Want to experience the magic of Fern Canyon in Redwood National & State Parks? In this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know to hike the Fern Canyon Trail, including important permit information!
While Redwood National Park may be known for its towering coastal redwoods (the tallest trees in the WORLD), one of our favorite experiences in the park didn’t actually involve redwoods, but rather another kind of plant: ferns.
Imagine walking through a two story canyon, covered from head to toe in lush, green ferns, with mossy walls dripping with water, and the peaceful sounds of a creek running through. Sound like a fairytale? Well, it can be your reality on the Fern Canyon Trail!
Watch how we spent two amazing days visiting all four parks in Redwood National Park, including our fun hike through Fern Canyon!
In this guide we’re sharing all the details about how you can experience the whimsical Fern Canyon Trail for yourself including how to get there, the permit process, what to bring, our experience, and so much more!
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- All of our California Guides
- All of our California Vlogs
- What is Fern Canyon?
- How to get to the Fern Canyon Trail
- Fern Canyon Trail Permit System
- Fern Canyon Trail Stats
- Things to know before hiking the Fern Canyon Trail
- When to hike the Fern Canyon Trail
- What to Bring to hike the Fern Canyon Trail
- Our Experience hiking the Fern Canyon Trail
- Looking for more things to do near the Fern Canyon Trail?
Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!
What is Fern Canyon?
Fern Canyon is a magical canyon that has 50 foot tall walls covered in ferns and looks like something out of FernGully…or maybe even Jurassic Park. Recognize this canyon? Scenes from The Lost World: Jurassic Park were actually filmed here! But don’t worry, you won’t find any dinosaurs here! Just maybe a frog. 😃
The creation of this canyon began millions of years ago, when coastal bluffs were formed by a retreating sea. Over time, water shaped the canyon into what it is today and it is now covered with five different types of ferns, including five-fingered fern, delicate lady, dark green sword, deer and chain ferns. In fact, some of the ferns in the canyon can be traced back to species 325 MILLION years old!
While the canyon is beautiful to look at, what makes it even better is that you get to climb over logs and walk through water (if visiting in the wetter seasons) as you go through it. Even though it’s a short hike, it’s a really fun adventure!
Want to learn more about Redwood National Parks? Read all about Redwood National Park here to find out how to get to the park, where to stay, and the best things to do!
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
How to get to the Fern Canyon Trail
Redwood National Park isn’t just one park, but actually a complex of four different parks including Redwood National Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
Together, these parks take up 131,983 acres spread out across Northern California and are jointly managed by both the National Park Service and California State Parks.
The Fern Canyon Trail is located in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park portion of the park in Orick, California. It’s a little over 6 hours north of San Francisco, 3.5 hours west of Redding, and an hour south of Crescent City. Learn more about how to get to Redwood National Park here!
To get to the Fern Canyon Trail itself, you will have to take Davison Road from Highway 101, which leads to both Gold Bluffs Beach and Fern Canyon. Davison Road is a 7.5 mile dirt road suitable for 2WD cars, but large RVs (over 24 feet) and trailers are prohibited.
The potholed, dirt road takes you through the forest, right by Gold Bluffs Beach, and then finally across a couple stream crossings (more on that below) to the parking lot. The parking lot for the Fern Canyon Trail is about two miles past Gold Bluffs Beach, which is an amazing beach and a great place to camp in the park!
As we mentioned above, you will need to cross two stream crossings to get to the Fern Canyon Trail, which are approximately 1.3 miles from the trailhead. The streams are typically at their highest in winter and spring, when it’s rainier, and sometimes close due to flooding and landslides.
The National Park Service advises having a higher clearance vehicle to get through the streams, as lower clearance vehicles have gotten stuck if the water is higher. You can check the current status of the road here!
When we visited, the streams were pretty large and we were glad to have a higher clearance van. If you’re concerned about driving your lower clearance car through the stream, you can park at the Gold Bluffs Beach day use area and walk almost 2 miles each way to the Fern Canyon Trail, either on the road or on the beach.
Fern Canyon Trail Permit System
Because the Fern Canyon Trail has gotten so popular, if you plan to hike the Fern Canyon Trail between May 1 and September 30th you’ll need to apply for a FREE timed entry permit to access the Fern Canyon Trail or the Gold Bluffs Beach Day Use Area which are reserved on a first-come first-served basis.
How many permits are there?
They only issue 90 permits per day. 35 are for a half day morning slot (8 AM-12 PM), 35 are for a half day afternoon slot (1 PM-sunset), and 20 are for all day (8 AM to sunset). These permits give you access to both Fern Canyon and Gold Bluffs Beach, which you can access from that parking lot.
There are also 20 all-day permits per day for the Gold Bluffs Beach day-use parking area, which does NOT include Fern Canyon parking, but you can walk there if you cannot get the other permit, which is almost 2 miles each way.
How do I get a permit?
These permits are only available online and they become available in late April for the season, so make sure to snatch them up early! We visited the park in April, outside the permit window, so we can’t speak to how quickly the permits are accounted for, but we’d imagine they go quickly, so try to apply for the permit as soon as you can.
There is a fee to access this area
While the permit is free, keep in mind that there is a fee of $12 (cash only) to access the Gold Bluffs Beach day-use area and Fern Canyon. The America the Beautiful Pass, California State Park Annual Pass, Golden Poppy Pass, or a current park campground reservation will cover this fee.
Who does not need a permit?
If you are camping at the Gold Bluffs Beach Campground, you DO NOT NEED A PERMIT. Your campground reservation will give you access to this region. Even more reason to stay at this awesome campground!
Alternatively, if you want to hike longer or you aren’t able to snag a permit, you can still hike to Fern Canyon from the Prairie Creek Visitor Center via the James Irvine Trail, which will be more than 11 miles roundtrip and no permit is required…only time and a sense of adventure!
Fern Canyon Trail Stats
Miles (roundtrip): 1.1
Elevation (feet): 127
Reviews & Current Conditions
The actual Fern Canyon Trail is pretty easy and straightforward, at about 1 mile round trip. It is considered a “lollipop loop” trail, where the first part of the trail is the same out and back, but the second half of the trail is a loop.
We recommend going counter clockwise at the loop portion. By going this way, you’ll enter the canyon first and hopefully beat the crowds through the canyon. And then you’ll end the hike with a quick walk through the woods. You could also just go through the canyon both ways, which is what we hope to do next time!
The hike should only take you about 1-2 hours, depending on how often you stop to admire the ferns or take photos, which if you’re like us, may be a lot!
Things to know before hiking the Fern Canyon Trail
You will get wet
Your feet will very likely get wet on the Fern Canyon Trail! The trail through the actual canyon isn’t really a trail, but just a creek that you walk through. During our visit, our shoes got soaked, but walking through the water was honestly one of the best parts!
However, between June and September, the park does put down some wooden footbridges that will allow you to get part of the way up Home Creek without getting your feet wet, but it’s very likely that even if you visit during this time your feet will get wet at some point, so come prepared with that in mind!
It’s also pretty rocky under the water, so it can be harder to walk and easier to slip.
You might have to climb over some log jams
Besides walking through water and rocky terrain, another obstacle on this hike are log jams. Winter floods can cause log jams in the canyon and you might have to do some climbing to get over them. During our visit, we had to climb over quite a few, which once again, only made the experience more exciting, but it may not be for everyone.
There is no cellphone reception
This area of the park is remote and out of cell phone reception, so make sure to download Google Maps and the AllTrails map to get out there.
Dogs are not allowed
Similar to many other national parks, dogs are not allowed on the Fern Canyon Trail. Leashed dogs are allowed in the parking area and on Gold Bluffs Beach, plus the campground.
Curious what we do with Kona when she cannot join us on a hike? Read this guide about how we travel with a dog.
You may encounter the mighty Roosevelt Elk in the area and possibly even in the canyon. Please respect them! For elk, stay at least 25 yards away, avoid direct eye contact, and make noise so your position is known to the elk. NEVER try to pet or feed wild animals. This may seem obvious, but the account “Tourons of Yellowstone” proves otherwise. 😉
There are restrooms
The trailhead has pit toilets, plus trash cans (PLEASE throw away your trash into a trash can, not onto the ground).
When to hike the Fern Canyon Trail
Time of year
While the park and canyon are open year round, your experience will vary depending on when you visit.
November through early March will bring the wettest weather, which means the water levels may be higher and the canyon and/or the access road may suddenly close due to flooding, making the trail inaccessible. Also, the ferns tend to be a bit more brown in the winter, which may reduce its beauty a little bit.
During June through September, it’s a lot sunnier out and the water levels will be at their lowest, plus there will be some wooden walkways to limit how wet you’ll get. However, these are the busier months and you will need a permit, which makes visiting a bit more complex.
In our opinion, the best time to hike the Fern Canyon Trail is in April or October. These months are outside of the permit window, so it’s easier to visit on a whim, and the rainfall is a bit lower than the winter months, so there is less of a risk of it being closed. While there won’t be many or any wooden walkways installed, we personally thought walking through the water only made the experience better!
Time of day
If you visit during the months when permits are required, you’ll have the option of a half day permit or full day permit. The nice thing about this system is that it does eliminate concerns about parking and when to arrive. However, we always advise that the earlier you can get somewhere, the better! Going before 8 AM (if you have an 8 AM permit) will probably guarantee solitude.
If you visit outside the permit required months it still can be busy. We recommend either getting there as early as you can (just after sunrise) or going later in the afternoon to hopefully avoid some of the crowds. Weekdays are always better than weekends too!
We hiked the Fern Canyon Trail about an hour or so after “sunrise” (it was a rainy day, so we never saw the sun rise) on a weekday and were the second car there, with the first car about to leave right when we got there, so we had the canyon all to ourselves! When we left, there were quite a few more groups there.
What to Bring to hike the Fern Canyon Trail
To see everything we take hiking, check out our hiking gear as well as our guide about how to make a 10 essentials kit. But for this specific area, we have a few items we really want to stress bringing with you.
Waterproof shoes or dry shoes to wear after your hike
Like we’ve mentioned above, there is about a 100% chance that you will get your feet wet. We’d recommend either wearing waterproof boots, Chacos, or water shoes. Kathryn loves her Lowa Renegade waterproof boots and they kept her feet dry the entire hike, even going through water almost the whole time!
It would also be a good idea to pack some dry shoes to put on after the hike!
If your shoes aren’t waterproof, you may want to wear some neoprene socks to help keep your feet warm. The water can be really cold, especially in the winter, but might feel nice on a warmer summer day. Adam wore non-waterproof trail runners and wore these underneath and while his feet still got soaked, it wasn’t as cold as it could’ve been.
With the rocky terrain, water, and logs, hiking poles could be helpful to have to keep your balance.
With very mild temperatures in the park, it’s important to bring layers. Even if it’s sunny, the canyon walls may create shade and make it feel cooler. During our visit, it was a rainy morning, so we were glad to have our rain jackets just in case!
America the Beautiful Pass
Redwood National Park is FREE to visit, but Gold Bluff Beach and Fern Canyon at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park do have a $12 (cash only) fee. However the America the Beautiful pass, California State Park Annual Pass, Golden Poppy Pass, or a current park campground reservation will cover this fee.
Our Experience hiking the Fern Canyon Trail
After spending a night camping at the Gold Bluffs Beach Campground, we woke up to the sound of pouring rain (and even some hail!), which prompted us to wait a bit longer than planned to start hiking the Fern Canyon Trail. Once the weather lightened up a bit, we made the relatively short drive from the campground to the trailhead.
The stream crossings looked a bit daunting. Adam got out to investigate them to make sure they weren’t too deep. While our van is higher clearance than a car, it’s not lifted, so we didn’t want to get stuck. But it seemed fine and we powered through them, which was a pretty fun start to the adventure!
As we mentioned earlier, we were the second car at the trailhead, but we quickly passed the people leaving as we started the trail. The first part of the hike is on a well maintained actual trail, before reaching Home Creek and a junction. Going straight will take you to the wooded section first and going to the right will take you into the canyon.
We wanted to experience the canyon first, especially knowing that no one else was in it and as soon as you start towards the canyon, the water begins! There are patches of deeper water, plus rocky sections to get a break from the water, and despite it being a colder, rainy morning, we immediately embraced the cold water. It’s all part of the adventure right?
You can see the ferns basically from the get go, but the further you go into the canyon, the better they get. While some ferns were still a bit brown from the winter, the majority were bright green and lush.
Although the hike is short, we took our time, which made it feel a lot longer than it was. We admired all of the different types of ferns, the mossy walls, which had water dripping down them, and the slow flowing creek. It was so peaceful and having it all to ourselves only made the experience better!
As we navigated through the canyon, we had to hobble over and under log jams. Going through Fern Canyon felt sort of like a forested version of a slot canyon, similar to Kanarra Falls and The Narrows in Utah, where you walk through water. The majority of the canyon required getting your feet wet, but there were a couple wooden platforms that must have remained from the summer.
The largest log jam was towards the end of the main part of the canyon and had deeper water to go through, so we had to try to gracefully jump and run across to avoid getting absolutely soaked.
After the canyon ended, there was a sign pointing us up towards some steps that took us onto the other part of the loop. This portion of the hike was easy and straightforward, with many boardwalks to walk on. Just be careful, they can be slick! Shortly after going through this forested section we met back up with the original loop starting point, crossed one final little stream, and then it was a quick walk back to the parking lot.
Overall, this hike is a BLAST! There is a reason that it is so well loved by visitors to Redwood National and State Parks. It’s a very unique experience, not only to the park, but compared to many hikes in the United States. It brings out a sense of adventure and adds an extra type of magic to an already magical national park!
Looking for more things to do near the Fern Canyon Trail?
Check out our ULTIMATE guide to visiting Redwood National Park (+ state parks) to get many more ideas of things to do across the park’s four different parks, plus information on how to get to the park, where to stay, and an itinerary!
Ready to hike the Fern Canyon Trail in Redwood National & State Parks?
Pin this guide to hiking the Fern Canyon Trail to help plan your adventure!