Friday, May 8, 2015

A Worthy Centerpiece: The Fern Canyon at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Fern Canyon
 Date: November 26, 2014
Place: Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Humboldt County, California
Coordinates: 41.40091, -124.065440
Length: 2.2 miles
Difficulty: easy to moderate, involves scrambling on fallen logs, may involve walking in the water.

The first time I visited Fern Canyon, over 10 years ago, I didn't have any expectations. Not having done any preparation research I arrived there without having heard any stories or having seen any photos of that place. It was Thanksgiving time, it was cold and wet and I had the elder (then only) chika strapped to my body in a baby carrier.

The short segment of trail connecting the parking lot with canyon is nice but reveals nothing of what's to follow. And I was completely mind-blown by that hike.

The canyon itself with the stream, the ferns and the surrounding forest was very impressive, but what I remembered most were the mushrooms. It was a fungi spectacle like I have never seen before: the variety, the abundance, the richness of it. I was completely overtaken.
Questionable Stropharia (Stropharia ambigua)
And a decade ago I didn't have a good enough camera. From that beautiful hike I have very few photos of any decent quality, and none of any of the mushrooms. All I had left from that mushroom galore were memories, which grew more vivid and more alluring with every passing year since.
Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)
It was only a matter of time before we would go back there, but life provided delays, some of them stemming from my insistence to go back on a wet Thanksgiving. I wasn't satisfied with just seeing the place again - I wanted to see the mushrooms splendor.

Finally, on 2014 Thanksgiving break we were going there again. And this time I was equipped with a suitable camera.
Light Red Coral (Ramaria araiospora)
The access road is long and challenging, and when the streams are flowing, it is also flooded in places. (It is passable to regular family cars with adventurous drivers).

We stopped a couple of times along the way so Papa Quail could chase a flock of little birds that teased us, flying back and forth across the dirt road. As it turned out, that chase was well worth it because it was the first time Papa Quail got the pine siskin on camera.
Pine Siskin
There were also many varied thrush below by the road side. More than I've seen in any one location before.
Varied Thrush, female
When we arrived at the parking lot it was almost lunch time so we started with a picnic during which the chikas were busy playing with other children there and I was trying to keep them all from trampling the few and unexpected (in November) wildflowers. 
Buttercup (Ranunculus sp.)
  I remember from 10 years ago that the hike itself, a relatively short (2-miles) loop was, although it did involve fording the stream in a few places, fairly easy. This time around, I was in for a surprise.
Our hike at Fern Canyon, as captured by Papa Quail's GPS
 We all had high, waterproof hiking boots. Soon, however, we were slowed down by our efforts to keep them dry. Waterproof doesn't help much when the stream runs knee-high. It was possible to jump over the stream or ford across big rocks, but it did slow down the hike.
And then we got to the canyon itself.

Unlike the fern canyon we hiked at Van Damme State Park, this Fern Canyon is truly a canyon, with sheer walls rising perpendicular to the ground and a narrow passage for the stream (and the hikers) in between. And the canyon walls - as expected - were completely covered by ferns.

The surprise came in the form of fallen logs that blocked the way in several places. 10 years ago there was only one, which could have been bypassed easily, even when carrying a baby. In the years since, quite a few more logs have joined that one, piling one one-another, forming ominous barricades.
Sure, one could walk around or under most, but that meant going in the water.
And I was just a month after having a knee surgery, wearing in a large, stiff brace and leaning heavily on my hiking poles. For me, this was going to be much more challenging than I had expected.

The chikas had no problems. They viewed the logs with sheer joy and were soon off, charging the surprise playground that Nature had provided them. Papa Quail was after them, trying to keep them from disappearing. Grandma Quail and I lumbered behind.
I walked slowly and carefully, testing each step with my poles and stopping frequently to ease my leg. That gave me ample chance to look around and to closely examine the fallen logs.
Rainforest plants don't wait for the giant deceased to decay. The huge logs were grown with ferns, fungi, lichen and also higher plants, like these cold-blighted sorrels we passed under.

It was doable at first. Slowly and carefully I was able to pass the first set of barricades without to much trouble. But then we arrived at a big wood castle that looked totally impassable to me.
I sat on a lower log and weighed my options. There were only two of them - to go back or to go on. And the only way I could go on was to stoop under the logs, in the water.
I took off my shoes and slung them over my shoulders. Then I rolled up my pants, took a deep breath and entered the water.
After about 30 seconds of agony I stopped feeling my feet and could go on. Still slowly and carefully, but on much more stable ground.
At some point though, I had no choice but to climb a log. It was perhaps the most precarious moment for me in that hike, and when I stood there atop that log, waiting for my pulse to settle back to normal pace, I noticed some big, white bracket fungi and clicked my camera at them.
"Not these," scolded Papa Quail, who had returned after reining the chikas in, "these!" and he pointed at a dark lump that was hanging from the big log I had just passed under.
I nearly fell off the log as I swiveled. There, above me, was the larges mushroom I had ever seen. Dark, spiky, woody, and huge! I do nit have a proper way to show the scale but I hope you belive me it was about a yard long.
A polypore, I haven't identified the species.
That was the last barricade and I was glad, because I didn't feel I could push my knee any more. I fact, I really hope that my physiotherapist won't see this blog post. We had one accident though - younger chika got over enthusiastic about climbing the logs and had slipped and fell in the water. She was physically unhurt but her shoes and pants got soaked and her ego was injured. From that point on she kept grumbling about how she didn't like this place (which she absolutely adored when we first walked in).
We continued by the stream a little but more until we met with the trail for going up the hill and looping back to the beginning. I sat on the first stair, wiped the mud off and put my shoes back on. It took a while before sensation returned to my feet.

It was up there on the hillside, in the woods, were all the best mushrooms were. And indeed it was a spectacle. There were in huge numbers and varieties, and I did photograph a lot :-)
I begun this post with a good sample of these mushrooms, but later I had realized that many of them I met in previous or following hikes during that vacation.
Fern Canyon mushrooms display was very impressive. But I chose to post here only a sample of them and focus on the other beautiful sides of Fern Canyon.
Like ferns.

And moss, which was so large, almost fern-size.

Okay. One more mushroom. I selected this photo because of the little fly that sits on the mushroom. I have photographed many mushrooms throughout that entire vacation, but it was only at my home computer, where I could look at the photos enlarged, that I noticed that many mushrooms had insects, mainly flies, sitting on them. Something about the smell, maybe? Or perhaps they were laying their eggs there? Or maybe the mushrooms are warmer than their surroundings and feel better to be on?
Or maybe I should just ask a specialist.
Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), with a fly
Fern Canyon is part of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, which is one of the units that make Redwoods National Park. But the forest we were hiking in was no redwood forest. The trees were mostly firs and pines. While not majestic like giant redwoods, the forest there has a very powerful presence.
A grove of firs
The ground was littered with cones. Beautiful, shiny-red fir cones.

Walking back west on the hillside was much quicker that walking in the creek, despite all the photo stops. Still, we managed to get delayed. A trail intersection not showing on the map and a flight of stairs leading down - and down we went.
Suddenly the trees opened up and we were in a meadow of grass and rashes.

There was no obvious continuation of the trail in any direction, and no way out of the meadow except for the one we came from. 

There were, however, brown buttresses sticking out of the grass. Coming closer to one, I saw that it was an old inflorescence that remained from the previous season. I wondered if I could identify the plant going by the inflorescence remains.

As it turned out I didn't need to. In the meadow there were a few individuals of that species that didn't care that it was the end of November - they were in full bloom.
Common Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris)
The meadow, just like the forest, was very wet. One again I was glad I had my waterproof shoes on. 
A multitude of little lace baskets sparkled from the shrubs: spiderwebs beaded with water droplets.
This beauty merits a close-up. At home, enlarged on the screen, I discovered the spider, too.

Not having found another way out we had to co back whence we came - back through the magical woods. Too bad I cannot post the forest smell here, it was so rich and good!

Closer to the canton's mouth the trees thinned and we had a nice view of the canyon below.
As we made our way back to the creek we had too ford the water two more times before we were out of the canyon and on our way to the parking lot.
Fern Canyon, view from above.
We arrived at the car and while Grandma Quail was helping my young chika to change into dry clothes I strolled around, looking for more flowers and other interesting sights.
Cows Clover (Trifolium wormskioldii)
Between the parking lot and the ocean there is a quiet, almost hidden lagoon. When we first drove in there was nothing special to see there. This time, though, I could see large, dark figures roaming near the far shore of the lagoon.
I called Papa Quail, and with him came Grandma Quail with the chikas, the younger one still grumbling.

The figures walking between the lagoon and the ocean were elk. a small herd of bulls, young and old, walking slowly by.
Elk (Roosevelt)
Since we had made it to the lagoon Papa Quail took the chance and searched for waterfowl. There weren't many birds there but those that were, were beautiful.
Bufflehead, male (both ducks)
It was a long and slow drive back to the main road. there is s field there where elk are frequently seen so we stopped to look for them, but didn't see any, but we weren't disappointed - we had seen the elk down by the ocean.
The chikas were already asleep. We still had a good drive ahead before we would wake them up for dinner at Crescent City, where we had planned to stay for Thanksgiving ant to explore the Tolowa Dunes.

And yes, if you make the trip along the NorCal coast, don't miss Fern Canyon. THE Fern Canyon, at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.


  1. beautiful place (and pictures) but very challenging in the condition you were at the time...
    The elks ar every nice addition to the mushrooms, ferns and everything else :-)

    1. It is an amazing place! A definitely not to be missed on the NorCal coast route. I wouldn't have missed it :-)

  2. Your area is full of nature wonders.
    Thank you for another interesting hike!

    1. This isn't exactly my area ... a full day's drive away :-) It is definitely worth the drive though. Really beautiful there.

  3. it looks like my comment vanished. it's a lovely place, and I think we should find some Mycologist to teach you about california mushrooms :-)