I take an annual pilgrimage up Highway 101 to revisit one of my favorite places to be on the planet: Redwood National and State Parks California. The state of 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 2022 the year you finally dust off your binoculars, lace up your boots, book a hotel room, and take the scenic drive up 101 to the Land of the Giants.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Emma Watson via Unsplash
There are three major routes to the Redwood Coast: Highways 101, 199, and 299. Highway 101 is arguably the most common way to make the journey. If you’re driving from Redding or the San Francisco Bay Area, you’ll want to stop at the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center near Orick to chat with the rangers and stock up on maps and info about the national and state parks in the region.
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 also includes July and August). Fall is the warmest, and relatively sunniest time of all. On a brighter note, you won’t ever freeze, as the average annual temperature along the Redwood Coast ranges from a low of 42° F to 63° F.
Where to Stay
Redwood National and State Parks California stretches along Highway 101 all the way from northern Mendocino County, through Humboldt County and then even farther north to the Crescent City area in Del Norte County. 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.
Carter House Inns consists of a handful of Victorians in downtown Eureka. Humboldt Bay Social Club in Samoa, features four hotel rooms in a former WWII blimp base, in addition to four vacation rental cabins.
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 Loop Trail leads through an unbelievably lush grotto of ferns clinging to
50-foot-high canyon walls. Permits are required in the summer, from May 1st to September 30th. The permit is free and easy to reserve online, but you need to be organized and plan ahead.
Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail is an easy walk that loops 1 mile around a lush grove of mature redwoods. Closer to shore is the Yurok Loop Trail, a mile-long trail that gradually climbs to the top of rugged sea bluff. (There are no redwoods, but there are wonderful panoramic views of the Pacific.)
If you make the trek as far north as Crescent City, the Boy Scout Tree Trail, is a moderate, nearly six-mile round-trip trail through a lush, cool, damp forest brimming with giant ferns and majestic redwoods. Plan on a half-day to do this hike.
The often talked about Tall Trees Grove, takes planning and significant effort to explore. A maximum of 50 parties can visit each day; visitors can apply online for a free permit.
A number of scenic drives cut through California’s redwood region. The Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway offer a 10-mile scenic alternative to Highway 101, passing through dazzling groves of redwoods and elk-filled meadows.
Another spectacular route is the Coastal Drive, which offers grand views of the Pacific. However, the route is prone to landslides, so be sure to check if there are any closures before making the trip. But the most amazing car-friendly trail in all of the Redwood National and State Parks is Howland Hill Road, which winds for about 10 miles through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. It’s an unforgettable journey through an unbelievably spectacular old-growth redwood forest.
One of the most striking aspects of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is its herd of Roosevelt elk. These gigantic beasts can weigh 1,000 pounds. It’s an incredible rush to suddenly come upon them out of the fog or after a turn in the trail, but remember elk are wild animals and can be unpredictable. Always observe them at a safe distance.
High coastal overlooks (like Klamath River Overlook, the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center, Gold Bluffs Beach, and the Crescent Beach Overlook) make great whale-watching outposts. November through December, and March through April, is peak season, though there’s a resident population at the Klamath River Overlook.