NOTE: To reserve your parking permit, go here.
Located about 300 miles north of San Francisco, Fern Canyon is the main attraction in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, itself part of Redwood National and State Parks. This year, the canyon is requiring parking reservations for visits between May 1 and Sept. 30. Visitors will also need to reserve ahead to park at neighboring Gold Bluffs Beach. Both spots can now be booked for summer at the park website.
Keven Harder, supervising ranger for the North Coast Redwoods District, said the main reason for the new system is safety.
“With the sheer number of cars that have been back there in the last four or five years, we’ve run into situations where we’ve had medical situations back in the canyon and we cannot get to them,” Harder said.
The park is also limiting visitors during the busy summer season to protect the natural landscape from crowds (think fewer visitors stomping on plants) and improve visitor experience.
“Most people aren’t super stoked about traveling all this way, getting there and being shoulder-to-shoulder with other people,” Harder said.
This isn’t the first spot in California to start requiring that visitors reserve parking ahead of their visit. Muir Woods implemented a similar system in 2017.
At the end of a single-lane dirt road in a remote corner of Humboldt County, Fern Canyon is a stunning spot where a seasonal creek runs through a narrow canyon with vertical walls carpeted in lush ferns.
“It’s one of those places that you walk into and it kind of takes you back in time,” said Harder. “People get back there and they want that experience, but there are literally a hundred other people standing around you.”
The canyon was long a hidden gem, but Harder says it has been flooded with mobs of tourists in the past five or so years. Both national and international media have shone a spotlight on the canyon, and its use as a backdrop in a handful of Hollywood films, including Steven Spielberg’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” has also contributed to its fame.
All of this attention on an attraction with a tiny parking lot has created chaos — and even unsafe conditions. The Fern Canyon lot holds about 50 cars, while Golf Bluffs Beach holds 20. From May through September, the lots fill up within hours and overflow cars park along the dirt road that acts as both an entrance and an exit.
Up to 230 cars typically overwhelm the lots and road on days in July and up to 400 on a holiday weekend, park ranger Emily Christian said in a presentation posted on YouTube, detailing the new system.
“During the last couple years, the high visitation has led to parking along the road, which creates a bottleneck for traffic and prevents timely access for first responders,” Christian said. “Fire trucks and ambulances are typically wider than a typical vehicle, so when there’s a line of cars leading in arriving, then traffic either slows or stops. Other obstacles include the hikers walking on the road, which require either stopping or slow going to allow them to reach a place where they can stop out of the road.”
Beginning May 1, cars will no longer be allowed to park along the road, as this has become a safety issue.
Cars will be further limited by the the new reservation system system that allows for 35 morning parking permits, 35 for afternoon permits and 20 all-day use at Fern Canyon each day. Another 20 spots are open a day for Gold Bluffs Beach.
“This has needed to be done for a while,” Harder said. “This is a pilot program. Come next fall, we’ll see how it worked, ask for public feedback and take that into consideration.”
Can’t get a parking spot? Visitors can also bike or hike into the park without a permit. The James Irvine Trail starts at the Prairie Creek Visitor Center and is about a 10-mile round-trip trek to the beach and back.
By Amy Graff with SFGate.com.