Damnation Creek: Hiking Old-Growth To Ocean In Redwood National Park

There are few places on earth I love more than Redwoods National Park, located 325 miles north of San Francisco. Growing up, we used to drive up the coast every summer, and a few nights camping in the redwoods was always on the itinerary.

The Redwoods are actually several parks within the national and state system, all of which are managed cooperatively by the National Park Service and California Department of Parks and Recreation. Together, they comprise nearly half of the remaining old-growth redwood forest in the state.

Last month, while driving down the coast from Seattle to San Francisco, I decided I was long overdue to sleep amongst the world’s tallest trees. I booked a site at Mill Creek Campground in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, just south of the dreary fishing port of Crescent City.

When I camp, I want to stay in a place that smells of wood smoke, and has sites covered in moss and ferns. I desire a forest canopy overhead, ranger talks, trailheads and wildlife lurking in the undergrowth. I do not want to see functioning cellphones, tour bus-sized RVs or swimming pools. I may be in a campground instead of the backcountry, but I have my standards.

Mill Creek, as well as Jedidiah Smith Campground (located 10 miles east of Crescent City, in Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park), both meet my criteria. I’ve stayed at the Smith campground in the past, and at either place, I’d be perfectly content to sit on a stump all day, inhaling the scent of burning wood and watching the banana slugs go by.

That said, I camp so I can hike, which is why I was thrilled to discover one of the Redwood’s best trails – one of only a few with old-growth forest-to-beach access – just down the road from Mill Creek. Damnation Creek was originally used by the region’s Yurok Indians, who went to the beach to collect shellfish and seaweed.

The trail drops 1,100 feet in two miles, switchbacking through Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, ferns, and huckleberries. It’s a steep drop, but utterly breathtaking due to the cathedral-like shroud of ancient redwoods that tower over everything. Damnation Creek runs near the bottom of the trail, just before you emerge onto a bluff overlooking the sea stacks of the Pacific. If the tide is out, you can walk down to a patch of rocky beach overlooking Damnation Cove. Take a deep breath. Realize cellphones and civilization are overrated. Linger. It’s a steep hike back.

Getting there
Located eight miles south on Highway 101 from Crescent City; the Damnation Creek Trailhead and pullout is at mile marker 16, on your right. Don’t leave any valuables in your car.

[Photo credit: redwoods, Flickr user goingslo]

Vagabond Tales: Winter on California’s Mt. Tahquitz

Some people are not aware of the fact there are mountains in Southern California. Not just brown looking hills with Hollywood signs sprinkled across them, but real mountains which feature real fresh snow. You can even ski in Southern California.

If you aren’t one of the 22 million people who currently reside in Southern California, there’s a decent chance this is the first time you are hearing this. Why? Because the image of the “California Dream” of sun, sand, and surf has been marketed across the country since well before the Beach Boys decided it would start selling records.

Due to the year-round sunshine, many of the those 22 million residents have relocated from elsewhere to sprawl along its trademark golden shores. During the winter months, while most of the country collectively pulls on another turtleneck, Southern California frequently basks in midwinter warmth. This is the Southern California most people know.

While there is no denying the existence of the stereotypical image, beyond the beaches, date palms, and sun drenched boulevards, there exists this other Southern California that only a handful of people take the time to experience. In order to get there, you have to shun the warm beach image and drive into the icy hinterlands where the population can easily drop to only 1.

Climbing off of I-10 and onto the back roads which lead into Southern California’s inland mountains can be a relaxing, near meditative experience. The number of lanes gradually funnels from 6 down to 1, and the scenery slowly morphs from that of aggressive billboards, off ramps, and car dealerships to dry rolling pastureland and rows of solitary fence posts.

The multitude of peaks which populate the southwest corner of the state can refreshingly offer a transcendental respite from the chaos of the urban world left back below the tree line.It’s for this exact reason, this sobering calm amidst a sea of modern turmoil, that I have chosen to climb Mt. Tahquitz, an 8,720 ft slab of rock in the heart of the San Jacinto mountain range. At the base of Tahquitz sits the secluded mountain hamlet of Idyllwild, a town with a higher elevation (5,000 ft.) than resident population (about 3,500).

Although it’s a brilliantly sunny day, patches of snow still dot the shaded patches of the downtown streets. Residents linger in a cafe across from the National Forest Service office as a pair of flannel-clad men in trucks wave to each other while passing on the two-lane road.

For as “small-town” as Idyllwild can be (and the antithesis of the Southern California stereotype), the true beauty of these mountains cannot really be felt until out on the trail and into the surrounding wilderness. When climbing Tahquitz from Idyllwild, the trailhead begins at the base of Tahquitz Rock (aka Lily Rock), a stoic monolith which is a haven for ice climbers after a strong winter storm.

That’s right, ice climbing in Southern California.

Meandering its way up shaded switchbacks, the trail ascends steeply towards a mountain saddle and offers up incomparable views of the valley floor below. On the walk I encounter only one other person on the trail-a ranger on his first night of a three night overnight for trail maintenance.

“Beautiful day”, we nonchalantly exchange with each other.

“Seen many bears?” I inquire, knowing full well that it’s too early in the season for any substantial amount of sightings.

“Not today, but there are some fresh mountain lion tracks just up the way.”

Though actual mountain lion sightings are rare in the area, fresh tracks soon become apparent in the snow alongside the trail. It’s a simple reminder this is still true wilderness and we are but a part of a larger domain.

On long, clear days when the trail isn’t covered in snow, the hardiest of hikers can make it all the way to the fire lookout on the summit of Tahquitz, a rustic throwback to the days of lonely fire spotters perched high atop prominent mountains of the American west.

Today, however, lacking proper crampons and with insufficient daylight, the bluff overlooking the ridge forming the saddle will have to do. If ever there was a spot where Kerouac’s Japhy Ryder were to manifest himself and scream in all his carpe diem glory, you are standing in that spot whilst at the overlook on Tahquitz.

Go ahead. Yodel your head off. There’s nobody here to hear you. If a man screams into the wind on Tahquitz, does anybody care?

The panorama from the saddle stretches from the desert of Anza-Borrego park and the Salton Sea in the east all the way to the shimmering Pacific blue ocean way out west. In between, nothing seems to exist except you and the sound of the wind.

This here, this remote perch in the breeze, this is the Southern California nobody ever tells you about. It is solitude, wilderness, breathing easy, isolation, seclusion, freedom, and a sense of being alive.

This is winter on Tahquitz.