Mist steals through towering trees soaring up to 380 feet as thrushes sing melancholy notes from the canopy. On the ground, fallen trees expose upturned root beds more than 6 feet in diameter.
It’s another early morning in Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP) in Northern California. These mammoth woods are home to the tallest trees on Earth in a coastal preserve of old-growth redwood forests, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve as well as a national park. Just 5 percent of the more than 2 million acres of redwoods originally found in Northern California remain, and RNSP protects nearly half of those.
Indigenous people used only fallen redwoods to build canoes and homes. But after gold was discovered in northwest California in 1849, commercial logging indiscriminately felled the tall trees, inspiring the formation of the conservationist group Save the Redwoods League in 1918. Three state parks — from north to south, Jedediah Smith Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods and Prairie Creek Redwoods — followed in the 1920s. It wasn’t until 1968 that Congress dedicated the land around them as Redwood National Park to pull all of them together to protect the greater watershed. The National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation jointly manage the parks’ roughly 132,000 acres, home to prairies, two major rivers and 37 miles of Pacific coastline in addition to redwood forests (the state parks are distinct on maps, but national park land surrounds and joins them in a continuous whole).
RNSP is about 325 miles north of San Francisco and 320 miles south of Portland, Oregon. Perhaps because there are easier-to-reach redwood groves, including Muir Woods National Monument near San Francisco, the park gets less than a half-million visitors annually. But if you’re a nature lover and make the effort to reach it, you’ll find solace in the big forests (including via six ADA-accessible trails), scenic drives along the coast and among the trees, and a uniquely vegetated canyon. Plus, you may spot brown bears and Roosevelt elk inland, and flocks of seabirds and migrating gray whales offshore.
Location: North Coast, California
Acreage: 131,983 acres
Highest elevation: 3,000 feet
Miles of trails and how many: More than 200 miles over 55 trails
Main attraction: Massive redwood trees close to 400 feet tall
Cost: Redwood National and State Parks are free. Day-use areas at Gold Bluffs Beach/Fern Canyon cost $12 per vehicle; at Jedediah Smith Campground, $8.
Best way to see it: Hiking the woods and craning your neck to see the canopy
When to go to avoid the crowds: Spring and fall
Plan Your Trip
In northernmost California, RNSP runs about 50 miles north to south, beginning just below the California-Oregon border. Getting there requires at least a five-hour drive from either San Francisco or Portland, taking Interstate 5 most of the way (California drivers have the more scenic option of taking U.S. Highway 101 north from San Francisco through Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties to the parks). Driving curvy State Route 299 west from Redding, California, 132 miles east of the parks, takes about 3½ hours.
Well-signed and well-maintained 101 is the main artery through the parks between coastal Crescent City in the north and Eureka, the closest city to them in the south, making for easy transit through the preserves. Entry is largely free, except for a few day-use areas where daily parking fees range from $8 to $12.
There are many entrances to the parks, which have five visitor centers that provide updates on trail conditions, maintain exhibits on the park ecosystem and more. In the south, stop at the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center on a beach to check for passing gray whales (peak migration months are November to December and March to April). Like the other centers, it runs a bookshop stocked with titles on nature. The Prairie Creek Visitors Center in the Prairie Creek park is housed in a 1930s cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Rangers at all but the Crescent City center at the park headquarters lead walks and talks in summer.
Redwood trees thrive in the cool coastal conditions of Northern California. Expect temperature highs in the upper 60s in summer and frequent rain in winter (60 to 80 inches, on average, from October through April), when temperatures range from the 40s to the low 60s. Wet winters and strong winds can topple trees and close trails, so always check the RNSP website for current conditions. Clear weather and school vacation schedules meet in summer’s high season, attracting more visitors, but spring and fall are good times to catch fair conditions with fewer crowds. Come from mid-spring to early summer to see the native rhododendrons in bloom.
Cellular coverage is very limited, with the best service around Crescent City and at the visitor centers. Restrooms can be found at most trailheads, campgrounds and visitor centers.
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Where to stay and dine
Your options are few if you want to spend the night in the parks, where there are only four campgrounds (no hotels). The Jedediah Smith State Park Redwoods Campground in the eponymous park has 86 sites in a redwood forest on the Smith River, and Elk Prairie Campground in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park has 75 sites in a mixed forest. Each one also has four basic ADA-accessible cabins, which you won’t find in the other two camps. Gold Bluffs Beach Campground, also in Prairie Creek, has 26 sites beside a beach, and Mill Creek Campground in the Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park has 145 sites in a forest of maples, alders and young redwoods. Amenities in the four include ADA-accessible restrooms with hot showers, picnic tables, firepits and dump stations. RVs are allowed, but there are no hookups. The cabins come with electricity, heaters and outdoor fire rings but no kitchens or restrooms (guests do have access to the campground’s facilities a short distance from the cabins). Whatever your choice, reserve in advance at Reserve California (campsites, $35 per night; cabins, $80 winter, $100 in summer).
There are many home rentals, inns and hotels in nearby communities (See Gateway towns, below).
There are no restaurants or food vendors in the parks, so plan on bringing your own food and eating at a redwood-shaded picnic table. You’ll find grocery stores in surrounding communities (there’s a small market in Orick, for example, which is about 2 miles from the park’s Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center).
Things to do
Pay homage to the “Big Tree”: Most of the parks’ redwoods qualify as big, but the “Big Tree” is an easy-to-reach old-growth star in the Prairie Creek park, 75 yards from the parking area down a paved and level path. An amusing signpost points out the Big Tree, noting that it’s 68 feet in diameter and 1,500 years old. Additional signs direct visitors to surrounding stunners with arrows noting, “That’s a big tree, too!” and “This way to more big trees!” To see more of these giants, take Cathedral Trees Trail, which intersects the Big Tree Wayside, a family-friendly (but not accessible), 3-mile, out-and-back walk amid towering trees.
See a canyon walled in ferns: Also in the Prairie Creek park, you’ll find Fern Canyon, named for the lush ferns that grow on its 30-foot walls. To fully experience this verdant canyon, you’ll need to get your feet wet. Green walls of plant species dating back 325 million years flank shallow Home Creek, which has carved the chasm over the eons.
Access the canyon in several ways. On a walk via the stony stream from Gold Bluffs Beach, you’ll reach the chasm in about a quarter-mile, gaining only 30 feet. Alternatively, from the canyon parking area, a 1-mile loop gains 150 feet (apply for a parking permit online from May 1 to Sept. 30). Other trails to the canyon are up to 12 miles round trip. Whichever way you choose, the paths are uneven and may require climbing over trees or using seasonal footbridges.
Watch for whales: Wildlife is abundant in the parks on land (black bears, coyotes, elk and more) and offshore, but few species show up with the regularity of gray whales. Twice a year, they pass by the coastal region, southbound to breed in Mexico in December and northbound to feed in the Arctic in May, covering 12,500 miles round trip. Gray mothers and calves are particularly visible feeding just beyond offshore surf breaks in spring. If you’re lucky, you may see some whales “spyhop” (position their head vertically in the water for better views).
The Klamath River Overlook in the coastal center of the parks offers the best vantage point for spotting cetaceans, including humpback whales, orcas and harbor porpoises. Look for seals and sea lions on offshore rocks. “The Klamath River Overlook is ideal because the extra elevation provides a broader view of the ocean,” says Patrick Taylor, interpretation and education program manager for RNSP. “There are also a few trails from this overlook if you want to get some exercise or a different perspective on the area.”
Take a scenic drive: For breathtaking views without even getting out of your car, drive along the paved 10-mile Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. It begins at Highway 101, 6 miles north of the small southern town of Orick, traveling through old-growth stands in the Prairie Creek park, passing the Big Tree Wayside and a herd of resident Roosevelt elk.
In the north, about a mile south of Crescent City along 101, turn left on Elk Valley Road and in about a mile turn right onto unpaved Howland Hill Road to commence the 10-mile one-way drive through Jedediah Smith park. Towering trees dwarf passing cars, and numerous turnouts offer opportunities to stop among them, smell their earthy scent and touch their damp bark.
Hike amid the tall trees: A walk in the woods doesn’t get better than in RNSP, and there are 200 miles of hiking trails, including many suitable for all fitness levels and several that are ADA-compliant. The accessible 2½-mile Karl Knapp Trail in Prairie Creek park follows the creek amid soaring redwoods. “In a relatively short distance, the trail loops hikers into some of the most pristine old-growth redwoods in the area,” Taylor says. “The mostly flat trail makes it inviting to hikers of most ability levels.”
Nearby, take a scenic drive from 101 on Bald Hills Road to reach Lady Bird Johnson Grove in the national park. On its 1.5-mile loop trail, wander among second-growth Douglas firs that give way to stolid old-growth redwoods, a piney-to-earthy olfactory passage. Download the free National Park Service App to access a digital tour of the plants and trail history. For something more challenging in the national park, hike Tall Trees Grove, a rugged, 4½-mile round trip with 1,600 feet in elevation change among trees topping out above 350 feet. You’ll need a permit (free but limited and available online only) for this trail.
Enjoy an accessible park. Besides the Karl Knapp Trail, RNSP has six ADA-accessible trails. Ranger-led programs use multisensory learning styles, including activities involving tactile objects such as feathers and listening to animal calls. Programs vary, but some rangers have invited visitors to walk shoeless to experience nature through feel. Visitor center videos have open captions for those with limited hearing. There are also pelts and replica skulls used to identify animals in the parks and maps in braille and audio-described versions for the visually impaired.
The parks’ major points of entry hug the coast from Eureka in the south to Crescent City in the north.
The seat of Humboldt County, Eureka (population about 27,000) is the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, notable for its Victorian architecture and 6-mile-long Eureka Waterfront Trail along Humboldt Bay, ideal for birdwatching. Each August, the town’s weeklong Eureka Street Art Festival redecorates downtown and historic Old Town with more than 100 murals and other installations, creating an outdoor gallery. Shop for souvenirs, crafts and one-of-a-kind finds in locally owned bookstores and gift shops. Lodging options range from the 1888-vintage Historic Eagle House, now housing the moderately priced 23-room Inn at 2nd & C (updated with an elevator), to vacation rentals and chain motels. Savor wood-fired Humboldt Bay oysters and pizzas at Brick & Fire bistro.
On the north end of Humboldt Bay in Arcata, a colorful college town 6 miles from Eureka, there’s more birding at the 307-acre Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary, with 5 miles of flat walking and biking paths. More than 300 bird species have been spotted at the coastal preserve. Free 90-minute guided walks kick off every Saturday at 2 p.m. (rain or shine) from the Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center.
Reserve a room at the moderately priced Hotel Arcata, established in 1915 (all rooms feature claw-foot bathtubs with showers, which may not be accessible to all guests), to explore beaches and parks. Don’t miss Sue-meg State Park, home to coastal redwoods and offshore sea stacks (rocks that look like tall stone towers). Spring for local seafood at the stylish Salt Fish House.
Sixteen miles north of Arcata, stop in tiny Trinidad for shore walks and a small history museum.
In northern Del Norte County, base yourself in Crescent City for easy access to tide-pooling, whale-watching and tours of the 1856-vintage Battery Point Lighthouse. The level, paved, 6-mile Crescent City Harbor Trail strings together South Beach (search for sand dollars), sea lion perches, restaurants (try the fish tacos at Crescent Seafood) and Ocean World aquarium. Stay at the affordable 35-room Curly Redwood Lodge, a retro motel built from one redwood tree (all rooms are on the ground floor), or drive about 20 miles south to the mouth of the Klamath River to check into one of the 15 budget-friendly garden- or river-view rooms at the 1914-vintage Requa Inn (note that most rooms are on the second floor and the inn has no elevator).
From San Francisco, catch scenic views of the vineyards along 101 in Sonoma wine country. In Healdsburg, stop at Little Saint to pick up grain bowls and local cheeses for picnics.
Pushing on, swing 86 miles northwest along State Route 128 to Mendocino, the bohemian resort town perched on a Pacific bluff. Stroll the 47-acre Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens to learn about coastal plants and see 120 dahlia varieties.
Continue along the coast north through Fort Bragg, stopping at Glass Beach, where wave action has polished glass refuse into a gem-studded strand. The route rejoins 101 at inland Leggett, home to the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree, where you can pilot your car through a tunnel in a 315-foot-tall, 2,400-year-old redwood.
At Humboldt Redwoods State Park, about 42 miles north of Leggett, take the highway-paralleling Avenue of the Giants for a 31-mile drive through a grand forest.
It’s a roughly 13-mile detour west of 101 to reach Ferndale, a well-preserved Victorian town where the Main Street Historic District is enshrined on the National Register of Historic Places. Grab a cone from Cat Shack Ice Cream or a hot dog from Red Front Store, and tour the town’s pedestrian-friendly streets.
From Redding in the east, mountainous State Route 299 (a.k.a. the Trinity River National Scenic Highway) meets northbound State Route 96 (a.k.a. Bigfoot Scenic Highway) at Willow Creek. Stop for a latte at Osprey Café, and check out the Bigfoot artifacts at Willow Creek-China Flat Museum, landmarked by a 25-foot-tall redwood sculpture of the fabled wild man.
Crater Lake National Park preserves a roughly 2,000-foot-deep volcanic caldera 172 miles northeast of Crescent City. Roughly 70 miles northeast of Crescent City, tour the marble caves naturally polished by seeping water at Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve.
Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column for The New York Times and is a national parks enthusiast based in Chicago.