This Ancient National Park Is Home to Some of the Tallest Trees on Earth
Skyscrapers have nothing on California redwoods.
Human beings could stand to learn a little humility, and what better way than by gawking at trees so tall they make the Statue of Liberty look like a mannequin? There’s something awe-inspiring and humbling about traipsing through a forest of titans in Redwood National and State Parks, a mossy, 139,000-acre maze of sky-scraping flora along California’s northern coast. This old-growth forest is home to some of the tallest and oldest trees on Earth—some ascending upwards of 370 feet, some older than Christ—and about 45% of all remaining coastal redwoods on the planet.
Par for the course, Native Americans once lived here in peace before the early 20th century, when the timber gold rush forced them out so lumberjacks could treat the woods like an all-you-can-eat buffet; during this time, the forest dwindled from 2 million acres in the 1800s to the alarming 39,000 acres of old-growth that remain today. In 1918, the Save the Redwoods League was formed to preserve the rest, leading to the establishment of the three state parks, followed by Redwood National Park in 1968. To more wholly protect and administer these vulnerable forests—as well as the endangered wildlife, craggy coasts, meandering rivers, and grassland prairies within—all four parks combined in 1994, now operating as a joint network.
In a world of calamity, variants, political division, tax seasons, and bickering about the Sex & the City reboot, the mighty trees are a reprieve, forcing you to slow down, marvel at the majesty of Mother Nature, and just breathe. While the immense forest is now but a whisper of its once-widespread swath, visiting this important park is a reminder of the delicacy of life and the soaring beauty of it all, if we just let it be. Here’s how to best soak in the grandeur of this national treasure.
Hit the trails, rivers, and tide pools
All the requisite national park goodies are up for grabs in Redwood National and State Parks, from leisurely hiking trails, kayaking, cycling to scenic drives so distractingly beautiful you’ll need to actively remind yourself not to focus on the road. No matter your fitness level or time constraints, the park has a trail for everyone. The Stout Memorial Grove Trail packs a wallop of wow in half a mile, with its 44-acre grove of redwoods along the shimmering Smith River, which makes for a dazzling picnic destination. For something a bit heftier, the 5.5-mile Boy Scout Trail weaves through tall trees, over streams, and past fern-clad waterfalls in the northern section of the park, near Crescent City.
More fern action can be experienced in Fern Canyon, a mile-long loop trail through a canyon so leafy-green it practically glows. One of the more popular trails in the park, it’s well worth the crowds and the inevitable fact that your shoes will get wet. Just be mindful that a herd of Roosevelt elk often resides here, and it’s important to maintain substantial distance, lest you find out what it feels like to get throttled by antlers.
Another quintessential trek is the 1.5-mile loop through Lady Bird Johnson Grove, a striking stretch of ridge-top trees that looks even lusher thanks to the higher elevation and greater precipitation. Looking to work up a sweat? The toughest trail in the park is Tall Trees Grove, a four-mile backcountry hike with 1,600 feet of elevation gain that requires a permit reserved at least 48 hours in advance.
Beyond the trails, there’s much to explore on and in water as well. Tidepooling is an immersive pastime along the rugged, rocky coast at places like Endert’s Beach or False Klamath Cove, where visitors can wade through icy water during low tide to marvel at multi-colored sea stars and watch for whales and seals. Due to the merciless unpredictability of the ocean, it’s advised that tide poolers only visit right before the lowest tide and wear water shoes with a firm grip, since algae can be as slippery as a cartoon banana peel. If you do pick up a sea star (not encouraged, but not forbidden either!), be sure and place it back exactly where you found it.
Further inland, kayaking is another aquatic adventure all its own. The Smith River, so pristine you can clearly see the bottom, is the largest free-flowing river system in California, accessible for paddlers on ranger-led tours or with area rentals and guides. Kayaking is typically permitted during the summer months when the white water is mild and the river isn’t so cold that you’ll immediately succumb to hypothermia in the likely event that you get soaked.
Follow in the footsteps of Bigfoot, dinosaurs, and Ewoks
With its larger-than-life atmosphere, billowing fog, and trees so massive they look like vertical blue whales, it’s no wonder that the coastal redwood forests have become a magnet for cinephiles. In addition to 1,200-pound elk, river otters, and beavers, the park has played host to many a fictional critter: This is where the forest scenes in Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World were filmed (apparently, national parks and Jurassic Park are more alike than you’d think). Ditto the speeder chase sequence with Ewoks in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Outbreak, the Dustin Hoffman-starring movie about a much-too-relevant viral contagion, was also filmed in the park.
Perhaps the most prominent piece of mythos, though, belongs to Bigfoot. Whether you believe in it or not, the North American Sasquatch has become quite the cottage industry for the region: Not only are Bigfoot signs and Bigfoot-themed businesses abundant, but there’s a full-fledged Bigfoot Scenic Byway that winds through the region just east of the national park. It starts in Willow Creek, nicknamed the “Gateway to Big Country” for the numerous purported sightings in the area during the oddly specific year of 1958; the town also hosts the annual Bigfoot Daze festival with parades, vendors, and activities.
From Willow Creek, the Bigfoot shenanigans continue north for 153 miles, passing by countless Bigfoot-themed attractions along the way, from Bigfoot Steakhouse to the Bluff Creek Historic Trail in Orleans, where two filmmakers famously captured vague, hazy footage of a hairy beast in 1967. Plenty of regions and parks across the country lay claim to Bigfoot sightings, but if the behemoth creature is real, it only makes sense they’d reside amongst the world’s biggest trees.
Where to stay near Redwood National and State Parks
If you’re undeterred by potential Bigfoot encounters and you’d like to stay the night in or around Redwood National and State Parks, you’re in luck! The park has four developed campgrounds, all managed by California State Parks, and all of which can accommodate tents and small RVs or camper vans. They’re all quite popular in the summer, and reservations are encouraged.
For something a bit more furnished, you’ll need to leave the park to book a room in a nearby town like Crescent City, Klamath, or Eureka. There are plenty of chain motels and hotels, but The Historic Eagle House, outfitted with ornate Victorian rooms at The Inn at 2nd & C, is a stunning alternative and a blast from the past. Here, you can get a locally sourced meal and a masterfully mixed cocktail at Phatsy Kline’s Parlor Lounge, and who would say no to a place called Phatsy Kline’s?