Get ready to look up—way, way up. California has the biggest, tallest trees on the planet. Discover them at outstanding parks and preserves dotting the state. Coast redwoods, some topping out at well over 350 feet/107 meters (and still growing) live in a narrow coastal band from roughly Big Sur to the Oregon border. Giant sequoia, with trunks measuring more than 30/9 meters feet in diameter, grow on the west side of the Sierra Nevada, with some trees starting out as seedlings some 3,500 years ago. Here’s where to find them.
From Fort Bragg and the Skunk Train fun, continue northeast to this remarkable route—a narrow strip of U.S. 101 with coast redwoods so close and so tall that they create a dramatic wall of enormous russet trunks rocketing skyward as you wind through the forest.
Some of the route’s 32 miles/56 kilometres passes through the impressive stands protected within Humboldt Redwoods State Park (for more details, see next stop). Aside from the park and the sheer beauty of the drive, there are other historic finds along the way, such as the lookalike cottages in the tiny town of Scotia, once a booming “company town” for the local lumber company. And there are a handful of gift shops with tables made out of redwood burls, and folksy attractions that can add a kitschy charm to your visit. Order an espresso in the famous One-Log House (we know it’s famous because it says so right on its sign) and the privately owned (in other words, there’s a fee) Shrine Drive-Thru Tree. This is the kind of stuff that it really is fun to buy a bumper sticker and say you did it when you get back home.
Plan time now to explore historic and impressive Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Even if you’re a pro basketball player, you can’t help feeling downright puny in this stunning preserve, where soaring redwoods line up like living skyscrapers. Start your trip at the excellent Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center, one mile south of Orick. Of the five visitor centers in Redwood National and State Parks, this one is the largest, with numerous exhibits and a video on redwood ecology, a great bookstore, and access to a sandy beach. Next, do a little driving. Start 5 miles/8 kilometers north of the small hamlet of Klamath at the Klamath River Overlook, where the freshwater river meets the Pacific Ocean at a huge estuary. Perched 650 feet/198 meters above the sea, this overlook point is a prime spot for watching migrating gray whales (best time is December to April). Be sure to walk the short and easy path to the lower overlook for dramatic views of crashing surf. Then head south to cruise the Coastal Drive (great for mountain biking too). This 9-mile/13-km-long road follows the coastline, passing a radar station that was camouflaged to look like a farmhouse and barn during World War II.
Stop at the picnic area at High Bluff Overlook, then scan the sea for whales, sea lions, brown pelicans, and, in spring and summer, thousands of seabirds nesting on offshore rocks. If you want to put some miles on your hiking boots, the Klamath area features a lovely coastal walk, the Yurok Loop, which visits pristine Hidden Beach (1 mile/2 kilometers round-trip). Or, for an easy stroll beneath towering redwoods, walk the 1-mile/2-km Lady Bird Johnson Grove loop.
Established in 1931 to preserve a stunning stand of giant sequoias, this park offers one of the easiest places to see these towering trees. Head 4 miles/6.5 km east of Arnold, in the Gold Country, to the preserve, then put on your walking shoes and follow trails to North Grove, the most visited part of this 6,498-acre/2,630-hectare park, as well as quieter South Grove. Reserve a site at one of the two large campgrounds, or pitch your tent at one of five more remote walk-in sites. Summer is the busiest time of year, but spring offers showy white dogwood blossoms, and the colorful leaves of autumn create a striking contrast with the russet sequoia trunks. Seasonal activities offered by the park include campfire talks and guided walks.
To experience one of California’s most unforgettable must-sees, visit this remarkable grove, a hop-skip north of San Francisco. Tucked into an ocean-facing fold of Mount Tamalpais, the signature peak just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, Muir Woods National Monument protects the last stand of uncut old-growth coast redwoods in the Bay Area, where loggers had all but denuded the region by the late 1800s.
“The best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.”
Originally established as a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it was named in honor of the revered naturalist John Muir, who declared the site was “the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.” Even on busy days in summer, there is a remarkable hush here, especially if you arrive in early morning. Follow raised boardwalks, built to protect the redwoods’ sensitive root structure, to see the arrow-straight redwoods, some over a century old, soaring 250 feet/76 meters overhead. For an unforgettable experience, check the park’s activities calendar to go on a guided walk at dusk.
Keep in mind that the road to the park is twisty and narrow, and parking lots often fill up early in summer and on weekends. (Miss a spot in the lots and it can be a long, long walk to your car.) Your best bet is to take the public Muir Woods shuttle (March through October) from nearby Sausalito, or book a tour with a local shuttle service or tour operator.
This remarkable preserve, California’s oldest state park, is an emerald gem in the Santa Cruz Mountains. With more than 80 miles/128 kilometers of trails winding through redwood groves and other lush habitats, Big Basin makes an appealing weekend getaway for people in the Silicon Valley, about an hour’s drive west. Moms and dads love letting the kids loose to dabble their toes in clear streams, or watching them conjure up enough courage to kiss a banana slug (ask a local; it’s a belt-notch experience for many a Northern Californian).
Big Basin offers a variety of campsites, including 38 walk-in sites—a short walk lets you pitch your tent in ultimate peace and quiet. Hike, mountain bike, or ride horses on designated routes. Trekkers love the 10.5-mile/17-km Skyline to the Sea Trail, which runs along Waddell Creek to the ocean and nearby Theodore J. Hoover Natural Preserve. There are also plenty of gentle, scenic rambles, such as the 4-mile/6-km Sequoia loop trail (complete with a small waterfall), and .5-mile/1-km Redwood loop trail that takes visitors to some of the park’s tallest trees. Pick up maps and hiking tips from rangers at park headquarters, and ask about guided twilight hikes and campfire programs.
When the Native Americans traveled between the foothills and Yosemite Valley, Wawona was the halfway point on their journey. They called it Pallachun, meaning “a good place to stay.” This Indian encampment is now the small community of Wawona, home to the historic Big Trees Lodge (formerly known as the Wawona Hotel) and a private community of mountain cabins, many available to rent. Stay overnight (to relax on the wide veranda on one of the hotel’s Adirondack chairs is a Sierra right of passage), or just spend a day in the area.
The hotel reflects its 19th century roots with lights and other details that echo the elegance of the era.
In summer, take a dip in nearby swimming holes, follow the switchbacked hiking trail to Chilnualna Falls (best in spring), get a history lesson at Pioneer Yosemite History Center (and take a horse-drawn carriage ride), and visit the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, protecting more than 500 of these spectacular (and spectacularly huge) tree. The hotel itself has a small visitor center with information on more area activities. In the evening, pianist and singer Tom Bopp performs vintage songs—from cowboy tunes to sentimental love songs—that span Yosemite's history.
Wawona is also adjacent to Yosemite National Park’s south entrance, which normally provides access to the magnificent Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. However, the grove is currently undergoing a major restoration, and no vehicle or shuttle access is allowed until the project is completed (estimated finish is fall 2017). Foot and horse traffic is allowed, but only on the grove’s Outer Loop Trail, from which a limited number of sequoias can be seen. Also, you have to hike from Big Trees Lodge to the trailhead—a strenuous all-day loop. (Ask for details at the hotel visitor center.) Fortunately, there are other giant sequoias in the park accessed via other routes: visit Tuolumne Grove, on the Tioga Road just east of Crane Flat, and Merced Grove, located on the Big Oak Flat Road east of Big Oak Flat Entrance.
Want a short hike with a huge reward? The ½-mile/1-km round-trip Waterfall Overlook Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park could be the biggest-bang-for-not-much-work hike on the planet. The almost flat stroll ends an oceanfront overlook with flawless views of McWay Falls, a favourite spot of Big Sur pioneer woman Julia Pfeiffer Burns, for whom the park is named. Let’s just say Julia had good taste. The plume of water drops some 80 feet/24 meters from the top of a granite cliff to a sandy cove below (not even footprints on the sand mar the perfection, as this beach is closed to the public).
If you’re up for more of a leg stretch, also hike the 1-mile roundtrip Partington Cove Trail. The steep but short hike leads over a wooden bridge down to a 60-foot tunnel. Walk through and emerge onto the rocky beach. A few of trails at this picturesque state park are closed due to erosion—check the trails section of the park’s website for the latest information before travelling.
Make a stop along Highway 1 to visit Limekiln State Park, where you’ll discover a piece of 19th-century history while hiking trails through towering coastal redwoods. At this Big Sur park two miles south of Lucia, camping, swimming (in Limekiln Creek and at a beach), and spotting marine life carries huge appeal, but it’s undoubtedly the historic kilns that are the park’s signature attraction.
As the name suggests, Limekiln State Park was once the site of a booming limekiln operation (more on that below, if you’re scratching your head), and short walks let you not only explore the limekiln ruins but also visit the aforementioned beach and Limekiln Falls.
History explains how, in the late 1880s, limestone was harvested from a nearby slope, then fed into the hulking kilns. Intense heat—with kiln fires fueled by felled redwoods—extracted pure lime, a key ingredient in construction cement, which was used in buildings in San Francisco and Monterey.
Once all the nearby reserves of limestone and redwoods were used up, the kilns were abandoned. Slowly, the forest recovered, and the second-growth redwood stands in this park today make for a pleasant and shady escape (not to mention one with an interesting past). In the midst of this intensely naturalistic setting, the four iron-and-stone kilns rise, scarred and imposing, like monuments to some bygone civilization. It’s a dramatic contrast that’s likely to spark even the most seasoned sightseer’s imagination.
Pitch a tent—car and RV camping is not accommodated—in one of the 29 campsites located creekside, on the beachfront, and in the forest. You can reserve a site up to six months in advance.
California’s coast redwoods meet their southernmost habitat along the Big Sur coast, and this gem of a park, located 26 miles south of Carmel, is a great way to sample their deep shade and cathedral-like beauty. Hiking, biking, and riding RVs along the trails and roads, swimming in the Big Sur River, camping—the number of outdoor activities one can enjoy here in the midst of stunning surroundings make it one of the most popular parks along Highway 1.
The park’s roots are in homesteading: John Pfeiffer settled on some 160 acres here (his 1884 cabin, originally perched high above the Big Sur River Gorge, has been reconstructed along the park’s Gorge Trail). In the 1930s, Pfeiffer’s land became the first nugget of this beautiful park after he spurned offers from developers and instead sold it to the state of California, a decision that prompted the State Park Commission to name its newest addition after him.
The peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountains rise up dramatically from the Big Sur River Gorge; keep an eye out while walking along the banks for black-tailed deer, raccoons, skunks, birds such as dippers, belted kingfishers, and wild turkeys, and even the occasional bobcat. A small but appealing network of well-marked trails wends through the 1,000-acre preserve; spectacular views of the Big Sur Valley, the Big Sur River Gorge, Pacific Ocean and shoreline abound, but be aware that there is no beach or ocean access.
The large campground located in the park can accommodate hikers, bikers, car campers, and RVers. Reservations tend to fill up six months in advance, even in winter, so be sure to plan ahead. Another option is to stay in one of the 62 rustic cottages at the park’s unpretentious Big Sur Lodge.
Sure, you can simply stick your head out the window of your car to see towering trees lining Avenue of the Giants, a 32-mile/52-km-long, redwood-trimmed stretch of Highway 101. But we strongly suggest you pull over, get out, smell the piney air, hear the burbling creeks and rivers, and look way, way up to truly appreciate these amazing trees, as well as the emerald-green habitat where they live.
Conveniently, there are plenty of places to do that along the way, most notably in 53,000-acre/21,448-hectare Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Avenue of the Giants actually runs right through the park, so you can easily turn off to explore on an assortment of loop trails, like the 7.5-mile/12-km Bull Creek Loop, which lets you get a mini-glimpse of the remarkable Rockefeller Forest, home to the world’s 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th tallest trees. Also visit Founders Grove, honoring the people behind the formation of Save the Redwoods League in 1918, an organization that played a critical in the permanent protection of these remarkable trees.