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