Hugging California's northwestern edge, a spectacular network of parks protecting nearly half of the world’s coast redwoods, the world’s tallest living things, which grow over 350 feet/107 meters high. But there’s more than giant trees in this lush land. Here, majestic (and big) Roosevelt elk graze in grassy prairies. Wild beaches are dotted with weathered driftwood, not a footprint in sight, and rivers tumble into the sea. Three state parks—Jedediah Smith, Del Norte (pronounced “del nort”) Coast, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park—work in consort with Redwood National Park to protect the region, and all offer a remarkable number of ways to explore, learn, and discover.
"Wild beaches are dotted with weathered driftwood, not a footprint in site, and rivers tumble into the sea."
Remember that all that green is here for a reason: annual rainfall, which normally falls from October through April, averages 60 to 80 inches/152 to 203 centimeters, so bring raingear and sturdy, nonslip shoes.
Even if you’re a pro basketball player, you can’t help feeling downright puny in this stunning preserve, where soaring redwoods line up like living skyscrapers. Start your trip at the excellent Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center, one mile south of Orick. Of the five visitor centers in Redwood National and State Parks, this one is the largest, with numerous exhibits and a video on redwood ecology, a great bookstore, and access to a sandy beach. Next, do a little driving. Start 5 miles/8 kilometers north of the small hamlet of Klamath at the Klamath River Overlook, where the freshwater river meets the Pacific Ocean at a huge estuary. Perched 650 feet/198 meters above the sea, this overlook point is a prime spot for watching migrating gray whales (best time is December to April). Be sure to walk the short and easy path to the lower overlook for dramatic views of crashing surf. Then head south to cruise the Coastal Drive (great for mountain biking too). This 9-mile/13-km-long road follows the coastline, passing a radar station that was camouflaged to look like a farmhouse and barn during World War II.
Stop at the picnic area at High Bluff Overlook, then scan the sea for whales, sea lions, brown pelicans, and, in spring and summer, thousands of seabirds nesting on offshore rocks. If you want to put some miles on your hiking boots, the Klamath area features a lovely coastal walk, the Yurok Loop, which visits pristine Hidden Beach (1 mile/2 kilometers round-trip). Or, for an easy stroll beneath towering redwoods, walk the 1-mile/2-km Lady Bird Johnson Grove loop.
Visiting this 14,000-acre/5,666-hectare park is like walking through a portal into a world where everything is giant and green—a rainforest where ferns arc over mossy trails in a dappled world of light and shadow. Start with a hike among the ancient redwoods on the 3.2-mile/5.1-km Prairie Creek and Cathedral Tree loop, which begins at Prairie Creek Redwoods’ visitor center. From your first steps, “lush” is the operative word.
"Visiting this park is like walking through a portal into a world where everything is giant and green."
Moss covers rocks, lichens hang from branches, clover-like redwood sorrel carpets the ground, and trees grow to gargantuan size. Be suitably awed and humbled, then step out of the bowers and head over to Elk Prairie, a grassy, golden meadow where you’ve got a great chance of seeing Roosevelt elk. These regal beasts are California’s largest land animals, weighing up to 1,100 pounds. Although they seem docile as they languidly munch on grass, it’s wise to give them some space, especially big males during the autumn rut. While at Elk Prairie, consider a walk on Trillium Falls Trail, a 2.5-mile/4-km loop through ancient redwoods.
Next, go for a drive. The paved, 10-mile/16-km Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, the scenic alternative to Highway 101, winds past silent groves that reach for the sky. Pull over for a quick walk to the aptly named Big Tree, and watch for more wild elk herds.
For the more adventurous driver, the unpaved Davison Road travels to Gold Bluffs Beach, a 10-mile stretch of waterfront where 1850s prospectors mined for gold dust in the sand. You can camp on the beach, but don’t forget to stake your tent—the wind can be fierce. Continue past Gold Bluffs to the end of the road and Fern Canyon trailhead. Here you have two options: a one-mile loop through spectacular Fern Canyon, or a longer walk on the Coastal Trail past three mini-waterfalls.
It takes a bit of work to get to this gem, but it’s worth it. From Highway 101 at Orick, drive unpaved Davison Road 10 miles to this spectacular canyon, a hidden paradise of ferns lining a narrow gorge carved out by Home Creek. Some of the seven different types of ferns clinging to the steep cliffs are ancient species, with ancestry tracing back 325 million years. Living underneath their leafy shade are some eye-catching amphibians, including Pacific giant salamanders, which can measure nearly a foot/0.3 meter in length.
The trail follows a series of small footbridges (installed in summer) deep into the canyon. Drooping ferns create hanging gardens, miniature waterfalls pour down rock faces, and moss wallpapers every surface. The walls grow taller and squeeze tighter as you travel.
Are you experiencing déjà vu? Steven Spielberg filmed a Jurassic Park II scene within this canyon. Every curve and turn leads to another Instagram-it-now (if there were reception) view. Far too soon, the trail curves left and ascends out of the canyon, then loops back to the parking lot. More than a few Fern Canyon hikers opt to retrace their steps instead of continuing on the loop—it’s just too hard to leave this special place.
Insider’s tip: It’s wet here. River sandals or waterproof boots come in handy.
Leave the shady redwood forests behind on this mellow hike to one of Redwood National Park’s most scenic beaches. Enderts Beach is a rock-studded, driftwood-laden shoreline perfect for sunset walks or sunny afternoons with a kite and a book. Getting there requires a walk of just under 1 mile/2 kilometers on a now-abandoned stretch of the old Coast Highway (it’s downhill going in, uphill on the return). About halfway in, you’ll pass rustic Nickel Creek Campground, which offers an overnight option for backpackers. A few hundred yards farther, you’ll descend to crescent-shape Enderts Beach, perfect for strolling, sand-castling, or just watching the wild waves. But the biggest attraction is at low or minus tides which reveal vibrant tide pools on the beach’s south end. The pools are rich with sea stars, urchins, and giant green anemones.
Insider's Tips: Rangers occasionally lead tidepool walks here; check at park any of the park visitor’s centers for details.
While there’s plenty of do-it-yourself ways to explore the redwoods, doing it with a guide can be a real treat. Redwood Adventures, based out of Orick, offers guided hikes, mountain bike rides, river-fishing excursions, kayak trips, horseback rides, and more—all exploring well-known treasures and secret stands of big trees, plus other worthwhile destinations along the Humboldt Coast.
"The company also offers more exotic trips, like its zipline adventure through the redwood canopy."
Choose from group or private half- or full-day tours to a variety of national and state park sites, including Fern Canyon and the Tall Trees Grove. Ocean kayaking tours explore the region’s rocky shores. Mountain biking tours take beginners on wide dirt roads, while more advanced riders venture out on single-track trails. The company also offers more exotic trips, like its zipline adventure through the redwood canopy, a beginning rock climbing and rappelling class, and year-round birding tours. It also has a handful of well-appointed housekeeping cabins available for rent at Elk Meadow; don’t be surprised if you wake up to Roosevelt elk grazing outside your front door.
In summer, time your visit to join a park guide to paddle down the Smith River, a designated Wild & Scenic river and the state’s largest free-flowing river system. The easy, 3.5-mile/5.6-kilometer paddle is free (including kayak, paddles, and other gear) and doesn’t require any experience, though a few foamy bits of gentle (Class I and II) rapids should elicit a “woohoo!” or two. Along the way your guide will explain the region’s unique geology, and how it contributes to the immense size of the region’s coast redwoods.
The trip ends at the Jedediah Smith River Day-Use area, and from there you simply walk back to your car in Hiouchi, about one-half mile away. It’s an adventure you’ll never forget.
Insider's Tip: Sign up in person at the Hiouchi Information Center up to two days beforehand. Tours are usually held on Fridays and Saturdays starting at 11:30 a.m. All participants must be at least 10 years old and able to swim in moving water.
Pitch your tent in the shadows of towering redwoods at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, northeast of Crescent City. Its 86-site developed campground sits beside the emerald Smith River in a glade lush with ferns and old-growth trees. You can walk from your tent to the 340-foot/104-meter-tall Stout Tree and its mammoth brethren, or go for a drive on spectacular Howland Hill Road, a 10-mile/16-km winding dirt road through old-growth redwoods. Farther south at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park near Orick, pick a site along windswept Gold Bluffs Beach or in the more developed (and wind-sheltered) Elk Prairie area. Don’t be surprised if a huge Roosevelt elk walks right past your tent. Gold Bluffs Beach has 26 first-come, first-serve sites; Elk Prairie’s 75 sites can be reserved in advance. And a few miles south of Crescent City at Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, 145 sites are found amid a second-growth forest of redwoods and alders near Mill Creek. There are also private campgrounds in the region.
If you’re a camper who craves amenities like showers and flush toilets, your best bets are any of these state park campgrounds. If you prefer seclusion to amenities, Redwood National Park provides a handful of backpacking campgrounds, most requiring relatively short hikes of less than three miles.
Insider's Tip: These camps are much more rustic; you’ll need to supply your own water and pack out your garbage.
This lively seaport town, the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, has split-personality charm: a sense of history in the handsomely restored, Victorian-era Old Town district, a still-working seaport where crusty fishing boats chug in and out of a protected harbor, logging trucks rumbling through town, and an eco-conscious college vibe thanks to Humboldt State, in the nearby town of Arcata. Hundreds of ornate 19th-century homes, like the Carson Mansion, a paragon of Queen Anne architecture now housing a private club at the end of Second Street, reflect the prosperity of Eureka’s formative years, when lumber was king. The entire city is a state historic landmark, a captivating mix of nature and culture with a small-town feel.
Start your visit along the waterfront, where a pretty esplanade provides nice views of the harbor and adjacent Humboldt Bay. Visit the small maritime museum, then board the MV Madaket, a snug ferryboat plying the bay since 1910, for 75 -minute guided cruise. In adjacent Old Town, beeline to the outstanding Humboldt Bay Tourism Center, where you can sample local wines, beers, and local oysters, ask for tips on nearby galleries, gift shops, and eateries, and book guided tours and adventures.
This redwood grove’s name is a gross understatement. The trees here are not just tall but mind-bogglingly immense, towering as high as 379 feet/116 meters—taller than a 35-story building. To visit this special place, you must obtain a free permit at the Kuchel Visitor Center and then drive about 45 minutes to the Tall Trees trailhead, but it’s worth the trouble. The Park Service limits the number of cars because the access road is narrow, but that just means more solitude for you. From the trailhead, it’s a 1.3-mile/2.1-km downhill to the grove, which is set on a moist floodplain alongside Redwood Creek. All the trees are behemoths, but the 368-foot/112-meter Libby Tree commands attention because it was long considered the tallest tree in the world. It lost its title when a 379-foot/116-meter-tall tree was found in 2006. The location of the “new” tallest tree has been kept secret, but it’s somewhere in this watershed. Several side trails lead out of the big trees to the gravel banks of Redwood Creek, a fine place to relax with a book in the summer months. Be sure to save energy for the uphill hike back to your car.
Only 20 miles south of Oregon, sea-faring Crescent City is home to the northernmost of California’s lighthouse stations. Overlooking the town’s harbor, the 1856 Battery Point Lighthouse, built with 22-inch/56-cm-thick slabs of granite, sits on a tiny island that can only be reached on foot at low tide. When the water recedes, visitors walk across the causeway, climb the narrow spiral staircase to the lamp room, then crawl up a ladder and through a trap door for a spectacular 360-degree view. A few miles away is Crescent City’s other lighthouse at St. George Reef, 6 miles/9.6 kilometers offshore. It was built after the 1865 shipwreck of the Brother Jonathan, which carried passengers and rumored to hold 1.5 tons/1,361 kilograms of gold coins and bullion, much of which has never been recovered. See the lighthouse from the public walking trails along the bluffs at Point St. George. Its original first-order Fresnel lens can be viewed at the Del Norte County Main Museum.
After getting your fill of lighthouses, wander the Crescent City waterfront and marvel at how this city was entirely rebuilt after a devastating tsunami in 1964 (you’ll see tsunami warning signs all over town). At Ocean World aquarium, the sea lions balance balls and play catch with visitors, while at the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, injured elephant seals and sea lions get some TLC and healing time before being released back to the wild. Call ahead to find out the pinnipeds’ feeding time, the most interesting time to visit. On the town’s west end is oceanfront Pebble Beach Drive with easy access to Pebble Beach, a great place to search for agates and other semi-precious gemstones.
The hamlet of Trinidad with its picture-perfect headlands sits on a bluff overlooking the harbor at Trinidad Bay. It’s all about the sea here: Hike to the top of Trinidad Head to watch for whales, go tide-pooling at Indian Beach, or touch the starfish at Humboldt State University’s Marine Lab. Trinidad State Beach is a well known surfing spot while broad and sandy Moonstone Beach is favored by beachcombers. The seafood market at Katy’s Smokehouse sells whatever fresh catch the fishermen have hauled in, plus a variety of smoked fish. Trinidad was the site of the first human settlement on California’s north coast, the Yurok Indian village of Tsurai. This community was “discovered” by Spanish explorers in 1775, but it had probably existed for at least 1,000 years before.
Insider's Tip:Check out the reconstructed Yurok Village at Patrick’s Point State Park, which is also a great spot for camping and hiking.
Start your trip to one of the world’s great cities. For a novel way to explore “the City by the Bay” park your car and explore by foot, bike, and unique public transportation. Pedal bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then explore the lush Presidio, a former military base that’s now a...
The last stop on this spectacular road trip ends at the very last city in California. Only 20 miles south of Oregon, sea-faring Crescent City is home to the northernmost of California’s lighthouse stations. Overlooking the town’s harbor, the 1856 Battery Point Lighthouse, built with 22-inch/56-...