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South Fork Elk River Trail

The 7,472-acre Headwaters Forest Reserve (Reserve) was established in 1999 after a decade-long grassroots effort to protect the world’s last unprotected, intact, old-growth redwood forest ecosystem. Several threatened species call the Reserve home, including coho salmon, the northern spotted owl, and the marbled murrelet. The Reserve is the headwaters of the South Fork Elk River and Salmon Creek and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Congress is currently considering legislation – H.R. 2250 – authored by Rep. Jared Huffman that would protect more than half of the Reserve as wilderness and add segments of the South Fork Elk River, Little South Fork Elk River, and Salmon Creek as Wild and Scenic Rivers. The bill has passed the House Natural Resources Committee and may be voted on by the full House in February. Senator Kamala Harris has introduced an identical bill in the Senate (S. 1120). Both bills propose protection of public lands throughout northwest California.

 There are two public trails in the Reserve. The South Fork Elk River Trail winds along the South Fork Elk River for 3 miles, followed by a 2-mile ascent to a short loop through an old-growth redwood forest in the Little South Fork Elk River drainage. Interpretive signs along the first mile of trail describe the history of Falk, the historic company mill town once located along this section of trail.

The first 3 miles of the Elk River Trail follows a relatively flat former logging road and is open to mountain bikes as well as hikers. Dogs on leash or under voice control are also welcome. Motorized equipment is not allowed and pedestrian and bicycle access is allowed only on designated trails. At the 3 mile mark, you may cross the South Fork Elk River and hike the loop through old growth redwoods in the Little South Fork Elk River drainage. This part of the trail is limited to hiking only.

The Salmon Pass Trail, open by guided tour only, passes through spectacular old-growth and second-growth redwood forest on the south side of Headwaters. Tour guides provide a unique perspective on redwood forest ecology. To sign up for the guided Salmon Pass Trail tour, call the BLM Arcata Field Office at (707) 825-2300.

The Elk River Trailhead (north end) is open all year. Parking is available at the trailhead parking lot. The Headwaters Education Center, open for special events and Sundays from June through August, is located approximately 0.5 miles from the Elk River Trailhead. Simply park at the trailhead and hike, bike, or stroll the short distance to the Education Center.

Directions to the trailhead: To access the north end of Headwaters along the Elk River, take the Elk River Road exit off Highway 101, at the south end of Eureka. Turn right onto Elk River Road and drive approximately six miles to the Elk River Trailhead parking area.

Trail Information:
The first 3 miles follow a narrow stream corridor of public land that parallels the South Fork Elk River. The first mile is paved and accessible for those with limited mobility. Bicycles and dogs (under owner’s control) are allowed on the first 3 miles.

The last 2 ½ miles wind beneath a closed tree canopy, ending at a small old-growth redwood grove. Please stay on the trail to avoid trespassing and to protect the area’s natural resources.

It is 5 miles to the old-growth and ½ mile through the old growth loop, for a total 10.5-mile trip.

The first 3 miles traverse moderate terrain adjacent to the river. The remaining 2 ½ miles are moderately strenuous. Plan 1 ½ to 2 ½ hours for the first 3 miles and 2 to 2 ½ hours for the last 2 ½ miles.


Weather and road conditions can change in an instant. Always check with the managing agency before embarking on a trip. Always hike with a friend and carry a cell phone for emergencies. Bring plenty of drinking water, food, and clothing for changing weather conditions. Let someone know where you are going and when you intend to be back. Remember, California’s wild places are beautiful but they can also be dangerous to the unprepared and unwary. The California Wilderness Coalition assumes no liability if you intend to visit any of the wild places featured in our materials.