The park police was waiting for me when I finished my run in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (a park that is co-managed by the NPS). I'd squeezed this run into my already very long day, and I guess the officer wasn't happy about it. It was past 8 p.m., and it was pitch black deep in the redwood forest.
I'd spent the first half of the day making the rounds in Crater Lake. It had taken far longer than I'd expected to make it to California.
I didn't arrive at my Airbnb (this is my 3rd time using it this trip) until almost 6 p.m. Although the day was basically over, I wasn't about to let it end without a run in the woods. Redwood National Park is scattered and huge. But I wanted to see a little bit of each unit, so it made sense to run in one of the units tonight. Ed, my host, had mentioned that the Boy Scout Tree Trail was nearby. My national parks guidebook had also mentioned this trail as a must-do. I set out to run it.
I arrived at the trailhead right as two groups were getting off the trail. One group had turned around early because the sun was beginning to set, and they were worried it was getting dark. The other group had just finished. I asked them what the trail conditions were like. They said it was fine, but that the trail felt very long, and that it would get dark soon. I nodded. I realized that there were only two cars at the trailhead. They were the last of the day's hikers. I would be the only person on the trail.
I feared that I might be starting too late, that the forest would become dark while I was still running in it. This was a place with absolutely no cell service--deep in an old-growth forest. If I got lost in the dark, it would be a long, cold night of wandering.
I decided to chance it. I figured I could cover the 5.6-mile trail in about an hour so that I'd be back at my car at roughly 8 p.m. Knowing that sunset was around 7:30, I assumed that I'd have ample light until the last couple miles. I wasted no time. I was off chasing Fern Falls, the end of the trail.
I moved quickly, with fast leg turnover on the cushy dirt trail. I was determined to minimize the amount of time I spent running in the dark. It was a race against time. This also meant my photos were blurry.
I tried to make the most of my brief forest foray by looking around as I scrambled across the forest floor. These trees were incredibly beautiful--and huge!
I made it to Fern Falls in just under 30 minutes. I'd moved at a solid pace, given the undulating hills, and the root-laden trail I'd followed. I saw a massive fallen redwood that seemed like a continuation of the trail. I decided to see where it led. While tiptoeing across it, I looked down to the side and realized that, if I fell, I'd be stuck in a little ravine. The tree was so big that it was not resting directly on the forest floor. It was at this moment that I decided to turn around.
I booked it back to the car. But not before it got dark. It was already past official sunset, and I could sense it. There were portions of the trail where the trees were less dense. Between strides, I could look up and see the dark blue sky--it was not yet completely dark. But, pretty soon, I was in a part of the forest that was so dense that I looked up and saw nothing but black. I'd underestimated the thickness of the forest cover, and how that would prevent the already dwindling ambient light from hitting the forest floor.
Thankfully, I had my headlamp on me for the very purpose of providing lighting when the natural light went out. I used it to scan 10-15 yards ahead for obstacles, mainly roots, but sometimes also stumps. It continued to get darker. And the return leg seemed without end. As things became ever so slightly less well-lit, I started to make ever so slightly more errors. I began stubbing my toes on roots, and occasionally caught myself from twisting my ankle. I had quite the adrenaline rush come over me as I zigzagged back to the trailhead.
For the last mile, I ran in almost complete darkness. My headlamp lit the forest floor before me. It was so dark that I decided to also hold my iPhone and use the flashlight function to light the trail right in front of me. Despite the darkness, I moved at an even brisker pace. I was determined to get out.
I finally made it out. It had taken just over 27 minutes. Waiting by my car, however, was a park police officer. He had hiis heavy maglite out, and was walking around my car. When I arrived back at the trailhead, sweating buckets, and breathing somewhat hard, he asked me what I'd been doing. I told him I'd been running on the Boy Scout Tree Trail. He told me that people couldn't be on the trails after dark. I told him I was sorry, and that I was done for the evening. He said I was lucky--he was just about to give me a ticket when I'd arrived back at the trailhead. And then he left.
I changed out of my sopping wet running clothes, and took a moment to listen to the forest. It was extremely quiet, and I had the entire forest to myself. I hopped back into my car and drove slowly back to the highway.
Despite the literal and figurative stumbling blocks, tonight's was a good run. I'd tested my limits by running in near darkness. And I had no regrets.