stretch of Davidson Road instead of risking damage or stranding to their vehicle at the Squashan Creek crossing
Drive_to_Golds_Bluff_Beach_038_iPhone_11212020 - Looking at a particularly deep depression that we had to cross where some runoff of Squashan Creek cut into Davidson Road
Drive_to_Trillium_Falls_002_iPhone_11212020 - Looking back at another one of the unbridged stream crossings towards the end of Davidson Road
Drive_to_Trillium_Falls_001_iPhone_11212020 - Another look back at another eroded part of Davidson Road thanks to a third crossing of part of Squashan Creek
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_004_11212020 - Looking towards some picnic tables along some use-trails leading from the parking at the end of Davidson Road towards Gold Bluffs Beach
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_013_11212020 - Looking over some other picnic tables adjacent to the parking lot at the end of Davidson Road
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_015_11212020 - Julie and Tahia starting on the hike to Fern Canyon
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_017_11212020 - Initially, the hike towards Fern Canyon started off somewhat open in the first 0.2-mile
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_021_11212020 - Then, the initial 0.2-mile stretch of trail passed through a grove of trees covered in moss and ferns attesting to the high moisture of the area
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_030_11212020 - Julie and Tahia hiking into Fern Canyon after already making unbridged crossings of Home Creek
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_031_11212020 - Experiencing the scenic and unusual Fern Canyon from its canyon floor
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_033_11212020 - Julie and Tahia making another one of several unbridged crossings of Home Creek within Fern Canyon
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_035_11212020 - Tahia approaching another unbridged crossing of Home Creek in Fern Canyon
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_037_11212020 - Julie and Tahia making another crossing of Home Creek in Fern Canyon right where we encountered the first people that we saw on our hike
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_038_11212020 - Looking ahead at the scenic Fern Canyon with some incident lighting from the rising sun on the morning of our hike
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_040_11212020 - Julie and Tahia gingerly making another unbridged crossing of Home Creek in Fern Canyon
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_042_11212020 - Julie and Tahia approaching yet more unbridged crossings of Home Creek as Fern Canyon continues to get more scenic
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_047_11212020 - Julie and Tahia going by some streak where a seasonal waterfall spilling into Fern Canyon would appear in wetter times
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_048_11212020 - Looking back at another precarious (without waterproof shoes) crossing of Home Creek
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_049_11212020 - Tahia exercising her gymnastics skills to balance herself on this log while making another crossing of Home Creek in Fern Canyon
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_052_11212020 - Tahia and Julie making yet another crossing of Home Creek where Fern Canyon was getting really scenic (as you can see hinted at in the background)
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_057_11212020 - Tahia and Julie about to go across yet another stream crossing of Home Creek in Fern Canyon as we were approaching a landslide obstacle
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_063_11212020 - Julie and Tahia retreating towards the mouth of Fern Canyon, which meant we had to negotiate all those stream crossings again
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_065_11212020 - Looking back at attractive incident lighting within Fern Canyon while we retreated back to the mouth of the canyon
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_069_11212020 - Tahia and Julie going back across the same stream crossings that we did on the way up Fern Canyon
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_075_11212020 - Looking back at other people making the adventure into Fern Canyon
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_083_11212020 - Julie ascending the James Irvine Trail, which skirted the north rim of Fern Canyon
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_084_11212020 - Checking out some interesting mushrooms growing by the James Irvine Trail
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_085_11212020 - Julie and Tahia on a boardwalk part of the James Irvine Trail
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_097_11212020 - This was one of the bigger and more colorful mushrooms that we saw growing alongside the James Irvine Trail
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_104_11212020 - Even though we were above Fern Canyon along the James Irvine Trail, there were still lots of ferns around us
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_107_11212020 - Looking up towards the top of one of the majestic redwood trees seen along the James Irvine Trail
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_108_11212020 - More ferns flanking the James Irvine Trail
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_115_11212020 - Julie and Tahia continuing deeper into the James Irvine Trail and the lush forest interior
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_118_11212020 - Still more majestic trees towering over us as we walked on the James Irvine Trail
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_120_11212020 - Closeup look at the John Glascock Baldwin memorial in the middle of the footbridge over Home Creek on the James Irvine Trail
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_126_11212020 - Looking upstream at the context of the hard-to-see waterfall spilling into Home Creek as seen from the footbridge on the James Irvine Trail
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_129_11212020 - Another look at the pair of chairs with the memorial in the middle of the bridge on the James Irvine Trail
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_131_11212020 - An even more contextual look at the bridge over Home Creek along the James Irvine Trail
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_008_iPhone_11212020 - This was the junction where the Fern Canyon adventure would rejoin the James Irvine Trail.  I took this way back down into Fern Canyon just to see what the section that we had missed earlier was like
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_151_11212020 - Descending the trail connecting to the upper part of Fern Canyon as I sought to explore what was beyond the landslide obstacle
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_153_11212020 - Back down at the upper reaches of Fern Canyon where I already had to pick my steps to cross Home Creek
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_163_11212020 - Back at the scenic stretch of Fern Canyon with that seasonal waterfall as seen from the landslide obstacle
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_168_11212020 - Going back upstream along Home Creek to leave Fern Canyon
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_174_11212020 - Climbing back up to the James Irvine Trail
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_175_11212020 - Continuing to climb back up out of Fern Canyon and towards the James Irvine Trail
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_190_11212020 - Looking down at the mouth of Fern Canyon as the James Irvine Trail descended back down towards it
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_430_11212020 - I noticed this twisting tree near the mouth of Fern Canyon with some wooden planks stashed behind it.  Could those be the 'seasonal' footbridges that would have made exploring Fern Canyon easier?
Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_433_11212020 - Returning to the parking lot at the end of Davidson Road to mark the end of this excursion


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.

Drive_to_Golds_Bluff_Beach_020_iPhone_11212020 - Approaching the turnoff for Elk Meadow and Davidson Road while driving the US101 north of Orick
Approaching the turnoff for Elk Meadow and Davidson Road while driving the US101 north of Orick

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.

Fern_Canyon_Gold_Dust_Falls_003_11212020 - The spacious parking lot at the end of Davidson Road, which wasn't very busy when we showed up before 9am
The spacious parking lot at the end of Davidson Road, which wasn’t very busy when we showed up before 9am

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.

Drive_to_Trillium_Falls_007_iPhone_11212020 - Looking back at the entrance kiosk to the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park along Davidson Road
Looking back at the entrance kiosk to the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park along Davidson Road

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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Sweep of a seasonal waterfall in the most dramatic part of Fern Canyon.


Sweep from a footbridge along the James Irvine Trail further upstream from Fern Canyon.

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Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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