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Nosing Around on the Skunk Cabbage Trail

September 10, 2000|JOHN McKINNEY

The namesake redwoods are obviously what draw Americans to this rather lightly visited national park, but it is the region's spectacular coast that prompts many to return. Dramatic, fern-draped bluffs, hidden coves, tide pools and wilderness beaches are linked by a 40-mile length of the California Coastal Trail.

Surely the most enchanting length of Redwood National Park's coastal trail is that along Skunk Cabbage Creek. Moss-draped Sitka spruce and a multitude of skunk cabbage massed on the muddy flats by the creek make this a rain forest ramble to remember. And after Skunk Cabbage Trail follows this lush jungle, it delivers the surprised hiker to Gold Bluffs Beach, where miles of dark, driftwood-strewn sand offer a second coastal adventure.

The skunk cabbage appears to be a pituitary freak of the plant world, but it is a botanic cousin to the corn lily. Some specimens measure more than 4 feet across, with foot-long leaves. In the tall tree-filtered light, the cabbages glow with an otherworldly green.

Enjoy this trail in two ways: 1) Follow the path through the forest to a junction at the edge of the bluffs, then descend to the beach via a short connector trail. This trail is overgrown and a bit precipitous. 2) Upon reaching the bluff-top junction, stay on the main trail for another two miles north, then descend to Gold Bluffs Beach. You could then walk up-coast to meet Davison Road as it descends to Gold Bluffs Beach. With a car shuttle, the latter option offers one-way hiking possibilities. Hungry hikers can chow down at Rolf's Restaurant, located on U.S. 101 near the turnoff for Skunk Cabbage Trail. The hearty fare includes elk, ostrich and buffalo stroganoff.

Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101, about two miles north of Orick (and just north of the turnoff on the right for Bald Hills Road), turn left (west) on the signed park road for Skunk Cabbage-Coastal Trail and drive 0.75 mile to road's end at the parking area and trail head.

The hike: The alder-lined, mostly level trail probes a very green world. About 0.5 mile out, where the path closely parallels the creek, you'll spot masses of skunk cabbages sprouting from the boggy ground. The trail repeatedly crosses and recrosses Skunk Cabbage Creek, traveling among Sitka spruce and occasional old-growth redwoods that somehow escaped the logger's ax. Ferns cover the floor of the forest.

After two miles, the trail suddenly climbs 0.75 mile out of the canyon and up a forested ridge. Even more suddenly, the forest fades, you reach a trail junction, and there's Gold Bluffs Beach at your feet.

Well, almost at your feet. A spur trail (sometimes closed to travel) switchbacks 0.25 mile down the bluffs to the beach.

The main Skunk Cabbage Trail climbs a bit more before descending and then dipping in and out of two fern-filled canyons. Finally the path emerges from the lush vegetation to meet Gold Bluffs Beach.


Skunk Cabbage (Coastal) Trail

Where: Redwood National Park

Distance: To Gold Bluffs Beach (Mussel Point) is 6 miles round trip with 500-foot elevation loss; to Gold Bluffs Beach (Davison Road) is 10 miles round trip.

Terrain: Steep coastal slopes, redwood rain forest.

Highlights: Lush, lovely, one of Coastal Trail's most spectacular sections.

Degree of Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous.

For More Information: Redwood National & State Parks; tel. (707) 464-6101.

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