Besides the short lowland redwood trails along Bull Creek and the Eel River, Humboldt Redwoods also has miles of backcountry trails. Called "Multi-Use Trails" because horseback riding and mountain biking is allowed on them, these trails are mostly old logging roads and, as such, mostly run through logged areas.
The Look Prairie, Peavine Ridge, and Thornton loop is no exception, and most of the hike consists of pleasant if unspectacular woodland that lacks redwoods. However, the loop still has about 4 miles of old growth, most notably a remote and remarkably attractive ridgetop grove and the extraordinary Bull Creek Flats. The route also crosses grassy prairies with brief but amazing views over the Bull Creek valley.
The hike can be exhausting since there’s a lot of climbing, but none of it is especially steep or technically challenging.
This loop provides a new perspective on the redwoods of the Bull Creek Flats. Descending to the flats after a 12-mile hike through the backcountry is a much different experience than just getting out of a car and strolling into the redwoods. Before reaching the flats, the hike passes through a wide variety of woodlands, spanning the distance from the bottom to the top of the Bull Creek Valley, and none of it is remotely like the lowland redwood forests of Bull Creek. It’s not just that the lowland trees are bigger; it’s that there are so many big trees, and in such an expansive space.
Here’s the trailhead location in Google Maps.
Start at the gate to Look Prairie Road, just off Mattole Road. You can park either in the small pullout in front of the gate, or a few yards down Mattole Road in the Big Tree parking area.
Look Prairie Road climbs at a persistent 10% grade. The road isn’t that scenic at first; the area was burned in a forest fire some year sago, so cut-up logs now litter the roadside, and the road itself shows signs of being used by trucks. Two prairies offer views of the valley a short distance below. At 1.8 miles, the scenery improves as the road enters old-growth redwood uplands. The uplands aren’t really anything special, but with a few good-sized trees are scattered here and there among the dense understory of small tanoaks and huckleberry shrubs, they’re still more interesting than second growth.
When you reach the “T” intersection with Peavine Ridge Road, turn left. The road continues to climb for another half-mile before starting a steep descent. The old-growth uplands end and you descend through unremarkable woods with lots of really small trees.
As the road undulates along the ridge, it passes through two or three patches of old growth separated by stretches of logged redwoods. The ridgetop old growth is exceptionally attractive and very different from any other old growth in the park. It’s very open and strikingly light in color, with big light-grey redwoods and Douglas-Fir. Unusually, the groundcover is a thick layer of leafy salal. There are a few ferns and sorrel mixed in, but almost no tanoak or huckleberry. Perched on the quiet, isolated ridgetop, these groves are really quite enjoyable to hike through.
From a few spots there are glimpses of conifer-covered ridges and hilltop prairies to the north.
The last and largest old-growth grove begins about a mile before the Thornton Multi-Use Trail turnoff. This grove starts out as an open, light ridgetop grove (and is perhaps the best example of this type), but then the trail comes off the ridge and the grove takes on a darker and less attractive appearance, with more tanoak and huckleberry clogging the views. It’s still nicer than the usual Humboldt Redwoods uplands, though.
The old growth gives way to logged redwoods just before the road comes to the intersection with the Thornton Multi-Use Trail. About half of the Thornton MUT follows a dirt road that has been converted to singletrack; the trail also goes through some long switchbacks that weren’t on the original road. Signs at the top and bottom of the trail explain that the road-to-trail conversion was done to reduce erosion. However, it’s also made hiking the trail a much more enjoyable experience; dirt roads have a way of isolating you from the woods.
Along the trail are a few interesting groves of distinctive-looking Madrone trees. The dark-brown bark of these trees has peeled away from the upper branches, leaving them gold-tipped, and the leaves are a strikingly rich green. There are a few restricted but nontheless impressive views of the Bull Creek valley floor far below, a series of ridges stretching off into the misty distance.
The trail briefly passes through an upland old-growth redwood grove which has the light colors of the ridgetop groves but is dense with huckleberry shrubs. It then runs through logged redwoods and a long stretch of tanoak-and-fir forest with no redwoods. Oddly enough the trail, which had been patiently switchbacking down the hill at a very shallow grade, then suddenly dives steeply down toward Albee Creek Campground.
Near the end of the trail is an unmarked intersection. Below this point, the Thornton Trail was rerouted in 2017. The new route, to the right, switchbacks down the hillside and then circles around Albee Creek Campground, adding 0.6 miles to the hike. The old route, which is straight ahead, descends steeply into the campground on a service road. If you’re not looking for the intersection you’ll end up on the old route, which I still prefer because it’s shorter.
At the end of the trail, walk through the campground, turn left onto the campground entrance road, cross a bridge, and immediately turn right onto a poison-oak-infested connector trail. This trail leads to the Tall Trees Trail.
The last mile of the hike winds through the big lowland redwoods of Bull Creek Flats. This is the quintessential old-growth redwood grove, with immense trees rising up from a perfectly flat layer of rich black loam dotted with ferns. The grove is exceptionally open, yet the trees enclose the space so completely that it feels like being inside. It’s quite an impressive stretch of trail and one of the only places where you can walk for a mile in a straight line through old-growth lowlands.
© 2009, 2013, 2017 David Baselt