Why: It’s like traveling back in time — way back. Steven Spielberg chose it as a location for “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” because the whole place looks prehistoric. And it is.
What: Fern Canyon is exactly as its name describes. Feathery ferns sprout from nearly every square inch of the 30-plus-foot cliffs lining this narrow ravine. The effect is like fluffy, 3-D wallpaper. If it doesn't bring Spielberg to mind, it might bring Jim Henson. Some fern species found here can be traced back 325 million years, with gallant names like the dark green sword and the delicate lady. As you hike deeper into the shadowy canyon, the ferns take over your field of view — it’s green tunnel vision. Scan the environs for mini-waterfalls trickling through moss as well as shy amphibians, and be sure to take a good, deep sniff. It smells like the Industrial Revolution never happened.
The Fern Canyon Loop is a flat path of 0.7 miles, easy enough for young children or road-trippers stiff from the bumpy drive in. (It’s about 9 miles from the highway on a dirt road that plows straight through a few small, stony streams.) In summer, rangers place foot bridges (read: slippery wooden planks) on the trail. Wear hiking boots if you have them, rain boots if you don’t, or sneakers if you don’t mind spending the day with wet socks. For avid hikers eager to tack on a few extra miles, the James Irvine Trail, which begins at the visitors center, is an alternate route to the canyon. If you brought lunch, stop at the Elk Meadow picnic area, where you’re almost guaranteed to see a grazing elk or two.