Redwood National Park was originally intended to be a vast, unbroken wilderness where visitors could hike through a full range of North Coast environments — not just the deep, dark, big-redwood lowlands like in the state parks, but also mixed-species uplands and open prairies. Ironically, the environmental regulations that protect endangered species, together with an increased emphasis on preservation in the national parks, mostly prevented construction of the envisioned trails. Today, only one trail really reflects the original vision for the park — the Dolason Prairie Trail.
The trail starts at Bald Hills Road, at the very top of the Redwood Creek valley, and descends an impressive 2300 feet to Redwood Creek. The audaciousness of this descent is immediately obvious, since the hike starts with stretches of open prairie that offer magnificent views over the vast Redwood Creek watershed, still clearly patterned in a sort of checkerboard pattern from 1960s clearcuts. Lower down, the trail enters sunny, bright old-growth redwood uplands, descending at an easy grade until it reaches the wide gravel bed of the scenic creek. There are a few really big trees on the way, but on the whole the redwoods aren’t actually all that impressive; big trees aren’t really what this trail is about.
Although the climb is definitely exhausting, it’s not quite as difficult as it might look from the elevation profile, mainly because the average grade in the redwoods is a nice, easy 9.0%. The upper half of the trail, however, is noticably more strenuous, averaging 10.8% with a few stretches of 13% grade. The entire hike is completely quiet except for the chirping of birds and the drumming of grouse, which sounds like someone beating on a hollow log.
Here’s the trailhead location in Google Maps.
The trailhead, just off of Bald Hills Road, is well-marked and has a large, shaded dirt parking area with a picnic bench and restroom. From the trailhead, the trail cuts across a grassy hilltop meadow that offers a dramatic view of an immense clearcut on the opposite side of the Redwood Creek valley. This vista, frozen in time during the most active period of redwood logging, vividly illustrates the scale of logging that occurred before the park was opened. Had the park not been opened, the remaining squares of old growth would have been clearcut too and the checkerboard would have disappeared. Even larger clearcuts are visible from the Lyons Ranch Trail, further up Bald Hills Road.
After just a few yards, the trail enters a wooded area that’s recently been burned. A sign explains that prairies were created by Native Americans and are now shrinking, so the woods were intentionally burned to keep them from encroaching on the prairies. Charred and dead trees line the trail; it’s not a very scenic area. Leaving the wooded area, the trail ends at a dirt logging road. Turn right and follow the road through open grassland. Just before the road enters a wooded area, the trail resumes to your left.
The trail descends through a logged non-redwood forest. The dark grove contains lots of small trees and stumps and is not particularly attractive.
The good part of the hike starts when you emerge from the forest into a large grassy prairie. Dolason Barn sits in the middle of the prairie, enjoying sweeping views over the Redwood Creek valley. The structure itself is nothing special, but the view of the little redwood barn with the checkerboard hill behind it and the valley below stretching off into the blue distance is one of the scenic highlights of the hike. Hawks drift overhead.
It’s possible to step inside the barn.
The trail levels out somewhat as it descends through the prairie, and soon reaches a large, lush, and very attractive grove of Douglas-Fir and Grand Fir. The trail switchbacks down through the light-grey trees, briefly leaving the grove a few times to offer views over the valley.
Eventually the trail breaks out into open prairie again. As you descend through this last prairie, a redwood grove becomes visible below, the needle-like trees twice as tall as the trees around them. A layer of hemlock lines the edge of the grove; as you get further in, the tall, straight redwood trunks become visible, and some of them are pretty impressive. The ground cover becomes increasingly lush: first ferns, then redwood sorrel appear. The redwoods are typical of North Coast uplands, with light green foliage, light grey redwood trunks, and mixed groundcover. There are quick glimpses of tall, straight, elegantly fluted redwood trunks rising through the foliage.
Unfortunately, this great redwood scenery, with the biggest trees and the best scenery, only continues for about a quarter-mile. It seems that the environment gets warmer and dryer as the trail descends, since the redwoods soon become smaller and less common, and the understory becomes increasingly clogged with tanoak. There are still some decent-sized redwoods, but you have to look for them through the understory. In addition, the woods become less lush as the groundcover of ferns and redwood sorrel disappears. Huckleberry shrubs and abundant rhododendron appear in the understory.
The trend briefly reverses as the trail passes through the small Emerald Creek canyon, where the trees are a little larger and there’s a groundcover of ferns. There’s a big wooden bridge over Emerald Creek.
After crossing Emerald Creek the trail climbs to a “T” intersection with the Emerald Ridge Trail. Turn left; the trail descends through exceptionally dense huckleberry until finally it breaks out into the sunshine at Redwood Creek. Typically for this region, the creekbed is wide, open, and covered with gravel, so in the summertime you can explore this very scenic area by walking along the gravel, sometimes wading through the wide, shallow creek (bring sandals or flip-flops for this part). Just make sure you can find the trail on your way back!
© 2009, 2014 David Baselt