Hiking: Northern California : Standish Up for the Eel River

The redwood groves at Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area, about 60 miles north of Mendocino, are always pleasant to walk through, but visitors come to this park for the Eel River and its swimming holes, steelhead and salmon fishing, campgrounds and hiking trails at its banks.

The park's premier arboreal attraction, which is an hour's hike from the parking lot, is the Capt. Miles Standish Tree, a scarred redwood giant that is 225 feet tall, 13 feet in diameter and estimated to be 1,200 years old. The tree honors the early pilgrim. Standish family descendants and a local family, the Hickeys, donated many of the 1,020 acres to form the park, which was established in 1922.

The Eel passes through some of Northern California's most inspiring scenery on a long journey from its headwaters in the Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness to its mouth at Eureka's Humboldt Bay. The river has sculpted impressive towering bluffs along the two-mile South Fork stretch within Standish-Hickey.

Because the rain-swollen Eel River floods so often, its banks, bottom and swimming holes change each year. All the park's footbridges are removed during the winter, effectively making most of the trail system inaccessible eight months out of the year. Even so, high water sometimes knocks out a bridge or two in late spring and early summer.

Standish-Hickey's three-mile round-trip Lookout Trail gives hikers a good look down at the Eel, but I prefer the more intimate view of the park offered by two loop trails--Big Tree and Mill Creek. Both are open from May through August.

Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101, a mile north of Leggett, take the Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area exit. Once inside the park, continue straight past the entrance station, taking the very steep road down to the seasonal bridge across the Eel River and over to Redwood Campground. Bear right after campsite No. 108 to the day-use parking lot.

The hike: Join signed Big Tree Trail for a short distance to a fork and bear left. The path soon leaves the banks of the Eel and begins a mellow ascent through the redwoods.

A mile out, the trail passes a junction with the other leg of Big Tree Trail, crosses Page & Gates Logging Road and arrives at the Capt. Miles Standish Tree. From there you can choose whether to return via the other branch of Big Tree Trail and complete your hike, or join Mill Creek Loop Trail.

The latter path crosses meadowland and ascends through the woods to a slightly scary-looking landslide area above Mill Creek. The trail descends to cross the creek, then climbs again, traveling along a ridge, descending again toward the Eel River.

The path meets Page & Gates Road very close to the mouth of Mill Creek where it flows into the Eel River. Go right on the road for a short distance. Follow the trail signs that take you back into the creek bed for a short detour around the now-unsafe bridge over Mill Creek, then resume walking on Mill Creek Loop Trail, which ascends a bit at first before leveling out through lovely Big Tree Meadow.

Back at Miles Standish Tree, you'll join Big Tree Trail's left fork on the other side of Page & Gates Road, descending to the river and crossing Cabin Meadow. When you reach the banks of the Eel, near the park's swimming area, you'll cross a little log bridge; follow the trail over the opposite gravel bar to a second wooden bridge to Redwood Campground and the trail head.

Big Tree, Mill Creek Trails

WHERE: Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area.

DISTANCE: 2-mile loop via Big Tree Trail; 6-mile loop via Mill Creek Trail.

TERRAIN: Redwood-Douglas fir forest, towering bluffs of Eel River.

HIGHLIGHTS: Miles Standish Tree, grand river views.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderate.

PRECAUTION: Main park trails accessible only during summer when footbridges over Eel River are in place.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area, 69350 U.S. Highway 101 8, Leggett, Calif. 95585; tel. (707) 925-6482.

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