CRESCENT CITY – I knew Lake Earl was big, although in nearly three years as a Del Norter I’d never been there. Flying in to Crescent City, it’s impossible not to notice the big body of water to the north – seemingly about the same size as the town itself.
But the lake hides. You can’t see it from the highway – I’ve never even glimpsed it from Lake Earl Drive. Maps tell me I could motor to its eastern edge by turning onto Lakeview Drive or Buzzini Road, but I never have. After all, that wouldn’t make for much of a hiking story.
When I finally decided Sunday to visit the county’s biggest lake, I chose an approach from the southwest on trails detailed in the recently released Tolowa Coast map and guide (tolowacoasttrials.org). The route is somewhat obscure, even on the new map. It’s part of the Lake Earl Wildlife Area, administered by the state Department of Fish and Game Department.Go to the Fish and Game website, and you’ll see the area described as “some of the finest wetlands habitat in California’s northern coast.” But you’ll also read that “at present there are few roads, and no hiking trails.”
Fortunately, that’s not true. While most of the 6,134-acre Lake Earl Wildlife Area is liquid, all of the trails I followed Sunday were within the wildlife area that abuts Tolowa Dunes State Park.
The lake hides.
Consider this: I set out from a parking lot next to the wildlife area’s information center, past an opening in a fence and onto an obvious trail. There was no trailhead sign, only a notice about dog restrictions and a small kiosk offering bald eagle trivia. I trusted my map and plunged ahead on a sandy path northward.
In unfamiliar territory beneath an indecisive sky, I walked briskly along the trail, which gained better definition as sand gave way to firmer dirt. After five minutes, I arrived at a two-track superhighway of a path. There was no sign, of course, but I later learned this was Cadra Point Loop Road – passable by car but closed to traffic. I turned right and followed the road through dense woods and open stretches.
Decision time came six minutes later when I reached the junction with Alder Marsh Trail, which was actually marked with a sign, albeit one that looked decades-old. The trail looked inviting, but I was bent on reaching the lake, so I stayed on the road. Out of curiosity, I did take the Alder Marsh Trail side trip on the way back, and I highly recommend it: dense foliage where my presence offended an owl, a meadow that felt like the middle of nowhere, and a scenic end-point after half a mile at the edge of Cadra Marsh.
There are other ways to get to Cadra Marsh from the road I passed on an unmarked path to the right, but about 10 minutes after the Alder Marsh trailhead there’s another chance to turn right. Trail signs prohibited dogs and horses, but offered no name. I later determined it to be Cadra Marsh Trail (it’s on the map), a six-minute diversion that starts out thick with Sitka spruce before opening out to the salty marsh. The end-point afforded my first real view of the lake proper, still to the north. It also afforded a couple of December mosquitoes and spider webs that seemed to materialize out of the open air.
Back on the road, another five minutes of walking brought me to a surprising glut of signage, including a kiosk with bird info and a reminder that dogs should be on leashes. The map told me that a wide, grassy path to the right would lead to Cadra Point, and it wasn’t far. Along the way was a single picnic table – if only I’d brought lunch instead of just an apple and pretzels. The point was still in marshland, but now the view was panoramic with the lake stretching northward and Coast Range snow-caps in the distance.
I wanted to see more of it.
Regaining the increasingly overgrown Cadra Point Loop Road, another three minutes brought me to a less-pronounced but crucial junction. Marked only by no dog/no horse signs, a thin trail to the right headed uphill. The map called it Lakeview Trail. How could I miss with that?
The next half-mile or so was a delightful up-and-down trek along a lengthy ridgeline. To the east were impressive and varied views through the trees of the lake in the semi-distance. To the west, clearings that sometimes stretched to the white waves of the distant sea. I was in the midst of another stunning reminder that you don’t have to be in the redwoods or on the coast to be immersed in Del Norte’s grandeur. At one point the trail dipped close to lakeside before climbing back into lush woods.
I was almost sorry when Lakeview Trail leveled out for good, even though it led me to a left turn onto an unmarked path to the best waterside vantage point I’d had all day. I’m guessing this was Goose Point, but the map left me uncertain. Regardless, I was now looking out over the middle of the lake to the east, and hundreds of floating birds (geese?) to the shimmering south.
Only then did I grasp the immensity of Lake Earl, a worthy complement to Del Norte’s other over-sized natural features, those being the redwoods and the Pacific.
I couldn’t stop shooting – with my camera. From the north, meanwhile, wafted the frequent sound of gunshots.
I was tempted to begin my return on the same ridgeline (Lakeview Trail), but instead turned right. The flatter route led back to another stretch of Cadra Point Loop Road, marked again by those twin signs regarding no dogs/horses on the side trails. I turned left (south) toward my starting point. If I’d turned north, the map promised the Peninsula Trail leading to a finger of land dividing Lake Earl from its little sister, Lake Tolowa.
It’s always nice to leave unexplored territory for next time.
THE HIKE: About a two-hour round-trip through the Lake Earl Wildlife Area to the lake’s western edge, mostly following Cadra Point Loop Road and Lakeview Trail.
HIGHLIGHTS: Several side trails lead to watery vantage points affording panoramic views of Cadra Marsh and Lake Earl. Views from above of the lake to the east and the distant sea to the west can be enjoyed from the ridgeline known as Lakeview Trail. Throughout the hike, surprisingly lush foliage broken up by occasional meadows.
SWEAT LEVEL: While the ridgeline has its ups and downs, it’s not strenuous. Pushing through overgrown stretches of side trails near the water calls for a little determination, but the only real perspiration-producer is the worrying about getting lost due to map vagaries and insufficient signage.
GETTING THERE: From Northcrest Drive north of Crescent City, turn left on Old Mill Road and follow to parking lot on right just past Lake Earl Wildlife Information Center (where Old Mill meets Sand Hill Road).