As we head into another month of sheltering in place, finding creative ways to taste what life outdoors was like before the spread of COVID-19 has become the latest feat — whether this means completing a marathon in your backyard, binge-watching travel vlogs or, in my case, watching virtual hikes.
Virtually hiking offers the ability to escape to some of the most naturally beautiful places in the world. With the advancement of virtual reality and filming equipment, many of these videos provide realistic experiences, opening some of the world’s most obscure hikes up to those who could never go before. As of late, virtually hiking is the next best thing to do for the bored, quarantined and incredibly restless, like me.
Recently, while scrolling through a Travel + Leisure article on the 12 best virtual hikes, I stumbled upon a video of a trail I had grown up next to. Inspired by a curiosity about the differences between virtual and in-person hikes, and maybe a little boredom, I double-knotted my virtual laces, grabbed some trail mix and embarked on the hourlong, virtual journey of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park’s famous hike: the James Irvine Trail.
All the way in the “real” Northern California
Located nearly at the top of California’s northwestern corner, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is home to miles of old-growth redwood forests, a Roosevelt elk-populated prairie, a rocky Pacific coastline and Fern Canyon, which was featured in Jurassic Park. Enveloped by a network of Redwood National Park and other nearby state parks, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park may be the perfect place to stop for a picnic lunch, a daylong hike and a scenic drive through the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway — a must-do detour off of Highway 101.
During summer 2017, I worked at the park’s small visitor center and answered questions about the James Irvine Trail — a 4.5-mile hike that begins at the visitor center and ends at Fern Canyon, weaving in out of redwood valleys, rising over trickling streams and tracing the circumferences of 300-foot trees.
During my 30-minute lunch breaks at work, I’d escape the visitor center and walk 15 minutes into the trail and 15 minutes back. Although it was only a half-hour escape, the contrast this hike offers to that of prairie views nearby was enough to transport me into a world where the songs of birds become the norm between steady gusts of winds pushing against redwood canopies.
So, stuck at home and currently living far away from the park, I put watching the virtual video of this very hike at the very top of my to-do list. When I began my virtual hike, filmed and created by YouTuber The Flying Dutchman, I was once again thrown into this world, traveling over wooden bridges, surrounded by seas of ferns and skating by ancient trees that rose too tall for the cameraman to cover in just one frame.
A dizzying trek through an ancient forest
Throughout the approximately 54-minute video, slow, instrumental music plays in the background. Although this adds to the therapeutic, calming experience, I wish the sounds of the video were left to the birds in the trees and the slow trickle of the redwood streams. I also found myself dizzy throughout, having to stop the video and look away in order to regain a sense of stability. This effect could have been due to my ability to get motion sick at nearly anything, but it also reminded me that this hike, even in person, is often overstimulating, as there always seemed to be too many trees to look up toward and too many ferns and flowers to look down at.
The James Irvine Trail begins inland and slowly makes its way to the coast, emptying into Fern Canyon. One of the best experiences of this hike is slowly watching the biodiversity change as you draw closer to the beach. Although the old-growth redwoods become fewer, the trail guides you through the redwoods’ buffer, between forest and sea. This portion of the hike, although arguably the most lush and green, also limits a hiker’s surrounding views, making it difficult to see what is in front of you.
The James Irvine Trail ends at Fern Canyon. The virtual hike, however, stops just before it, never rewarding the virtual hiker the trail’s finish line: a stream-carved canyon bordered by two towering walls painted with multiple fern species. This reward is saved for a separate virtual hike.
A restless reminder
During quarantine, I am thankful for the opportunity to remember some of the places I love most, as well as for the accessibility these videos provide to those who may never get the chance to visit in person. Yet, virtually hiking eliminated some of my personal favorite features of this hike, and instead of leaving me physically exhausted at the end, virtually hiking left me even more restless than I was when I started, wishing more than ever I could be there in person.
But if there is one thing this virtual hike did, it reminded me that the redwood forests have outlasted 2,000 years of history, and when this is all over, when we are set free and when we go outdoors together again, they will be standing as tall as ever.
Contact Emily Denny at [email protected] .