Northern California has more than its fair share of beauty. And the mammoth redwoods often take center stage. As they should. Walking among the tallest trees on earth is quite the treat, but what about climbing one? Or driving through one? Or visiting gnarly ones that look an awful lot like candelabras. Good news is, you really can’t go wrong.
Climbing one of California's great redwoods is a feat few people attempt © Aaron Wockenfuss / Lonely Planet
Scale a giant
In the Santa Cruz Mountains you can do something most humans never attempt: climb to the crown of Grandfather, a redwood tree somewhere between 600 and 1,000 years old. You will win bragging rights, no doubt. It’s likely that more people have summited Mount Everest than have climbed to the top of an old-growth redwood tree.
How exactly does one climb a redwood? By planning ahead. Every March, Tree Climbing Planet offers this excursion to a limited number of people. This particular grove of redwoods, located on private property near Los Gatos, is said to be the only place on the planet to legally climb a redwood. And Tree Climbing Planet is the only outfitter that offers it.
At the crown of Grandfather, about 180 feet, your arboreal dreams come true. From the treetop you’ll have a clear view of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Capitola and the Monterey Peninsula. Keep those eyes peeled for whales passing by. It’s all thanks to Tim Kovar, the mastermind behind this climb. His M.O., to connect people with nature and inspire them to take care of our forests.
- Be sure to pull your hair back, so it doesn’t get tangled in the rope system and wear closed-toe shoes.
- Tree Climbing Planet sends out an invite list each December. To get on the list, e-mail them with “redwoods” in the subject line.
- No gear needed. It’s all provided.
If you prefer to keep both feet firmly planted on the ground, here are other epic ways to hang out with redwoods:
If keeping your feet on the ground is more your thing, you can drive through a tree in Redwood State Park © Emily Riddell / Getty Images
Drive through a redwood
The curvy two-lane road (Route 254) known as Avenue of the Giants has been around since stagecoaches were in style. It’s about 30 miles worth of old-growth redwoods to gawk at from the comfort of your car plus a tree you can actually drive through.
One standout, known as the Christmas Tree, baffles scientists. It’s one of only dozens of albino redwoods known to exist in the world. Trees need chlorophyll to survive, of course, and these beauties have none. In fact, they look as if they’ve been spray painted white. While it’s OK to visit this one, located in the Women’s Federation Grove, the location of others is kept secret in order to protect them.
Top tip: The trails along the Eel River across from Humboldt Redwoods State Park Visitor Center are a lovely place to stretch your legs.
The trees in the Shady Dell Grove are shaped by the elements © Kristin Piljay / Getty Images
Hike with seriously twisted trees
Along Mendocino County’s Lost Coast Trail is an 11-acre grove known as the Enchanted Forest. For good reason, this coastline is home to redwoods unlike any others. Their massive, gnarly limbs have been warped by the salty air, fire and coastal winds to create a forest of candelabra-like trees. Instead of growing straight up, these trees have reiterated trunks (that look like branches) just feet from the ground extending haphazardly to the sky.
Trot along the Peter Douglas Trail to the remote Shady Dell forest to see them and keep an eye out: The contorted giants make a great home base for spotted owls, bats and red tree voles.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is the best place for wildlife watching while among the giants © shoenberg3 / Getty Images
Watch wildlife among the ancients
In Redwood National Park, a cluster of several parks that joined forces, there’s 40,000 acres of ancient forest to peruse. Elk Meadows Cabins, the only lodging within the park, makes an ideal home base. An interpretive tour with Redwoods Adventures is the icing on the cake.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, within the national park, is home to plenty of impressive redwoods. One show stopper, in fact, has 220 separate trunks. Up above lives the Humboldt Flying Squirrel. Below, bright yellow banana slugs and salamanders. Plus, at Elk Prairie, there’s a good chance you’ll spot elk year round.
Above the black-sand beaches and steep cliffs at High Bluff Overlook, it’s not uncommon to spot gray whales. Below, at Klamath Beach, mind-blowing massive rocks and driftwood steal the show. Kids will be entertained for hours at False Klamath Cove searching for sea stars, urchins and anemones in the tide pools.
Osmosis Day Spa is known for its cedar enzyme bath © Osmosis Day Spa
Soak in a cedar bath (yeah, it’s a thing)
When it’s time for a breather, The Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary (osmosis.com), located in the sleepy town of Freestone, offers a cedar enzyme bath where guests lounge in a fermenting mixture of ground cedar and rice bran. It’s said to stimulate metabolic activity and improve circulation. Afterward, score more forest therapy at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve (parks.ca.gov/?page_id=450). Crowd pleasers include the Colonel Armstrong Tree, roughly 1,400 years old, and the Parson Jones Tree, the tallest in the grove at more than 310 feet. Come night time, snooze at Boon Hotel & Spa(boonhotels.com), a hip inn with redwoods on property. Fill up on brussel sprouts, polenta lasagna and truffle fries at boon eat + drink on Main Street.
Wander through this amazing forest for the most dramatic views © John Elk / Getty Images
Discover the dreamiest views
Mild temps combined with winter drizzles and fog make the Santa Cruz Mountains an ideal habitat for redwoods. More specifically, Big Basin Redwoods State Park where waterfalls and redwoods reign supreme. Trot along the flat 8-mile Redwood Grove Loop Trail or snag a bird’s-eye view from the 805-foot-high observation deck on the Cowell Highlights Loop. Grab provisions at Boulder Creek Roadside Cafe and stay a while. The Huckleberry Campground is open year-round.
Imagine Star Wars speeder bikes racing through the trees as you gawk at the redwoods © Charles Sperry / Getty Images
Cruise through on a speeder bike
Just kidding you can't really do that, but you can meander through the cathedral-like groves in Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park. This impressive but off the beaten path grove is well worth it for Star Wars fans, because Cheatam Grove is where the famous Return of the Jedi speeder bike chase scene is said to have been filmed. Added bonus: You won’t find hordes of people here. Cool off with a dip in the Van Duzen River. When hunger strikes, head to Fortuna, about 20 miles west. Eel River Brewing Company, the first organic microbrew in the nation, serves up award-winning beers and Humboldt grass-fed beef burgers.
Consider the America The Beautiful pass for your redwoods road trip. It covers entrance for a driver and all passengers at parks that charge per-vehicle and covers up to four adults at sites that charge by the head.
Redwoods dos and don’ts
Follow designated trails. Going off trail can damage the fragile understory.
These special forest communities support life not found anywhere else on the planet. Plus, they soak up carbon dioxide more efficiently than any other forest ecosystem. To help protect the redwoods, visit Save the Redwoods League(savetheredwoods.org).
Sarah Sekula traveled to California with support from Visit California. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.