Elizabeth and I set out for Humboldt Redwoods State Park with Jenny on Friday night, getting to the Burlington Campground at 9 PM. We were on a group trip, and our plan was to hike to the top of 3,379-foot Grasshopper Peak on Saturday, camp there, then hike back down on Sunday.
We set up our tent in the dark. Beside us were big swordferns (Polystichum munitum) and towering redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). It was a damp 45 degrees and low clouds drifted past the moon. We fell asleep easily.
The next morning we met the other group members: Rita, Val, Craig, and Ilya. We broke camp at 9 ready to hike, but quickly found out that we couldn’t do our planned hike. The trail crossed a swift, deep river, and the pedestrian bridge across it wouldn’t be in place for another month. We brainstormed for other ideas and decided on another backpacking loop up to Grasshopper Peak: take the Grasshopper Multi-Use Trail (Grasshopper M.U.T.) up, camp at Grasshopper Trail Camp, then take the Johnson Camp Trail back down—an 18-mile loop with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain. We got our permits and were on our way.
We started our hike at noon, up a steady grade on the Grasshopper M.U.T., a dirt road to the fire lookout on Grasshopper Peak. Around us were redwoods, huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), and irises (Iris sp.). I even spotted a few calypso orchids (Calypso bulbosa).
The Grasshopper M.U.T climbs from 300 to 3,379 feet over six miles. Since Humboldt Redwoods State Park is well-known for protecting the largest single tract of old-growth redwood forest in the world, I had imagined that the Grasshopper M.U.T. would take me through a variety of pristine habitats as it ascended. The reality was anything but.
It turns out that not all of the forests in Humboldt Redwoods are old-growth. Indeed, the secondary forest on the Grasshopper M.U.T. was notable only for its monotony. Redwoods and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) emerged from a midstory of tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus) and madrone (Arbutus menziesii). In the understory grew huckleberry and salal (Gaultheria shallon). Huge stumps of redwoods, logged long ago, loomed next to the trail. The horizontal slots loggers had cut into them for platforms were still visible. Some exceptionally large redwoods and Douglas-firs, those too twisted or too burled to be valuable as lumber or those whose trunks had holes burned into them by forest fires, had been spared. The only interesting aspect of the forest was that redwoods grew up to an elevation of 3,000 feet, by far the highest I’d ever seen them growing.
Near the top of Grasshopper Peak, the forest became sparse and stunted. The redwoods disappeared, the Douglas-firs became scattered, and the forest gave way to a woodland of canyon oak (Quercus chrysolepis), manzanita, (Arctostaphylos sp.), and madrone. This offered us our first views from the hike: forested green hills all around us.
We got to the Grasshopper Trail Camp at 3:30 and rejected it immediately. Sure, it was on a ridge overlooking a pretty meadow. It even had an outhouse and bear box. But it was the coldest, windiest place we’d encountered all day.
We walked downhill and checked the meadow for better campsites. It was a little sloped and lumpy, but it was sheltered from the wind, which was good enough for us. We set up our tents and then shared snacks and vodka.
I looked around. The meadow bore hundreds of small, five-petaled white baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii var. atomaria). It was also popular with mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus): their scats littered the grass.
The condition of the trees around it revealed the meadow as a battleground in the ancient war between forest and grassland. The grass was strewn with the charred trunks of Douglas-firs that had been killed by fire before they were 20 feet tall. The taller, older Douglas-firs beyond the meadow were burned and clinging to life.
Before sunset, we walked the half mile to the top of Grasshopper Peak. On the way we found a big scat filled with fur and bones. Was it a mountain lion’s (Puma concolor)? I scanned the shadows for a large, tawny, long-tailed cat.
From the summit, we saw mountains in every direction fading into a blue haze. To the east were dark, snow-capped peaks in the Mendocino National Forest. To the west, below the setting sun, we could just make out the Pacific Ocean beyond the King Range. Around us were scrubby manzanita, ceanothus (Ceanothus sp.), and gooseberry (Ribes californicum).
A tall fire tower, its doors and windows boarded up, occupied the summit. We didn’t know if it was permanently closed or if it had just been shut down for the wet season. A sign at the campground had promised water at the summit, but we found everything shut off. We would have no water except what we had brought up with us for dinner and breakfast.
We walked back to camp and ate dinner together as the sun set. Fires were not allowed at the camp, so we huddled around a small candle made from a tin of paraffin wax with a wick in it instead. It was cold and breezy, so Elizabeth and I returned to our tent once we had shivered enough. It was 9 o’clock and 41 degrees.
The moon cast shadows on the walls of our tent. Inside, it was warm and still. The ground wasn’t too sloped, either. It didn’t take long for me to fall asleep.
We left camp the next morning at 9. It was sunny, cool, and the wind had softened to a breeze. Through the trees we saw distant ridges and foggy valleys.
On the way down, we left the Grasshopper M.U.T. and took the Johnson Camp Trail.
We stopped at the Johnson Trail Camp, a former cabin site for tie hackers, who once lived there while making railroad ties from redwoods. The cabins were decrepit, with doors that wouldn’t open and roofs full of holes. Elizabeth thought they were frightening, but I thought they were picturesque. It’s also a nice camp site: it’s in a sheltered cove, it has running water right next to it, and it has an outhouse and a bear box.
After leaving the camp, we immediately entered a fine old growth forest. There were no more stumps. The trees grew in a variety of sizes and ages. Sunlight came through the gaps in the forest canopy and dappled the understory.
As if to welcome us to this enchanted forest, a spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) landed on a tree in front of us. It seemed as interested in us as we were in it, cocking its head to the side as we took photos. It hopped off its perch, spread its huge wings, then glided silently onto another branch, this time closer to us. We watched it some more, then walked on. The owl flew one more time, following us down the trail. We said our goodbyes.
The Johnson Camp Trail passed through 5 miles of beautiful old-growth forest on its way down the mountain. To compare it with the Grasshopper M.U.T. is to tell the tale of two trails. The Grasshopper M.U.T. was wide, the Johnson Camp Trail was narrow. The Grasshopper M.U.T. plowed straight through the landscape, the Johnson Camp Trail caressed it. The Grasshopper M.U.T. was monotonous, the Johnson Camp Trail was varied.
The forest changed character as we descended. Sometimes giant redwoods dominated the forest, other times they shared it with Douglas-fir. The forest became open and sunny and the air became warmer. The midstory became a place of tanoak and madrone, the understory a place of huckleberry, salal, and swordfern.
We took the Bull Creek Trail back to our cars. It led us through a remarkable bottomland redwood forest with some of the largest trees I’d ever seen. The redwoods were over ten feet in diameter. Their trunks were perfectly straight columns rising hundreds of feet into the air. The ground was filled with starflower (Trientalis latifolia), fairy bells (Disporum smithii), trilliums (Trillium ovatum), and sorrel (Oxalis oregana). It was a great finish to the hike.
We got to the cars at 3:30. On the way home, Jenny, Elizabeth, and I ate some great burgers at Buster’s Burgers and Brew in Willits.