Ironically, the construction of the Redwoods Highway (now U.S. 101) for the logging and tourism industries led to the creation of three state parks in the 1920s and ’30s, to save the world’s tallest trees. The Save the Redwoods League, the Sierra Club, and the National Geographic Society long lobbied for a national park, but a 1960 Sunset magazine cover story, “The Redwood Country” by Martin Litton, proved to be the turning point.
Stout Grove, the heart of the redwoods, is at the park’s north end, on the south bank of the Smith River. An easy, early morning, half-mile walk among 1,000-year-old trees is humbling. They seem to defy death as new trees sprout from roots, stumps, and trunks of giants that toppled centuries ago. Access to the 16-spot parking lot is by a narrow RV-unfriendly dirt lane that snakes between immense boulders and trees.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park was established in 1923, followed by Del Norte Coast Redwoods and Jedediah Smith Redwoods state parks in ’27 and ’29, respectively. All are now included in the federal park, a unique arrangement among national parks.
393,000 in 2013; July is the busiest month; February is least-crowded.
206 square miles, about one-fifth the size of Orange County.
Development and logging have claimed all but 4 percent of Northern California’s old-growth forest, and nearly half of what’s left is within the park.
What to Pack
A jacket, no matter what the season. Fog provides as much as one-third of the redwoods’ annual water needs.
The local hot spot is Vita Cucina. It’s a bakery, and a deli that serves pizza. The pulled pork sammie ($8) is a big-seller. Closed Tuesdays.
Small motels and cabins abound around the park, but you can fall asleep to the sound of the surf only yards from your window at the Oceanfront Lodge ($99 to $159) in Crescent City. Sadly, service at its Seaside Restaurant doesn’t match the view.
$35 per vehicle plus $5 per hiker/biker. Gold Bluff Beach’s 26 sites are first come, first served; the 306 sites at the other three campgrounds can be reserved at 800-444-7275, or reserveamerica.com
The 6½-mile Gold Bluffs-Fern Canyon hike in Prairie Creek leads to a gorge with 30-foot walls covered with five-fingered and sword ferns. Says one ranger: “This is the place locals often bring their out-of-town guests.”
At the park’s south end is a relatively flat, one-hour trail that circles through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove.
Farther north, on the Drury Scenic Parkway, is Big Tree, a 300-plus footer more than 21 feet in diameter that was spared the fate of becoming a pioneer-days dance floor. It’s also the start of the otherworldly Cathedral Trees Trail, a moderate 1½-mile hike where every turn is a priceless gift from nature.
The park’s shoreline where sneaker waves, crumbling cliffs, and high tides on remote beaches are constant dangers. “Great to view,” says Ranger Renee Gibbs, “but not to surf or swim.”
On U.S. 101, look for the gold bears guarding the approaches of the Klamath River Bridge. Caltrans graffiti crews periodically would repaint the concrete adornments gray, but locals and their gold paint have won out.
Big Tree, Fern Canyon, Klamath River Overlook, Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, Stout Grove, tidepools at the end of Enderts Beach Road.
Roosevelt elk, black bears, mountain lions.
The coastal redwoods you came here for.
From sea level, to 3,170-foot Coyote Peak.
40 to 54 degrees in January, to 48 to 69 degrees in September.
Half an inch in July and August, to 11 to 12 inches in December and January.
Be mindful of evacuation signs posted along the highways. Three tectonic plates meet about 100 miles southwest of the park; since 1983, more than 80 magnitude 3.0 quakes are recorded annually along this fault zone.
Redwood National and State Parks, nps.gov
Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
La Grange Cafe, 226 Main St., Weaverville, 530-623-5325
Oceanfront Lodge, 100 A Street, Crescent City, 707-465-5400, oceanfrontlodge1.com
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Save the Redwoods League, 114 Sansome St. #1200, San Francisco, 415-362-2352, savetheredwoods.org
Vita Cucina, 1270 Front St., Crescent City 95531, 707-464-1076
Photographs by Stuart Westmorland
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue.