It’s easy to become overwhelmed during a visit to Redwood National Park, what with all of the big trees and prehistoric landscapes and wildlife and even bigger trees and big elk and….you get the point. Seeing that the Park has so much to offer, you can imagine how hard it is to fit everything the park has to offer in a 3 day trip, or even a 5 day excursion. Well, that’s why we’re here. Whether you are just driving through the northern California coastal park on your way from Portland to San Francisco and just want a half-day hike to get out of the car and stretch your legs or if you have 4 nights to relax among the world’s tallest trees, this guide should serve a helpful tool on your trip to Redwood National Park, one of the best National Parks in the country. Enjoy the trees! And, don’t worry, it’s normal; everyone who visits the park gets a sore neck.
About the Trees
Ah, the trees (gazes out to the window northwards). As it is widely (and often) reported, the Coast Redwood (scientific name: sequoia sempervirens) is the tallest species of plant in the world. From a seed no bigger than a tomato, the California Coast Redwood can grow to staggering proportions: heights as tall as 379 feet and girths as wide as 22. Think about it….Ok, now that you’ve begun to truly realize the size of the trees you now have an understanding for all of the hubhub surrounding the living skyscrapers. Now we can continue…Scientists claim that the trees (or very close relatives) have been thriving along the coast for over 160 million years, since the Jurassic Era. The Redwoods are very particular; they require a continually damp, moderate climate to thrive and grow, which is exactly why they only grow on a relatively thin band along the coast. The more fog, the better. It’s widely thought that the trees once made up an endless, thick band from Central California all the way up to Oregon. Now, due to centuries of logging (the industrial revolution!), the trees are relegated to random splotches up the California coast, from the latitude of Big Sur to just across the Oregon border in the north. In other words, out of the 2 million acres of old-growth Redwoods that once guarded the coast, only 85,000 acres survive. (Redwood National Park holds almost 40,000 of those acres.)
So, why do they grow so tall? No one really knows yet, but they’re working on it. We do know, however:
Redwood trees can live for over 2,000 years, and most live for around 600. That’s no bristlecone pine, but it’s close. They have natural resilience against both insects and fire, two natural items that usually do weaker trees in. Even if a redwood tree is hollowed out by flame, the outer bark thrives on, keeping the tree alive. Wind is what brings the redwoods down. As tall as the bark grows, the redwood roots only go down 10-13 feet into the soil. To call the giants top-heavy would be an understatement. To secure themselves, the trees spread their roots 60-80 feet out around in all directions. The roots, interacting with the roots of neighboring redwoods, form a densely woven matt to secure the forests’ upright standing.
About the Park
It’s actually more than one park. Within Redwood National Park are Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. All three state parks are their own parks, yet they all fall under the umbrella of Redwood National. Confused? I still am too. Suffice it to say; the history of Redwood National Park is a bit convoluted. But, I’ll try. In the 1920s the Save-the-Redwoods League (can you guess what their mission was?), fought successfully for the establishment of Prairie Creek, Del Norte Coast and Jedediah Smith. The land around the three parks was targeted for conservation but the war effort, and the subsequent need for wood, promoted the purpose of logging above all others. It wasn’t until the 1960s when the Save-the-Redwoods League, the Sierra Club, and the National Geographic Society all teamed up to lobby Congress heavily for the creation of a National Park for the redwoods. Finally, in 1968 President Lyndon Johnson created Redwood National Park. In 1994, after multiple expansions to the national park, the parks were combined for administrative purposes. I have no idea how the combination of state and national parks increases administrative efficiency, but it’s all one big happy family now.
Whether you’re in the park for a day or a week, these are the spots that you have to visit:
Fern Canyon: The name speaks for itself. In the park, close to the Pacific Ocean, lies a canyon with walls 50-80 feet high, completely covered in ferns. It’s a hard site to imagine, but just think Jurassic Park 2 (they filmed a portion of the movie here). The area is accessible two ways: by hike or by car. If you decide to hike, be prepared for a decent exercise: it’s about 10 miles roundtrip from the Visitor’s Center, at Elk Prairie, which is on the Newton Drury Scenic Parkway about 3 miles north of Orick. For many the trail, named James Irvine, is among the best in the United States. The trees reach a diameter of 18 feet as you walk from the heart of the park to the sea. If you drive, it’s….quick. In about 30 minutes you can get from the 101 Highway to the Gold Bluffs Beach parking lot; just take the Elk Meadow Parking lot exit and follow the signs. From Gold Bluffs, it’s only a ½ mile to Fern Canyon. It’s still not a short trip though- you’ll spend at least an hour wandering around the canyon.
The Cathedral Trees Trail: Located right off the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway is one of the best trails in the park. That means you can access the trail, and some of the best trees in the park, without straying very far from your car. Access the trail by taking the Elk Prairie trail away and east from the Visitor Center. The groves along Cathedral Trees, which account for a relatively large number of the world’s densest redwoods, are unbelievably striking. The trail is also great for kids as there are tons of berry bushes lining the walkway.
The Brown Creek Loop: Though it doesn’t rival the trees on the Cathedral Trees Trail or the Prairie Creek trail, the Brown Creek trail is the redwood forest at its best. The trees are huge, the fauna is wonderful and, best of all you hear almost no foreign noise. It’s one of the quietest trails I’ve ever been on and it’s within a stone’s throw from Drury Scenic Parkway. Though it’s relatively short (3.5 miles), prepare for a decent hike. The trail, which is a combination of the Brown Creek Trail, Rhododendron trail and South Fork trail, is rough and you’ll have to do a little climbing. The trailhead is right off the Drury parkway. After the Visitor Center and the Big Tree wayside, park at the second pullout on the right. The trail will be well marked and it’s ok to park on the side of the road.
Perfect Trips For For An Extended Stay
The Redwood Creek Trail to the Tall Trees Grove: The Tall Trees Grove might be the best-known grove in the entire Redwood National and State Park system. It’s the location of the Libbey Tree, once known as the tallest living thing. Some of the world’s top 10 tallest trees are also in the Grove (though their locations are secret) and the world’s tallest tree, Hyperion (at 379.1), claims a spot somewhere above the banks of Redwood Creek. To add to it all, the Tall Trees Grove is the hardest popular destination to reach in Redwood National Park- you’ve got to really make an effort to get there. It’s at least a 6-mile hike and at most an overnight trip.
There are two ways to experience the Redwood Creek and the Tall Trees Grove. The first is the one I would recommend: Park at the first trailhead at Redwood Creek, then hike the entire 8 miles on the Redwood Creek Trail, which runs along the banks of the, you guessed it, Redwood Creek. Feel free to wander off the trail; I like to walk the majority of the trail on the sandbars of the creek instead of amongst the trees, thereby getting an outside view of the redwoods hugging the banks of the creek (as well as some sun). I cannot successfully explain the scenery- it’s exactly what every redwood forest lover imagines. After you’ve made it to Tall Trees, you can set up camp in the Redwood Creek riverbed for a serene overnight stay in one of the quietest places in the park (in order to stay overnight you have to get a permit at the Kuchel Visitor Center). After a night among the redwoods, take your time making the 8 mile trek back to your car and enjoy the sounds of silence. The other way to get to Tall Trees is markedly easier. First, you’ll have to get a parking permit at the Kuchel Visitor Center (the closer lot has a car limit in order to protect the grove from overuse). Drive your car up Bald Hills Rd. past the Lady Bird Johnson Grove to the turnoff for the C-line road. The next 6 miles will be on a bumpy dirt road so, don’t worry, you’re in the right place (the trek from the Visitor Center to the trailhead is about an hour). Once you park, it’s a 1.3-mile hike to Tall Trees (4 miles round trip, taking in to account the Tall Trees loop). Don’t get too cocky with the relatively short hike though- the elevation changes are decent.
Even though this trip seems long and out of the way, I can promise that it is easily worth it. I’m well aware that this is my opinion, and may be mine alone, but this is the most rewarding trip in the park- for its diverse scenery, its flora, its elk meadow and, most important of all, its tall trees.
Anywhere In Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park: Of course, the entire park could be listed as a “can’t miss”, but since it’s out of the way from the heart of the park- Prairie Creek State Park- I’ve included it as a spot for those who stay longer than 2 hours. According to many redwood fanatics, Jedediah Smith is the best redwood park in the world. There is no other competition. It’s unbelievably scenic and, to many, it’s the least spoiled and least touched redwood park in the world. The park is relatively undeveloped, as most of the park isn’t served by any trail at all. For all the gorgeous, undisturbed scenery, most of it goes unnoticed: Jedediah Smith has some of the largest (by volume) redwoods in the world. Located within the park (with the locations being secret) are: the Lost Monarch, the world’s largest known redwood; the Del Norte Titan, which used to be; the El Viejo del Norte; and, of course, the famed Grove of Titans (which includes the Screaming Titans).
Unlike other popular (and great) redwood parks, the Jedediah Smith Park isn’t along a major road- you have to turn onto Humboldt Road, continue through a residential area until it dead ends at Howland Hill Rd., turn right, continue along the dirt road until you enter the park. All you need to know is that it’s off a dirt road.
Where to Stay
There are tons of places to stay in Eureka and Arcata, but save ‘em. You want to stay amongst the trees; you want to wake up to the sight of redwoods. There are more campgrounds and lodging in the area, but these are my recommendations:
The Smith River Campground at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park: You can sleep in an untouched redwood forest along the banks of the Smith River. Enough said. Ok, I’ll say a little more. The entrance is right off Rt. 199, north of Del Norte Redwoods State Park and south of Oregon. To reserve a campsite (which, I think, is a must), call 1.800.444.7275 or visit the Jedediah Smith Reserve America page to do it online.
The Elk Meadow Cabins: I know you’re probably thinking, “Why these cabins over the hotel down the road?” Well, even though the cabins are on private land, they are completely surrounded on all sides by Redwood National Park. Seriously. The cabins are smack dab right in the heart of the park and, best of all, Elk Meadow is directly in the backyard of the cabins. You don’t even have to leave your porch to get a glimpse of one of the area’s Roosevelt Elk herds- a site to see, especially during rutting season. You can easily walk or bike (the company rents out bikes) to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park or you can easily drive to any of the other trails listed above.
In total, there are six 1,200 square foot cabins- each is newly renovated with 3 bedrooms (and 4 beds), 2 bathrooms, a full kitchen, a full living room and a deck for elk watching and/or just relaxing. That means you can house, at the very least, 10 people in each cabin. During peak season (from May 15-September 6) the cabins run at $229/night. During the winter they run at $199. To reserve a cabin, visit the Redwood Adventures site.
Gold Bluffs Beach Campground: If you want to camp on the coast you’ll have to take a chance- the Gold Bluffs campground is first-come, first-served only. In my opinion, it’s completely worth it. It might be a bit windy or a bit foggy, but how often do you get to stay on the beach in a National Park? It’s located about 3 miles north of Orick. Take the exit for the Elk Meadow parking lot and follow the signs to Gold Bluffs Beach.
Wildife Among the Tall Trees
Of course, I recognize that there are those who are just along for the ride. You might not be that interested in tall trees (shame on you! Just kidding…), but your significant other/child/parent might be. Good news for you, the Redwood National and State Park system is teeming with a diverse collection of wildlife, including a handful of endangered/threatened species.
Roosevelt Elk: As you drive into the park there is a good chance you’ll spot a herd along the road. There are multiple herds that roam around the park, all south of the Klamath River. You’ll have the best chance of seeing the large mammals if you hang around Elk Meadow, Elk Prairie and Redwood Creek. If you are up in the park in the fall, you’ll get a chance to see a natural spectacle, the elk-rutting season. During a period of 4-5 weeks, the dominant males will bugle, rut and fight to obtain respect and supreme status among the herd.
Marbled Murrelet: My favorite threatened species in the redwood forest, the marbled murrelet is a small, long-billed bird that nests on the branches of Coastal Redwoods, Sitka Spruces and Douglas Firs (among others). I’m not happy that it’s threatened if that’s how it sounded. Anyway, so cute.
Bald Eagle: You know the deal. America.
Northern Spotted Owl: If you see one, you are one lucky ______. Like others on the list, the Endangered Species Act protects the owl. It’s estimated that there are only 3,000 to 5,000 left in the world. Hence, the reason you are so lucky if you see one.