Toasting success: A 10-mile hike, one of my longest

  • Ferns and lichen along the trailside.

Well, give me a high-five.

Yesterday, I hiked nearly 10 miles, one of the longest hikes I’ve ever done, and although my feet and legs hurt last night, I’m still standing this morning.

Let’s just say that I’m not a mountain-goat hiker, like some of the people you’ll meet on the trail.

I’m 61, overweight, and spent my career behind a computer. But, I’ve embraced the outdoor life we now lead, living in The Epic Van and traveling the country. And I’ve followed my husband, Tom, up many trails, from Arizona to Texas to the prairies of Kansas. I credit my ability to keep up with the hula training I had growing up in Hawaii. VERY strong thighs.

But few of our hikes have approached 10 miles.

This one started from the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park Visitors Center, where Tom and I are volunteering for the next three months. About 75 miles of hikes fan out from the Center, a wealth of magnificent choices.

We headed out on the James Irvine Trail, a nearly five-mile trail that winds through giant ancient redwoods, connects to the stunning Fern Canyon Loop Trail, and then to the wild Gold Bluffs Beach, a remote, pristine stretch of sand along the Pacific Ocean.

Tom and I first tried the James Irvine Trail last October, when we visited Prairie Creek to see if we’d really like to spend three months here. It was a beautiful fall day, and we hiked in a couple of hours, oohing and ahhing, straining our necks this way and that to see the towering treetops, hillsides of ferns and curving trail. I took hundreds of pictures. We were enthralled.

But at the trail’s intersection with another, Clintonia, where the sign notes it is another 1.5 miles to Fern Canyon Trail, we checked our watches and determined we probably didn’t have enough time to get there. We turned around and headed back, continuing to ooh and ahh.

When we arrived this year, we once again headed out on the James Irvine for a two-hour, stretch-our-legs, build-up-our-endurance hike. It was a little soggier and painted with patches of hail, but just as amazing as we remembered. We vowed to get to the bottom of the canyon very soon.

In my hours on the visitor’s desk, I’ve been recommending the trail to anyone who comes in, extolling its beauty and telling people it’s not a difficult trail. It’s rated easy on the Center’s trail maps.

One family, a 30-something daughter with her 50-something parents, took the trail out and back. The next day, the daughter came back in, looking for something easier. She said the James Irvine was great for her, but might have been too much for her parents, who were sitting on the bench outside, looking a little stiff.

Yesterday was the day for me and Tom, and we thought we’d head out about 10 a.m. But Tom wanted to finish his latest book, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, before his digital library edition expired, so by the time we got going, it was closer to noon.

The first third of the trail was more difficult than I remembered. It has a steady rise, not steep but enough that you notice it. I think it’s kind of like childbirth. The experience is so amazing that, afterward, all you remember is the beauty, not the pain.

Anyway, about one and a half miles in, you hit the fairly flat, rolling portion of the trail that curves around the edge of terraces giving you broad views of ancient trees, fern-covered hillsides and gurgling creeks.

I saw my first Trillium of the season, a beautiful three-petaled flower that stands out against the forest green. Then another, and another and another and another. They were popping out everywhere. And mushrooms. Red ones. Golden ones. Tom pointed out a baby banana slug making its way across the footpath. Spring has sprung.

We cruised along, oohing and ahhing again, passing the point where we’d stopped on our endurance-building hike. About two hours in, we made it to the Clintonia cutoff, where we’d stopped in October. We paused to eat our lunch, a sandwich for Tom, some cheese, nuts and apricots for me.

And we pressed on. Tom carried the camera pack, and I forced myself not to linger for pictures, wanting to make sure I could make it out and back before tiring too much.

I was feeling great. I’d made it past two former turn-arounds and my legs were good.

The next mile and a half heads generally downward, with some flat spots in canyon bottoms. As you get closer to the ocean, the redwoods, which dislike salty air, become fewer, and the forest is more Sitka spruce, their bark covered with lichen and mosses.

In a couple of spots, trees were down across the trail, victims of the season’s heavy rain and winds. We crawled through one smaller one, whose branches stretched several yards on the path, but had to walk around the root balls of the other two, which towered over Tom’s 6-foot-e head.

On one of the bridges across the creeks is a poem by John Glascock Baldwin:
You shall walk where only the wind has walked before
And when all music is stilled
You shall hear the singing of the stream
And enter the living shelter of the forest

We reached the Fern Canyon Trail, and from a lookout point, could peer down into the canyon to see its watery floor and steep pebble-specked walls covered with ferns. We headed down the elevated portion of the loop trail toward the Canyon’s outlet, which earlier in the week had high waters running up to the third step heading up the trail. A couple days of sunshine allowed the high water to recede, and we were able to wade through the water, which topped the rim of my boot several times, dampening my wool socks.

We walked up the canyon for about 100 yards, scrambling from sandbar to sandbar, soaking in the beauty, then headed back to the trail. We walked until we had a view of the rolling ocean waves, then checked our watches. It was about 3 p.m. and we’d been on the trail for about three hours.

I figured the trip back would be slower on tired legs, and wanted to make sure we had plenty of time before dark, so we turned to go back.

My legs got tired about 4, more tired about 5, and by the time we reached the downhill slide home, they hurt. When we hit the Visitors Center, we checked our watches again. Just a few minutes after 6 p.m. We’d made it back in about the same amount of time it took to go out. Six hours total.

I stiffly made my way to The Epic Van, parked across the road, and peeled off my wet socks. And Tom and I clinked the necks of our beer bottles in a toast to one of my longest hikes ever.


  1. Reply
    Keven March 16, 2017

    Congratulations to you both! Sounds like a lovely hike and your description of it was in chanting. I’ll have to click a bottle for you too.

  2. Reply
    Keven March 16, 2017

    I meant enchanting. Darn that autocorrect.

  3. Reply
    Judy Nichols March 16, 2017

    Thanks, Keven. Clink away!

  4. Reply
    Meredith Stewart March 16, 2017

    Your hike was beautiful…beautifully written and beautiful to have experienced first hand and second hand. I read your story out loud to Madeline and Cassie. We all enjoyed so much. Cassie said, “Judy is a good writer!” We all agreed. Thanks for sharing my wonderful friend!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols March 16, 2017

      Thanks, Mer, and Cassie!

  5. Reply
    Kirstin March 16, 2017

    Awesome, Judy! Hiking is so fantastic. Way to go and here’s to many more great hikes!

  6. Reply
    Nancy Warfield March 16, 2017

    Well done!

  7. Reply
    Sonya Parker March 17, 2017


  8. Reply
    Judith Hunter July 5, 2017

    Love your blog, and HIGH 5 on the hike!!!! What an amazing milestone for you.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols July 29, 2017

      Thanks, Judith. Love the name!!!

  9. Reply
    Ruthie Sakheim October 26, 2022

    Hi Judy, Ruthie here!
    I hiked this trail when I was 20 (now 67) and you helped me remember all of it! I found this by the poem’s line “And enter the living shelter of the forest” which we chanted till it was committed to our memories. The Fern Canyon Trail redwoods taught me about the cycle of life, lessons I’ve never forgotten. When we emerged from the forest to the Pacific Ocean, and the sunset, we met a family cooking fish they’d just caught in the sea, who invited us to stay for dinner with them, which we did.
    When we left it was dusky dark, and we knew if we stayed on the road we’d be okay, so we listened to the sound of our own steps crunching gravel—when that sound ceased, we knew we’d stepped off the road in the pitch blackness. We made it out by trust and using our senses.
    Thank you for reminding me of the details and names of the places (Prairie Creek Redwoods”.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols April 14, 2023

      Ruthie, I just saw this! Where have I been? Sooo glad you enjoyed it, and what wonderful memories. It’s a magical place, and we revisit it whenever we roll up the coast. In fact, we’re planning another visit in October. Thanks for sharing.

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