Cal Barrel Road is a gravel logging road that was originally built for the California Barrel Company; the company had a mill in Arcata from 1902 until 1956 and was the town's main employer.
The road is open to cars in summer only, but it can be hiked year-round. Since it’s officially a drivable road, it’s one of the few places where you can go on an old-growth redwood hike with your dogs. It’s also open to bikes, but RVs and trailers aren’t allowed.
As a driving destination, Cal Barrel Road is less impressive than Jedediah Smith’s Howland Hill Road since only the beginning is among really big lowland redwoods. But since Cal Barrel gets a lot fewer cars, it looks more pristine; its covering of redwood needles makes it feel more like a trail. In fact, of all the redwood drives, Cal Barrel Road provides the best sense of what it’s like to hike through the redwoods.
As a hiking destination, the road used to be little-used but in recent years it’s become fairly popular, maybe because the wide, even, crushed-gravel road is easy to walk, but also because it’s quite scenic, especially the first few hundred yards. The road has a more expansive feel than most of Prairie Creek’s trails, in part because the woods along Cal-Barrel Road are unusually open, but also because of the large cleared swath that the road cuts through the forest. Walking the road makes you feel somewhat less immersed in the forest than a trail, since you’re always separated from the woods by a few feet of road.
For a little more variety, this hike can be done as a loop with the Rhododendron Trail.
Cal-Barrel Road branches off Drury Parkway about a quarter mile north of the visitor center. Turn onto the dirt road and drive for a few yards, past the Foothill Trail and, into the deep shade of a pretty impressive lowland redwood grove. Park in the pullout on your right just before the gate. There’s enough space for about 6 cars and there’s no fee to park here.
The road gets off to a great start, climbing through a magnificent grove of huge redwoods. By the Cathedral Tree Trail crossing the redwoods transition to smaller, but still pretty scenic, upland redwoods. The trail is cut into a hillside with some good views of the lush, fern-carpeted, pure redwood grove in the ravine below.
The woods become less open and scenic as the road climbs, but then near the top the scenery improves again as the road curves around a relatively flat area with an impressively dense, pure redwood grove. Typically for Prairie Creek’s uplands, the woods have an orderly, garden-like appearance, with huge trees growing from an unbroken sea of ferns. The redwoods on the flat are also noticeably darker than the light-grey hillside redwoods.
The road dead-ends at the Rhododendron Trail. An unofficial trail continues along the old route of Cal-Barrel Road, heading off into an impressively dense, jungle-like stand of old-growth redwoods before eventually being interrupted by Highway 101.
Back at the bottom of the road, it’s worth walking a few yards toward Drury Parkway and turning left on the Foothill Trail. Just a few yards down the trail is the small but exquisite Rotary Grove, which has some especially spectacular old growth. After passing under a large fallen tree, look up for a view of some redwoods with impressively reiterated trunks (trunks with really big vertical branches).
© 2009, 2012, 2020 David Baselt