Imagine walking through a lush canyon, whose walls stretch high above you and drip with primeval ferns, while a stream softly babbles nearby. Sounds like a dream? Nope, it’s just the Fern Canyon Trail in Redwoods National and State Park, one of the best hikes to experience the stunning redwood forests of Northern California. So if you want to visit a place that’s so prehistoric looking, it was included in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, buckle up—here’s everything you need to know about the Fern Canyon Trail.
This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through them, we may receive a small commission, for which we are extremely grateful, at no extra cost to you.
About the Fern Canyon Trail
- Length: 1.1 miles
- Elevation gain: 127 feet
- Difficulty: Easy
- Are dogs allowed? Sadly, no fur babies are allowed on this one.
- Permits or passes required? Yes, you’ll need to make a reservation ahead of time for the day you want to hike the trail here. There is an entry gate where a ranger will ask for your name and even confirm that your ID matches the name on the reservation—definitely one of the most intense permit checks I’ve been through!
While making the online reservation is totally free, you will need to pay $12 to access the trailhead in the Gold Bluffs Beach Day-Use Area or, alternatively, present an America the Beautiful pass, California State Park pass, or a current park campground reservation.
How to Get to the Fern Canyon Trail
First things first, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same hikes, given there’s actually multiple Fern Canyon trails in California.
The Fern Canyon we’re talking about is located here, along the stunning northern coast of California in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Orick, California. This Fern Canyon trail is the most popular one—and definitely the only one that was featured in the Jurassic Park franchise—but we just wanted to be on the safe side.
The Fern Canyon trail is pretty remote—even if you’re already in the Redwoods National and State Parks area, everyone will need to drive down the bumpy and unmaintained Davison Road through a dense forest for about half an hour.
And if you don’t just happen to just be hanging out in the Redwoods, the trailhead is a bit of a trek from other major cities—for example, it’s about four hours from Redding or six hours from Sacramento or San Francisco. That’s why this area earned its moniker the “Lost Coast”- there’s not a ton of large towns, major highways, or other kinds of development here. It’s just a bunch of beautiful redwood forests, rugged coastline, and a whole lotta elk—which is kind of the coolest if you ask me!
Davison Road certainly has its potholes but, at least when my husband and I visited, the road appeared to be in good enough condition that, if you were driving in a standard sedan, you should be fine if you drive slowly and carefully.
However, there are two streams you’ll need to drive through on the way here, which can get pretty deep when there’s more rainfall or snowmelt (i.e., in the late springtime or early summer). Accordingly, especially if you’re visiting during these time periods, I’d recommend coming in a high clearance, four-wheel drive car. For what it’s worth, when my husband and I visited in early June, the streams were shallow enough that most passenger cars should be able to get through—but, as always, use your best judgment and proceed at your own risk.
Psst… we didn’t get cell service in or anywhere near Fern Canyon, so I’d suggest downloading offline maps on Google and AllTrails before you head here. You'll need the AllTrails+ version of the app to download offline maps. Luckily, you can get a 7-day free trial, PLUS our awesome readers get a sweet 30% off discount for their first year—just use the code “Uprooted30” at check out! If you’ve been thinking about upgrading your AllTrails account to the paid version (I know it took me, like, five years to make the jump), we wrote a whole post about whether an AllTrails+ account is worth it.
What to Expect Along the Fern Canyon Trail
The Fern Canyon Trail, also called the Coastal Trail and Fern Canyon Loop, is a lollipop loop, which is technically made up of sections of three different trails.
You’ll first hike 0.2 miles along the Davison Trail to the start of a 0.7-mile loop, which consists of the James Irvine Trail and Fern Canyon Trail, and finally, make your way back to the trailhead by retracing your steps along the Davison Trail.
So you’ll start the first portion of the hike along the Davison Trail, a mostly flat path with a beautiful coastal forest on one side, and a boggy meadow on the other. Just 0.1 miles in, you’ll pass a bench, where a clearing of trees allows you to overlook the meadow—be sure to stop here and see if you can see any elk. When Justin and I visited, we saw three adults and two adorable babies (awwww!), happily munching on grass directly off of the trail.
James Irvine Trail
After 0.2 miles, you’ll reach a junction, with three different paths to continue along.
To hike along the Fern Canyon Trail, you should ignore the leftmost option, which continues along the Davison Trail and either continue along the trail straight ahead (clockwise) or turn right (counterclockwise). If you go clockwise, you’ll start the trail through a dense forest and end the trail by walking through the dreamy Fern Canyon, while, obviously, the counterclockwise option is the reverse of that. While it doesn’t really matter, my personal recommendation would be to hike the trail clockwise, so you’ll be saving the best part for last!
Assuming you hike the trail in the clockwise direction, you’ll walk through a shallow stream and up and start up a series of steps. Once you reach the top, be sure to sneak a peek through the trees on the right hand side—you’ll get your first glimpse of the stunning canyon, festooned with ferns, awaiting you at the end of the trail.
For now, though, continue on straight. The path winds under a cathedral of spruce and alder trees and eventually you’ll take a series of wooden boardwalks over the boggy forest ground. You’ll notice the trail will start sloping downwards—keep a lookout for a sign pointing to Fern Canyon and, about half a mile into the trail, there will be a series of wooden stairs that will take you onto the floor of the canyon.
Fern Canyon Trail
The next 0.3 miles of the trail is along the floor of Fern Canyon. There’s no real trail here—you’ll just walk over the dirt, smooth pebbles, and small stream that runs along the canyon. In some areas, you’ll need to scramble over massive fallen logs or walk through ankle-deep sections of the stream. In my opinion, wandering through this portion is super fun and, honestly, one of my favorite things to do in Northern California—it’s like an adult playground!
When you’re not concentrating on maneuvering down the trail, be sure to look up and admire the impossibly green ferns and moss clinging to the canyon walls. It’s SO beautiful—there’s even certain sections of the walls that have small waterfalls dripping over the ferns. It really does look like something straight out of Jurassic Park.
Once you reach back to the Davison Trail, you’ll simply just retrace your steps back to the trailhead.
Best Time to Visit Fern Canyon Trail
One of my favorite things about the redwoods is that the area enjoys moderate weather year round, thanks to its location right on the coastline. But there are certain periods of the year that may make visiting the Fern Canyon Trail a bit more difficult.
- Winter: Given its reasonably warm winter temperature, the Redwoods is one of my favorite places to visit in California during winter. However, while the weather stays moderate here, winter is definitely the wettest part of the year, which unfortunately means that the stream crossings along Davison Road to get to the trailhead and the stream in Fern Canyon itself can get really high and even flood, making the trail inaccessible.
There’s definitely times in the winter when you can still enjoy the trail, but I’d suggest calling the ranger station before making the long drive out. Additionally, winter can be REALLY foggy in the redwoods. While this can make the lush forests look even more mystical, it can also just make it a bit hard to see—and accordingly, dangerous to drive on winding, unmaintained forest roads.
If you’re really set on going here, it might be a good idea to plan your visit during a different season.
- Spring: You might run into some flooding issues during this rainy period, although usually to a lesser extent than the wintertime. On the plus side, it’s usually a touch less foggy than the heart of winter and way less crowded than the busy summer time.
- Summer: In terms of the best conditions, this is probably going to be your best bet—the skies will be clear and sunny, there’s a lower risk of flooding or having to wade through really high water, and it’s the best time to see wildlife. Just be prepared for crowds, especially if you visit on a weekend or in the heart of midday.
- Fall: Fall actually may be the very best time to go to Fern Canyon—there’s limited risk of flooding and the crowds of summer will have dwindled.
Tips for the Fern Canyon Trail
Wear waterproof boots.
Listen, the Fern Canyon Trail is pretty easy—most hikers in reasonably good shape should be just fine. But I would strongly recommend wearing actual waterproof hiking boots.
For one, the trail is designed for you to walk through ankle deep (and did I mention freezing?) water for a significant portion of the trail. Nothing makes a hike more unfun than really cold, wet feet. For another, you’ll need to scramble along some rocks and fallen trees, which can be quite slippery if you don’t have good traction.
Luckily, waterproof hiking boots easily solves both of these issues in one fell swoop! Justin and I both use and love Topos Trailventure WP boots—here’s the kind I have and here’s the kind Justin has.
You cannot drive to the trailhead with a trailer or larger RVs.
Sorry, RV fam—any vehicle that’s over 8 feet wide or 24 feet long is not allowed on the windy and narrow access road to the trailhead.
I had read before visiting that this is one of the best places to see Roosevelt elk in Redwoods National and State Parks, but didn’t have my hopes up—Justin and I have terrible luck when it comes to spotting wildlife. But we saw a BUNCH of elk here, both along the trailhead itself and Davison Road as we drove back.
Roosevelt elk can get pretty damn big (up to 1200 pounds!) and can be really aggressive in certain instances, including males during their mating period in the fall and females to protect their babies in the springtime. Accordingly, don’t try to feed them or go anywhere near them—in fact, you should be at least 75 feet away at all times. Remember, you’re intruders in their home! Our photos may make it seem like we’re up close, but that’s because we use a comically powerful zoom lens on our camera.
Go early or late.
The Fern Canyon Trail is undoubtedly one of the best hikes in the redwoods, so it should be no surprise that it can get CROWDED here. If you wanna beat the crowds, I’d suggest heading here first thing in the morning (around 8 AM) or waiting until later in the afternoon.
Justin and I arrived around 3 PM and, while the trail was initially crazy busy, we spent quite a while taking photos and videos of the elk and the beautiful forest and it really cleared out around 4 PM.
Where to stay near Fern Canyon Trail
So we’ve established that Fern Canyon is kind of in the middle of nowhere. If you want to make a weekend out of it and explore some of the other amazing things around the Lost Coast (which you totally should!), here’s some accommodations to consider.
Camping options near the Fern Canyon Trail:
- Gold Bluffs Beach Campground: This campground is literally a 5 minute drive away from the trailhead and is directly on the beach. Be prepared for stunning views, some rustic amenities (solar showers, fire pits, and restrooms), and a very sandy tent (because this is on Davison Road, no trailers or RVs longer than 24 feet are allowed here).
- Elk Prairie Campground: This campground overlooks a meadow where elk are known to graze at dawn or dusk, which is pretty darn cool if you ask me. There’s basic amenities, like showers, bathrooms, picnic tables, fire pits, and food lockers and trailers are welcome (no hookups, though!).
Lodging near the Fern Canyon Trail:
Want an actual roof over your head? The best place to stay near the Fern Canyon Trail is the teeny but cute-as-a-button town of Trinidad. Check out:
- Trinidad Inn: This dreamy little inn is on a beautiful property, with a sweet garden and barbecues, fire pits, and lawn games if you happen to have some downtime. The rooms are clean, spacious, and have so much character, with a kitchenette and homey decor.
- Emerald Forest Cabins: This lodge offers adorable wooden cabins, with wood-burning fireplaces, clawfoot tubs, fully-equipped kitchens, and porches to have a glass of wine on at the end of the day. Come for the stunning setting in an ancient redwood forest, stay for the big, comfy beds.
- Trinidad Bay Bed and Breakfast Hotel: This charming bed and breakfast overlooks the beautiful bay in Trinidad, with oceanfront rooms. They take the “breakfast” part of the BnB seriously and cook to order a delicious three course breakfast for you every morning—definitely an awesome way to fuel up for your adventures.
Alright, now lace up those waterproof hiking boots and hit the Fern Canyon Trail. Let me know if you have any questions about the trail or the redwoods in general in the comments below!