Post Summary: Ready to visit Fern Canyon in California’s Redwood Forest? We’re sharing everything you need to know to take Fern Canyon Trail! This includes directions, what to bring, how to capture those epic sun rays, and more!
As we were on our epic road trip in Northern California, we were in search of the best places to take photos near the coast. We had been in this area before on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip a few years back, but had missed a lot of Northern California gems on our quest south to San Francisco.
Now, returning after a few years away, we were determined to visit the Redwood National & State Parks in depth, and our first stop…Fern Canyon!
Fern Canyon feels like it was plucked right out of a fairytale. Literal ferns cover the canyon walls, nearly 50 feet up, as morning light rays beam into the area between the trees.
The trail is a short 1-mile loop, perfect for the casual hiker, photographer, or family outing. We hope this guide will help prepare you for your own trip to Fern Canyon, to explore one of the Redwoods’ most beautiful photo locations!
Is Fern Canyon just one stop on your trip? Check out these activities nearby!
- 10 Things To Do In Redwood National & State Parks
- The Ultimate California Coast Road Trip on Highway 1
- 1-Week Road Trip Around Northern California
- The Ultimate Oregon Coast Road Trip (And these epic Oregon Coast hikes!)
- Beautiful Beaches + Secret Photo Spots On The Southern Oregon Coast
- Spend The Weekend In Patrick’s Point State Park
*New* Fern Canyon Trail Updates For 2023
Starting this March, permits are required in order to visit Gold Bluffs Beach Day-Use Area and the Fern Canyon Trailhead from May 1st to September 30th. News about this change and why can be read here.
The day-use fee will be $15, and you can obtain your permit online here. This is a MUST-DO before venturing out to Fern Canyon trail!
History of Fern Canyon
Fern Canyon sits in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, in Humboldt Country, California. It was donated by the Pacific Lumber Company in 1994 after they recognized the beauty and biodiversity that this area holds.
Because of that donation, Fern Canyon added more than 2,000 acres to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. This is definitely a success story in cooperation between business and conservation efforts, to “unify natural and cultural resources.” – (Story Behind the Scenery, 1999).
Fern Canyon is recognized as a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, for its cool, moist ecosystem teeming with ferns, moss, and moisture all around.
During your hike, stop and examine the biodiversity of the canyon – in just the ferns alone! There are at least 5-8 different fern species covering the floors and walls. Can you spot the different colors and textures of each one?
Located in The Coastal Redwoods, most people just chalk up the area to having the world’s tallest trees, and not much else! However, the tall trees give shelter to an explosion of wildlife, both in flora and fauna! Fern Canyon is an example of that diversity, being home to several plant and animal species in just the canyon alone!
What Makes Fern Canyon Trail So Special?
With so many incredible hiking trails in the Redwoods, why decide on Fern Canyon?
Well for starters, we saw this magical place first on Instagram and Pinterest. It looks shockingly similar to Oneonta Gorge in the Columbia River Gorge (Oregon State), but Fern Canyon seemed to have thicker fern walls and a more shallow creek to wade through.
After some feverish searching on Google maps and reverse searching images, we finally found Fern Canyon, tucked away in the Coastal Redwoods of Northern California.
Even though we haven’t hiked many other trails in the Redwoods, we can confidently say that if you can only explore one trail in the area, you wouldn’t be disappointed with Fern Canyon. And we’re telling you why right here!
One of the biggest reasons to hike Fern Canyon Trail is because it’s easy! This 1.1-mile lollipop loop takes you on a casual walk through the canyon, with very little exertion. Yes, you’ll have to walk through some streams and climb around some fallen logs, but it’s definitely not your average huge elevation gain hike, as many of the Pacific Northwest hiking trails we feature here.
Fern Canyon has been featured in several famous movies. You can recognize the green canyon walls in Jurassic Park 2: Lost Worlds from 1997, or more recently the BBC Series Walking With Dinosaurs in 2000. The canyon definitely has a prehistoric feel to it, which is why we aren’t surprised it’s often part of famous filming endeavors!
There is ocean access at Gold Bluffs Beach nearby. It’s easy to spend an entire day exploring Fern Canyon. Here, you have access to not only the fern-lined trail but walking distance to Gold Bluffs Beach as well! Here, you can pitch your tent among the tall seagrass, and spend time walking the beach for sunset.
There are amazing photo opportunities at Fern Canyon! Plus, the sun rays on a clear morning are next-level beautiful!
The Redwoods is full of amazing and scenic hiking trails, but choosing Fern Canyon will bring a unique experience to your time in the area!
Best Time To Visit Fern Canyon Trail
So, when should you visit Fern Canyon? The best time to visit Fern Canyon in the Redwoods is in the summer months, between July and September. This is when water levels will be the lowest, giving you the easiest access to the trailhead. Low water levels will also give you the easiest walking access in the canyon, without having to worry so much about getting your feet wet.
The trail to Fern Canyon IS open year-round, but in the winter and spring, you’ll have to prepare for temporary or sudden closures. The access road to the trailhead requires two river crossings, which fluctuate daily depending on rain and other weather conditions. Therefore, winter hikers, come with realistic expectations!
During our most recent visit to Fern Canyon, we explored in early September in the morning, and the conditions were excellent. We came on a clear day when the light rays were shining through the trees, making it feel like we were in the Lord of the Rings. The temperature in the canyon was cool but not cold, and we had no trouble crossing the two river crossings to get to the parking lot.
Best Time Of Day To Visit Fern Canyon: It’s important to note that this trail is very popular (and you can see why – it’s beautiful!). The parking lot is large, but the park warns that it fills up especially quickly on summer days and weekends. To ensure you get a spot, we recommend visiting early in the morning, by 8:00 am, to increase your chances of getting a spot in the parking lot.
What To Bring To Fern Canyon
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What to pack when hiking in Fern Canyon is similar to what we recommend bringing for a Pacific Northwest hike – emphasis on the waterproof everything! However, here are a few pieces unique to this trail, that we thought helped us have an exceptional experience:
This is a must-have for hiking in Fern Canyon! Good weather or bad, you should expect to cross streams in the canyon, anywhere from 1-4 inches deep. (Ankle deep during heavy rain seasons!) This doesn’t seem like a lot, but it only takes one big splash to get your socks wet! Better to be safe and wear shoes that can handle a bit of water. We especially love these ones by Vasque, that have held up in several winter hikes in Washington that have been exceptionally wet!
…Or Water Sandals!
Visiting Fern Canyon during the summer season? It may be too hot for boots, and that’s where water sandals come in handy! Our go-to pair of water-friendly sandals are from Teva – their Hurricane XLT2 styles come with really great traction.
Paper or downloaded, it doesn’t matter! Often what is most convenient for us is downloading a trail off of one of these handy hiking apps, so you can refer to your route even without cell service. We also love downloading offline maps on Google, to help route us to our destination when we leave service – which we did on this section of Davidson Road!
Snacks and Water
The closest food or convenience store is nearly a 45-minute drive away, so make sure to bring snacks for hiking and water to tide you over between your next meal.
Extra Toilet Paper
Wait, toilet paper? Yep, we said it! Because this is one of the most popular hiking trails in the Redwoods, the two small pit toilets in the parking lot receive a LOT of traffic. Better safe than sorry to have TP on hand when you really need to go – it’s the worst when you get stuck without any!
Make sure to make a little camping hygiene kit to store in your car for trips like these. It will help keep you clean and healthy on your road trip!
An Extra Pair of Dry Clothing
It’s nearly unavoidable to stay completely dry on this trail! If you find yourself wading through the creeks and getting your feet wet, it can be uncomfortable to stay that way for the rest of the day. Make sure you pack a dry pair of clothing (socks and shoes at the very minimum!) to change into when your return to your car.
Did you even go to Fern Canyon if you didn’t take any pictures?? (Kidding, you can bring one or not, but you won’t regret those photos!) Capturing the canyon’s lush green landscape through your eyes can be a real treat – here is what we carry with us on our travel photography gear setup!
Waterproof Day Pack
You’ll want your hands free for this hike – climbing logs and navigating rivers is a challenge when your hands are full! Choose a day pack with lots of external zippers so you can easily grab your gear on the go.
A Warm Layer
Walking at the bottom of the canyon can get pretty chilly, especially if you are visiting in the early morning, or during the colder months. Pack a warm but breathable layer, like a fleece pullover or a small waterproof jacket to give you that extra little bit of warmth while you hike.
Fees For Visiting Fern Canyon
To visit Fern Canyon, there is an $8.00 day-use fee. On your way down Davidson Road, there is a booth you will need to stop at about halfway down the road, and pay with cash.
We were camping at Patrick’s Point State Park at the time, and our camping tag served as a valid pass. This may be the case for other state parks in the area, but call ahead to make sure!
Directions To Fern Canyon (How To Get To The Trailhead)
Driving to Fern Canyon is an adventure in itself!
To begin (assuming you are starting on Highway 101), head west onto Davison Road at Berry Glen. From here, the road becomes gravel almost immediately, beginning your 6.8-mile journey on this narrow and winding road.
Driving Tip: Honk at blind turns and keep your windows rolled down! This will help warn any oncoming cars of your arrival, and for you to hear other cars as well.
These old dirt roads are maintained frequently and are suitable for most 2-wheel drive cars. However, trailer-towing vehicles, RVs, or long cars are prohibited from driving on the road. This is because some of these turns are sharp and narrow, with little room for navigating or turning around. Occasionally, someone will ignore this rule and get stuck, trapping people on the inside and blocking people on the outside, until a tow truck arrives for a *very expensive* ride out.
Sometimes on busy periods, you’ll see a ranger out front by the entrance, turning away cars if the lot is full. This is actually really helpful so that people don’t take the 30-minute drive deep down the road only to be turned away from the full lot, wasting more than an hour of precious Redwood exploring time!
The final leg of this journey on Davidson Road parallels the coast, with jutting cliffs to the east and coastal plains and the open ocean to the west. After a section of open driving, you will arrive at 2-3 shallow creek crossings before reaching the Fern Canyon Trail parking lot.
Go slow through these creeks! During heavy bouts of rain, this is often why the road will be temporarily closed – check this road conditions page to stay updated!
Because of the unique and foggy conditions on the Northern California coast, this specific area can get super lush and dense with rich green vegetation. If you visit in May or June, you can look forward to seeing wild azalea and rhododendron blooms (often seen on Washington hikes as well, and the state flower too!) which bring a gorgeous pop of color to the landscape!
Finally, keep your eye out for the resident Roosevelt Elk! These creatures are often seen in this part of the park and can get aggressive if you disturb them. They are often seen during dawn and dusk when they can graze for food outside of the heat of the afternoon sun!
Spooked about the driving journey? There is also an option to hike into the trailhead! The 4.5-mile alternate hiking route from the Prairie Creek Visitors Center is a longer but car-less way to access Fern Canyon. Follow signs for James Irvine Trail for the most direct access.
SUSTAINABILITY REMINDERS – Leave No Trace
Fern Canyon is part of a delicate ecosystem, susceptible to human damage if not treated carefully. Before heading out on Fern Canyon Trail, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave the canyon in the same condition you found it!
- Plan ahead and prepare: Check here on the day of your hike, to ensure the access road is open. Make sure to prepare for wet conditions, and pack the 10 hiking essentials.
- Travel on proper surfaces: Travel on designated trails and use boardwalks to help cross the creek. Only camp in designated campsites nearby (Gold Bluffs Beach).
- Dispose of waste properly: Pack it in, pack it out. Carry out all trash, and use the bathrooms located in the parking lot.
- Leave Wildlife Undisturbed: Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
- Minimize Campfire Impacts: Use established fire rings, only in designated campsites. Always drown out the fire when finished.
- Respect Wildlife: Keep a safe distance from wildlife, including the elk population in the area. Don’t leave food out, and leave your pets at home for this hike!
- Be considerate of others: Everyone visits for their own reasons. Respect other’s experiences too, by keeping the noise down, and yielding to trail passers.
Fern Canyon Trail Details
Miles: 1.1-mile “lollipop” loop
Elevation Gain: 118 Feet
Features: Fern Wall, Waterfall, walking through streams
Pass Or Permit: $8 Day Use Fee
Fern Canyon Trail is a popular attraction for many day-trippers, with ample information online about its whereabouts. One of the most important things to consider about a visit to Fern Canyon is the time of year you are going, and the water levels of the creek.
The access road to the trailhead becomes impassable during times of heavy rain, so it’s important to bookmark this page, and stay updated on the most recent road closures.
What To Expect On The Trail
For our latest trip to Fern Canyon, we came in the early morning to ensure we got a parking spot. We also came during the weekday, which helped reduce foot traffic on the trail, too.
We didn’t have to worry so much though, because when we arrived there was only one other car in the parking lot! We think this is because we visited Fern Canyon in September when families and visitors have largely gone home in anticipation of the upcoming school year. But anyway, lucky us!
The first part of the trail starts out like any hiking trail in the Pacific Northwest – thick green forest, with lots of ferns and moss on the ground and trees. It almost felt like a hike in the Olympic Peninsula – kind of like being in a rainforest!
Within the park (and sections of this trail, too) you can expect to see old-growth coastal redwood, hemlock, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, and Red Alder trees.
We only were on this tree-lined trail for just a short while though – the canyon entrance quickly presented itself in true, fairy tale fashion! Sunbeams shot through the canyon entrance, welcoming us in to explore its wonders.
Right from the beginning, Fern Canyon is a fantastic display of biodiversity for plants and animals alike. Between the textures, colors, noises, and fresh smell of the moist & cool canyon, it’s a beautiful sensory overload.
Immediately, you can be taken aback by the 50-foot tall fern-covered walls, watching them move in the breeze as the wind passes through. As you walk through the creek bed, the combination of fallen trees, glistening water, and winding curves make it something of a landscape photographer’s dream.
Along this short 1.1-mile trail, expect to walk through ankle-deep creek crossings and climb over large, fallen logs blocking the path. In the summer and fall months, park rangers will lay out wooden bridges on the exceptionally deep crossings, but if you come in the winter they won’t be there.
The canyon is no wider than 30-feet, with stark, 50-foot vertical walls of ferns on either side.
After a quarter-mile in a fantasy world of ferns, the trail exits the left side of the canyon up a series of wooden steps. Turn around here and head back down the canyon, or if you prefer, see what the trail has to offer and consider wandering through and practicing the art of forest bathing!
The first quarter-mile of the Fern Canyon trail is the most photographed. At the far end of the canyon, the trail gives an exit on the left side, up a series of wooden stairs. Going this direction will take you on a trail with much different scenery – through a pine forest and back to the entrance of Fern Canyon. We didn’t take this route, but rather turned around at the end, to enjoy Fern Canyon from another perspective.
There is no right or wrong way to enjoy this trail – the route is completely up to you!
For us, our total walking distance was around .5 miles, and we spent about 1-1.5 hours exploring the canyon. In this way, Fern Canyon is a very easy half-day hike, perfect for those just passing through the Redwoods on their own Pacific Coast Highway road trip.
As for crowds, we saw a few others, but most parties were far between and kept to themselves on the trail. We probably saw about 5-10 others in our total time exploring. We were a little nervous about it being packed (as we read this was often the case in the summer months!). But once we were parked in the lot, our worries went away when we saw the scarcity of cars.
I think the lack of crowds was a combination of 1. getting there early, 2. visiting at the beginning of shoulder season, and 3. arriving on a weekday. Make sure to come in with reasonable expectations, and remember that while we had a nearly solo experience, this is still one of the most popular hikes in the park!
More Hiking Trails In Redwood National Park
Is Fern Canyon just one stop on your visit to the Redwoods? Here are a few more trail options to explore if you want to stick around the area:
Trails Off Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway
As part of the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, this is the closest scenic byway to Fern Canyon. Along this route, you can stop by the visitors center to chat about hiking trails in the area, including the 4.5-mile one to Fern Canyon!
Some of the best short stops here are the Big Tree Wayside, Moorman Pond Trail, Little Creek Trail, and the longer West Ridge and Prairie Creek Trail.
Tall Trees Grove
Tall Tree Grove is a permit-issued trail in the Redwood National Park, located off Bald Hill Road and past Lady Bird Johnson Grove. This trail is rated “moderate” at 4-miles round trip, for its 800-foot elevation drop to the floodplain of Redwood Creek.
Tall Tree Trail takes you to the bottom of the grove near the creek, rich with soil, water, and protection from harsh winter conditions. Because of this, the trees have grown exceptionally tall here – many stretch farther than 350-feet in height!
Don’t be fooled by the short trail distance. If you plan to get a permit for this hike, expect it to take half a day at least! The trailhead is nearly 1 hour from the nearest visitors center, including a 7-mile drive down a winding dirt road, and gate access is only accessible for permit holders.
It’s free to get a permit online! Click here to reserve your spot. Once you receive your permit, you will be emailed driving instructions and your unique gate code to open the entrance. The gate is to help regulate traffic and limit access to this delicate area of the park.
Accommodations Near The Redwood National & State Parks
If you’re looking for places to stay around Redwood National Park, here are some of our favorite suggestions:
- Sue-Meg State Park: Between the massive trees, huge ground ferns, and availability, this is an excellent central camping location if you’re exploring Northern California. There are also really epic hiking trails to explore, right on the ocean’s edge!
- Find Free Camping Spots! If you are looking to save a little bit of money (and are willing to be scrappy and give up a lot of amenities!), then free camping is for you! We’ve created a guide to finding free camping, including our strategies to finding the best spots, and how to enjoy it while practicing Leave No Trace Principles!
- Gold Bluffs Campground & Beach. Gold Bluffs Campground is by far the closest place to camp near Fern Canyon. With walkable access to the trailhead, you can get here really early or stay late in the canyon, before any of the crowds begin to form.
- Rent an Airbnb! Between the nearby towns of Eureka, Orick, and Crescent City, there is a wide array of Airbnb options for you to choose from.
Uh, oh, what if your campground choice is sold out??
Dyrt Alerts – our favorite way to find camping at sold-out campgrounds.
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Dyrt Alerts work like this: you select a sold-out campground and the date you want to camp there, The Dyrt then scans every few minutes for cancellations and quickly sends you a Dyrt Alert when your campsite becomes available!
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Planning your very own Fern Canyon hike? What are some other suggestions or questions you have for first-time visitors? Let us know in the comments below!
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Pin this guide to hiking Fern Canyon in the Redwoods to prep for your trip!