Cold Creek Trail: Backpacking Mendocino National Forest

With over 319,000 acres of open space in the Coastal Range, The Mendocino National Forest is so large it stretches across six counties. This rugged forest is the only National Forest in California without a paved road, making backpacking Mendocino National Forest a true adventure. There is a lot of forest land for hikers to explore, but you should do your research to ensure that you are hiking in a safe zone, and not in one of the hunting or off road vehicle areas.

We originally came to the Mendocino National Forest to backpack the Snow Mountain National Monument, but due to the condition of the roads we had to come up with an alternate plan when the roads became too rough to continue in our SUV. We came prepared with a map of the forest and selected the Cold Creek trail because it was within walking distance of where we parked our car on the side of the dirt road.

While the trail is short, backpacking Mendocino National Forest’s Cold Creek Trail is only for experienced backpackers who can comfortably navigate off trail. In addition, you will need a rugged four-wheel drive vehicle with a high clearance to reach this trailhead, as most of the roads that wind through the Mendocino National Forest are former logging roads that haven’t been maintained. If you are lucky enough to have a car that can reach the trailhead you can complete this hike within a day, but backpacking overnight is definitely the way to go. Once you see the untouched beauty you won’t want to leave.

The majority of the trail is shaded and winds through the thick coniferous forest. It is clear that someone is trying to maintain this trail because brush and fallen trees had been cleared from parts of the trail, but this is not a well-marked trail or easily followed trail. Due to landslides or washout damage some sections of the trail are extremely narrow. There are several shallow creek crossings, and a few large fallen trees that you need to climb over. (I got a lot of help from my hiking poles!)

Camping in the large sunny meadow near the end of the trail was the highlight of the trip. We ate dinner around the campfire and soon after we were lulled to sleep by the sound of rushing water coming from a nearby waterfall. The next morning, I woke with the sun and as I enjoyed my morning coffee I watched a family of deer grazing in the meadow.

We didn’t see another soul the entire weekend. While I love the escape, when I’m on trails like these I am thankful for the peace of mind that my InReach gives me. If you decide to hike this trail alone I recommend bringing some sort of communication device with you (there’s no cell reception out here).

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The Trailhead

The trailhead is located on the M3 road, directly opposite the entrance to road 8W28.

The Route

This approximately 4.5 mile out-and-back trail is located off of the M3 road. We weren’t able to drive to the trailhead so we walked along the M3 road for about 4 miles before reaching the trailhead. When entering the trail you walk down, into the canyon, and then look for the faint trailhead off to your right. This is not a well-marked trail, to follow the trail you need to look for trail ribbons that are white with red polka dots. Because of tree fall, the trail can be hard to navigate. Dogs are allowed, but due to the conditions on this trail I recommend leaving your four-legged companion at home.

Notes for backpackers:

Dispersed camping is allowed throughout the national forest. We found a sweet camping spot in a meadow near the end of the trail, but you can camp anywhere along the trail. Go to the Mendocino National Forest website for a complete list of trailheads.

This trail crosses three creeks. While water was plentiful in May 2017, you should always be prepared and bring plenty of water with you. Water is not available at the trailhead.


Go to the Mendocino National Forest website for a map of the trail.

Other Details

Trail Safety

Like all outdoor pursuits, hiking can be dangerous. It is up to you to assess your fitness level and education yourself about any potential dangers. While I try to regularly update these hiking guides, you should always research trail conditions before heading out.

Being prepared means arriving at the trailhead with water and some basic provisions. Each and every time I hit the trail I bring a backpack with more water than I think I need, a small first aid kit, and a snack. I also share my itinerary and plans with friends or family and I carry an InReach so I can summon help if needed. If you want to know what I carry in my pack during day hikes check out my blog post about essential gear for day hikers.

Stay safe, enjoy the trail, and soak up the magic of nature!

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