North Coast & Redwoods
This is not the legendary California of the Beach Boys' song – there are no palm-flanked beaches and very few surfboards. The jagged edge of the continent is wild, scenic and even slightly foreboding, where spectral fog and an outsider spirit have fostered the world’s tallest trees, most potent weed and a string of idiosyncratic two-stoplight towns. Explore hidden coves with a blanket and a bottle of local wine, scan the horizon for migrating whales and retreat at night to fire-warmed Victorians. As you travel further north, find valleys of redwood, wide rivers and mossy, overgrown forests. Expect cooler, damper weather too. Befitting this dramatic clash of land and water are its unlikely mélange of residents: timber barons and tree huggers, pot farmers and radicals of every political persuasion.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout North Coast & Redwoods.
Along Hwy 101, 53,000-acre Humboldt Redwoods State Park protects some of the world's oldest redwoods and has three-quarters of the world's tallest 100 trees. Even if you don't have time to hike in, drive the park's awe-inspiring Avenue of the Giants, a 32-mile, two-lane road parallel to Hwy 101.
Famous for some of the world's best virgin redwood groves and unspoiled coastline, this 14,000-acre section of Redwood National & State Parks has spectacular scenic drives and 75 miles of mainly shady hiking trails, many of which are excellent for children. Kids of all ages will enjoy the magnificent herd of elk here, which can generally be spied grazing at the Elk Prairie, signposted from the highway; the best times to be sure of seeing the elk are early morning and around sunset.
The northernmost park, Jedediah Smith is 9 miles northeast of Crescent City (via Hwy 101 north to Hwy 199 east). The redwood stands are so thick that few trails penetrate the park, but the outstanding 11-mile Howland Hill Rd scenic drive cuts through otherwise inaccessible areas (take Hwy 199 to South Fork Rd; turn right after crossing two bridges). It’s a rough gravel road and not recommended for RVs, but if you can’t hike, it’s the best way to see the forest.
Stunning 6000-acre Salt Point State Park has sandstone cliffs that drop dramatically into the kelp-strewn sea and hiking trails that crisscross windswept prairies and wooded hills, connecting pygmy forests and coastal coves rich with tidepools. The 6-mile-wide park is bisected by the San Andreas Fault – the rock on the east side is vastly different from that on the west. Check out the eerily beautiful tafonis, honeycombed-sandstone formations, near Gerstle Cove. For a good roadside photo op, there’s a pullout at mile marker 45.
This park is the southernmost of a patchwork of state and federally administered lands under the umbrella of Redwood National & State Parks. After picking up a map at the visitor center, you’ll have a suite of choices for hiking. A few miles north along Hwy 101, a trip inland on Bald Hills Rd will take you to Lady Bird Johnson Grove, with its 1½-mile kid-friendly loop trail, or get you lost in the secluded serenity of Tall Trees Grove.
Marked by steep canyons and dense woods north of Klamath, this park contains 15 miles of hiking trails and several old logging roads that are a mountain biker's dream. Many routes pass by branches of Mill Creek (bring your fishing rod). The park also fronts 8 miles of rugged coastline.
The mouth of the Klamath River is a dramatic sight. Marine, riparian, forest and meadow ecological zones all converge and the birding is exceptional. For the best views, head north of town to Requa Rd and the Klamath River Overlook and picnic on high bluffs above driftwood-strewn beaches. On a clear day, this is one of the most spectacular viewpoints on the North Coast, and one of the best whale-watching spots in California.
This iconic lighthouse was constructed in 1870, destroyed in a 1906 earthquake and then rebuilt in 1908. It remains the tallest on the US West Coast (tied with nearby Pigeon Point) at 115ft. Check in at the museum and have a look at the Fresnel lens, then climb 145 steps to the top for the jaw-dropping view. You can stay nearby in keeper's homes and apartments. The turnoff is 2 miles northwest of town off Hwy 1.
This gem of Northern California displays native flora, rhododendrons and heritage roses. The succulent display alone is amazing and the organic garden is harvested by volunteers to feed area residents in need. The serpentine paths wander along 47 seafront acres south of town. Primary trails are wheelchair accessible.