Last fall I took my annual pilgrimage up Highway 101 to revisit one of my favorite places to be on the planet: Redwood National Park. California contains the most spectacular redwood forests in the world—including the world’s tallest trees—yet it always amazes me how few Californians (yes, you) have experienced one of nature’s grandest displays. So make 2012 the year you finally dust off your binoculars, lace up your boots, book a hotel room in Eureka, and take the scenic drive up 101 to the Land of the Giants.
There are three major routes to Redwood Coast—Highways 101, 199, and 299—but only one way to get there: drive. If you’re heading up from Sacramento or the Bay Area, you’ll want to stop at the Redwood Information Center in Orick to chat with the rangers and stock up on maps and info about the national and state parks in the region. While you’re here, ask for a permit to visit Tall Trees Grove, where some of the world’s tallest trees grow.
Admission to the national park is free, but to enter any of the three state parks, you’ll have to pay a small day-use fee, which is good at all three parks. Camping fees are about $35 per vehicle, not including the online reservation fee (highly recommended during the summer).
When to Go
Frankly, all those ginormous redwoods wouldn’t have survived for thousands of years if it didn’t rain a heck of a lot. Count on rain or at least a heavy drizzle during your visit. Spring is the best season for wild flowers. Summer is foggy (it’s called “the June gloom” but often includes July and August). Fall is the warmest, sunniest (relatively) time of all. On a brighter note, you won’t freeze in the winter, as the average annual temperature along the Redwood Coast varies only 16 degrees, ranging from a low of 45° F to 61° F.
Where to Stay
Redwood National Park stretches north along Highway 101 all the way from Willits in northern Mendocino County to Humboldt County and Eureka on the coast, then farther north to Crescent City. There are numerous towns you can stay in along the way, but the most central place to park yourself is Eureka, which has the largest selection of lodging and dining (and breweries). From here you can explore the redwoods both north and south without having too much of a drive back to your hotel room. For local deals on Eureka lodging click here.
The Best Hikes
The best way to experience the redwoods is on foot. It’s impossible to explain the feeling you get while wandering through old-growth redwood forests: Everything is so big, misty, and primeval that you can’t help but expect to spot a dinosaur munching on giant ferns.
The short Fern Canyon Trail leads through an unbelievably lush grotto of ferns clinging to 50-foot-high canyon walls. Lady Bird Johnson Grove Loop is an easy self-guided tour that loops 1 mile around a lush grove of mature redwoods. Closer to shore is the Yurok Loop Nature Trail, a 1-mile self-guided trail that gradually climbs to the top of rugged sea bluff (with wonderful panoramic views of the Pacific), and you’ll also enjoy the Boy Scout Tree Trail, a 6-mile round-trip trail through a lush, cool, damp forest brimming with giant ferns and majestic redwoods.
But the real reason you came here is to see some seriously tall trees, right? To see one of the world’s tallest trees—365.5 feet tall, 14 feet in diameter, and over 600 years old—it’ll take some effort. The 4-hour drive/hike expedition to Tall Trees Grove is limited to the first 50 permits, but it’s an experience you’ll never forget. After driving to the trailhead, you have to walk a steep 1.3 miles down into the grove, but it’s a small price to pay for a photo of you hugging one of the world’s tallest trees.
A number of scenic drives cut through California’s redwood region. The Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway passes through dazzling groves of redwoods and elk-filled meadows before leading back onto the highway 8 miles later. Another spectacular route is the Coastal Drive, which winds through stands of redwoods and offers grand views of the Pacific.
But the most amazing car-friendly trail in all of the Redwood National and State Parks is Howland Hill Road, which winds for about 12 miles through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. It’s an unforgettable journey through an unbelievably spectacular old-growth redwood forest. Plan at least two to three hours for the 45-mile round-trip, or all day if you want to do some hiking in the park.
One of the most striking aspects of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is its herd of Roosevelt elk, usually found in the appropriately named Elk Prairie in the southern end of the park. These gigantic beasts can weigh 1,000 pounds and the bulls carry huge antlers from spring to fall. Elk are also sometimes found at Gold Bluffs Beach—it’s an incredible rush to suddenly come upon them out of the fog or after a turn in the trail. Nearly a hundred black bears also call the park home but are seldom seen.
Whale & Bird Watching
High coastal overlooks (like Klamath overlook and Crescent Beach overlook) make great whale-watching outposts during the December and January southern migration and the March/April return migration. The northern sea cliffs also provide valuable nesting sites for marine birds like auklets, puffins, murres, and cormorants. Birders will also want to visit the park’s freshwater lagoons. These coastal lagoons are some of the most pristine shorebird and waterfowl habitat remaining in the U.S.
Unfortunately, most of the hiking trails throughout the Redwood National and State Parks are verboten to mountain bikers. However, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park has a fantastic 19-mile mountain-bike trail through dense forest, elk-filled meadows, and glorious mud holes. Parts of it are a real thigh burner, though, so beginners should sit this one out. Pick up a 25-cent trail map at the Elk Prairie campground ranger station.
If you have your own tips and recommendations about Redwood National and State Parks that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you.
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