They're cousins in the ultimate family tree: California's noble giant sequoia and the towering coast redwood.
When you think of remarkable places to visit, you probably don't think about plants. But two spectacular (and related) trees inhabit particularly beautiful stretches of California, and seeing these trees is on many a traveler's bucket list. They're the staggeringly big members of the Sequoia family: the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), tallest living thing on earth, and the giant sequoia (Sequoia giganteum), the world's most massive tree.
Enormous, ancient, resistant to fires and disease, coast redwood and giant sequoia trees can survive for thousands of years. But they both have one deadly enemy: the saw blade. Almost wiped out by logging in the 19th and 20th centuries, these magnificent conifer cousins are now protected in must-see preserves. Here, listed north to south, are some of the premier parks for visiting these towering trees in never-logged "old-growth" groves. But consider this list merely a teaser-find your own secret groves statewide with an interactive map of redwood and sequoia parks from Save the Redwoods League .
COAST REDWOOD PARKS
Redwoods National & State Parks
Welcome to the Sistine Chapel of the plant world. This remarkable complex of state and federal preserves, a World Heritage Site, protects some of the world's tallest trees-and they're still growing. Stands here are particularly lush with ferns and moss, thanks to rainfall often totaling up to 80 inches a year. INFO nps.gov/redw
- Watch herds of Roosevelt elk. Look for these impressive beasts grazing at Elk Meadow and in the dunes at Gold Bluffs Beach.
- Walk into beauty. Choose from more than 200 miles of trails, including the new 3-mile Berry Glen Trail, and the spectacular Fern Canyon Trail, with 30-foot walls cloaked in green fronds.
- Pedal and paddle. Take a guided mountain bike ride with Redwood Adventures or paddle a river with Kayak Zak's .
- Giddyup in the redwoods. Ride a horse right into Goose Pen tree, naturally hollowed by fire, with Redwood Creek Buckarettes .
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
This 53,000-acre park, somewhat drier and more open than the moss-and-fern-blanketed preserves to the north, protects amazing trees (heights of over 300 feet are common). INFO parks.ca.gov/?page_id=425
- Drive Avenue of the Giants . If you ever needed a reason to splurge on a convertible, this is it. Lined with soaring coast redwoods, this 32-mile roadway is one of the world's great drives.
- Walk into history. Visit Founders Grove, honoring the founders of Save the Redwoods League, which spearheaded efforts to save the trees in the early 1900s.
- Hike unforgettable Bull Creek Trail. This gently undulating path accesses 17,000-acre Rockefeller Forest, the largest old-growth redwood stand in the world. The 7½-mile loop starts and ends at Bull Creek Flats, with some of the biggest trees within the first ½-mile (limited access in winter).
Muir Woods National Monument
With San Francisco less than 20 miles south, this pocket-size preserve tucked into a cleft of Mount Tamalpais ("Mount Tam" to locals) sees 750,000 visitors a year, the bulk of them in summer. But walk beyond the more crowded paths by the entrance to discover extraordinary silence among soaring redwoods. Summer weekends and holidays, a shuttle from Mill Valley dodges parking woes. INFO nps.gov/muwo
- A little night magic. Be here at dusk to see raccoons, deer, owls, and other nocturnal animals emerge (check park website for special ranger-led evening tours).
- Hike Mount Tam . This local favorite, protected as state parkland, has a massive trail network, some routes dipping into Muir Woods.
- Take a tour. A visit to the park is often included in guided driving tours of the region; check itineraries for details-and linger as long as you can. For tour companies, contact the Marin County Convention & Visitor's Bureau of San Francisco Travel .
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
California's first state park boasts an impressive stand of old-growth redwoods. The roughly 18,000-acre park is especially popular for summer camping-why not when you can play on Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk by day, sleep under enormous trees by night? INFO parks.ca.gov/?page_id=540
- Sing around the campfire Summertime brings special campfire programs organized by docent volunteers. bigbasin.org
- Find a bargain Hike Skyline to the Sea Trail to visit the original homestead site of settler Tom Maddock who nabbed 160 acres for $7.50 in 1882.
- Anyone can roll Stroller- and wheelchair-accessible Redwood Loop Trail winds a ½-mile through the ancient redwood environment.
GIANT SEQUOIA PARKS
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Stumbled upon in 1852 by a hunter tracking a wounded grizzly bear, this park includes handsome stands of sequoia and other conifers, and is sliced by the lively Stanislaus River. INFO parks.ca.gov/?page_id=551
- Swing south. Easy-access North Grove gets the most attention (and visitors) but for solitude amongst the giants, make the extra effort to hike the 5-mile South Grove Trail .
- Catch the spring show. Try to visit in May, when saucer-size, cream-colored blooms, suspended on otherwise bare branches of native dogwood trees, float like doves among the massive sequoia trunks.
- Throw snowballs. The park, open in winter, maintains two trails and a warming hut for hardy snowshoers and cross-country skiers.
Yosemite National Park
Honest Abe himself signed the bill that set aside this park's signature Mariposa Grove, along with Yosemite Valley, nearly 150 years ago. There are three significant groves in the park, but Mariposa, accessed by the park's South Entrance, is by far the biggest with some 500 giant trees. INFO nps.gov/yose
- Find winter solitude. Though the 2-mile road to Mariposa Grove closes in winter, you can still get to the grove-on skis or snowshoes-for the ultimate private tour.
- Ride up, hike down. Take Mariposa's audio tram tour up to the top of the grove, then consider bailing on the return trip back to walk down on your own and wind among the giants.
- Get pampered. Relax tired hiking muscles at the new spa at Tenaya Lodge , just south of Mariposa Grove.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
This impressive combo park showcases some of the biggest wow moments you'll ever experience in nature: a chance to look up at the largest living trees on the planet. In summer's peak months, catch the shuttle from nearby Visalia to save on gas and parking hassles. INFO nps.gov/seki
- Deck the halls. In Kings Canyon, Grant Grove includes the General Grant Tree, officially "The Nation's Christmas Tree." You'd need lots of tinsel to decorate its boughs: it's 268 feet tall and 107 feet around.
- Size matters. The 2,100-year-old General Sherman Tree, in Sequoia's Giant Forest, is the largest (by volume) tree on Earth, weighing in at an estimated 1,385 tons.
- Drive-through log. On Crescent Meadow Road in Giant Forest, a tunnel was burrowed through the fallen Tunnel Log. But beware: big SUVs and motor homes have to take the bypass.
THE BIG DIFFERENCE - FACTS ABOUT REALLY BIG TREES
Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)
o Tallest tree in the world
o Thick, deeply grooved, brown/gray bark (wood inside is red)
o Width up to 22 feet
o Height up to 367.8 feet
o Thrives along the California coast (Big Sur to Oregon border)
o Cone the size of an olive (can also grow from sprouts)
o Can live up to 2,000 years
Giant Sequoia (Sequoia giganteum)
o Largest living tree
o Massive cinnamon-red trunk and branches
o Width up to 40 feet
o Height up to more than 274 feet
o Grows on west slope of the Sierra from 5,000-8,000-ft elevation
o Cone the size of a chicken egg
o Can live more than 2,000 years
Photos by Tai Power Seeff and Harriot Manley/Sunset Publishing