Headwaters Forest Reserve

A forest floor is covered with ferns and bushes near tall tree trunks. (BLM Photo)

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. Deep in the heart of the Headwaters, old-growth forest is the beginnings or headwaters of the South Fork Elk River and Salmon Creek. This is how the area got its name. The Reserve is managed by the BLM in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

There are two public trails in the Reserve. The 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. 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 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.

Rules

Know Before You Go

To make sure your trip to the Headwaters Forest Reserve is a success, read this page first. Remember to be respectful of the park and other visitors.

  • Rules and Regulations
  • Salmon Pass Trail is accessible by reservation only. See right sidebar for resevations.
  • Parking is limited at the Elk River Trailhead. Carpool whenever possible.

Rules and Regulations

  • The Reserve is open from sunrise to sunset for day use only. Camping is not allowed.
  • Entry on the southern end of the Reserve, via the Felt Springs Road, is by guided hike only, May 15 through November 15, depending on weather. All other times, public access to the southern end of the Reserve is not allowed.
  • Dogs must be under voice control of the owner at all times, or on a leash. Dogs are only allowed on the Elk River Corridor Trail.
  • Pedestrian access is allowed only on designated trails.
  • Bicycles are allowed from the Elk River parking area to the posted turn-around, approximately 3 miles on the Elk River Corridor Trail. Bicycles must stay on the trail at all times.
  • Motorized access is not allowed.
  • Equestrian use is not allowed.
  • Discharge or use of firearms (including bows) is not allowed.
  • Hunting is not allowed.
  • Campfires, camp stoves, grills, or fireworks are not allowed.
  • Swimming is not allowed.
  • Vegetation Gathering is not allowed.
  • To avoid attracting predators, such as crows, ravens, or jays, to sensitive wildlife areas, pack out ALL trash including banana peels, orange peels, and apple cores.

Guided Hikes

See right sidebar to make a reservation.

Hikers in Old Growth Redwood Forest, Salmon Pass Hike. Photo by BLM
Caption: Hikers in Old-growth Redwood Forest on Salmon Pass Hike. Photo by BLM.

Directions

Directions 

The Headwaters Forest Reserve has two access points, the Elk River Trailhead and the Salmon Pass Trailhead. The Elk River Trailhead is open to the public year-round, while the Salmon Pass Trailhead is accessible by guided hike only.

Email the Headwaters Forest Reserve to request a tour.

Elk River Trail and the Headwaters Education Center (north end)

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.

How to get there: 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.

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

Difficulty : 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.

Salmon Pass Trail (south end)

The Salmon Pass Trail (south end) is accessible for guided hikes only. Guided hikes can be scheduled between May 15 and November 15 (weather permitting) by contacting the BLM Arcata Field Office at (707) 825-2300.

How to get there: The Salmon Pass Trail is located in the southern part of the Headwaters Forest Reserve, and is accessible only through BLM led guided hikes. This trail is located near the city of Fortuna.

Trail Information: The first ½ mile passes through a young to mid-aged forest with views of restored watershed areas. The next 2 miles ascend through the old-growth redwood forest with a view across Salmon Creek to the largest stand of Douglas-fir within the Reserve. The trail then loops back as it descends through the old-growth.

Distance and difficulty: This 2 1/2 mile hike is considered moderately strenuous and takes 3 to 4 hours

History

History and Culture

The area that is now the Headwaters Forest Reserve has a rich history of human occupation. A bustling mill town called Falk was located a mile from the Elk River Trail parking lot from 1884-1937. It became a ghost town for 20 years until the buildings were razed in 1979.  Remnants of the town such as the Headwaters Education Center and the one mile Elk River Interpretive Trail give the visitors and opportunity to go back in time. You can also come to BLM's special events at the Education Center where you can learn more about the forest and the history of the area.

Check out Falk: A Town Disappeared. This film was produced by Ethan Cardoza, a student in the Humboldt State University Film Program. It provides an excellent overview of the town of Falk and Headwaters.

 

Falk Mill and Mill Yard. Photo courtesy of BLM
Caption: Falk Mill and Mill Yard, 1897. Photo Courtesy of BLM

Headwaters Activism

The area now known as the Headwaters Forest Reserve was the site of widespread public protests from 1986 through 1999. Political activists and community members from the northern California region held rallies and pressured political officials to "Save Headwaters" from ongoing logging activities in the area. These efforts culminated in the acquisition by the federal government and the State of California of 7,472 acres in 1999. This land is now the Headwaters Forest Reserve.

1997 Headwaters Rally. Photo by Mark Bult
Caption: Headwaters Rally, 1997. Photo by Mark Bult

 

Quick Facts

Congressional Designation
Created:  March 1, 1999
Size:  7,472 acres of public land

Quick Links

Reservations

Salmon Pass Guided Hikes

Visitors must make reservations before participating in a guided hike. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, hikes are limited to 10 people. Outside of pre-scheduled tours, hikes may be requested for another day or time, but are subject to staff availability.

The hikes normally begin at 10am meeting at Newburg Park in Fortuna, however, please RSVP for the correct time. The entire hike is about 2 1/2 hours.

 Reservations are Required       

Flickr Album

Headwaters Forest Reserve

Contact Uss

Headwaters Forest Reserve
Phone: 707-825-2300 
Email: BLM_CA_Web_HW@blm.gov

Bureau of Land Management 
Arcata Field Office 

1695 Heindon Road 
Arcata, California 95521-4573 
Phone: 707-825-2300 
Email: BLM_CA_Web_AR@blm.gov