I was driving up the Northern California coast on a family road trip, and had been looking for a packrafting adventure that I could complete in one day. Jon Friedman’s great trip report on this forum inspired me to paddle Redwood Creek.
Redwood Creek runs through a forested valley in Redwood National Park, passing through the small town of Orick, CA, before reaching the Pacific Ocean about 3 miles further downstream. Redwood National Park Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center is just a few hundred yards from the mouth of Redwood Creek, and Highway 101 passes right by the Visitor Center before crossing Redwood Creek upstream at Orick.
On December 28th, 2014, my family dropped me off at the Dolason Prairie trailhead on Bald Hills Road, an easy drive from Highway 101 at Orick. As Jon described in his trip report, hiking the Dolason Prairie and Emerald Creek Trails to Redwood Creek offers Class 1 paddling all the way back to Orick.
The landscape was wonderfully moody as I hiked the Dolason Prairie Trail across open meadows, past the historic Dolason Barn looking out over the misty valley below, before descending into the lush forest for which Redwood National Park is famous. After 4.2 miles, I reached the footbridge over Emerald Creek, a really picturesque spot — the wooden bridge crosses a gushing creek surrounded by huge trees. I should have paid attention to Jon’s warning that the bridge is very slippery, though, as my feet flew out from under me the moment I stepped onto it, and I was lucky to have my backpack to break my fall.
A few minutes beyond the footbridge, I reached the junction with Emerald Creek Trail, and turned left down to the river. In all, it took me 1 hour 45 minutes to reach Redwood Creek from the trailhead, hiking solo at a brisk pace with no stops. The trail is pretty much downhill all the way, descending from the trailhead at approximately 2,400 feet to the put-in at under 200 feet elevation. Given the cool, moist weather, and the generally good trail conditions, I elected to hike in my Stowaway Tough drysuit and Five Ten Canyoneers. At Redwood Creek, I spent 30 minutes eating lunch and prepping my boat on a gravel bar, before starting the paddle.
According to the flow gauge at Orick, Redwood Creek was running at about 1650 cfs at the time, and at this level it was, for the most part, a fast, fun float, suitable for a capable beginner. I encountered the most serious obstacle almost straight away — a spot where a gravel bar splits the channel, with main channel sweeping under a downed tree to river right. With some effort, I ferried the short distance to the gravel bar in the center of the channel, and dragged my boat over to where I was confident of avoiding the downed tree. Aside from this, and a few spots where the creek was so shallow the bottom of my boat brushed the riverbed, the float was smooth and unproblematic.
After 1.5 miles — a mere 20 minutes since leaving the put in — I reached the Tall Trees Grove, where a mile-long loop trail allows you to hike among the giant redwoods. (I later read that Tall Trees Grove is the location of the Libbey Tree, at one point the tallest living thing known — almost 363 feet tall.) Most visitors reach the Tall Trees loop trail from a parking lot 1.5 miles up the hill, and this would be a good spot to bail if the need arose. My family and I had hiked to the Tall Trees Grove the previous day, so I knew where it was, but did not stop on this occasion. From the river, the start of the Tall Trees loop trail is easy to miss, being on the far side a wide gravel bar. Redwood Creek curves around the Tall Trees Grove, so the sharp bend in the river just beyond the gravel bar could alert paddlers to its location. Beyond the Tall Trees Grove, the paddling was leisurely and enjoyable. Bald eagles perched in trees by the river, an impressive sight as they swooped overhead.
With an average speed of over 4 miles per hour on the river, I reached Orick after just 2 hours of paddling, and decided to continue on for another 40 minutes to the mouth of Redwood Creek. Rounding the final bend in the creek, I could see an imposing wall of white Pacific breakers crashing onto the far side of the sand spit that protects the mouth of the creek. I beached my packraft on the inside of the spit, and carried it a couple of hundred yards to the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center. I was putting away my gear in the parking lot at the visitor center just five hours after leaving the trailhead, delighted by the ease and enjoyment with which packrafting allowed me to travel through this secluded valley.