Road Trip: California’s Redwood Forests

Known for their massive size and tremendous lifespans, coast redwoods are the tallest living organisms. One of the world’s fastest-growing conifers, redwoods grow an average of three feet per year. When mature, the trees can reach heights of well over 300 feet tall, and the trunks can grow up to thirty feet in diameter at the base. Perhaps even more impressive than their size is their lifespan, which can exceed 2,000 years.

Redwood trees once covered much of the Northern Hemisphere, with the oldest fossils on record dating back 200 million years – around the height of the Jurassic Period. Today, the range and individual populations are infinitely smaller. The trees now pepper a thin strip of coastline extending for just 450 miles from the southwestern corner of Oregon to Big Sur, California.

Just 170 years ago, redwood forests covered upwards of two million acres across Northern California and Oregon. However, since 1850, roughly 95% of the ancient trees have been lost to logging. The redwoods were first seen as valuable timber during the time of the gold rush, and industrial logging continued through the post-WWII economic expansion. Today, only 5% of the old-growth forests still stand, and roughly 80% of those trees are now protected.

Because of their dramatic decline, the coast redwood was added to the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List in 2013 as an endangered species. And while threats due to climate change, such as fires and invasive species, pose an ever-increasing challenge for the long-term success of coast redwoods, the most recent (2020) World Heritage Outlook shows strong gains for the forests thanks to robust conservation efforts by the national and state parks.

Walking amongst giants

If you want to visit these spectacular behemoths, many of the largest surviving stands are tucked away in the northernmost part of California – where the foggy, mild coast provides the perfect habitat for the trees. A remote gem, Humboldt Redwoods State Park sits four hours north of San Francsico and just under three hours from the Oregon border. Similarly off the beaten path, Redwood National and State Parks are about a six-hour drive from San Francisco.

Further south and more easily accessible, Muir Woods National Monument sits just twenty miles north of San Francisco. Closer to Santa Cruz, you can visit Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. And about an hour north of Santa Cruz, you’ll find Big Basin Redwoods State Park. In the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Big Basin is California’s oldest state park and home to the largest redwood groves south of San Francisco. Regrettably, though, much of Big Basin was devastated during the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire. While most of the old-growth redwoods survived, the landscape here is just beginning to recover.

While we’ve visited Muir Woods a couple of times, we really wanted to check out some of the larger forests further north, if only briefly. We ended up with just one day to split between Humbolt State Park and Redwood National & State Parks – hardly enough time to see everything but enough to at least scratch the itch. Because we were traveling with our trusty companion, Sanchez, as part of a longer road trip up the Oregon Coast – and none of the parks allow dogs on trails – we accepted our visit as a scenic drive rather than our more typical hiking-centered explorations. It wasn’t our usual style, but we were able to get out for a few short walks around the towering redwood stands. In doing this we learned that, even if you’re just passing through transiently, you can still get a great look at the lofty groves of coast redwoods as you drive beneath them. And in terms of scenic drives, we thought Humboldt State Park’s Avenue of the Giants was about as magical as it gets.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Encompassing more than 50,000 acres of coast redwood groves – a protected area twice the size of San Francisco – Humboldt Redwoods State park is home to the largest collection of old-growth redwoods in the world. Visiting this place really makes you feel as if you’ve stumbled into an enchanted forest. Many of the trees here are over 300 feet tall and tower as straight as arrows above the lush forest floor. To give some perspective on just how soaring these trunks are, the distance from the ground to the lowest limb on the Founders Tree is 190 feet. Because the trees lose their lower limbs as they age, you gaze upward at what looks like tiny twigs, as the branches are so far above the fern-laden understory.

Sitting 230 miles north of San Francisco, Humboldt Redwoods State Park offers around a hundred miles of trails – many of which are short, easy walking paths that are accessible right off the park’s celebrated scenic byway, the Avenue of the Giants.

Avenue of the Giants

Loosely paralleling California Highway 101, this scenic route winds for 31 miles through soaring groves of coast redwoods. The meandering road runs alongside the picturesque Eel River, and is peppered with picnic spots and trailheads where you can pause and enjoy the magical forests.

While we were exceedingly limited in our ability to hike with Sanchez along for the ride, the forest was super cool and shady so we were able to get out for a couple short wanders while she waited patiently in the car. If you’re looking for a couple short, easy loop trails here, consider visiting Stephens Grove or Founders Grove. They’re both really beautiful, less than a mile in length, and flat as a pancake.

The centerpiece of the Founders Grove is a redwood of the same name. Standing at nearly 350 feet tall, the Founders Tree has a base circumference of 40 feet. It’s absolutely amazing to stare up at this tree. The height to its lowest limb is 190 feet, and the tree is so perfectly straight it doesn’t even seem plausible. It looks so out of proportion to see such a giant trunk shooting skyward with just this tiny green tuft of needle-like leaves crowning the furrowed bole.

Walking around the groves is just breathtaking. It’s incredible to wander among the flared trunks, some so strikingly exaggerated in size. It’s mindboggling to stand within the trunks that have either split or burned, and to realize that these trees just continue to persevere for centuries. It’s staggering to look up and not see a branch for a hundred, maybe two hundred feet, and wonder if any songbirds are singing way up there. Everything is just so unusual here that it really feels like an otherworldly woodland.

A couple of other noteworthy trees within the park include the Dyerville Giant and Immortal Tree. The former can also be found in the Founders Grove. While it’s no longer standing, you can walk the length of the fallen trunk and gawk at its massive root system. Once believed to be the tallest tree in the park (362 feet), the 2,000-year-old tree fell to the ground in 1991. The impact was so strong that it actually registered on a nearby seismograph station.

Just up the highway, the 1,000-year-old Immortal Tree is dwarfed by some of the other behemoths of the forest. Now standing at just under 250 feet high, a past lightning strike cleaved off the top 50 feet of tree. In addition to surviving the strike, the tree has also endured a forest fire and flood – something that’s potentially catastrophic for a shallow-rooted tree. Its size may pale in comparison to some of the other behemoths of the forest, but its endurance through hardship is certainly something to appreciate.

If find yourself cruising up this area of Highway 101 and have even a few hours to spare, take the slow-route detour and check out the Avenue of the Giants. We think it’s a totally worthy excursion. Even if we didn’t wander as much as we would have liked, the drive itself was really spectacular. And for those wondering if Sanchez was totally excluded, we did try to give her a bit of fun. We were able to pull over in a nice little clearing so she could enjoy a picnic lunch and sniff a few redwoods herself, all while being a good B.A.R.K. Ranger and following the rules.

Redwood National & State Parks

Just a couple of hours north of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, you’ll find Redwood National and State Parks. Listed as a UNSECO World Heritage Site, the land here is cooperatively managed at the federal and state levels, and includes four distinct park sites: Redwood National Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Collectively, the preserves protect 45% of the world’s remaining redwood forests.

Similar to Humboldt State Park, the preserves offer numerous opportunities for both scenic drives or exploring on foot. There are more than 200 miles of trails as well as a number of forested (and coastal) scenic drives. The Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway runs through the heart of the parks, and was the one route we drove given our time constraints. Fortunately, a number of short walking trails – including dog-friendly Cal Barrel Road – can be accessed from this stretch of road. Like the Avenue of the Giants, the parkway parallels Highway 101, making for an easy, scenic detour on a north/south drive.

A couple of the park’s notable trees we spotted on our short walks included Big Tree and Corkscrew Tree. The former is estimated to be 1,500 years old. While it stands at just 286 feet tall – significantly shorter than the Founders Tree’s 348-foot height – it is absolutely massive in girth. At its base, the trunk circumference of Big Tree is a whopping 74.5 feet. It makes the Founders Tree (with its 40-foot circumference) look downright spindly.

The Corkscrew Tree is one of the more unique specimens in the forest, made up of four individual trunks that are intertwined together. Two of the trunks, in particular, are tightly coiled around one another. Being the nerdy scientist that I am, I immediately likened it to a DNA helix… even if it is left-handed (Z-DNA).

For those traveling with dogs, leashed pups are allowed to walk beneath the redwoods along two gravel roadways: Cal Barrel and Walker Roads. The former is 3.5 miles long, while the latter is about half the distance (1.5 miles in one direction). While hiking on a trail is way more fun, it is nice to have a couple easily-accessible opportunities to enjoy a meaningful walk your pup. Cal Barrel Road is just off the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway in Redwood National Park. Walker Road is further north in Jedediah Smith State Park, and can be accessed from the Redwood Highway (Route 199).

Final thoughts

If you find yourself on a road trip up the coast of Northern California, it is totally worth checking out the redwood forests – even if you’re short on time. While Muir Woods is indeed a beautiful place, it wasn’t even on the same playing field as the vast stands further north. Although we didn’t do a ton of exploring on foot, the scenic byways still provide a sense of the vastness of these last remaining redwood groves. If you’ve got time for just one drive paired with some short walks, we thought the Avenue of the Giants was unquestionably the most scenic route we drove… just gorgeous.

If you’ve got a bit more time and are anxious to get out and explore on foot, check out some of the walking trails recommended by Save the Redwoods League. The nonprofit was founded in 1918, and spearheads land management projects to protect and restore both coast redwoods as well as giant sequoia trees. Whatever you choose, it’s bound to be a memorable experience.

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