Fern Canyon: Humboldt's Soaring Emerald Palace

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If you can get past the aggressive elk, Fern Canyon is an emerald gem in Humboldt County. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

It’s a narrow, bumpy drive through the trees to get to Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, about 50 miles north of Eureka in Humboldt County. And when you do, there are warning signs to watch for aggressive 1,200-pound elk.

But if you can get past those obstacles, the 1-mile walk through the lush canyon is relatively easy, especially in the summer — when rangers lay wooden boards across the creek that runs between the lush canyon walls, and you don’t have to get your feet wet.

Adults and kids walk across wet boards above a low creek amid lush green hills.
In the summer, park rangers lay down wooden boards so visitors can easily traverse the creek that runs through Fern Canyon. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Fern Canyon is just inland from Gold Bluffs Beach in Orick, named because early miners found flecks of gold in its sand. Once you’re in the canyon, though, it’s hard to believe you’re anywhere near a beach.

The sound of the waves gives way to ephemeral waterfalls trickling down the mossy walls. As the light moves through, the canyon lights up in different shades of electric green — a moist habitat for salamanders and banana slugs.

Close-up of bright green fern fronds.
Five-finger ferns look like open palms hanging from the sheer cliff walls of Fern Canyon. Some species of ferns in the canyon date back 325 million years. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Millions of years ago, a retreating sea sculpted these sheer walls. Species of ferns dating back 325 million years are still growing on the cliffs.


There are sword ferns, with their spear-like tips; velvety five-finger ferns, like open palms; and the lady ferns (named, in the heyday of sexist botany, for their lacy feathery leaves and their spores, which were supposed to look "like the eye of the 'fairer sex'").

But the delicacy of these ferns belie their hearty resilience. Some of these species are older than the dinosaurs, and the vibe of this place is positively prehistoric.

Standing in this cathedral of ferns, it’s easy to see why Steven Spielberg used this as one of the backdrops for the filming of “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (1997), the sequel to the classic "Jurassic Park."

"It’s seriously like going to Jurassic Park. Pretty crazy," said Cody McEachren, visiting Fern Canyon from Utah. "Ultimate greenery, in my opinion."

"It’s like you’ve been transported to another world," added his wife, Molly. "It is so magical, and so lush, and green. It totally refuels your spirit."

"I come from Montana, so to come from a place that’s known for it’s lush green, and then to come here and say, 'I’ve never seen anything so beautiful' —  it says something,” she said.

A yellow triangular sign with black figures: an elk, flanked by a baby elk, rearing up at a human.
Signs on the trail to Fern Canyon warn of aggressive Roosevelt elk, which can weigh 1,200 lbs. and behave aggressively toward human visitors. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

The only drawback to Fern Canyon? It can be harder to get there in winter, when rain can flood the road and, sometimes, the canyon itself. The wooden planks rangers put down in the summer aren’t there for wintertime hikes, so water shoes are a must.

If you're planning to visit Fern Canyon, be sure to call one of the visitor’s centers for trail conditions before you go.