by Andrew Morrison & Michelle Sproule | Redwoods National Park can be a little confusing. It’s huge – some 540 square kilometers – and spread out along the north-western extreme of California’s rocky, foggy, staggering, stunning coast, broken up here and there by towns both small and big, its borders muddied by its inclusion of three State Parks: Del Norte, Prairie Creek, and Jedediah Smith. If it looks on maps to have been put together piecemeal and in something of a hurry, that’s because it was.
The State Parks were set aside in the 1920s, but the National Park that connects them (they are administratively combined) didn’t come into being until 1968, when an act of Congress finally moved to protect what was left of the remaining stands of old growth coast redwood forest. At that point, over 90% of the original 8,100 square kilometer forest had already been logged, so…better late than never.
Resistant to insects, fire, and rot, the coast redwood, or Sequoia sempervirens, is the tallest tree on earth, growing to heights of up to 379 feet. They’re also one of the oldest, living up to (and possibly) 2,000 years. To put them into perspective for Vancouverites, Grandpa Capilano – probably the biggest tree in the Lower Mainland – is only 200 feet high and 500 years old. These guys are big. Sleeping among them is a singular experience. Waking up among them is pure magic.
Our favourite area of the park is the northernmost section: Jedediah Smith. It’s named after a young explorer who was the first European to travel west of the Mississippi and across the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific Coast (1821). It’s also where they shot the Endor speeder bike chase scene (above) in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi…
The quickest way is to drive south on the I5 from Portland. It’s a little over five hours, but this particular interstate was dreamed up engineers bereft of any aesthetic sensibility, so it’s a cruelly monotonous ribbon littered with fast food and gasoline exits. Right when it starts to get interesting – at Grant’s Pass – you leave it to connect to the Redwoods Highway (199), a scenic beauty that snakes across the California border through breathtaking riparian woodland.
The other, better option, is to just cruise down the Oregon coast on the 101 from Astoria to Coos Bay and then slip into California via Brookings. The turnoff to Jedediah Smith is right there. Though this route will tack another day (or two) onto your trip, it’s one of the most beautiful coastlines on the planet, and the towns offer plenty of distractions that are worth slowing down for (we dig Cannon Beach for its sandy sprawl and Tillamook for its cheese and vintage aircraft museum).
– Getting among the trees is essential. Taking any of the backpacking trails in Jedediah Smith is hugely recommended. The Wellman (1.5 miles), Hatton (4.3 miles), and Hiouchi (4.4 miles) trails make for solid excursions of varying lengths, and swimming in the Smith River – especially placid and clear near the campground in summer – is a cool respite.
– Beyond the forest, check out the vast beach at Kuchel Visitor Center, which is just south of the small town of Orick. The Visitor’s Center itself offers a ton of information about the park and its history, and helps in orienting first timers.
– Orick is home to a gigantic, nine ton “peanut” carved from a redwood trunk by resident loggers and sent as a protest/insult to President Jimmy Carter (previously a peanut farmer) who sought – successfully – to expand the National Park’s borders in the 1970s. It also sports an old school diner – The Palm Cafe – that we’re particularly fond of on account of its delicious pie.
– Sip cold beers and stuff yourself with Mexican food at Torero’s in Crescent City.
– Keep an eye out for the Roosevelt Elk that wander around the fields at the aptly named Elk Meadows. Majestic creatures! The park is also home to black bear, deer, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, skunks, fox, beaver, and river otter, plus countless bird species. Keep your ears peeled for Spotted Owls at night. They might be extremely rare, but this is their house.
– Take a breather and behold the beauty of the Humboldt Lagoons.
– The 101 Drive Thru in the small town of Willits has the region’s best burgers, shakes, and fries. It’s an essential stop for anyone driving through the Redwoods.
– Must drive detours: the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, Avenue of the Giants, Coastal Drive, and the graded but unpaved Howland Hills.
– Lady Bird Johnson Grove (named after the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson) is super dreamy; a hilly section of old growth forest. We find it to be the most peaceful (and yet readily accessible) area of the park. If you’re as into birds as Andrew is, welcome home.
Cheap & Amazing | Jedediah Smith State Park Campground | One of our favourite places to camp on the planet. Try to score site #58 (pictured above). It’s right next to the Smith River and sports pretty steady cellphone reception.
High End & Amazing | Benbow Historic Inn | This 1926 Tudor gem is just off the Avenue of the Giants and comes complete with a full service restaurant, swimming pool, Eel River access, and a 9 hole golf course.