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Exploring Redwood National Park

Big Tree Wayside. Photo National Park Service
Big Tree Wayside. Photo National Park Service.

By Deborah Gaines

Even the greatest writers struggle to describe redwood trees. John Steinbeck called them “ambassadors from another time,” while Walt Whitman hailed “the deities of the West.” Theodore Roosevelt compared a grove of giant redwoods to “a great and beautiful cathedral.”

For a long time, I just didn’t get it. I’d visited the pocket-sized Muir Woods, less than an hour north of San Francisco, elbowing past busloads of day trippers to walk a mile through the old-growth forest. It was impressive, but I wouldn’t describe it as life changing. I certainly wouldn’t say, as Steinbeck did, The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always.”

Patch of sunlight. Photo Deborah Gaines
Patch of sunlight. Photo Deborah Gaines

Then recently, on a road trip from Arcata, CA to Portland, friends brought me to the Redwood National and State Parks, collectively known as the Redwood National Forest. To give you a sense of scale, RNF is more than fifty times larger than Muir Woods. It’s composed of four connected areas—Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek State Park, Jedediah Smith State Park, and Del Norte State Park—protecting nearly half of all remaining old-growth redwood trees.

Driving north on U.S. Highway 101, we parked near the Prairie Creek Visitor Center and followed signs to a well-marked set of trails, choosing an easy, 2.5 mile loop. Within five minutes, we had left the other visitors and traffic noise behind.

Soaring trees crowded the trail in all directions, some of them substantially larger than I’d seen before. (The Muir redwoods top out at 250 feet while their older, wilder cousins can reach 350—the height of a 40-story building.) Sunlight filtered through latticed branches, illuminating wild azaleas and lush ferns cloaking the forest floor.

The only sounds were our footsteps, the rustling leaves, and the murmur of a creek in the distance. The air felt expectant, like a church before the pipe organ sounds its first note.

Suddenly, the hype made sense.

Redwood roots. Photo Deborah Gaines (1)
Redwood roots. Photo Deborah Gaines

As we moved deeper into the forest, we came upon more wonders: broken trunks in fantastical shapes, some with what seemed to be ghostly faces. A hollow tree you could climb inside, peering through a narrowing tunnel to glimpse blue sky hundreds of feet above.

A friendly ranger told us that elk, blacktail deer, bobcats, and black bears are often sighted in the woods and coastal prairies. The redwood ecosystem is also home to 280 species of birds, from great horned owls to ruffed grouse, red-tailed hawks, and bald eagles.

A detour down a paved path brought us to the behemoth known as Big Tree Wayside. Nearly 300 feet tall and 75 in circumference, it’s estimated to be 1,500 years old.

Hiking in the Redwoods. Photo Deborah Gaines (3)
Hiking in the Redwoods. Photo Deborah Gaines

The lone tree was amazing, yet somehow less impressive than the cumulative effect of the forest. Out on the trail, the sheer “otherness” of the landscape is overwhelming, like visiting an alien world.

The experience was, dare I say it, transformative. Whatever force or higher power created this landscape was truly beyond my imagination. Or, as Anne Lamott put it, “I don’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity. I just need to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.”

Getting There

Redwood National and State Parks is located in the northernmost part of California, along the Pacific Coast. The protected area stretches from Crescent City, near the Oregon border, to the Redwood Creek watershed below Orick, CA.

By Air: We flew into Arcata-Eureka Airport (ACV), an hour-long flight from San Francisco on United Airlines. Car rentals are available at the airport through Enterprise, National, and Hertz. The park starts 25 miles north of the airport and continues for 50 miles. You can also fly from Oakland to Crescent City via Contour Airlines.

By car: The park is located roughly halfway between San Francisco and Portland, with a six-hour, scenic drive in either direction.To avoid getting lost, use the park map to choose a specific destination.

Arcata, CA Photo Deborah Gaines (1)
Arcata, CA Photo Deborah Gaines

Where to Stay

We stayed in Arcata, CA, a friendly Humboldt County town best known for its annual Kinetic Grand Championship. Nearby Trinidad offers great views of the rugged Pacific coastline as well as B&Bs like Lost Whale Inn and Turtle Rocks Inn.

There’s also camping in the park itself, with both developed campgrounds and backcountry camping permits available. Reservations are required.

Well marked trails. Photo Deborah Gaines (1)
Well marked trails. Photo Deborah Gaines

 Top Tips

Start your visit at one of five Information Centers along the park’s north-south corridor. Check current conditions for closures and other important information before you head out.

Guidebooks recommend “top” attractions like Fern Creek Canyon, where towering walls of greenery rise above a tranquil creek; the ten-mile scenic drive along Howland Hills Road; and the magnificent ocean views of the Klamath River Overlook. They’re all amazing, but the truth is, you can’t go wrong. Grab a map, some hiking boots, and a daypack with snacks and water, and set off on your own adventure.

Finally, if hiking isn’t your thing, you can explore the parks by car or bicycle. There are also seasonal ranger-led programs, including kayak tours during the summer.

More information: www.nps.gov/redw


Deborah Gaines is based in New Jersey when she’s not on the road. Her work appears in Huffington Post, Salon, and AARP, among others. Follow her Instagram at @deborahgaineswriter or visit deborahgaines.net

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  1. July 20, 2023 at 1:44 pm — Reply

    Excellent article! John Mariani

  2. July 20, 2023 at 2:53 pm — Reply

    Thank you, John, I’m honored! I love your work.

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