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Hiking the redwood coast

Following a trail through alders and primordial-looking ferns between the bluff and the beach, I round a curve and come face to face with a wide-eyed hiker whose apparent terror gives way to laughter.

"Sorry," she says. "I thought you were an elk."

We share bits of trail news and pass each other by, and not 50 yards on I round another curve and come face to face with a female Roosevelt elk gazing at me placidly.

"Sorry," I say. "I thought you were a woman."

I defer to anybody who outweighs me by hundreds of pounds.

Elk are just one of the draws along California's Redwood Coast south of Crescent City. The narrow strip of redwoods between Hiouchi and Trinidad is a mecca for hikers, campers, anglers, birders, tidepoolers and others just a half-day's drive from the Rogue Valley.

Here are rivers and streams, campgrounds and hiking trails, deer and black bear, cutthroat trout, Chinook salmon. Tidepools with their sea creatures. Birds of the sea and the shore and the deep woods. Migrating gray whales will soon be passing by on their annual trip to Mexico.

Dominating it all are the world's tallest trees, coast redwoods, survivors from the age of dinosaurs, some of which are taller than the length of a football field. Starting in about 1850, about 98 percent of California's redwoods were logged off. Most of the remaining giants are here in Prairie Creek, Del Norte and Jedediah Smith parks under a mix of state and federal ownership.

I thought of hiking into Ossagon Creek, the trailhead for which is about five miles south of the mouth of the Klamath River, but I didn't want to leave the car by the highway for what might be several days. Plus I remembered a little campground I'd visited years ago farther south, right on the beach.

A stop at the Prairie Creek Visitor Center revealed that what I was looking for was Gold Bluffs Beach. Turn right off Highway 101 onto Davison Road at Elk Meadow a couple miles south of the visitor center. There's a meadow here favored by elk with parking for elk gawkers. But on the narrow, unpaved road that winds through the redwoods to the campground, trailers and big RVs (anything over 24 feet) are prohibited.

Come to a self-pay kiosk at the four-mile point, take an envelope and drive two more miles to the campground. Pick a site and return with $35 — a per-night tariff which I'm told reflects California's current budget crisis.

The campground has picnic tables and fire pits and a little building with solar hot water, flush toilets and potable water. There are bear-proof lockers in which to stash your food and anything else with a scent, including the likes of deodorant and lip balm.

This is a good base camp from which to explore the region. Bring everything you need, including firewood — and $35.

Fern Canyon and the trail through it commences two miles north of Gold Bluffs. Drive to the parking lot at the mouth of the canyon, driving through several shallow creeks on the way. The emphasis here is on the profusion of ferns, including five-fingered ferns and ladyfinger ferns, whose distant ancestors grew here more than 300 million years ago. Eons later a retreating sea left the formations that time and water sculpted into the nearly sheer bluffs. It's thick with alders, but most last only a few years, as floods wash through frequently.

At a meadow near the trail's mouth, elk are grazing, more than a dozen cows and one bull keeping an eye on things. They are round-bellied and tranquil, but they are large, wild animals and should not be approached.

In a grassy area on the beach, two males are doing the antler-jousting thing while the object of their affections, a lone female, grazes nearby, indifferent to the battle raging over her. The bulls hook up their antlers and lunge and parry like boxers. After a few minutes, they break off and turn to grazing as if they don't even notice each other.

The Fern Canyon trail crosses multiple creeks flowing to the sea. I understand the parks people throw planks over these shallow crossings in the summer, but they've apparently been picked up for this year. As the trail skirts giant spruce and hemlock, check out huge ferns growing right up the face of the cliff, a wall o' ferns. Fern Canyon itself is a short loop. There are actually stairs set into the hillside, allowing you to climb out of the canyon and make your way back along the bluffs. I'm not ready to turn back and return to the trail and head north.

I wind up back out on the Coastal Trail, which runs north all the way to the Oregon border, where it becomes the Oregon Coast Trail. A little before it hits Ossagon Creek, I turn back. There are other options, including the Prairie Creek Trail, which eventually winds in the general direction of the visitor center and intersects with still other trails. If you feel ambitious, you can walk the James Irvine Trail east all the way to the Nature Trail that leads to the Visitor Center. It's about five miles, or a 10-mile loop.

There are more than 75 miles of trails in the Prairie Creek area, so pick up a map at one of the visitor centers and take your pick.

A name that intrigues me is Espa Lagoon. A trail plunges toward it near the kiosk at Gold Bluffs. It ends almost immediately, and I wind up bushwhacking through grasses and ferns as tall as a man. The ground is wet underfoot, and it turns out this is where all the mosquitoes that abandoned the rest of Oregon last month went. And invited their relatives.

I eventually work my way up a south slope to a point high enough to bring into view the lagoon. It's a small, overgrown pond of black water without so much as a duck, just a few white-crowned sparrows happy to call the neighborhood home. I can relate.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.