The abundant moisture inside the canyon creates a hotbed of fungus activity. Mycologists could spend days out here, finding different types of mushrooms. | Photo by Jett Williams

#ExploreHumboldt: Fern Canyon

Fern Canyon provides beautifully classic Humboldt scenery with a stunning beach as a bonus.
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Fern Canyon provides a beautiful, classic Humboldt scene with a stunning beach as a bonus

Hello and welcome back to the #ExploreHumboldt column, where we take an in-depth look at nearby natural areas that Humboldt State students should make a point of visiting. This week, we’re looking at one of the most heavily-photographed locations in Humboldt County: Fern Canyon.

Seriously, if you search “#HumboldtCounty” on Instagram it’s roughly 30 percent Fern Canyon photos, the rest being a mix of close-up weed shots and photos of the beach.

Fern Canyon is in Prairie Creek State Park and is part of a much larger network of coastal trails. You could spend multiple days getting lost in the 75 miles of trails or camping at the 75 sites. There’s also a 19-mile mountain bike loop for those who are interested.

The towering walls of Fern Canyon are so picturesque, they were actually used in several parts of Steven Spielberg’s classic “Jurassic Park” franchise. | Photo by Jett Williams

Fern Canyon is exactly what it sounds like, a big natural canyon with 50-foot walls completely coated in five different types of ferns. Fern Canyon trail runs through the base of the canyon, but the trail is really more of a suggestion. Once you’re in the canyon, hiking seems almost irrelevant and you’ll want to stop plenty of times to soak in the views.

The cool coastal air combined with the sound of the stream running through the canyon’s floor makes this an amazing spot for quiet relaxation and reflection. This stream also makes it very hard to navigate the canyon floor without getting your feet wet, so wear waterproof shoes if you’ve got them. Direct sunlight only reaches the canyon for a few hours each day, so bring an extra layer to avoid getting cold in the later hours of the day.

To reach Fern Canyon you’ll need a car. The turn off 101 is two miles north of Orick and a 40-minute drive from Arcata. After the turn onto Davison Road, continue for three and a half miles until you reach the state park entrance. Be aware that it’s $8 per vehicle, and they DO NOT accept credit cards. The closest ATM is Orick, so plan accordingly.

The final miles of dirt road to reach the trailhead are littered with potholes, and a stream crossing in the last mile is where less capable vehicles will have to park. Luckily, it’s a short hike from there to the trailhead, but anything with decent clearance can make it through.

Fern Canyon, like Strawberry Rock, is a very popular destination without a whole lot of square footage. This means that unless you arrive very early or very late, you will not be alone. When I visited, the parking lot was almost full. However, the park is expansive and visitors can explore at their own pace, so while Fern Canyon is never empty, I never felt crowded or like I needed more space.

Roosevelt Elk are a common sight to see in this state park, but keep your wits about you. Elk can become aggressive in an instant if they’re provoked. Keep a safe distance and use the zoom on your camera. | Photo by Jett Williams

After you’ve finished exploring the canyon, walk through the parking lot, past the bathrooms and out onto the expansive beach. Miles of flat sand stretch out in either direction, providing a stark contrast to the confined canyon walls. If you’re lucky, you might come across a herd of wild Roosevelt Elk in the coastal grass fields just inland of the beachfront.

These creatures have a six-week mating season from August to October and are aggressively protective of their young. Never directly approach or get too close to the Elk, as they can turn confrontational in a heartbeat.

Detailed maps are available at the entrance booth or online at the park’s website. Ambitious explorers can link the Fern Canyon loop into other optional trails, and turn a short excursion into a full day hike. Either way, get out there and don’t forget to #ExploreHumboldt.

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