This hike, like much of Fall Creek, provides a fascinating look into the dramatic effects of the August 2020 CZU Lightning Fire and the efforts to fight it.
The hike starts by climbing the ridge just north of Fall Creek on a trail that starts as singletrack, then turns into a dirt road.
During the fire, a 300 foot wide strip of forest was clearcut along the entire singletrack section. This fuel break was intended to keep the fire from spreading from Fall Creek to the houses on the other side of the ridge, but as it turned out, the fire never actually reached this part of the ridge. The scale of the fuel break is mind-boggling and the work put into creating it in just a few days must have been stupendous, especially considering this was just one tiny part of the fire’s perimeter.
Since the trail was obliterated by the trees that were cut down, the park rerouted the trail so that it weaves back and forth around the fuel break. The new trail opened in May 2022.
The dirt road didn’t get the same treatment, and its lower part still looks like it did before the fire. Further up, though, it passes through the burned area, where the redwood trunks are blackened and the tanoaks are all dead. In fact, about a third of this loop passes through burned woods. The damage isn’t as severe as it is in the northern end of the park, where the canopy has completely burned away, but it’s still strikingly changed.
Start from the Fall Creek parking lot off Felton-Empire Road. The park has become very popular in recent years and the lot usually fills up on weekends (the closest place where it’s clearly OK to park is Gushee Street in downtown Felton; if you then walk up Farmer Street to the lower park entrance, it adds about a mile to the hike).
From the parking lot, descend on the Bennett Creek Trail, then turn right at the Fall Creek Trail, immediately crossing a wide bridge across the creek. This area didn’t burn in the fire and consists of dense, green second-growth redwoods. The forest is surprisingly lush and doesn’t have the gloomy look that second-growth redwoods often have.
Turn left at the first trail, climb just a few yards, then turn left again onto the Ridge Trail (or you can take an optional side trip on the High School Trail; see below).
The Ridge Trail immediately begins an incessant climb up the hillside. The hoots of the Roaring Camp steam trains echo through the valley, and there’s also a some traffic noise that eventually fades to a low hum and then disappears completely.
The trail climbs parallel to and slightly below the ridge, crossing the huge fuel break several times as it climbs.
The Ridge Trail ends when it reaches the Truck Trail, which is a dirt road. The fuel break ends at this point too, and at first the Truck Trail looks pretty much like it did before the fire. After about a quarter-mile, though, burned woods appear on the left side of the trail, then the right.
Look for the Big Ben Trail on the left. The trail is marked with a small sign but is otherwise almost invisible at first. If the Truck Trail starts going downhill for more than a few steps, you’ve gone too far.
The Big Ben Trail descends steeply through small, blackened redwoods. The redwoods become more common and the woods get darker and shadier as the trail approaches Fall Creek.
Turn left onto the Fall Creek Trail. The trail descends through a narrow canyon with lots of dead tanoaks from the fire.
After the Barrel Mill area, the trail briefly leaves the canyon bottom; this part was rerouted in 2022 to avoid a landslide. The trail then descends back to the canyon bottom by a series of steps. The steps mark the edge of the burned area; the rest of the hike is in unburned woods.
The canyon soon opens up, the grade becomes more level, and the woods become increasingly lush and scenic. The trail crosses Fall Creek on a low footbridge that’s intended to be washed out during heavy rains. If that happened you’d be stranded, but I’ve yet to see that happen.
Bear left at the intersection with the Cape Horn Trail. The trail crosses the creek four more times and passes through a little gorge before joining the South Fork Trail. Continue to the Bennett Creek Trail, then turn right and return to the parking lot.
The High School Trail descends to a flat with a dense, lush second-growth redwood grove. The grove looks much different from the rest of the park, with a relatively open understory and a carpet of redwood sorrel. It’s an easy and popular place to walk.
© 2006, 2013, 2014, 2022 David Baselt