A pilgrimage deep into California’s redwood country provides a most enchanting form of time travel. This is a visit to a true forest primeval, the real Jurassic realm, where mists drift over a rugged coast to swirl about the shaggy trunks of spruce, tall firs and pale shafts of alder, then coil past stately, soaring colonnades of virgin redwood. Here, dank vaults of cool forest shade can be illuminated by a rosy branch of rhododendron flowers, a purple burst of iris or the delicate gleam of an oxalis blossom.
For years, I’ve explored redwood country yet still always find magical new routes to discovery. On a recent trip, my wife and I found ourselves on a traditional path of the Yurok tribe that goes south from Lagoon Creek. We stepped around the tracks of black bears, and were able to snack on fresh salmonberries that remained on twigs too high for bears to reach. We burst out of a green tunnel formed by mossy arches of Sitka spruce to find ourselves hundreds of feet high on a steep bluff that offered a dramatic vista of the mouth of the Klamath River. Beyond it, the further shore of forested park land stretched away invitingly, while far below us waves rolled in from the Pacific to spread the white lace of foam rills on gray sand of the Klamath River bar.
It stuns to think that redwoods were companions of the dinosaurs – and haven’t changed much since those ancient days. More than 170 million years old, redwoods as a genus formed a forest cover on Pangea, a supercontinent that had Africa nestling cheek-by-jowl with the Americas. Of the three subspecies that survive that era, sequoia sempervirens, the coastal variety, hangs on in a thin band, 450 miles long and 30 miles wide, reaching from Big Sur to the Oregon border. Their most robust stronghold stands here, in a stretch of about 100 miles, which extends from Humboldt Redwoods State Park on the Eel River near Weott, to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park on the Smith River.
This is where the Save-the-Redwoods League helped push a major campaign early in the 20th century, saving most of the virgin groves that were spared the logger’s saw. It is where Redwoods National Park was created in 1968, expanded in 1978, and united with Jed Smith, Del Norte and Prairie Creek state parks in 1994. Today, they’re combined as the Redwood National and State Parks.
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When the national park expanded, the local economy was promised a million park visitors per year to make up for the loss of timber jobs. It took 20 years, but now that prediction has come to pass.
“As timber and fishing declined, tourism grew. Now it’s our lifeblood,” says Don Smullin, executive director for the Greater Eureka Chamber of Commerce (which includes Humboldt County and the southern end of the parks). “And the number one reason people come here is to see the redwoods. Of course, once they get here, they can discover our ocean scenes, and the historic districts (in some towns). But it’s parks and camping and hiking and fishing that constitute the big outdoors draw.”
The whole region has responded by adding hotels – Smullin says the number of hotel beds in Humboldt County has risen by 10 percent in the past five years – as well as restaurants and tourist information sites. Newest among the latter is a Yurok Country Visitor Center, opened in June on the tribe’s reservation land in Klamath, on the north side of the Klamath River bridge. The Redwood National and State Parks alone boasts five visitor information centers, and its four main campgrounds take (badly needed) reservations.
There are four main methods that wanna-be redwood tree-huggers can deploy to explore this verdant zone and achieve their heart’s desire: slow auto drives through the forest on special routes; simple, short, level walks on trails garlanded with interpretive signs; longer day hikes on more challenging paths; or multiday treks among remote backpacker camps. (See stories at right for details on these options.)
To establish a base before undertaking such endeavors, you can reserve space at the area’s public or private campgrounds or seek lodging in towns (consult local chambers of commerce for options), then drive to park trailheads and visitor centers.
No matter which way you turn, you’ll be following in the footsteps of one of North America’s great overland explorers. The mountain man Jedediah Smith forged a path this way in 1828, only 22 years after Lewis and Clark completed their epochal trek out to the mouth of the Columbia River.
In June of that year, Smith and 18 buckskin-clad companions set out from San Francisco with 60 pack animals and a herd of 250 additional mules and horses that he hoped to sell and trade at a mountain-man rendezvous in the Rockies. Ever the trailblazer, Smith picked a circuitous route. He went up the Sacramento Valley, turned west at Red Bluff, followed the Trinity River to the Klamath, and that stream to the sea. Next, he hoped to go north to the Columbia and ascend it, retracing the trail of Lewis and Clark.
En route, Smith introduced the Karuk, Yurok and Tolowa tribes to the first Caucasians they’d ever seen, and also introduced himself to the marvelous redwoods.
“Some of the cedars were the noblest trees I had ever seen,” he remarked in his 1820s journal, “being twelve or fifteen feet in diameter, straight and handsome.”
To glimpse the same marvels that Smith did, in scenes that remain largely unchanged from pioneer days, all you need to do is walk far enough from the highway so that any sound of traffic is displaced by a sigh of wind among the highest branches, where verdant needles hundreds of feet above your head filter beams of sunlight that fall softly onto a russet carpet of thick duff at your feet. The remnant groves of ancient redwoods might not be able to supply an infinite amount of tranquility in our hectic times. But they do offer plenty of peace, and seem more than willing to share it.
If you are unable to get away to the redwoods this summer, some regional experts claim that California’s winter rainy season is the best time to go. Dave Baselt is a Silicon Valley engineer and hiking buff who has designed and printed the best current maps of this area. He says his favorite time to visit is October through May.
Michael Poole, a National Park Service ranger who’s been in the park for eight years, concurs.
“As beautiful as this place is in summer, it’s twice as good in winter,” Poole says. “All the colors and textures are heightened, there are mushrooms everywhere, each cobweb has little gems of water droplets on it. The rain and wind go through in waves, and it sounds like spirits roaming through the top of the forest. But as wonderful as it all is, be sure to pack along a hooded rain jacket and pants, or on some days you could end up drenched!”
Scenic drives in redwood country
- Avenue of the Giants – North of Garberville, take Phillipsville Exit off Highway 101 to start a winding, 32-mile route through ancient redwoods that ends at Jordan Creek exit. Provides access to Founders Grove, visitor center for Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
- Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway – Six miles north of Orick, take exit for Drury and begin a 10-mile drive north. Provides access to numerous trailheads, visitor center for Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
- Cal Barrel Road – Just north of the Prairie Creek visitor center, this 3-mile, narrow but smooth dirt road turns off the Drury to ascend through ancient groves to the Rhododendron Trail.
- Coastal Drive Loop – Just south of Klamath, take exit for Klamath Beach Road off Highway 101. A triangular 9-mile route goes clockwise down the Alder Beach Road, then the Old Coastal Highway to a return on Klamath Beach. Provides access to High Bluff and Klamath River overlooks, trailheads, and the old Klamath bridge.
- Howland Hills Road – Two miles south of Crescent City, take the Humboldt Road exit from Highway 101, turn right on Howland Hills. After more than a mile, the road becomes a narrow, winding dirt through redwood forest on south side of Jedediah Smith State Park. It becomes South Fork Road and joins Highway 199 after seven more miles. Provides access to numerous trailheads, including StoutGrove.
- Highway 199 – Take Highway 101 three miles northeast of Crescent City to junction with Highway 199, then go east for five miles on 199 through redwoods. Provides access to Jedediah Smith State Park and Hiouchi visitor centers.
- Founders Grove Trail – At north end of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, this half-mile interpretive trail honors the founders of Save-the-Redwoods League. The route includes the 346-foot-high Founders Tree and the fallen Dyerville Giant.
- Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail – Just north of Orick, take the Bald Hills Road east from Highway 101 to the parking lot for this 1.5-mile interpretive trail. The virgin redwood grove is open and airy, and has plenty of trailside “goosepen” trees with burned-out openings for kids to scamper through.
- Trillium Falls Trail – A little farther north from Orick, take the Davison exit west from Highway 101 and go a short distance to the day-use parking on left. This is a trailhead for Trillium Falls, a verdant, 2.8-mile path through old-growth redwood and past a small, mossy waterfall. Nearby prairie can offer views of Roosevelt elk.
- Ah Pah Interpretive Trail – In Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, near the north end of Newton Drury parkway, this 0.4-mile-long path takes you into a redwood grove and reveals the challenge of controlling erosion from old logging operations and the success of forest restoration.
- Yurok Loop – Five miles north of Klamath, the Lagoon Creek trailhead lies on the west side of Highway 101. Start a 1-mile loop trail out to the sea and back along the lagoon. Spruce and alder groves dominate.
- Stout Grove – This trail can be accessed either from Jedediah Smith State Park campground (across a river bridge in July and August) or via a trailhead on the Howland Hills Road. The 0.6-mile trail accesses a cathedral-like grove of exceptional redwoods.
- The best and most highly detailed maps for hiking, camping or driving are on the Redwood Hikes Press website, redwoodhikes.com.
- Reservations for public campgrounds at Humboldt, Prairie Creek, Del Norte and Jedediah Smith state parks are handled through Reserve America at 800-444-7275 or www.reserveamerica.com. (Hike- and bike-in sites are available first-come, first-served.)
- Information about lodging, dining and private campgrounds is available through local chambers of commerce: Greater Eureka chamber, 707-442-3738, eurekachamber.com; Crescent City/Del Norte County chamber, 707-464-3174, delnorte.org.
- Information on longer hikes, backpack routes, trail camps and general park conditions is available directly from the five official park visitor centers: Kuchel (at Orick); Prairie Creek (north of Orick); Crescent City (the main national park location); Jedediah Smith and Hiouchi (both east of Crescent City). Go to the Redwood National and State Parks website, www.nps.gov/redw/index.htm, or call 707-465-7335.