Redwood Highway: See California’s Amazing Northern Coast
Giving its name to this glorious ribbon of road just four hours north of San Francisco, the redwood is a marvel to behold — the tallest of living things and a stately remnant from the age of dinosaurs.
Length: About 230 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Words to the wise: Fog in summer and rain in winter may cause hazardous driving conditions. Stay away from the edges of cliffs. Avoid rip currents on ocean beaches.
Nearby attraction: Oregon Caves National Monument, off Rte. 199 near Cave Junction, OR.
Further information: Humboldt County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, tel. 800-346-3482, www.redwoods.info.
Redwood National Park, 1111 Second St., Crescent City, CA 95531; tel. 707-464-6101, www.nps.gov/redw.
Giving its name to this glorious ribbon of road just four hours north of San Francisco, the redwood is a marvel to behold — the tallest of living things and a stately remnant from the age of dinosaurs. These ambassadors from another time grow only in a narrow coastal strip that extends northward to Oregon, overlooking steep ocean cliffs, marshy lagoons, and seaside villages replete with picturesque Victorian homes.
The town of Leggett, where the Pacific Coast Highway meets Rte. 101, provides an excellent introduction to the world of the old-growth redwoods. Drive-Thru Tree Park features the remarkable Chandelier Tree, a 315-foot giant with a tunnel carved through its massive trunk. Visitors can enjoy a picnic or hike the manicured trails that wind through portions of this 200-acre grove of awe-inspiring trees. In this unique world a misty silence holds sway and only occasional shafts of sunlight penetrate the broad canopy overhead.
2. Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area
Heading north from Leggett, Rte. 101 follows deep and winding canyons along the meandering south fork of the Eel River into the region known as the Redwood Empire. To the west lie the King Mountain Range and the “Lost Coast” of California, a virtually uninhabited wilderness where up to 80 inches of rain drench the highlands each year and beaches are strewn with numerous historic shipwrecks; to the east dense forests and lush meadowlands roll by mile after mile.
Parks abound along the route. The Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area, just two miles north of Leggett, occupies 1,000 acres of mostly second-growth redwoods, maples, oaks, and Douglas firs, and one spectacular redwood, named for Mayflower colonist Miles Standish. The Eel River, though, is the main attraction here, offering one of the best deep swimming holes in the valley, and excellent fishing for salmon and steelhead trout. In winter, runoff from the neighboring mountains transforms this placid river of clean emerald waters into a raging torrent.
3. Richardson Grove State Park
The redwoods are hard to miss at this 1,000-acre park — the highway passes right through the heart of an old-growth forest. For a closer look, investigate the 10 miles of inviting trails that loop through the cathedral-like groves and along the rocky banks of the Eel.
4. Avenue of the Giants
Past the little town of Garberville, this 33-mile stretch of road parallels and crisscrosses Rte. 101 as it passes through one of the state’s largest and most venerable redwood forests. A self-guiding auto tour (instructions are available at either the north or south ends of the scenic drive) suggests nine stops, but abundant turnouts offer the chance to pause and marvel unassisted at these giants. Reaching heights of 300 feet and more, many stand taller than the Statue of Liberty and have been growing since the days of ancient Rome.
5. Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Occupying some 50,000 acres along the avenue’s most scenic stretches, Humboldt Redwoods ranks as the largest state park in northern California and is home to one of the largest remaining old-growth redwood forests. Along the riverside flats, great stands of ancient trees darken the fern-carpeted forest floor; in the rolling uplands, mixed hardwoods and gentle grasslands bloom in spring with orchids, lilies, and huckleberries.
Scattered along the route, more than 100 memorial groves bear the names of men and women who helped to save the redwoods. The Dyerville Giant, once honored as the champion of coastal redwoods, toppled in 1991. The sight of this 362-foot Goliath in repose is one of the park’s main attractions.
6. Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Continuing north, the highway moves from forest to ocean, and the second-largest natural harbor in California (after San Francisco). Though guarded by treacherous waters, Humboldt Bay itself is calm and can be safely explored by tour boat or kayak. Along this 15-mile stretch of protected waters, porpoises, sea lions, and playful harbor seals reward those with a watchful eye.
Extensive wetlands and broad tidal flats make the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge one of northern California’s premier spots for bird-watching. More than 200 species of waterfowl, raptors, and shorebirds reside here year-round or visit during spring migrations. For the most rewarding glimpses of avian life, take the Hookton Slough Trail, the Shorebird Loop Trail, or South Jetty Road.
Lovers of period architecture will delight in this charming bayside city, once a rough-and-tumble frontier town, whose whimsical name (meaning “I have found it”) recalls California’s gold rush days. More than 10,000 Victorian homes line Eureka’s picturesque streets, with styles ranging from the understated to the opulent: Carson Mansion (now a privately owned club) surely ranks among the most ornate homes in America.
Fronting Humboldt Bay and Eureka’s busy harbor, the Old Town section is steeped in the flavor of frontier life. Once a seedy neighborhood of bordellos and saloons, the area was transformed by city planners into an inviting commercial district of museums, shops, and eateries, all housed in vintage buildings.
8. Azalea State Reserve
Named for President William McKinley after his assassination in 1901, the town of McKinleyville becomes a fragrant paradise each April, when the 30-acre Azalea State Reserve bursts into bloom. Well-marked trails guide visitors through this unique natural garden, where the pink and white blossoms of western azaleas enliven the banks of quiet forest creeks.
Near the old fishing village of Trinidad is a foggy promontory called Trinidad Head, where sitka spruce tower over ocean cliffs and, in winter and spring, hikers can glimpse migrating whales. A white granite cross at the summit marks the spot where the region was first claimed by Spanish explorers in 1775. Memorial Lighthouse, a replica of the 1871 original, stands at the edge of town, overlooking offshore rocks where sea lions doze and, to the north, Trinidad State Beach, a windswept stretch of tidepools and driftwood. 10. Patricks Point State Park
Five miles north of Trinidad, the headland called Patricks Point juts seaward from the coast. Its 650-acre forested park includes a reconstructed Yurok Indian village as well as flowering meadows, sandy beaches, and dramatic cliffs carved by the pounding surf. A broken wall of sea stacks — portions of the mainland orphaned by erosion — frames the ocean view.
11. Humboldt Lagoons State Park
Comprising several inland bodies of water, Humboldt Lagoons State Park is a naturalist’s delight, with several distinct habitats coexisting in harmony. Salt and freshwater marshes support numerous birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway, including herons, egrets, pelicans, and many species of ducks and geese. To the west a 15-mile-long barrier beach protects the lagoons from the raging sea.
12. Redwood National Park
Signed into being by President Lyndon Johnson, and later expanded to 106,000 acres by President Jimmy Carter, this wilderness of giants, which also includes several California state parks, hugs the Pacific coastline from Orick all the way to Crescent City, a distance of some 40 miles. To get oriented, begin with a stop at the Redwood Information Center, located off Rte. 101 just north of Freshwater Lagoon near the town of Orick. Here one can view maps, publications, and exhibits, as well as schedule a visit to the Tall Trees Grove.
Not to be missed is a side trip to the park’s interior via Bald Hills Road. On the way, take time for the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail (ironically, a former logging road), an easy one-mile loop that takes hikers through the stately grove. Farther along Bald Hills Road, a six-mile access road descends to the Tall Trees Trailhead (a free permit is required), where a three-mile loop skirts the 361-foot Howard Libby Tree. Before losing six feet of its top in a windstorm, it was the tallest tree in the world. The record is now held by the Mendocino Tree, 367.5 feet, near Ukiah, California.
13. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
The first of three state parks within the Redwood National and State Parks World Heritage Location, Prairie Creek draws campers and hikers from around the country to enjoy its inviting blend of forests, prairies, creeks, fern canyons, and hidden beaches. The park has an unusual welcoming committee: herds of Roosevelt elk, some with three-foot antlers, graze with serene indifference on the tall-grass prairie bordering the scenic parkway that threads through the area. The park is well-known for its wildlife, including black bears, bobcats, foxes, and such endangered bird species as the famously controversial spotted owl and the somewhat less well-known marbled murrelet, which nests in old-growth trees.
14. Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
North of Prairie Creek, the scenic parkway rejoins Rte. 101 and then jogs inland, crosses the broad Klamath River — famed for its autumn migrations of Chinook salmon — and returns to the coast at False Klamath Cove and the next great stand of trees at Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. Shrouded in fog, this primeval forest of redwood, alder, and spruce stretches to the water’s edge; each spring a sumptuous understory of rhododendrons, azaleas, and wildflowers blazes with brilliant color. Although nature has long since restaked its claim, the area was once heavily logged — as you hike the trails, look for huge, fern-covered stumps and the crumbling trestles of the old logging railroad.
15. Lake Earl Wildlife Area
Crescent City’s C-shaped harbor is known for its chilly sea breezes and breathtaking mountain vistas, and the region nearby is famous for its Easter lily farms, which produce the vast majority of the nation’s bulbs. Aptly, the city celebrates Easter twice — once in spring and again in summer, when revelers toast the harvest at its Easter-in-July festival.
North of Crescent City, the Lake Earl Wildlife Area offers a fitting finale to the coastal portion of the drive. Unlike the rugged cliffs to the south, the coastline here consists of wind-sculpted sand dunes that run inland as much as half a mile. In August the first wave of migrating Arctic birds arrives, and by October this 5,000-acre reserve of pastures, lakes, and marshland is host to huge, honking parliaments of canvasbacks, mergansers, tundra swans, and the world’s population of the Aleutian Canada goose, a rare variety numbering just 6,000 or so.
16. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Named for a mountain man and fur trapper who was the first white to travel overland from the Mississippi to California, 10,000-acre “Jed Smith,” as it is known locally, is one of the state’s oldest and most beautiful parks. Temperatures run a bit higher here than to the west. For an especially scenic detour, take Howland Hill Road, which follows Mill Creek’s winding course and provides easy access to the Mill Creek Trail and many of the park’s stately groves of tall trees. Northernmost of the great redwood parks, Jedediah Smith is also one of the least visited, making it a perfect spot to enjoy the warm sunshine that comes as a welcome contrast to the chilly coastal fogs just 10 miles away.
17. Smith River National Scenic Byway
Stretching from Crescent City to the Oregon border, this 33-mile scenic drive along Rte. 199 offers spectacular mountain scenery. The highway follows the nationally designated Wild and Scenic Smith River through the Siskiyou Mountains and Six Rivers National Forest. Along the way you can behold a sublime, uninterrupted wilderness of deep gorges, broad canyons, and lofty peaks.
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