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Tree lovers' heaven

If an inspiring hike among very big trees is what you're after, plus a date with the ocean, then the Damnation Creek Trail in Redwood National Park delivers.

But this trail is definitely not for everyone.

In fact, my wife and I weren't sure what we were getting into as we hitched our daypacks onto our shoulders and headed into the fog-shrouded woods. The name itself, Damnation Creek, made us wonder whether we were heading straight into the devil's lair.

Then there were the warnings. "Strenuous," said the national park visitor guide — a "steep 1,100-foot descent/ascent (out and back) with switchbacks."

Seven-tenths of a mile from the trailhead, at a junction with the Coastal Trail, a sign stopped us in our tracks. "Caution," it announced. "Steep Strenuous Trail."

Someone had even carved "Beware" into the wood.

By this point, however, nothing could deter us from continuing. Our destination, the ocean, lay another 1.4 miles downhill from where we stood. But already we had passed some of the grandest coast redwoods we had ever seen in all our trips to Northern California, and we wanted more.

Maybe the devil was waiting for us behind the next tree. But that was becoming harder and harder to believe. This felt more like heaven — tree lovers' heaven, that is — than the other place.

Nevertheless, with every downhill step we took, we realized how difficult the way back up would be. And even the downhill part can be tricky, as when it courses through patches of slick mud. Often we found ourselves stepping carefully to avoid rocks and roots waiting to trip us up.

The difficulty of the trail does have an advantage: It keeps the crowds away.

We saw many more banana slugs than people on our hike. During one stretch of a few yards, we passed 10 of the slimy invertebrates in a row, like pilgrims on their way to a fern shrine.

When the trail crossed the second of two bridges over Damnation Creek, we knew we were just a couple minutes away from spying the Pacific. The roaring of surf up ahead told us so.

A funny thing had happened by this time: The redwoods had disappeared. The trees were still enormous, but they were Sitka spruce. The two species of giant had mingled but briefly, before the spruces took over for about the last half-mile of the trail.

Although redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) get all the glory — they are, after all, the world's tallest trees, with 300-foot-tall behemoths not uncommon — Sitka spruce (picea sitchensis) are certainly no slouches in the growth department. The world's tallest spruce, they can exceed 200 feet in height, and, like redwoods, they can live for hundreds of years.

Strictly speaking, Sitka spruces are even more coastal than coast redwoods. The latter can grow several miles inland — at Jedediah Smith State Park on Highway 199, for example — while the former thrive only on waterfront property.

Test this theory the next time you're hiking in a coastal forest. Can you hear the ocean in the distance? No? Then you probably won't see any Sitka spruces around.

You're in their range only if you can hear the ocean.

It was high tide when we reached the end of the trail, leaving no place to walk comfortably on the wild beach, cluttered with driftwood and large stones. So we sat on a bluff and ate our lunch. Below us, waves rolled across the rocky shelves where tidepools would be revealed a few hours later.

The return hike, relentlessly uphill, was as strenuous as advertised. But it allowed us to experience the trees from a different angle.

Approaching the forest from sea level, we felt like explorers climbing up to a marvelous domain we had just discovered and were privileged to be entering.

Every time I'm hiking through the redwoods, I take a bunch of pictures, even though I should know better by now. Pictures don't do justice to these colossal trees.

Sure, I might get lucky with the play of fog through the grove, and capture a little of the mystical mood.

But no picture can really tell the story. It can't convey what it feels like to be dwarfed by these ancient wonders, how tiny they make you feel, yet how uplifting it is to walk among them.

The trailhead for the Damnation Creek Trail, barely visible from Highway 101, is at Milepost 16, about 12 miles south of Crescent City.

Though experienced hikers might find the warnings hyperbolic, the trail is certainly challenging. Families with little kids should choose another option, as should anyone who is not up to the physical demands of 2.1 miles of uphill strain.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

The Damnation Creek Trail in Redwoods National Park near Crescent City, Calif., features a 2.1-mile drop to the beach. - Courtesy of Paul Hadella