Located in an attractive valley surrounded by conifer-covered hills, this park features a campground next to what used to be a small lake created by a dam across the Eel River. Overlooking the former lake is the elegant Benbow Inn, built in the 1920s. Sadly a four-lane highway now cuts right through the middle of the campground and past the inn’s otherwise splendid terrace. What’s more, to save on maintenance and seismic retrofitting costs and to protect the salmon, the dam was removed in 2017, leaving a less-than-scenic gravel lakebed. The park’s name used to be “Benbow Lake State Recreation Area” , but the word “Lake” has been removed.
While the inn with its nice restaurant remains popular, the park’s day use area is little-used; on a recent Labor Day weekend, it had all of two visitors. At least the campground, which had been closed since 2013, is reopening from Memorial Day through Labor Day of 2018. They aren’t taking reservations though; you just have to go there and hope that a spot is available.
The park has a single trail loop that was mainly built for the campground. The well-built trail passes through some fairly scenic old-growth redwood uplands, eventually reaching a partially-logged flat where a redwood mill once stood. Surprisingly, the trail is still in excellent condition, and with the two notable exceptions described below, it’s completely clear of overgrowth and free of obstructions.
It’s not possible to park anywhere near the trailhead; you have to park in the day-use area across the river, ford the river, and walk a half-mile to the trailhead. If the river is too high to cross, the only way to reach the trail is to walk all the way around on Benbow Drive.
When the campground is open, the trail is surprisingly busy compared to the much more spectacular trails just a few minutes to the north. When the campground is closed, though, the trail is completely deserted.
Here’s the trailhead location in Google Maps.
Starting from the day use area, head down toward the river and turn left. Cross under the freeway to reach a shallow spot where you can ford the river (it’s only about 3 inches deep at the end of summer, but there’s a lot of algae and the rocks are slippery), and continue along the gravelly beach on the other side until you see a path leading up the slope to your right. Take the path into the campground and turn right when you reach the paved road. Cross under the freeway again. In a few more yards you’ll see the trailhead directly in front of you.
The trail starts off with a gentle climb up a pleasantly-wooded hillside, curving around the campground. There’s quite a bit of traffic noise from Highway 101, but it gradually fades away. At the intersection with the Pioneer Trail, stay to the left. The trail continues to climb the hillside, through increasingly redwood-filled woodland. The trail descends through an attractive grove of mid-sized upland redwoods. Just before the next intersection, there’s a 4-foot-diameter redwood across the trail that’s somewhat difficult to get around.
Turn left at the intersection. The trail descends through typically dry woodland that consists mainly of small trees dotted with a few decent-sized redwoods, and then abruptly enters a dark, logged forest. Below you is an alluvial flat that’s been mostly logged.
The trail bottoms out and then reaches the mill site; there’s an interpretive sign and some old mill equipment. At this point the trail makes a left turn and runs along a low bluff above the river, folloing the route of an old dirt road. The trail has been completely washed away in two places, but it’s possible to cut through the redwood flat and pick up the trail again. Interestingly, about three-quarters of the flat has been clearcut, but near the end it abruptly changes to old-growth.
A half-dozen or so pretty good-sized redwoods grow along this part of the trail, right at the edge of the forest and above the river. These are the biggest redwoods of the hike. After passing these redwoods the trail, which used to be a road, climbs gently and then ends near the site of the dam. All that’s left of the dam are the cement footings. The recommended hike ends here, but you can continue to make your way along the river’s gravel banks.
© 2010, 2017 David Baselt