Redwood National + State Parks Overview | Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park | Del Norte Coast Redwood State Park | Prairie Creek Redwood State Park | Redwood National Park | Nearby Points of Interest | Weather | Pets
Imagine the hollow halls of a redwood forest, ruddy pillars barked and bare of branches, the air redolent with decaying wood and clouded with fog. Distant sounds of traffic and voices fall away under the hush of a light rain. Ferns quiver under the condensing moisture that drips from frond tips in irregular beats. You are among giants, and their heights vanish in a sky lit by a sun hung somewhere above the impenetrable fog. A wind rises and the clouds clear, the trunks become illuminated by beams of light, limbs branch hundreds of feet off of the ground and crowns higher still, and laurels rest atop the tallest trees on earth.
Few places in the world command the awe of a redwood grove in Redwood National and State Parks. The collective of Redwood National Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Parks along northern California’s Pacific coast is home to some of the finest forest scenery in the world. Delving into this international biosphere reserve is a must for anyone who appreciates forest beauty.
Prior to Euro-American inhabitation, the Yurok, Tolowa, Karok, Chilula and Wiyot Native American tribes lived in the northern coastal region of modern-day California. Jedediah Smith was the first explorer of European descent to reach the area of the redwoods in 1828. The westward exploration and settlement by Europeans brought gold prospecting to the area, eventually turning to logging interests when gold prospects diminished. Originally over 2 million acres of redwood forest, extensive logging in the area stoked conservationist interests in the early 20th century. The first endowment of land that would become Prairie Creek State Park was donated in 1923. In 1925, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park was established. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, situated along the banks of the Smith River, was established in 1939. Redwood National Park followed later in the century, established in 1968 across sections of both Del Norte and Humboldt Counties. In 1994, in an effort to create greater protection and to enhance ecological corridors for over 105,000 acres of redwood forest, the National Park Service and California State Parks decided to combine management of Redwood National Park and the three state parks.
The coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirons, is the tallest species of single-stem tree on earth, and the tallest tree on earth grows in Redwood National and State Parks. A combination of factors contributes to its sheer size. Heavy seasonal rains, cool ocean air and fog keep the trees consistently wet throughout the year. Thick bark rich in tannins keep them safe from fire damage and pests—and in fact, severe fires have been proven to remove competing species. The giants also rely on an ecosystem of decomposition to restore adequate soil nutrients that the trees need to survive and thrive.
In many places these trees grow well over 300 feet tall (the tallest reaching heights close to 400 feet) and can live up to and beyond 2,000 years of age. Some of these groves have been disclosed publicly—they can be visited in the parks today. However, in recent years efforts to explore the old-growth trees have revealed groves of trees found to exceed even the tallest recorded measurements. In the interest of preservation, the locations of these groves have not been revealed. Excessive visitation can cause root damage, which can cause the crown of a redwood to die back.
Today visitors can easily experience the beauty of old-growth coast redwoods by visiting any or the combination of Redwood National and State Parks. Highways 199, 101 and the Newton B. Drury Parkway pass right through a series of the gargantuan groves and provide direct access heading north to south. To fully experience the grandeur and resounding peacefulness endemic to the ancient redwood groves, it should be noted, one should step away from the car and wander out into the woods.
While Redwood National Park to the south has many of the world’s tallest trees, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park has some of its largest by volume, dwarfed only by a handful of giant sequoias along the western slope of California’s Sierra Nevada. At 10,000 acres, it is the smallest of the parks, and it is also one of the least developed. Only two trails cross the park’s interior. Nevertheless, the park offers towering redwoods of a size known in few other places on earth. This is the home of the storied Grove of Titans, where grow the largest, third-largest and sixth-largest redwoods by volume. This is also the home of the Smith River, a federally designated Wild and Scenic River, which flows through much of the the park and connects the groves with the sea.
A comfortable redwood-shaded campground is available at Jedediah Smith Campground. The site is just across the river from Stout Memorial Grove on the banks of the scenic Smith River. During the busy summer season, the campground at Jedediah Smith is often full (as is true with nearly all of the drive-in campgrounds in Redwood National and State Parks). Advanced reservations are recommended. Alternative campground options near Jedediah Smith include Panther Flat and Florence Keller County Park and Campground.
Most of Del Norte’s old-growth redwood groves are located along Highway 101, and the park boasts only two, albeit remarkable, old-growth trails. That didn’t change with the addition of the Mill Creek watershed in 2002, a 40 square-mile tract of timberland that was clear cut several decades ago. The experience is considerably different than other parts of the Redwoods National and State Parks.
Camp at Mill Creek Campground, sequestered from Highway 101 near the Mill Creek logging roads. Isolated from the highway, it receives far less noise than other campgrounds in the park. Campsites are also available at DeMartin Campground along the Coastal Trail in the southern part of Del Norte. The Coastal Trail in this section offers a different perspective of the coastal woodland—brighter, more open tracts of alder, spruce and fir. Nickel Creek is an option as well, a primitive campground right on the coast due west of Mill Creek Campground.
The original park of Redwoods National and State Parks to first protect the ancient redwoods, Prairie Creek may also be the most diverse in terms of natural features that are sure to pique the interest of visitors. From massive old-growth trees to a free-roaming Roosevelt elk population, from beach access to a fairy tale-like fern lined slot canyon, Prairie Creek is a definite highlight of the parks.
Redwood National Park is a great way to take in a rugged wilderness experience, and much of it is backcountry terrain accessed by foot and old-logging roads. However, if you’re looking for tree trunks bigger than a Volkswagen bus and canopies 350 feet from the forest floor within striking distance of the highway, the three state parks are a surer bet. Opened before significant logging interests clear-cut the area, Jedediah Smith, Prairie Creek and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Parks preserved the old-growth forest that claims some of the world’s biggest trees. Redwood National Park, on the other hand, was established in 1968, and while it claims its share of the world’s tallest, including the nearly 380-foot-tall Hyperion, trail building rules have kept travelers at a distance and logging activity has left Redwood National Park denuded of 90% of its old-growth stands.
While the old-growth redwoods are undoubtedly the highlight of any visit to the Redwood National and State Parks area, there are a few other points of interest in the region visitors should consider adding to their list of places to see if time allows. Crescent City, situated on the coast between Jedediah Smith and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Parks, is the nearest town with of all the modern conveniences and amenities. It also happens to have some of California's oldest lighthouses and some incredibly scenic shoreline, as does the coastline to the south of the parks.
Inhabiting a mild coastal climate, Redwood National and State Parks can be pleasant to visit anytime of year. Winter typically brings occasional heavy storms and consistent rainfall but these are often interspersed with long stretches of clear and sunny weather and next-to-nothing crowds. Summer, on the other hand, is the busiest season in the parks, and this is when competition for camping and crowds in popular and accessible groves are common. Spring through summer is typically the foggiest time of year along the redwood coast, but this regularly burns off in the afternoon when temperatures can rise into the 80s. The shade and moist setting of the coast redwood forest floor can keep things cool anytime of year, so make sure to pack a layer when setting off for a redwood hike. Fall is perhaps the best mix of sunny weather and fewer crowds.
As is the case with all national parks, pets are prohibited in most areas. Pets on a leash no longer than 6 feet are allowed in campgrounds, picnic areas, parking lots, and on roads. They are also allowed on a leash on Crescent, Gold Bluffs, Hidden, and Freshwater beaches, though dune habitat is off limits.