On December 7, 2012, my 16 year old daughter and I hiked down Dolason Prairie trail to Redwood Creek and packrafted Redwood Creek to a take out near Orick. The creek is Class I, very scenic, with easy gravel bar camping, and by going in December we didn’t see a soul.
We arranged a shuttle with Kathy (you can get a hold of her via the Palm café and motel in Orick, CA) on the morning of December 7. We left our car at the takeout, and she drove us up to the Dolason Prairie trail, about a 25 minute drive. We had obtained permits from the rangers at the visitor center in Orick the day prior. The trail is approximately 5 miles long, all downhill. It begins with some spectacular overlooks of Redwood Creek, but in the mornings the fog is thick in the creek valley and we descended into it. Rain is prevalent this time of year so be prepared. Good footwear which will suit both hiking and packrafting is required for this steep descent – sandals or lightweight boating shoes would be insufficient. My daughter used Salomon 3D XA pro with good success, and I use Five-Ten SAR Canyoneer boots for hiking/packrafting trips.
The Trail begins in Dolason prairie which is a unique region, lasting maybe a mile. Wear rain pants since the moisture on the tall prairie grasses will get your lower body wet, and consider goretex or neoprene socks for the same reason. After a mile or so, you will enter redwood forests that you will stay in for the remainder of the trip. These are apparently second growth redwoods, and perhaps not as spectacular as what you might find on some of the parks most famous trails, but beautiful nonetheless. The trail is not highly traveled, and in addition to the lack of company, you will encounter a few blowdowns to navigate around, but there are no meaningful navigational challenges. At around 4.2 miles or so you will come across a bridge over Emerald Creek – be careful it is very slippery!
You hit the creek at the end of the 5 mile trail, and can change into packrafting gear and blow up boats. We went just after the torrential rains that hit Northern California after Thanksgiving, and based on reports the river was bank to bank at near record high levels in the week prior to our arrival. However, the river level drops rapidly after big rains and the actual flows on the Orick gauge (per the USGS website) on the days we travelled ranged between 1800-2500 cfs.
Some people do put in higher up Redwood Creek for longer trips. However, a rapid called Rocky Gap exists approximately 2-3 miles upriver from where we put in at the base of Dolason Prairie Trail. Apparently, Rocky Gap can be Class IV depending on flows, and highly unpredictable due to debris. By hiking down Dolason Prairie Trail you can avoid this rapid altogether. While there were a few areas of frothy water, the float we did was all Class I even at these higher levels, and perfect for beginners. It was the first packrafting trip for my daughter, who handled it with no difficulty whatsoever. There are occasional sweepers on the banks but nothing obstructive of the main channel or particularly threatening.
About 1.5-2 miles float downstream from our put in is Tall Trees Grove, which is worth a walk around. By accessing the grove in this fashion, you do not need a permit – the permit is actually to access the entry gate and road, you don’t need one to access the grove from the river. There are no markings from the river this time of year and the grove is easy to miss from the river unless you are careful and looking out for it.
Even at these relatively high levels, there were plenty of gravel bars for camping. If the water was very high and one was concerned about finding suitable gravel for camping, an alternative would be to climb out river left to 44 camp, and we secured a permit for this as a backup. While rainy and foggy, the temps range generally in the 40s and 50s and don’t change too much throughout the year – while we encountered some people and rangers on our arrival day who questioned our sanity to be camping this time of year, it really wasn’t much different with respect to gear, preparation, or experience than Alaska in the summer. I wouldn’t hesitate to go this time of year, provided you have good rain gear and rainworthy shelter – we used a two wall tent instead of my preferred tarp for this purpose.
The floating is pretty, mellow, and lots of beautiful trees; it’s a great way to see the park. I would estimate we travelled 4 mph without much paddling required. Saw a fair bit of birdlife, including bald eagles. Black bear live here but are rarely seen. You know you are nearing the takeout just before the bridge to Hwy 101 because you begin to see manmade structures in the distance, but the takeout is not marked and you need to know where to look for it on your GPS or you will likely miss it. Which would not be the end of the world, but you’d have to find someone in Orick to take you back to your car, or hoof it.
I recommend the map “Redwood National and State Parks – South,” which I ordered on the website redwoodhikes.com. Both the map and the website seem to be created by Dave Baselt, and given the absence of commercialism involved with either, I suspect it is purely a labor of love. And excellent labor at that, as the website is the most informative source regarding hiking in this beautiful area, and the map far exceeds the Trails Illustrated map in detail.