Heading up to Northern California and looking for information on hiking the Fern Canyon trail?! You’ve come to the right place! In this massive guide, you’ll find when to visit, how to get there, where to stay, how to apply for a permit, and so much more.
I wanted to hike the Fern Canyon trail in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park the second I saw a photo of it. I had no clue where it was, but once I figured it out it’s in Redwood National and State Parks (a mere 6 hours north of me), I promptly added it to my California bucket list.
And lemme tell you – after finally visiting, the pictures don’t do it justice. AT ALL. I mean, it’s a canyon filled to the brim with ferns on all sides and a clear creek running through the middle. Where else have you seen (or heard of) anything like it?!
Imagine walking between narrow 50-foot lush canyon walls, with waterfalls trickling down the edge, moss cascading down the sides, and greenery as far as the eye can see. There’s also a clear, fast moving stream over multi-colored rocks, because, yup, it does get even better. No wonder it’s so popular!
The Fern Canyon hike is literally an emerald gem of Humboldt County. AND it’s not only for the avid hiker. Anyone can take this picturesque walk through nature and breathe in the cool fresh air.
This shady green paradise is recognized as a World Heritage Site (I had no clue!) AND an International Biosphere Reserve! You may even spot a northern red-legged frog and/or some Roosevelt Elk (although we weren’t so lucky).
Every way you turn looks like a picture in a calendar or something – it’s honestly hard to believe until you’re walking along the Fern Canyon trail yourself.
It was even a backdrop for Jurassic Park, like that of Kauai! And once I learned Fern Canyon was a filming spot for Stephen Spielburg’s classic “Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World”, I wanted to go even more (yes, we’re big on Jurassic Park in this family). The canyon’s prehistoric ambiance has also been featured in BBC’s “Walking with Dinosaurs” and IMAX’s “Dinosaurs Alive!”. Pretty cool, am I right?
So let’s get to it – Fern down for what!? Plant puns are so ferny, am I right? Wahh – don’t leaf – I’m just having a little fern! Okay, I’ll stop, haha. No one said I was funny (I mean, ferny!). :p
Quick Questions and Answers about the Fern Canyon Trail (more info below)
- Can you drive to the Fern Canyon trail? Yes, but… it won’t be easy. The road isn’t super well-maintained (think pot holes), you’ll need to drive through multiple streams filled with water, and it’s kinda twisty and turny. The water level will depend on how much rain the area saw lately.
- How much does Fern Canyon cost? $12 for day use with a permit — a new change for 2022 (although it’s included in the National Parks Pass – so pick that up if you’re planning to visit a few parks).
- Are dogs allowed at Fern Canyon? Technically no, (dogs are not allowed on any trails in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park), but we saw a few when we were there. Personally, I honestly wouldn’t bring my dog because of the potential wildlife (read more about the elk below).
- How hard is hiking the Fern Canyon trail? Honestly, not very hard. The entire Fern Canyon hike is just about a mile or so. You will need to walk through some shallow water, though, so expect to get a bit wet!
- Do you need a permit to hike Fern Canyon? YES! As of March 2022, you need a permit to visit the Gold Bluffs Beach Day-Use Area and the Fern Canyon Trailhead between May 1st and September 30th. Grab your permit here. This is super important because without one, you won’t be allowed to park at the trailhead. You can however still hike the 10.7 miles to Fern Canyon via the James Irvine Trail. ACK! No thanks, haha.
A bit about the Ferns Along the Fern Canyon Hike
The main attraction of the whole hike is in fact the ferns, so I figured we should chat about them for at least a minute or so! I’ll spare you of my plant puns though (you’re welcome).
The Fern Canyon trail is home to seven different kinds of ferns (native to California) and other moisture-loving plants and mosses. Some even have ancestry dating back 325 million years (yes, I just said MILLION – whoa, science!).
Among these you’ll find the velvety, five-finger fern → the most prominently-found fern along the Fern Canyon hike, just clinging to the canyon walls.
I didn’t really pay attention to the different ferns while meandering along the path. It was all so green and lush and beautiful; that’s all I really cared about. I kinda wish I looked at the individual ferns though.
Where is the Fern Canyon trail?
It’s in Orick, California, but I’m guessing you probably don’t know where that is (hey, I didn’t!).
The Fern Canyon trail is in a remote area of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County, California. Yup — all the way up there!
It’s actually the farthest north I’ve been in California, and it’s only 67 miles (1 ½ hours) from the California/Oregon border!
This is what people mean when they say the “Lost Coast of California”. It’s not too close to much else, it’s rather undeveloped, and there’s no major roads to access it. An unspoiled paradise!
Psst: There are multiple Fern Canyon hikes in California — super confusing, I know! This post is about the Fern Canyon trail in Prairie Creek Redwoods in Orick, California. Thankfully, it’s the most popular one, so most information you find online will be about THIS Fern Canyon hike. Just always double check. 🙂
This is not a guide to the others (including the Fern Canyon trail in Mendocino – that got me super confused because we were in Mendo while I was planning this trip to THE Fern Canyon you’re reading about right now).
When to Visit Fern Canyon
TIME OF YEAR
The good news – Fern Canyon Trail is open year-round! But the bad news? It’s remote location makes it super susceptible to harsh weather conditions. November through April tend to be the wettest months (making the creek levels higher, meaning you’ll get extra wet). If you want to avoid this, I recommend visiting from June through September.
But no matter the time of year, they’ll always be a constant drip of water trickling down the canyon walls. Just how much depends on the rainfall and weather conditions.
Also keep in mind that mornings and evenings tend to be foggy and cool on the coast regardless of the month (much like other parts of the Northern California coast), so be prepared! The Fern Canyon hike is no different!
- Summer months (recommended!): Thankfully, wooden footbridges are installed over deeper parts of Home Creek during the summer. We visited in mid-August, and were able to stay mostly dry because of the footbridges. The creek levels were low and the ferns were lush and green!
- Winter months: Unfortunately, winter brings rain, which sometimes even floods the canyon. Meaning it’ll basically be inaccessible. If you’re thinking of visiting in winter, make sure to call one of the visitor’s centers for road and trail conditions before making the trek over. Some of the ferns even turn a bit brown, which is probably not what you came to see!
TIME OF DAY
To no surprise, Fern Canyon gets pretty busy. I mean, the walls are completely covered in ferns (!!!). It’s a pretty popular spot to say the least.
I recommend heading to Fern Canyon first thing in the morning, or waiting until a bit later in the afternoon. At first we arrived around 3pm, but the lot was full and the park ranger wouldn’t let us continue the drive towards the parking lot. She suggested we come back in about an hour – which we did, and we got right in!
IMPORTANT UPDATE: You are now required to apply for a permit in advance! Time slots are good for 4 hours, meaning you’re pass will be good from either 8am-12noon or 1pm-5pm (depending on which one you apply for). This is to limit crowds and protect the area. Thankfully, you don’t need to arrive right at the start time.
Before or after your time in Fern Canyon, there’s another scenic trail right near the Elk Meadow Picnic Area (where we waited a bit until we were allowed access to Fern Canyon) — Trillium Falls! And honestly, we loved this hike almost as much as the Fern Canyon trail! If you need to wait to get in, I highly recommend the short trek to Trillium Falls (½ mile each way, or you can do the full 2 mile loop).
Directions: How to Get to the Fern Canyon Trail
- Address: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park Gold Bluffs Beach, Orick, CA 95555 (or just type “Fern Canyon” into Google Maps!)
- Fee: $12 per car for day use (CASH only, unless you’ve got a check lying around); California State Park and America the Beautiful National Parks pass accepted
- Options to get there: Fern Canyon can be reached by one of two ways 1) a moderate 5 mile hike on the James Irvine Trail from the Prairie Creek Redwoods visitor center, or 2) on a rough dirt access road from Highway 101 across a few streams.
First things first, it’s kinda a pain to get to. Everyone says getting to Fern Canyon is super annoying and a huge pain in the butt, but honestly, it wasn’t THAT bad. Yea, it’s kinda out of the way, and we had to cross some minor streams, but besides that, it was smooth sailing.
If you’re following Google Maps, be sure to start your drive (and input Fern Canyon) when you have service. There’s verryyy minimal service around the canyon, and absolutely nothing once you reach the Gold Bluffs pay kiosk.
Screenshot these directions ahead of time just in case you lose cell reception:
- From Highway 101, drive approximately 2 miles north of Orick to Davison Road and make a left
- Follow through Elk Meadow and onto the dirt road for 6 spectacular miles along the redwoods (narrow and kinda hairy, especially if two vehicles need to pass each other, kinda like the Road to Hana in Maui)
- Pay the $12 day use fee at the Gold Bluffs Beach kiosk
- Follow the road along the beach for another 3 miles (this is where you’ll have to cross a few small streams)
- Reach the parking lot and get your hike on!
Because of the stream, the parking lot for the Fern Canyon hike is hard to reach in low clearance vehicles. We pulled up in a tiny Toyota Corolla, and weren’t sure we would cross successfully (spoiler alert – we made it, but we would have felt safer/more comfortable in an SUV or larger car.) If you have the option, a 4WD would come in handy as well.
Just take it slow, and pull off to the side if you want to watch other vehicles pass the stream first (which is what we did, and it calmed our nerves a bit). However, if the stream was deeper, I’m not so sure we would have made it.
If you do decide to ditch the stream crossings, you can park at the campground/beach parking lots. Just know it’ll add another mile to your hike, FYI. Which honestly isn’t so bad if you’ve got no other choice.
- Towing a trailer or driving something larger than 8 feet wide and 24 feet long? → the road will be inaccessible. Sorry!
IMPORTANT NOTE: After it rains (and during winter months), you should check for road and trail conditions before heading to Fern Canyon. Don’t wanna make the drive only to find out a hikes not possible!
Other Important Things to Keep in Mind
- You WILL get wet. Just embrace it. Don’t worry – I don’t mean soaked from head to toe (although you could if you really wanted to). Probably just your feet and possibly ankles. At first I did everything in my power to stay dry, but then I embraced my wet feet after accidentally ducking my foot into a puddle of Home Creek, and that was that.
- Don’t forget to apply for your permit in advance! I sound like a broken record at this point, but this is a new restriction so I don’t want you to forget!
- Trailers are not allowed on Davison Road, the access road to Fern Canyon and Gold Bluffs Beach. Unfortunately, the road cannot accommodate vehicles more than 8 feet wide and 24 feet long.
- There’s no service here, so put your phone away and just appreciate all the nature. But make sure to take some photos of course!
- Don’t feed wildlife, and keep wildlife wild! Feeding wild animals hurts them and us. And a $100 ticket. As they (park rangers?) say, a fed bear is a dead bear – thankfully no bears on the trail! Keep it “Crumb Clean” – always pick up after yourself, and dispose of garbage in animal-proof trash cans.
CAUTION: You might come across some Roosevelt Elk. And while they are definitely a sight to see, they can be aggressive. Elk bulls can weigh up to 1,200 pounds (yup!), so you don’t wanna get in their way. You won’t realize how crazy huge they are until you see them up close.
Female elk with calves may be very protective of their young, and may charge and/or lash out if they feel threatened. Ack! And yup, it’s possible you’ll encounter them at Fern Canyon. They’ve been spotted at the entrance of Davison Road, grazing just off the Fern Canyon trail, right off the parking area, and on the nearby beach.
Understanding what to do if you come across some elk is imperative for your safety! READ BELOW!
If you do encounter elk:
- Never approach them and back away if an elk approaches or appears agitated.
- Make yourself visible and heard, but avoid quick movements or loud sounds.
- Stay together in groups and keep children/pets close.
And this of course goes without saying, DO NOT FEED THEM. Sorry- it had to be said. Be smart; you’re in their territory.
Hiking the Fern Canyon Trail
Before visiting and doing some research on the Fern Canyon trail, I thought it was gonna be a brutal hike. I like to call myself a hiker (hey, this girl right here did a 12 mile hike in the redwoods not too long ago), but busting my butt uphill while dripping with sweat isn’t my favorite thing in the world.
Thankfully it wasn’t super strenuous, actually quite short, and not at all grueling. Unlike Pulpit Rock in Norway and Angel’s Landing in Zion, hiking Fern Canyon felt like a breeze. And we finished in less than an hour and a half (even with stopping to take dozens, among dozens of photos).
In a nutshell:
- Distance: 1.1 mile loop
- Elevation: 120 feet gain
- Trail Surface: combination of gravel, water, dirt, and wooden planks (if you’re lucky)
- Accessibility: not wheelchair or stroller accessible
To my surprise, the Fern Canyon hike is a short 1.1 miles, and it’s a loop! Woo! You’ll need to walk over wooden footbridges, hop over rocks in the stream, and scramble over and under fallen trees in and around the creek bed. You’ll need to keep your balance if you don’t wanna get wet → let’s be honest, I fell in more than once! We had a blast, and Fern Canyon isn’t your typical hike (that’s for sure).
Just remember to wear shoes that are easy to walk in while wet!
Note that Fern Canyon is technically a loop trail, but most people retrace their steps back through the canyon. You can take the steps up and hike the canyon walls, but the canyon is much more impressive.
I can see kids having oh so much fun here – scrambling over the fallen logs, ducking under tree branches, and navigating the footbridges. It’s a quick and easy hike for families.
Would I drive 6 hours for this 1 mile hike again? I’m not entirely sure, but if you’re in the area, I’d definitely hit up Fern Canyon.
TL;DR: Almost everyone can easily hike the 1.1 mile Fern Canyon trail. Although it’s not accessible. AT ALL. And you will get a bit wet – always.
What to Bring/Wear When Hiking Fern Canyon
- $12 cash for the park fee (unless you’ve got the California State Parks pass or National Parks pass).
- Lots of water – there are no facilities along the Fern Canyon hike, so best to come prepared.
- Bug spray and hiking poles (if you lack balance) are recommended. Bugs weren’t a problem for us, but I’ve heard they can be during the summer.
- Layers! The weather changes quickly on the Northern California coast (especially with cool fog in the morning and late afternoon), so you’ll wanna be able to quickly take off a light jacket. We visited in August and had brought along puffy jackets which we left in the car. Also, understand you may get wet, so wear clothes that won’t ruin in moisture and are kinda quick drying.
- Something to keep your feet dry. Waterproof boots, water shoes, or waterproof hiking shoes work well. Or if getting wet is your goal, wear waterproof sandals. Regular sneakers and socks are NOT recommended. We all wore typical trainers and our feet got SOAKED! If you’re visiting in winter the water will be downright freezing – I read online that waterproof boots with 2 pairs of socks will keep your feet nice and comfy (and dry!).
- Hiking clothes → We wore regular hiking clothes (leggings/yoga pants, sports bras, and tops), and were pretty comfy.
Where to Stay Near Fern Canyon
Fern Canyon is kinda in the middle of nowhere. I mean, did you read the “how to get there” section?
The closest major city is Eureka, which is where we decided to stay. This is where you’ll find the greatest concentration of hotels, restaurants, and shops. It’s also super cute (with a ton of historic Victorian houses), so I highly recommend spending a few hours checking out the town!
And thankfully, there’s lots of accommodation options, including campsites, hotels/bed and breakfasts, and Airbnb’s!
Camping and Cabins near Fern Canyon:
There are two main campsites within Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park:
- Elk Prairie Campground: access to showers, bathrooms, picnic tables, fire pits, and food lockers. Best for elk spotting!
- Gold Bluffs Beach Campground: Access to fire pits, picnic tables, showers, and restrooms. Located next to the sand dunes (a few hundred yards from the beach), so be prepared to get sandy!
Both of these campsites are considered “dry campgrounds”, meaning there’s no electricity, no water, and no sewage connections for RVs. And just so you’re aware while planning – the Gold Bluffs Beach campground is cabover camper or tent only; no trailers of any kind are allowed on the dirt Davison Road.
Visitors can reserve campsites six months in advance, and reservations are needed year round (book at www.parks.ca.gov/prairiecreek or by phone at 1-800-444-7275).
Tent just not your style but still looking to wake up among the old growth redwoods? Thankfully, the park has a few cabins (and by few I mean FOUR in total, so book super early!). They’re located within the Elk Prairie Campground and have full electricity (including heaters and lights), but there’s no kitchen or bathroom.
Psst – you’ll need to bring your own bedding. 🙂 And note that there’s no smoking, cooking, or open flames allowed inside the cabin (safety first, always!). The cabins do have an outdoor bbq, fire pit, bear box, and picnic bench!
Book a cabin and find more information here.
Hotels near the Fern Canyon Trail
If you’re looking for a hotel-stay, consider the options below. Most hotels in the area are in the town of Eureka, about an hour south of the Fern Canyon trail.
- Carter House Inns: Elegant quarters in Victorian homes (!!!), plus complimentary breakfast and a farm-to-table restaurant. We saw the house while checking out the Carson Mansion the next day in Eureka, and were impressed by the architecture!
- The Front Porch Inn: A hidden oasis in a beautiful garden, with ferns and raspberries on the living wall! The perfect romantic getaway with a copper hot tub, and only 3 minutes from the redwoods (we wanna stay here!).
- Comfort Inn Humboldt Bay: Where we stayed! Your standard hotel room, and a great place to crash for the night! Not expensive, either!
- The Inn at 2nd & C: Elegant suites in a historic 1886 inn with wonderfully decorated rooms. I’d opt for a room with a whirlpool tub, but that’s just me! Looks super charming!
Other Things to do Nearby (Before/After Hiking Fern Canyon)
- Hang out in Eureka: Don’t miss the historic Victorian homes, including the Carson Mansion and nearby Pink Lady. If that really peaks your interest, there’s even a walking tour of the entire area! We found a bunch of pretty homes on Hillsdale street, including what we deemed the “rainbow house”.
- Explore Trinidad: Located roughly 30 minutes south of Fern Canyon (between Prairie Creek Redwoods and Eureka) is the waterfront community of Trinidad. Don’t miss the Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse, College Cove Beach, Trinidad Head Trail, Patrick’s Point State Park, and Agate Beach.
- Sip some ciders at Humboldt Cider Company Tap Room: Mmmm, what’s better than some ciders after a long day of hiking in the redwoods and among the mosses at Fern Canyon? You’re bound to find a few ciders you like → there’s 29 taps of hard cider, beer and wine over here!
- Hike to Trillium Falls: As stated earlier, we were denied access on our first attempt into Fern Canyon. Thankfully, Trillium Falls is super close by! We did the 1 mile roundup to/from the waterfall in order to pass the time! If you’re interested and have more time to spare, opt for the 3 mile loop! It felt like we were in a secluded rainforest!
- Walk along Gold Bluffs Beach: Wanna continue stretching your legs? Gold Bluffs is a secluded beach, and you can walk for miles! Crisp ocean smell, smooth golden sand, and thunderous waves!
- See some redwoods at the Trees of Mystery: What’s a road trip without a roadside attraction? Here you’ll find a hiking trail through the redwoods, a SkyTrail gondola ride through the trees, and a bunch of Native American artifacts in the free museum. Plus, homemade fudge!
- Spot Elks at Elk Meadow Picnic Area: Itching to see some Roosevelt Elk? Swing on over to Elk Meadow and there may be dozens just grazing around.
I hope this guide to hiking the Fern Canyon trail was helpful! Are you planning a trip there soon?! I highly recommend it!
Looking for more California content? Explore my other California guides here!
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