In far northwestern California, near Crescent City, Redwood National and State Parks protects the tallest trees found anywhere on earth. This cooperatively managed park interweaves parcels of Redwood National Park with three state parks: Jedidiah Smith, Del Norte Coast, and Prairie Creek. The result is 217 square miles of towering old growth redwood forest, rugged coastline, and Coast Range mountains.
Stretching about fifty miles north to south, mostly along the Highway 101 corridor, the park is best known for its scenic drives. Other popular activities include hiking on over 200 miles of trails. Camping in the California redwoods park is possible at four campgrounds located in the state parks. Despite the widespread popularity of these giant redwood trees of California, the park only receives an estimated half million visitors every year. There are no entrance stations or entry fees for the national park areas, but the state parks do charge entrance fees to access certain areas, like developed campgrounds and beaches. There are three NPS visitor centers and one summer information center, two each at either end of the park.
You can visit Redwood NSP any time of year, but the two main seasons—a wet fall, winter, and early spring, and a dry late-spring and summer—each have particular conditions to prepare for. Due to ocean influence, year-round temperatures typically fall between the mid-40s and mid-60s. Winter sees the cooler end of that temperature range, plus the wet season from October through April, when about 60-80 inches of rain fall throughout the region. During that time, many trails may be too muddy for hiking.
Summer season, from roughly May through September, sees a warmer temperature range and almost no rain due to a high-pressure blocking system. Coastal areas often see fog during summer, with conditions sometimes quite dense and cold, while inland areas are sunnier and warmer. While some areas may be muddy year-round due to drip moisture from fog, trails are generally drier and more accessible during summer season. For these reasons, visitation peaks from June through September.
Redwoods of California
Many national park enthusiasts have heard about these magnificent trees, but they often have further questions about the redwoods height and where in California are the redwoods? The redwood tree, also called the coast redwood or California redwood, historically occupies a narrow strip of land stretching about 500 miles along the Pacific coast of the U.S. Found from roughly Big Sur in California to the Chetco River in southwestern Oregon, redwood groves can extend inland up to about five to fifty miles at most, typically at elevations up to 3000 feet.
It is estimated that, at one time, old-growth redwood forest covered about 3,125 square miles of coastal northern California. However, over 95% of all old-growth redwoods have since been logged. Of those that remain, about half are protected by Redwoods National Parks and State Parks.
The tallest redwoods are typically over 370 feet in height, over sixty feet taller than the Statue of Liberty! Finding the exact tallest specimen is tricky because of challenges associated with surveying and measuring each tree. Currently, the worlds tallest tree on Earth is believed to be one of these redwoods, named Hyperion, at 379 feet tall, located in a remote part of the park that’s kept secret to protect the tree.
When it comes to age, the redwoods of California are also some of the oldest living organisms on Earth. The average lifespan of a coast redwood is about 500 to 700 years, but some individuals have been documented to be over 2,000 years old. The coast redwood is closely related to the giant Sequoia, the largest tree in the world by volume. Giant sequoias are most commonly found inland on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, particularly around Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. Another NPS unit with impressive redwoods is Muir Woods National Monument.
Scenic Drives & Short Walks
Most visitors will pass through the park on a one-day visit, during which they will detour onto one of the four main scenic drives, making short stops for easy walks through redwood groves. One favorite is the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, a paved two-lane road that runs for ten miles through the heart of an old-growth redwood forest. The parkway parallels US-101 from Exit 753 to Exit 765, offering access to Prairie Creek Visitor Center and numerous trailheads, including Big Tree Wayside, with its mellow paths to massive redwoods.
Bald Hills Road is a mostly paved two-lane road that heads inland along the southeastern edge of Redwood National Park. Note that the final four miles of this 17-mile road are unpaved, and vehicles must return how they came. Due to steep mountain grades, RVs and trailers are not advised. This road accesses some of the best scenery in the park. Redwood Creek Overlook offers views of the picturesque drainage and toward the Pacific Ocean. The road also gives visitors a chance to spot seasonal wildflowers and wildlife like elk and black bears. Short hikes include the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail, a moderate 1.5-mile loop that leads to the historic site of the park’s 1968 dedication ceremony.
Another popular scenic drive is the mostly unpaved Howland Hill Road (RVs and trailers not advised), which runs for ten miles through the old-growth redwoods of Jedidiah Smith State Park. Along the way, there are numerous pullouts and trailheads. One option to stretch your legs is Stout Grove, an easy half-mile loop trail meandering through 300-foot-tall redwoods growing amid the floodplain of the Smith River.
The Coastal Drive Loop is perhaps the most challenging scenic drive, especially during foggy conditions given the steep grades and sharp curves. Located near the mouth of the Klamath River, RVs and trailers are prohibited on this 9-mile route. The 1.5-mile portion of the loop along the coast is unpaved and only one-way northbound traffic is allowed, meaning the suggested direction to drive the entire loop is clockwise. For your efforts, the rewards include panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and Klamath River estuary, chances to spot marine wildlife like whales and sea lions, an opportunity to explore a World War II radar station, and access to two sections of the strenuous Coastal Trail, discussed below.
Longer Hikes in Redwood NSP
Adventurous explorers with more time to spend at the park may want to consider a longer half-day or full-day hike. One easy-to-moderate option is the Karl Knapp Trail (formerly the Prairie Creek Trail), a flat 2.5-mile loop along a scenic creek through an old-growth redwood forest. The trailhead is located at Prairie Creek Visitor Center. Due to the popularity, arrive early to find parking during the summer.
Another option departing from the Prarie Creek Visitor Center is the James Irvine Trail, a moderate 9-mile round-trip hike to the beautiful Fern Canyon. Made famous as a filming location for Jurrasic Park: The Lost World, and other dinosaur-related productions, Fern Canyon has become overcrowded in recent years, causing the park to limit visitors. While hiking the James Irvine Trail to Fern Canyon does not require a permit, starting in 2022 driving to the Fern Canyon Trailhead (plus 1-mile hike), from May through September, will require obtaining a permit reservation in advance.
One of the most famous hikes in the park leads to the Tall Trees Grove. Advance planning is necessary since only fifty parties are allowed to visit the grove each day. Prior to your hike, you must apply online for a permit, at least 24 hours in advance and up to 180 days ahead of time. Vehicle access to the trailhead requires driving seven miles on a winding dirt road from Bald Hills Road. This rugged backcountry hike is 4.5 miles total, out-and-back, with 1600 feet of elevation change, involving a descent to the stunning grove at the bottom of the Redwood Creek drainage.
Another popular hike is the Redwood Creek Trail, with the trailhead located a few miles off US-101 near the town of Orick. This 15.5-mile out-and-back trail is typically hiked part ways as a day hike or in full on multiday backpacking trips (permit required for backcountry camping). While the trail is remarkably scenic, note that redwoods typically do not grow along the creek bottom but can be seen at a distance, further up the hillsides. Backpacking to the end of the trail allows access to the Tall Trees Grove.
Located on the unpaved Howland Hill Road through Jedidiah Smith State Park, a permit-free option is the Boy Scout Tree Trail. This out-and-back hike is 5.6 miles total, with about 750 feet in elevation gain, passing through fern-covered slopes and pristine old-growth forest. Along the way, the trail passes the Boy Scout Tree, a giant double-trunked redwood that resembles the two-fingered boy scout salute, before ending at Fern Falls.
For a rugged change of scenery, consider hiking a section of the Coastal Trail. Seventy miles of this long-distance trail passes through Redwood NSP. One favorite part is the Klamath Section, which runs for 5.5 miles, one-way between two trailheads: Wilson Creek Picnic Area off US-101 and Klamath River Overlook on Requa Road. On this section you can access Hidden Beach via a spur trail and visit the famous Klamath River Overlook, at the southern end, which offers views of the mouth of the Klamath River where it enters the Pacific Ocean.
Of course, there’s more to see and do in the Northern California Redwoods National Park. Some people wonder about zip-lining redwoods adventures or about having their wedding in the redwoods. These activities mostly happen outside the national and state parks, and a great source for information is the Humboldt County Visitor’s Bureau at www.visitredwoods.com.
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Cover photo: Yaya Ernst/Adobe