This is Part Two in our two-post series on Redwood National and State Parks in the northwest corner of California. Part One was published September 18.
In this post, I’ll take you on a cruise through the park, beginning at the south entrance on US 101. This is where most visitors enter. The total distance of our jaunt is 40 miles, plus side trips.
Forty awesome miles
About 18 miles north of Trinidad, US 101 runs along an isthmus between a freshwater lagoon and the ocean. Just before the highway veers inland, you’ll come to the turnoff on the left for the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center – largest in the park. Be sure to stop here for the exhibits and the helpful rangers. While there, check the schedule of ranger-led events, and ask where the park’s elk are hanging out; it varies.
Back on 101, you soon come to the hamlet of Orick, where elk can sometimes be spotted. Just beyond Orick is the turnoff on the right for Bald Hills Road. A couple of miles up that road will bring you to the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, one of the best places to get up close and personal with the redwoods.
Soon after you rejoin US 101, you enter Prairie Creek State Park. The next junction is for Davison Road. Don’t miss this one! Right after the turn, you arrive at the viewing area where I’ve had the best luck photographing elk.
Caution: Horny elk!
Caution: August to October is the rutting season for the bull elk. They’re big, not very bright and extremely horny. Give them plenty of space during this time!
West of there, Davison Road is a bumpy unpaved road not suitable for trailers or giant RVs. It leads about 4 miles to Gold Bluffs Beach, where there’s a campground, giant piles of driftwood, excellent views, and usually a few elk. Drive north following the signs to Fern Canyon. This is one of the park’s top attractions. You’ll get dinged for a state park day use fee when you arrive at the beach area.
At Fern Canyon, (pictured above), a small creek runs through a gorge with vertical walls and incredibly lush vegetation. Both Return of the Jedi and Jurassic Park used this as a shooting location. The path is short and level, and there are usually slabs of wood you can use for crossing the creek. For a nice preview of Fern Canyon, watch this short YouTube video (no narration, but nice visuals): www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pn3Mgea9BD0
After you return to US 101, you’ll soon come to the exit for the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. Exit here. This is a 10-mile section of old US 101 that’s now a leisurely route through some appealing redwood scenery. Just north of the parkway’s beginning is the entrance to Prairie Creek State Park’s visitor center and campground. If you’ve already stopped at the Kuchel Visitor Center and were able to view elk along Davison Road, you can skip this turnoff. Instead, continue north on the Drury Parkway. Along the way are several turnouts and trailheads, where you can get into the forest.
The parkway rejoins US 101 just before the bridge that crosses the Klamath River. Turnoffs before and after the bridge offer scenic coastal views. First, take Exit 768 for Klamath Beach Road, turn left, then follow that road 4 miles to Coastal Drive – a loop road offering great views of the rugged coastline. Parts are unpaved and bumpy but okay for cars driven carefully.
After crossing the Klamath on US 101, turn left on Requa Road after 2.7 miles, and follow it to the Klamath River Overlook. This is a picnic area with restrooms. The views, in good weather, are awesome; it’s a good whale-watching spot during the annual gray whale migration.
Back on US 101, you’re now in Del Norte Redwoods State Park. Along the way, you pass the Trees of Mystery, a roadside attraction that’s been around since I was a kid and may be a worthwhile stop if you have children with you. A few miles beyond that, the highway kisses the coast, offering views of offshore sea stacks and tidepools.
Stout Redwood Grove — scenic highlight
If you’re visiting between mid-May and mid-June, stop near the trailhead for the Damnation Creek Trail. That’s one of the best places to view blooming rhododendrons. If they’re in bloom, chances are lots of other photographers will already be there.
Soon, the highway descends into Crescent City, California’s last coastal outpost. Here, you’ll find Redwood National Park’s headquarters, along with just about all the visitor services you need. To me, Crescent City is a bit downbeat. I prefer to spend the night in the next town to the north – Brookings, Oregon.
As for the park, I’ve saved the best for last. That’s Jedediah Smith State Park, which is wedged between US 101 and US 199.
Here’s the highlight. From Crescent City, drive east on Elk Valley Road, then turn right onto Howland Hill Road. Almost immediately, you leave the town and enter a primeval forest. The road is narrow and unpaved, but cars can easily negotiate it. The road leads 10 miles to US 199, offering what the national park website calls “intimate encounters” with the forest. Howland Hill Road is the featured image at the top of this blog post.
If you saw Return of the Jedi, you’ve been here before. This was the Forest Moon of Endor.
Midway along the drive, direct your speeder west at the turnoff for Stout Grove. To me, this grove is one of the scenic highlights of California. But because of the remote location and access by unpaved road, its never crowded. Don’t miss this! Howland Hill Road leads to US 199. Turn left to return to Crescent City.
That concludes our two-part series on Redwood National and State Parks. Thanks for reading!
Next week, we’re making a big switch in our focus, as we visit Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois.