Author’s Note: This article “California’s Redwood Country” is one of 30 chapters in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available also as an ebook in Chinese. My other Northern California travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
California can safely assert three superlatives in one aspect of nature, the world of trees.
The redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) along the coast north from San Francisco are magnificent and are the tallest trees on the earth (the presumably tallest examples are in a secret location in Redwood National and State Parks, near Orick).
Similarly, the most massive living thing on earth is the inland relative of the coastal redwood. The best example of the inland relative (Sequoia gigantea) can be seen at Sequoia National Park (the General Sherman tree).
If superlative trees stir your sense of adventure, California trees offers yet another wonder of nature–the oldest living thing on this earth. This distinction goes to the bristlecone pines, which can be seen high in the White Mountains of California, east of Bishop.
UNESCO deemed Redwood National and State Parks a “world heritage site” in 1982, recognizing that redwoods are a phenomenon of worldwide interest. These monarchs of the mist have been flourishing for around 20 million years, currently in a long, thin band along the Western U.S. coast, from southwest Curry County in Oregon to south Monterey County in California, about 10 miles north of Hearst castle.
Getting to Redwood Country
The main redwood country is not difficult to locate. Simply head north from San Francisco along Highway 101. In about four hours you reach the first stately forests, at small Richardson Grove, also a fine picnic and camping site. The first substantial groves are at Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
The coast Highway 1 is the alternative route, scenic but slower, offering many coastal pleasures as well as second-growth redwoods. The coast route could be considered the main side trip in redwood country. You can consider a loop trip going one way on Highway 101 and the other on Highway 1, but the main redwoods are north of the juncture of the two roads. On the coast route the choice redwood stops would be Armstrong Redwoods, near Guerneville, on the Russian River, plus the parks along the coast near Mendocino.
Redwood Country History
Redwoods flourish both north and south of San Francisco, but the northern forests are most worthy today of the capitalized name Redwood Country, which refers generically to the more than 400 miles between San Francisco and the Oregon coast. Actually, only about 3 percent of the primeval redwood forest remains today. About half of that remaining resource is on protected public lands. The rest has been logged off.
The first reports of European contact with redwoods were from south of San Francisco when a priest-botanist in the expedition of Portola noted them in his diary of 1769. The tree was unknown to Europeans. The first American to observe redwoods was the intrepid explorer, Jedediah Smith, who saw the trees in 1822. He is now honored in Redwood Country with a wild no-dams river (the only major one in California) and a state redwood park named after him.
The native Californians, especially the Yuroks, were well aware of the redwoods and the redwood environment, but they did not consider it a hospitable habitat. Because the trees cast such shade, forage foods did not flourish beneath them as abundantly as in meadow or oak woodland terrain. The bark did not burn well and the trunks of the trees were too massive for the Native Americans to cut for firewood. However, Yuroks of the north coast split redwood planks for their shelters. They also hollowed canoes out of redwood logs, including one that can be seen today at Patricks Point State Park.
Lumbering has been the main recent historical story associated with redwood country. The tree’s wood is soft and easy to saw. Although not as strong as Douglas fir, redwood has an attractive red color that can be stabilized to remain red or will weather naturally to a pleasing grey. Redwood is widely used in house siding, decks, and garden lumber. The biggest virtue of redwood is its ability to withstand weathering and termites without deteriorating. Prolonged moisture will cause most woods to rot, but redwood will endure. Redwood is one of the most weather-resistant woods found in North America, competing with the cypress of the South.
When thinking of the lumber baron era, the place to stop and gaze at is the William Carson Mansion in Eureka. This lavish gingerbread Victorian, one of the finest 19th-century architectural legacies along the north coast, was built in 1884 at the corner of Second and M streets. Working mills, such as one at Scotia, carry on the story of lumbering today.
Redwood lumber was shipped out in small vessels that moved nimbly up and down the coast. The Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City, built in 1856, remains a repository for local history, especially regarding the fate of wayward ships whose captains were inattentive to the treacherous shorelines. The sturdiness of this lighthouse, perched on a rock, sometimes cut off from land during high tide, became apparent in 1964. On Good Friday on that year an earthquake in Alaska sent a 20-foot-high tsunami wave over the lighthouse, but failed to dislodge the structure, even though the wave devastated many boats and buildings in Crescent City.
Redwood Country Main Attractions
Redwood Country’s signature trees begin along Highway 101 north of Leggett at the Richardson Grove. Many more parks lie ahead. The Eel River flows along the highway, to the right. The concept of Roadside Attractions begins to assert itself and divert you with pleasing amusements. You pass the Log House, a house made from a single tree, which is adjacent to the Grandfather Tree, an 1800-year-old gray beard. Following is a roadside stand known as the Legend of Bigfoot shop, displaying a collection of chainsaw art, including depictions of Bigfoot. Bigfoot is the half-man and half-ape creature believed by some to populate the remote areas of this region. If you long to become a true believer in Bigfoot, a few glasses of sacramental California wine can help.
Proceeding north, you enter a 31-mile stretch appropriately called The Avenue of the Giants. This extended landscape consists of 70 memorial groves, all part of 51,222-acre Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Follow the side road at Phillipsville along Highway 101 to make the Avenue of the Giants scenic side road drive. Several turnoff areas along the scenic drive invite you to pause and walk through the groves. Pause to see as many of the groves on both sides of Highway 101 from Phillipsville to Redcrest as your time allows. Founder’s Grove is one of the crucial stops, with trees about 2,500 years old. The Founder’s Tree is 346.1 feet high and was formerly thought to be the tallest of all redwood trees, but the tallest tree is now believed be to a 379-foot tree in the Redwood Creek drainage near Orick.
After looking at Founder’s Grove, consider a short drive west to the Rockefeller Grove on Mattole Road. The reality here is a poignant example of the need to protect whole watersheds to save prize redwoods. Clear-cut slopes upstream from the prize Rockefeller trees exposed earth that washed into the creek in 1955 and 1964, subsequently undermining some of the giant trees. Silting of streams also damaged the salmon-spawning habitat. Albee Camp, located in an abandoned apple orchard near the Rockefeller Grove, is a lovely site at which to camp or picnic.
The informative Humboldt Redwoods Interpretive Center at the Burlington Campground dispenses park information, maps, and books.
Driving north, the towns of Ferndale and Eureka are both worth exploring for their Victorians, shops, small inns, bed-and-breakfast lodgings, and logging-era mementos. At Eureka, stop to visit Fort Humboldt, an 1850s military outpost with many exhibits on the lumber harvesting craft. One amazing tool of the trade was a huge winch called a slackliner, used to bring large logs down steep slopes. The Clarke Memorial Museum in Eureka, 3rd and E streets, has interesting Native American artifacts. Eureka’s Old Town boasts intriguing shops. An excursion boat called the Madaket gets you out on the water for a view of Humboldt Bay. Blue Ox Millworks provides authentic wood reproductions for Victorian restorations. The Samoa Cookhouse on Humboldt Bay serves hearty portions and decor with paraphernalia from the logging and milling era, when the cook providing food was a critical persona in logger motivation.
Ferndale, south from Eureka, abounds in carpenter-gothic Victorians, such as the Shaw House, a B&B on Main Street. The Ferndale Museum presents an exceptional display of the daily-life tools of dairying in the region. Ferndale fosters each year a zany kinetic sculpture race of human-powered vehicles that has become a cult tourism event.
Logging continues to flourish, but in a reduced and controlled manner. One small side town to visit in redwood country is the lumber village of Scotia, built by the Pacific Lumber Company for its employees. Unfortunately, part of the town burned in a 1992 fire. The town has one of the largest redwood lumber mills now in existence. At a park in the center of Scotia you can see a cross section of a redwood tree 1285 years old. The tree yielded 69,000 board feet of lumber. Children can scramble over an old logging locomotive on display at the park. Redwoods have a capacity to inspire wonder because of their height, beauty, and age. Even a tree 1285 years old may in fact be countless eons older. Most redwoods sprout clonally from the roots of their parent tree rather than from seeds. This same tree may have perpetuated itself in this fashion for thousands upon thousands of years.
At shops throughout Redwood Country you can often see burls for sale. Burls are masses of redwood tree tissue that form around a bud. Burls are attractive ornamentally and, if put in water, will sprout as a miniature tree. The shoots will grow and flourish as a miniature tree for years, living off the nourishment stored in the burl.
The futures of both logging and fishing, the economic mainstays of the region, are uncertain.
Depletion of the old-growth supply, rather than a slacking demand, is a restricting factor in redwood lumbering. However, redwood is the fastest-growing softwood species suitable for this climate. Young forests are more productive than old forests, from a board-feet point of view.
Fishing for salmon has been banned in the waters off parts of this coast in some years because the annual run of salmon in the Klamath River was perilously low. If you happen to pass the mouth of the Klamath River when the salmon are spawning, you’ll find a small army of RVs with salmon fishermen lined up reel to reel along the bank. Upstream, in the Hoopa Native American reservation, the residents are allowed to net the fish.
The politics of salmon fishing and logging are equally intense.
Immediately north of Eureka is Arcata. Wild Canadian geese in the tens of thousands graze in the grassy dairy lands south and west of Arcata. The Arcata Marsh hosts large number of migrating birds and boasts an interpretive center and boardwalks, making the vision of this reserve accessible to the public. Humboldt State University, in Arcata, is the major seat of learning in the region. Eco and marine sciences are major faculties. Back in the city itself, the town center square, the Arcata Plaza, has a prominent statue of the assassinated but long-forgotten U.S. President William McKinley. Around the plaza are shops emphasizing the bookish and progressive world of Arcata, such as Rookery Books and Arcata Artisans Fine Arts.
Farther north from Eureka, the road swings close to the coast and passes through major redwood parks, such as Prairie Creek, Del Norte, and Jedediah Smith, located in the foggy and rainy environment so conducive to optimum redwood growth. These parks were combined in 1968 to be Redwood National and State Parks. Prairie Creek Park is noted for its Fern Canyon and herds of Roosevelt elk. Del Norte Park contains attractive showings of rhododendrons and azaleas. Jedediah Smith Park, with its wild Smith River, is appreciated for its trout, salmon, and steelhead runs, as well as its pristine redwood trees along Howland Hills Road.
The interpretive center, the Kuchel Visitor Information Centre, is worth a stop at Orick. The center is located right on the coast. Headquarters for Redwood National and State Parks is in Crescent City at 1111 2nd Street.
One of the most enjoyable walks in Redwood National and State Parks is a loop in the Lady Bird Johnson grove, which shows the range of vegetation, such as the 12 kinds of ferns that grow in the redwood environment.
Wander through the string of units that form the parks to make your own private discoveries, such as the itinerant Roosevelt elk herd at Prairie Creek.
Redwood Country is itself so spread out along Highway 101 that concentrating on the parks alone would be sufficient purpose for a trip. Side trips can be made on the scenic roads that parallel the main route, such as the Old Coastal Highway near the mouth of the Klamath River. The red elderberry, red alder, and scenic views of the ocean at marked turnouts make this a particularly choice side road. An overlook at the mouth of the Klamath River is an example of the many vantage points where an ocean view in Redwood Country is pleasing. Here you can see California gray whales migrating to and from Alaska and Mexico, plus some whale pods who have chosen to establish an all-year presence. Yurok Indians managed the salmon catch on the Klamath River from time immemorial, and today a Yurok family now offers hospitality at the historic Requa Inn on a bluff overlooking the river.
There are roadside attractions that inquisitive kids in the back of the car will never let you get past, such as the Tour Thru Tree at Highway 169, Klamath Glen exit. Another attraction, Trees of Mystery, at first appears to be largely a tourist memento store, but be sure to see their End of the Trail Museum, with its elaborate Native American basketry and costume collection. Besides the Native American artifacts, such as a Crow Native American elk-tooth-adorned dress, you’ll see a distinguished collection of Edward Curtis photos. This is a good place to pick up some redwood burls as gifts.
There are, however, also quieter wonders, such as Patrick’s Point Park, a little-known state park with a re-created Yurok village, lovely campsites, and plenty of scrambling trails down to fine beaches, all in a relatively allergen-free environment. Patrick’s Point boasts handsome stands of spruce and hemlock, plus many varieties of mushrooms. Patrick’s Point’s re-created Yurok village includes bark houses and a Yurok redwood log canoe.
Del Norte Coast Redwoods Park has a beach aspect accessible from Enderts Beach Road. The view is one of the most dramatic rocky beach perspectives along the entire California coast.
Jedediah Smith Park, honoring the famed “mountain man” who explored this area in the 1820s, boasts both one of the wildest dam-free rivers in California and an old-growth redwood forest, along Howland Hills Road, that, some will argue, is the finest example of a primeval redwood forest in Northern California.
Unique lodging and dining options for the region include the stately and historic Benbow Inn and dining room south of Garberville. The Carter House Inns in Eureka, with its Restaurant 301, is a lodging and fine-dining leader. The Ferndale Victorian Inn occupies a restored downtown building and entices with its VI fine-dining restaurant. The Scotia Inn houses you in an historic redwood-logging enclave. Plaza View Stay manages several one-of-a-kind lodgings around the Arcata Plaza, close to casual dining options, including the Plaza Grill in the historic Jacoby’s Storehouse building. Family-style Elk Meadow Cottages, consisting of former mill worker houses at Prairie Creek, are an alternative and unique house-style lodging for this area. The Best Western chain of lodgings provides dependable and quality rooms at an affordable price in strategically-located motels from Garberville to Crescent City.
Nearby Trips from Redwood Country
The alternative route to Highway 101 is coast Highway 1, which takes you past the closest redwood grove to San Francisco, Muir Woods. You can drive all the way up coast Highway 1 and then follow the road over to Highway 101 to see the main redwood groves, including the Avenue of the Giants. This scenic route takes much longer, however, so use Highway 1 only if you have an extra day for exploring.
Once in Redwood Country, the lonesomeness of the Lost Coast area exerts an imaginative pull on the traveler. Drive west from Humboldt Redwoods Park on Mattole Road to Honeydew and then north on the small roads to Ferndale if you have extra-day time and if your vehicle is in good condition. A view of the remote Kings Range Mountains will alert you to the great, less-explored, and wild areas of California, bastions of the Roosevelt elk and the mountain lion.
Redwood Country: If You Go
The dependable information source for Redwood Country is the Humboldt County Convention & Visitors Bureau at www.redwoods.info.
The official National Park Service website for the California redwood parks is at www.nps.gov/redw.
This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal.
The book can be ordered on Amazon or thhrough other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page