Near the northern border of California, straddling an ancient redwood forest and the wild and windswept Pacific coast, Humboldt County is one of the most uniquely beautiful places in the world.
More than 45 percent of California’s remaining protected old-growth coast redwood forests are in Humboldt County’s Redwood National Park, and there are more than 110 miles of coastline offering some of the state’s best beachcombing. Here’s our guide to some of our favorite stops in the old-growth redwoods and on California’s Lost Coast.
Editor's note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government advice.
Fern Canyon and the Prairie Creek Redwoods
If it looks like a scene from Jurassic Park, that’s because it is – Fern Canyon is where a pack of turkey-sized compsognathi hunted down and ate Dieter Stark in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
In this remote corner of Humboldt County’s Prairie Creek Redwoods, a shallow creek called “Home” runs through a narrow gorge, and the 50- to 80-foot walls are lined with a half-dozen types of fern, including western sword fern, licorice fern, and California maidenhair. In the summer, wooden planks crisscross the shallow creek, but it still takes some finesse to avoid getting your feet wet, so waterproof shoes are advised.
Small waterfalls cascade down the canyon walls and if you’re paying attention, you might even catch sight of a northern red-legged frog or Pacific giant salamander.
The canyon floor can be reached on foot, beginning at the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park visitor center. If you’d rather avoid the five-mile hike, there’s a dirt road that puts you within a quarter-mile of the gorge. From the parking lot there, you’ll have to ford a stream, but it’s an easy walk along the creek into the canyon, ending with a stair climb out.
You can return to the parking lot along the canyon rim through a forest of Sitka spruce and Douglas fir, though many visitors prefer to retrace their steps.
While driving out of the Prairie Creek Redwoods, watch for herds of Humboldt County’s famous Roosevelt elk, which can often be seen grazing in the meadows and along the roadsides. Elk Prairie on the Newton Drury Scenic Parkway, Elk Meadow on Davison Road off Highway 101 and Gold Bluffs Beach are the three best places for elk viewing. Elk can be unpredictable, so remember to keep your distance.
Agate Beach and Patrick’s Point
Few California beaches are as generous to beachcombers as Agate Beach, just north of Trinidad in Humboldt County’s Patrick’s Point State Park. At low tide, you’ll find abundant sea-polished agates, smooth pieces of driftwood and occasional seashells. Good finds are possible on any part of the beach, but the best place to look is at the mouth of the small creek that flows into the ocean. You’ll get first pick if you arrive in the early morning, but even afternoon visitors are unlikely to leave disappointed.
Located at the north end of Patrick’s Point State Park, the Agate Beach access trail is a bit of a challenge – it’s a moderately steep descent, and you’ll have to do a little climbing over the eroded wooden steps towards the bottom of the trail. If you’d prefer a more leisurely stroll, you can also access the lower end of Agate Beach from the Big Lagoon parking lot.
Once your pockets are full of semi-precious stones, the rest of Patrick’s Point State Park is worth additional exploration. Sumêg, a reproduction Yurok fishing village built by Humboldt County’s local Yurok people, features traditional indigenous family homes, a sweathouse, a dance house, and a redwood canoe.
Grizzly Creek Redwoods and Redwood National Park
No one seems to know exactly where most of Return of the Jedi’s moon of Endor scenes were shot (much of the filming was done on private land, which was subsequently clear-cut). However, the Steadicam shots of the speeder bike chase may have happened in southern Humboldt County, at Cheatham Grove at the Grizzly Creek Redwoods, a small, off-the-beaten-path state park 15 miles east of Highway 101.
If nothing else, Cheatham Grove has the look of the forest moon. A hike through these ancient trees may not reveal any Ewoks but it will definitely give you a sense of being somewhere far, far away.
About an hour south of Grizzly Creek is the Humboldt Redwoods’ famed Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile scenic drive down historic Highway 101. The Avenue of the Giants runs parallel to Highway 101 itself and will take you into the heart of an old-growth forest.
The most iconic stop on the drive is Founders Grove, which offers a short loop trail that passes the 346-foot Founder’s Tree and the fallen Dyerville Giant. Founder’s Grove is an easy walk, but its proximity to Highway 101 means it lacks the quiet serenity of some of the other hikes.
If you’d prefer a less well-traveled route, drive four miles down Mattole Road to the Big Trees Area, where a much quieter and less-popular hike will take you to some of the park’s true giants, including the 366.5-foot “Tall Tree” and “Giant Tree,” which has a circumference of 53 feet.
Getting there and where to stay
Highway 101 will take you all the way north from the Avenue of the Giants to Patrick’s Point State Park, and through the Prairie Creek Redwoods.
Humboldt County is a paradise for campers, with tent and RV campsites available on the beach or beneath the redwood trees. If you prefer a warm bed and a hot shower, there are bed-and-breakfasts scattered throughout the area, including the Benbow Historic Inn in Garberville and the Trinidad Bay Bed & Breakfast Hotel near Patrick’s Point.
Early summer can be frigid, so the best time to plan a visit is in late summer when the temperature is mild and beaches are inviting.
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This article was originally published in September 2019 and updated in October 2020.