Ex­plore Na­ture’s Cathedrals

This sum­mer, gather the reins, and feel the won­der of Cal­i­for­nia’s ma­jes­tic groves of an­cient redwoods.

Horse & Rider - - Contents - BY KENT & CHARLENE KRONE

This sum­mer, gather the reins and feel the mys­ti­cal won­der of Cal­i­for­nia’s ma­jes­tic groves of an­cient redwoods.

to wend your way horse­back through Cal­i­for­nia’s mist-draped red­wood forests is to ride into an­other world. Life is hushed. Birds re­main high in the for­est’s up­per canopy. Close to the earth, small mam­mals snuf­fle among Dou­glas fir, Western hem­lock, tanoaks, rhodo­den­dron, ferns, mosses, and mush­rooms. Larger mam­mals—in­clud­ing Roo­sevelt elk, black-tailed deer, bob­cat, and black bear—lurk on the for­est perime­ter.

Here, in the far north­west cor­ner of the Golden State, a com­plex sys­tem of parks that pro­tect the habi­tat of nearly half the world’s redwoods set the stage for a mys­ti­cal rid­ing and camp­ing ad­ven­ture. You don't want to miss it.

Red­wood Na­tional and State Parks en­com­passes Red­wood Na­tional Park and en­cir­cles three state parks: Jede­diah Smith, Del Norte Coast Redwoods, and Prairie Creek Redwoods. For back­coun­try camp­ing in Red­wood Na­tional Park, take the Lit­tle Bald Hills Trail to Lit­tle Bald Hills Horse Camp.

About 80 miles down High­way 101, you’ll find an­other jewel: Hum­boldt Redwoods State Park, in which lies the world’s largest re­main­ing old-growth red­wood for­est. Here, you can overnight at Cu­neo Creek Horse Camp.

Last fall, we trail­ered our smooth-gaited horses, Jake and Cody, to Or­man Guest Ranch & Sta­bles in Cres­cent City ( or­man­ranch.net) to trailer-camp and ride the redwoods.

for­est camp­ing

Or­man Ranch is a great place to camp and ex­plore the north­ern end of the re­gion’s red­wood forests. This work­ing ranch and sta­bles is owned and op­er­ated by Keith and Kon­nie Or­man. To cre­ate the eques­trian camp­ground, the Or­mans drew from their re­spec­tive back­grounds: Keith had con­struc­tion ex­pe­ri­ence; Kon­nie grew up on a large cat­tle ranch.

The spa­cious eques­trian camp­ground in­cludes 100-by-100-foot pens with 10-by-10-foot shel­ters so that equine guests can roam, romp, and re­lax, plus 40 camp­sites, a work­ing arena, camp­fire rings, and pic­nic ta­bles.

The camp­ground is en­cir­cled by a 9-foot elk fence. Be­fore the Or­mans built the fence, as many as 80 elk at a time would wan­der into camp. Dur­ing our fall stay, we heard elk bugling their dis­tinct mat­ing calls from the other side of the fence.

The Or­mans en­joy meet­ing peo­ple from all over the world. About a quar­ter of their guests are from over­seas. Ur­ban fam­i­lies come here to dis­con­nect from city life and ever-present tech­nol­ogy. One guest was on a quest to ride his horse around the world. Af­ter ship­ping his horse from Hawaii to Cal­i­for­nia, he stayed at the ranch be­fore con­tin­u­ing on his jour­ney.

ma­jes­tic groves

Sev­eral trail­heads lie within easy trai­ler­ing dis­tance from Or­man Ranch. If you’d rather not use your own trailer, you may rent one from the Or­mans.

The best red­wood ride in this area’s north­ern re­gion is the Mill Creek Eques­trian Trail, lo­cated in Red­wood Na­tional Park and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park.

The trail­head is about two miles from Or­man Ranch. To get there, turn left on Hum­boldt Rd., then turn right on How­land Hill Rd., and take an­other right on Bertsch Ave.; the trail­head will ap­pear shortly on the left. At the trail­head, there’s room for sev­eral trail­ers and to turn around; no need to back your trailer.

The Mill Creek Eques­trian Trail is an 11-mile, well-signed loop trail that winds its way through two ma­jes­tic red­wood groves. You’ll ride up­hill out of the park­ing lot, gain­ing el­e­va­tion; the first in­ter­sec­tion is less than a mile. Here, ride to the right, con­tinue up the Relium Ridge Trail, and take the next left to the Mill Creek Eques­trian Trail. (Up to this point, you’ll gain about 800 feet in el­e­va­tion.)

This trail is densely forested, with

lush veg­e­ta­tion of ferns, moss, and large rhodo­den­dron bushes. We could only imag­ine how gor­geous this trail would be when the rhodo­den­dron blos­soms were in full bloom. Be­cause there are very few birds present in the for­est’s lower canopy, it felt somber and silent, like an out­door cathe­dral.

We didn’t see any deer, elk, or other large fauna. We did see lots of ba­nana slugs. Some were huge! Af­ter one af­ter­noon rain shower, we spot­ted them all over the place, slowly slith­er­ing their way to un­known des­ti­na­tions.

On Relium Ridge, we no­ticed a cou­ple of pic­nic ta­bles and hitch­ing rails in ar­eas with over­views to the val­ley be­low. In­stead of stop­ping here for lunch, how­ever, we con­tin­ued on the trail to Mill Creek and took the east trail to cross the creek. There, we dis­cov­ered an en­chant­ing pic­nic spot! At the cross­ing, we found hitch­ing rails and a beau­ti­ful lunch spot. Large trees clothed with Span­ish moss ad­mired their golden gowns mir­rored in Mill Creek.

Af­ter cross­ing the creek on the east side trail, we rode into the first large red­wood grove. It’s an amaz­ing feel­ing to be present among such gi­ants. Imag­ine gaz­ing up at trees so tall you can’t see their tops. Look­ing up at these enor­mous trees while horse­back made us dizzy; we found that it’s bet­ter to look up when both feet are on the ground.

The next mile is a good stretch for gait­ing or can­ter­ing. It was an in­tense feel­ing of pure de­light to zoom around these gi­ant trees horse­back.

At the next creek cross­ing, we found a pond par­tially hid­den un­der a fallen red­wood. This is a good place to wa­ter your horses and soak in the scenery.

Check with the park ser­vice to be sure these creek cross­ings are open; they’re some­times closed from fall to spring.

Af­ter the creek cross­ing, we worked up­hill to the junc­tion of the west side trail, then turned right. On this trail sec­tion, we came to an­other grove of gi­ant redwoods that was even larger than the first one. We felt as though we’d been minia­tur­ized.

log­ging roads

Our next ride from Or­man’s Ranch was to the East Branch of Mill Creek drainage, which is open only on week­ends. To reach this trail­head from camp, turn right on Hum­boldt Rd., then turn left on High­way 101. Travel about 1.5 miles down the high­way, turn left on Hamil­ton Rd., and go about 2 miles to a park­ing area be­fore a bridge. If you have a liv­ing-quar­ters trailer, park here, as there’s a trailer-eat­ing dip in the road af­ter the bridge. If you have a tag-along trailer, you can com­plete the short dis­tance to the park­ing lot, which is on the left.

Here, you’ll ride on old log­ging roads that are closed to mo­tor­ized ve­hi­cles, but open to bi­cy­cles. Dur­ing our ride, we met two bi­cy­clists and one hiker. Every­one cheer­fully shared the trails.

There are three loops to choose from, plus a route up the main val­ley. Along these old roads, you’ll have an op­por­tu­nity to see a red­wood for­est that was logged and how the for­est is mak­ing a comeback.

coastal dunes

Our third ride from Or­mans Ranch was to Tolowa Dunes State Park. This re­gion is bounded by the Pa­cific Ocean on the west, the Smith River to the north, Cres­cent City on the south, and par­tially by Lake Earl on the east.

Lake Earl is the largest es­tu­ar­ine la­goon on the North Amer­i­can con­ti­nen­tal West Coast—an es­pe­cially rare find when you con­sider that since the late 1800s, 90 per­cent of Cal­i­for­nia’s wet­lands and coastal dunes have been lost to agri­cul­ture and ur­ban­iza­tion.

You can ride both the north and south units of this park; we rode only the north unit. To reach the north unit, drive north of Cres­cent City on High­way 101, and turn left on Lake Earl Dr., just be­fore Smith River. Take a short jog to the right and to the left, con­tinue on Mose­ley Rd., turn right on Lower Lake Rd., then turn left on Pala Rd.; the road dead ends at the trail­head.

Much of this ride is on the Tolowa Dee-ni Na­tion an­ces­tral grounds. To tribe mem­bers, this beau­ti­ful land of grasses, wa­ter, and tall trees was the cen­ter of their world and met their ev­ery need. Ex­plorer Jede­diah Smith was the first non-na­tive per­son to meet the Tolowa Dee-ni in 1828. The nearby Smith River is named af­ter him.

Shortly af­ter leav­ing the trail­head, we reined left and passed two Na­tive Amer­i­can ceme­ter­ies. We con­tin­ued rid­ing south and soon came to a back­coun­try horse camp, with pic­nic ta­bles, fire rings, 15 cor­rals, and two out­houses. (To rent this large camp, call Cal­i­for­nia State Parks, [707] 465-7306.)

The rid­ing in this area is on soft, easy sin­gle-track trails and a few old roads, all closed to mo­tor­ized ve­hi­cles. There are nu­mer­ous rid­ing loops. Some trail junc­tions are signed; oth­ers are not. The trail net­work is de­signed in a north-to-south fash­ion, so keep your bear­ings. Know which di­rec­tion is north in case you be­come dis­ori­ented and have to work your way back.

You’ll find a lot of fun va­ri­ety on these rid­ing trails! Although mostly flat, they’re punc­tu­ated with low hills; pic­turesque ponds; pock­ets of tim­ber; and open, grassy fields.

Trails fol­lowed gen­tle swells with twists and turns pro­vid­ing for easy gait­ing and can­ter­ing. We found one trail that ran through dense veg­e­ta­tive growth. It was like rid­ing through a jun­gle.

Near the north end of this area, a cou­ple of trails pro­vided ac­cess to the ocean beach. You can ride the Cal­i­for­nia Coastal Trail—a net­work of pub­lic trails that run along the 1,200-mile Cal­i­for­nia coast­line—down the coast the length of the state park, nearly to Point St. Ge­orge, a rocky point marked by a de­com­mis­sioned light­house.

elk en­counter

This re­gion in north­west Cal­i­for­nia is home to Roo­sevelt elk, named for Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt, an early con­ser­va­tion­ist. These elk are the largest of the four sub­species of elk in North Amer­ica. They’re unique to the rain­forests in the Pa­cific North­west. Years ago, they were hunted al­most to ex­tinc­tion; by 1925 only 15 Roo­sevelt elk were left. To­day, Roo­sevelt elk have re­bounded to a sus­tain­able num­ber, thanks to con­ser­va­tion ef­forts.

Our horses were new to us and had never seen elk be­fore, so we weren’t sure how they’d re­act to such a large mam­mal. Fur­ther, we were rid­ing in Septem­ber dur­ing the rut­ting sea­son when bulls can be­come ag­gres­sive. At one point on the trail, we could see a rut­ting area where the bull elk had been “duk­ing it out” for mat­ing rights with the nearby cow elk. The ground was torn up and the rut scent hung heavy in the air. The horses put their ears back, shook their heads, snorted, and scur­ried out of there.

Af­ter we’d calmed our mounts from this en­counter, we were re­warded with a mag­nif­i­cent view: a stately elk herd, sev­eral bulls, and a ver­dant meadow along­side a pond. 

Un­der the cool, quiet for­est canopy, you’ll see Dou­glas fir, Western hem­lock, tanoaks, rhodo­den­dron, ferns, mush­rooms, and mosses. Shown is Charlene Krone, aboard Jake, tak­ing in the splen­dor of a lush wall of ferns.

TOP-RIGHT: Cody spots a herd of Roo­sevelt elk in the north end of Tolowa Dunes State Park. This elk sub­species is unique to the Pa­cific North­west’s rain­forests. BOT­TOM-RIGHT: A com­plex sys­tem of parks in north­west Cal­i­for­nia pro­tects the habi­tat of...

TOP-RIGHT: The north cross­ing of Mill Creek leav­ing the east side trail. Check with the park ser­vice to be sure these creek cross­ings are open; they’re some­times closed from fall to spring. BOT­TOM-RIGHT: On the East Branch of Mill Creek drainage,...

Kent and Charlene Krone are equine pho­to­jour­nal­ists, eques­trian ad­ven­tur­ers, and avid trail rid­ers who travel up to eight months per year with their smooth-gaited Ten­nessee Walk­ing Horses. When they’re not on the road, the Krones re­lax and ride on...

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