May 2012 Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park Road Trip

After leaving work late Wednesday afternoon 5/24/2012 from my workplace along the southern end of San Francisco Bay, I drove 275 miles north on US101, to a quiet spur road just north of Humboldt Redwoods State Park where I comfortably slept in my Forester the next 6 hours. On the highway north, roadside grasslands and vegetation were already a rather dry brown. The last real rain in central California was as usual a month before. As soon as storms stop coming, in the late April and May sun and often breezy desiccating winds, California lower elevation regions readily turn from green to yellow green, to yellow brown, to a dry brown. However once I left the upper Russian River basin of our famous California wine growing region and entered the southern parts of the Eel River basin, increasing areas of yet drying yellow green appeared. My primary goal on this 6 day road trip was capturing redwood and north coastal landscapes with my 4x5 view camera at peak spring conditions. So I was interested seeing greener landscapes as I continued north.

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Friday May 25
Saturday May 26
Sunday May 27
Monday May 28

Awake at dawn Thursday 5/24, I was eager to start this potentially exciting day moving along. My 2007 5-passenger Forester has dual partitioned fold down rear seats with a bed to the rear door just long enough for my 66 inch frame. The primary storage area in the Forester is behind the rear seats and has a nicely designed removable canvas top at rear seat top level. Sleeping inside requires moving a number of items from the right side storage area I sleep at onto the front passenger's side and rear driver's side seat. To smooth out the bed, I roll out a heavy duty aerobics foam rubber mat I bought used for one-third price of $30 atop which I place an old North Face synthetic sleeping bag. Then use one of my three down bags I might bring along blanket style. Thus twice a day I perform a switch that doesn't take but a few minutes.

I began driving down the highway 35 miles to Eureka. Unlike areas to the south, roadside grasslands and vegetation were at their peak lush spring green. Where I live along the southern San Francisco Bay in the rain shadow of the modest 3k height Santa Cruz Mountains, we receive just 15 inches of rain in an average year while coast side Eureka receives 40 inches, and my destination 50 miles further north, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, a small sub 1k elevation stream canyon a few miles inland from the coast, over 75 inches. I stopped at a supermarket and gassed up for the next 4 days as I would be in an area with very limited local services.

Precipitation map courtesy of Oregon Climate Service webpage

I was in no hurry to reach the park, as my immediate adventure upon arrival was to be a leisurely near level hike along namesake Prairie Creek. The only conditions under which one can effectively photograph down inside redwood forests much like other dense forests is under diffuse cloud illumination conditions that occur under three primary situations: light shower rainstorms, overcast, or fog. Otherwise the light in the mix of sunlight and shade is far too contrasty for any type of camera sensor or film. Earlier in the week I pulled the trigger on my work PTO when the NWS long range forecast showed the trailing southern end of a front centered to move through Oregon Thursday, a breezy cloudy trough Friday, and probable fog/overcast conditions through Monday, Memorial Day holiday. Given such diffuse light, the best time of day is the 3 hours either side of noon because that is when the sun altitude is high enough to more brightly illuminate directly overhead clouds in order to be able to shine vertically down in between trees.

South of Prairie Creek is Humboldt Lagoons State Park with three large coastal lagoon that have sand dune spits buffering the ocean. Brackish Big Lagoon and Stone Lagoon are fed by modest streams while Freshwater Lagoon's sand spit has been buffered by highway US101 so long it is now fresh water.

Humboldt Lagoons State Park, Cal Parks home page

The sand dunes were peaking with coastal wildflowers so I stopped and exposed my first sheet of film before continuing on to the main park. Since I was only interested in exposing pricy sheet film during the mid day hours, I needed to fill the early morning and late afternoon hours with other activities. As hoped, the early hours each morning were likely to be down at these beaches. And I would use the late pm hours exploring roads and taking care of other usual logistical and road camping tasks.

Mid morning I left the beach, drove into the park, and quickly set off on a trail I recalled some nice landscape situations on during a 2009 road trip. There came upon the scene at page top on the trail leading towards moss and lichen draped bigleaf maples, acer macrophyllum, with redwoods peaking through in the background.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is one of three older California state parks that were included into Redwood National Park when it was established in 1968 back when I was a young man. It contains what are considered the most lush temperate rain forest old growth redwood areas within RNP.

Prairie Creek Redwood State Park, Cal Parks home page

Redwood National Park, NPS home page

I was particularly interested in finding some landscapes with maples and redwoods because the maples add a wonderfully bright green element. As soon as I set up for the above image, what had been a few light sprinkles suddenly turned to moderate rain. And it did not stop. Having not carefully checked my photo daypack before the trip and impatiently leaving my car at the trailhead, I noticed my camera rain cover and daypack covers were not inside. Using a view camera is a rather complex, tediously difficult task and I did not welcome such a sloppy start to my trip so became determined to slap myself into a more methodical mode. After about an hour beneath a large maple trunk waiting for a lull, I decided to abort back to my car. Instead I went to the visitor center and toured the Elk Meadows campground sites. By noon, showers became intermittent sprinkles so I drove back to Prairie Creek, set my view camera back up and exposed my second sheet of film shown at page top.

Of the three diffuse light conditions, fog at ground and tree level offers the most dramatic light, however is only common at ridgelines. Overcast which is a fog layer raised higher often at ridgeline elevations is most common. Photographing during cloudy light and or intermittent rain showers adds a dramatic wet look but is a battle of keeping the wet off lenses and gear.

My wooden Wisner camera sits atop a heavy Gitzo G1325MKII/G1325 tripod with center column, that I use a large 3 mil plastic bag atop as a rain or snow cover. A mini bunji duct taped at bottom can wrap around a tripod leg and serves as a wrap when stored. I also have an old backpack rain cover for my daypack, and Marmot Precip jacket with rain pants to keep the rest of my clothing and gear dry. And currently am wearing recently purchased burly Vasque Bitterroot GTX boots that proved to be bombproof in mud and water during this trip. Thus am often out working in light intermittent rain or snow showers. One issue with view camera work is looking at the upside down 4x5 inch ground glass for focusing under a dark cloth. In cold weather or wet weather the ground glass and my reading glasses would instantly fog up were it not for the snorkle system I designed into my dark cloth. Well actually not a usual off the shelf dark cloth but rather I bought then modified a pair of women's black elastic bike shorts. Another key weather condition for shooting high quality low ASA film in redwoods is still air with at most intermittent light breezes. That is because at the low light intensities stopped down to F32 or such, exposure times will be several seconds causing vegetation to move and blur on film. In that regard, DSLR image sensors have a huge advantage.

One of the wonderful elements in a redwood rain forest are fallen decaying logs as all manner of other vegetation, ferns, moss, and fungi will grow out of the logs. Here the trail makes a tight aesthetic U-turn around one such garden at the end of a small two foot diameter log.


And a crop of just the garden at the end of that log.


Further along I exposed the third and last sheet of film that day on this scene of a redwood sorrel, oxalis oregana, and western sword fern, polystichum munitum, lined trail passing by large coast redwoods, sequoia sempervirens, with nearby bigleaf maples.


My Fuji Provia 100F sheet film is expensive at $2 a sheet plus $2.50 a sheet to develop. Thus I only expose film for the strongest material and over my 5 days that was just 20 sheets. Of course working with a view camera and sheet film is a quite difficult to attain skill with the most difficult task figuring out exposures. There are no sensors in the camera as one uses an external light meter. That is why most serious photographers today have moved onto large DSLRs even though they won't be able to make as large prints.

By latter afternoon the front had passed and sun began to shine through with breezy conditions making shooting impossible. So I drove north on a road tour to check highway side areas of Del Norte Redwoods State Park where I had in 2009 photographed rhododendron with redwoods. At Prairie Creek I had earlier driven up Cal Barrel Road to verify as expected, rhododendron were not yet blooming at all. Just a few flowers along US101 so I turned around before reaching Jedediah Smith SP as a dark rain cloud approached and concluded I would not be wasting any time on this road trip looking for such landscapes. On the way back I snapped this telephoto from the highway looking south over the Klamath River mouth.


None of the conifers by the immediate coast including those on the distant slopes above the steep bluffs are redwoods because they do not tolerate salty air but are rather western hemlock. So the notion of a seascape with redwoods is misplaced. I drove on to the small community of Orick where I set up on a jeep road outside the park to overnight sleeping inside the Forester.

Thursday May 24
Saturday May 26
Sunday May 27
Monday May 28

Dawn Friday May 25 stormy clouded skies were still threatening. I was relieved to notice the threatened forecast windy condition was not yet occurring so drove back to the coastal sand spit with wildflowers I had stopped at on Thursday. Coastal mornings tend to be the least breezy which are required for the closeup photography I would be doing with my Cannon G10 compact digital camera on my old Benbo Trekker tripod. I would be using either in camera G10 flash on most shots or my little Canon 270EX flash on an extension cord for manual flash fill. I also use a 30 inch diffuser when during sunny conditions or if the diffuse cloud deck is so thin that the sun casts a shadow and a 30 inch collapsible reflection disc more often as a wind break.

Much of the northern coast has a dark mixture of white and black sand providing a superb closeup background for isolating shore flowers. Given the often strong northwesterly winds off the ocean, some beach species have evolved to grow close to the ground as this prostrate carrot family species with a rosette of white-hue flowers and pinnate leaves flat against the ground, beach silvertop, glehnia leiocarpa. Note at frame top a yellow-hued beach primrose sticks out from beneath a leaf; G10 flash 4000x3100 pixels.


Many of the coastal beaches had dense swaths of silky beach pea, lathyrus littoralis. The 4x5 sheet I'd exposed Thursday morning was behind a hillock of those flowers; G10 flash 3700x3100 pixels.


Mid morning I drove back into Prairie Creek, obtained a campsite at the Elk Meadows campground, set up my $25 Walmart Embark tent, then set off on a loop on the Prairie Creek, Foothill, and Brown Creek Trails in which I hiked a long ways without exposing any film due to increasing sun poking through late morning. Back at my campsite, I heated up a can of beef barley soup then made a couple PBJ sandwiches to eat while hiking. A platoon of blue jays raided any food on my picnic table immediately upon stepping more than a few feet away. Later found out the colored bands around their ankles were put there by park biologists studying their unwelcome activities.

After lunch I parked by the visitor center and despite a too thin diffuse cloud deck, began walking down the well manicured level Nature Trail where it crosses Prairie Creek. There one of the only blooming rhododendrum in the park was just below the fancy wooden bridge. The trail immediately tunneled through sections of brightly green creek side communities of several riparian trees, brushes, and ferns, often covered with moss and draped with hanging lichens.


Given the heavy precipitation there are many wooden bridges over streams and wooden planks over marshy sections. Where a trail bridge crossed small Godwood Creek, I noticed small steelhead trout fry moving about below.


On the other side I turned onto the start of the James Irvine Trail, considered the best in the park. Not far up the trail while the sky briefly clouded up more, I managed to expose two sheets of film that would be the last that Friday. This shows the considerable growth of plants out of the root end of a fallen redwood trunk above a small streamlet.


The James Irvine Trail climbed up a few hundred feet to reach its ridge top that was still a bit muddy from Thursday's showers.


Further west the trail traversed canyon north side slopes for a couple miles not far below the ridge top and well above Godwood Creek below, through large redwoods planted in a dense sea of western sword ferns.


Some of the larger redwoods have interesting gardens growing on their lower trunks where the trunks tend to spread. Leaf and branch debris from above catch in those areas providing a matrix for other plants to grow upon.


The weather turned increasingly breezy so I chose not to expose any sheet film thus returned back east to the trailhead. I was rather worn out as I had probably hiked about 8 miles this day much lugging my 35 pounds of gear. I infrequently stay at campgrounds as I am an old hard core expert at dispersed camping. Not so much due to the increased fees of public campgrounds but rather I dislike late evening group chattering noises while trying to sleep at the 10pm or such this dawn riser normally retires at. The $35 a night campground of 75 sites has hot showers so I did enjoy that luxury. My site was about 100 feet from the white alder and box elder covered creek with tall redwoods above poking into the sky. As the weekend holiday visitors began arriving late afternoon, cars and people constantly moved around the rutted campground road.


Most groups bought wood and made fires so one minor annoyance was the smoky air. I caught up on dealing with gear, snacking, and even went to the 8:30pm evening campfire program that featured a multimedia show about banana slugs. There was a 10:30 pm noise policy that I was glad to find people there that evening obeyed.

Thursday May 24
Friday May 25
Sunday May 27
Monday May 28

Sunrise Saturday May 26, I woke up other groups near my campsite by getting up, breaking camp, and driving away. I was glad to see an overcast diffuse sky after the system moved east as it often will become sunny. After the road trip, I found out that the low pressure system had stalled over the northern Great Basin pushing the East Pacific high further west that would cause a consistent ocean to land flow of marine overcast each morning with thinning clouds and some sun by mid afternoons. Except for Friday, it never became too breezy I could not wait out calm moments to expose film. Thus I had optimal weather for redwood forest photography. Temperatures over the whole trip were between 45F and 65F as the vast cool Pacific Ocean at about 55F degrees moderates temperatures to not be too warm, not too cool, perfect for hiking.

I drove back out to the coastal spit at the mouth of large Redwood Creek of which Prairie Creek is tributary for more early morning wildflower work. Each morning while driving through the large Elk Prairie meadows, I would see the namesake Washington elk, our largest deer species, grazing in the lush meadows sometimes rather close. Here a beach morning glory, calystegia soldanella, within an area of silky beach pea; G10 flash 3900x3300 pixels.


Pink hued horned searocket, cakile maritima, within yellow sand verbena, abronia latifolia; G10 flash 3600x3000 pixels. Notice the windblown grains of sand sticking to the edges of the verbena leaves?


The beach has considerable driftwood and not far from the parking lot, few footprints. More yellow sand verbena amid driftwood with sea stacks poking into foggy early morning skies


Another situation for a low height isolated plant against sand allowing optimal depth of field, this image of beach primrose, camissonia cheiranthifolia, with its handsome red hued stems against black sand; G10 diffuser + flash fill 3300x3800 pixels.


A 100% pixel crop of the lower right flower from that Canon G10 image showing the amount detail in these closeups.


A vertical view of uncommon yellow hued dune tansy, tanacetum camphoratum, with a silky beach pea at frame top; G10 diffuser + flash fill 2700x4200 pixels.


Walking along the tidal debris on the beach was this half buried crab shell against wet black sands; G10 flash fill 3700x2800 pixels.


Mid morning I again drove back a few miles inland and hiked another portion of the Prairie Creek Trail where under more excellent diffuse light I exposed 3 mores sheets. When trails encounter giant fallen redwood trunks on slopes, instead of routing up or down to go around, they often saw a tunnel through.


A flash closeup of a pair of wet leaves of most common fern in the park the western sword fern; G10 flash 3300x3800 pixels.


Late morning I drove out to the Redwood Creek Trailhead and explored the gravel bar dell near the trailhead. One of the largest sized wildflower species in the region is an alien European medicinal foxglove, digitalis purpurea, with its panicle of large vases; G10 diffuser + flash fill 2800x4300 pixels. A few plants have white petals and a few like this pink.


While most foxglove are magenta; G10 diffuser + flash fill 3312x4416 pixels.


If you see photographer images of coast redwood trees with strongly red trunks, it is highly likely to be the result of Photoshop manipulation because the red hued wood readily changes with exposure to the elements to shades of gray. See any of my images above. However where the bark has recently broken off and especially in the cracks between bark plates, one may see the wonderful orange red wood. Also trails tend to be quite red especially when wet because there is considerable fallen wood and needle forest debris below in the forest everywhere. On this trunk a banana slug. ariolimax columbianus was crossing such a spot; G10 flash 4100x3300 pixels. Note the tiny green shoot sprouting below.


With breezes and increasing sun by mid afternoon, I drove out to the coast and explored another small road to the north side of the mouth of Redwood Creek. There are many smallish streams named rivers that should have been named creeks and a few large creeks that should have been named rivers. Redwood Creek is one of the latter with a large drainage basin with heavy precipitation. At the mouth is a monstrous pile of driftwood with three sea stacks off the beach.


I drove around to dunes of the south side of the river creek and found this pair of beach morning glory within an aesthetic complement of its kidney-shaped leaves; G10 diffuser + flash fill 3000x4300 pixels


Also found this pair of isolated beach morning glory flowers against the black sands like a pair of old time horn speakers, G10 diffuser + flash fill 4000x3300 pixels. Note the red aphids and a few grains of sand blown into the corolla.


Saturday late afternoon I drove inland to the wonderful wide open dispersed camping spot I used my first night and spent several hours relaxing and taking care of gear.

Thursday May 24
Friday May 25
Saturday May 26
Monday May 28

Sunday morning May 27 I drove to Gold Bluffs beach, paid my $7 fee into the green iron pipe then parked at the Fern Canyon trailhead, the most popular feature in the national park. The walls of the ravine are vertical, covered with moss, dripping water, and ferns. One walks in the small creek bed where planks have been placed at the numerous crossings. I did the short walk up to the end of the canyon but did not see anything under the overcast morning light that seemed worth exposing any film on. Since it might be my last time ever visiting the ravine, on my return back down, I regardless bothered to expose through my 90mm wide angle lens a section of the wall. Ho hum I continued on back but near the mouth saw a pattern of five finger ferns hanging off an over vertical section of the wall with the small stream below so set up and exposed this sheet with a 15 second exposure.


Out on the nearby beach were the same beach dune species I worked at the Redwood Creek mouth spit though the beach miles long has vast areas without any footprints. I'd been hoping to find a beach plant worthy of pointing my 4x5 at and finally found this one with yellow sand verbena and sea rocket.


And finally on the way back to my car were these two large and brightly tomcat clover, trifolium willdenovii, in the moist post beach marsh grasses; G10 diffuser + flash fill 4200x2600 pixels.


It's quite striking 100% pixel crop of the center of the right flower.


By late morning the parking lots and park roads were busy with holiday visitors. Right beside the Gold Bluffs Beach road a group of large elk were leisurely grazing while people in several cars got out right while stopping in the middle of the road to take pictures. By time I had driven back to Prairie Creek it was noon and sun was beginning to poke through the overcast. I hiked back up the Brown Creek Trail towards a spot I had found Friday where I could frame both part of the creek and some big redwoods. I'd been keeping my eye out for a good close up image of young green ferns and finally saw and shot this situation, with beautiful dripping wet fronds of deer fern, blechnum spicant, tri-heart leaf shaped redwood sorrel, and pink hued star flowers, trientalis latifolia; G10 flash 3100x4300 pixels.


In the redwood forests, blooming star flowers, star solomon's seal, redwood violet, and Douglass's meadow foam were common, and several other species occasional including red clintonia and redwood sorrel whose leaves were abundant while blooms were few. When I began to set up my view camera, cloud diffuse light was fine but quickly the sun increasingly began shining through. I waited for an hour as breezes also seemed gustier before giving up and hiking back. Somewhat later back on the road, I decided instead of spending another night in the area to drive back south, visit the lagoon state parks, Trinidad State Beach, eat a fat fast food meal in Eureka, and on to Humboldt Redwoods State Park where I had over-nighted on the drive up.

Thursday May 24
Friday May 25
Saturday May 26
Monday May 28

Monday May 28 under yet another fine overcast morning, I exposed 7 more sheets of film at familiar tall redwood areas along the South Fork of Eel River. Weather was changing as the high pressure area offshore moved closer to the coast so I suspected the overcast conditions would end and I ought to continue my way back south. So did a familiar leisurely coastal tour on Highway 1 and arrived home late in the evening.

My 17 sheets of Provia 100F 4x5 transparency film came back from development a week later. All but 2 images were exposed well and 4 of the best are above on this page. A photographer's issue with redwoods is capturing additional color in the forest and that is rather difficult because wildflowers tend to be white or yellow and those that are more interestingly red or pink are sparse with narrow windows of blooming. During average weather years, mid April western trillium bloom, then in early May redwood sorrel with other white and yellow species, then in early June the large rhododendron bushes. However the latter though most dramatic are not widespread. The environments they tend to grow in also rarely includes sorrel, moss, and ferns that has a better rainforest look. My timing on this trip was perfect for the dune wildflowers on the coast but a bit late for sorrel below redwoods. Several of my redwood forest images lacked that element which I think is necessary to be exceptional. Accordingly in following years my return is likely to be a bit earlier to coincide with trillium and sorrel blooms. The following is an example of redwood sorrel and redwoods I captured in 2011:

Coast Redwoods & Redwood Sorrel

   David Senesac

   email: info@davidsenesac.com

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