The pandemic has disrupted travel to national parks and wilderness areas. To find out which parks are open and how to visit them safely, scan the National Park Service’s coronavirus resource page. You can also search for parks by state. Planning a visit to a nearby park? Practice safe social distancing, pack your own food and necessities, and don’t forget the bug spray.
Established: October 2, 1968 (National Park)
Size: 139,000 acres, including 3 state parks
Average annual visitors: 436,940
Entrance fees: Most of the park is free, but fees are charged at campgrounds in Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Parks
At a time when the United States’ national parks are struggling to combat overtourism, there’s more reason than ever to visit Redwood National and State Parks, a sprawling system of preserves that shelters our planet’s tallest living things—and happens to be the 21st least visited national park.
Here’s how to make the most of your visit.
An inspiring example of cooperation between federal and state agencies, the Redwood parks shelter sequoias in cathedral-like groves stretching along 37 miles of Pacific coastline, near the northern limit of the tree’s narrow range.
Heavy logging during the late 19th and early 20th centuries decimated a forest that once covered two million acres. The state of California and the Save-the-Redwoods League acquired hundreds of groves, protecting them within 26 state parks. Three of those redwood state parks—Jedediah Smith (1939), Del Norte Coast (1925), and Prairie Creek (1925)—were encompassed by the creation of the national park in 1968.
But logging on surrounding private land still threatened the protected redwoods. Sediment from cleared tracts washed into rivers and creeks. Deposited downstream, the silt smothered redwoods’ surprisingly vulnerable roots—which are shallow, often only 10 feet deep—and the waterlogged soil weakened the trees’ resistance to wind. (Learn more about these “super trees”—and the challenges they face.)
In 1978, Congress nearly doubled the national park’s initial size. The addition included about 36,000 acres that had been logged; the raw, clear-cut land had “the look of an active war zone,” one park official wrote.
In recent years, a massive restoration project has reclaimed vast stretches of logged lands, rebuilding hillsides, erasing most of the 400 miles of logging roads, and replanting trees. It will take at least 50 years for the scars of logging to disappear and another 250 or so years for the replanted redwood seedlings to grow to modest size. But today’s visitors, looking at the massive sequoias—some of which are more than a thousand years old—can also look at hillsides shorn of giants and know that generations from now, the trees will grow there again.
Plan your trip
Though the park is open year-round, the summer draws highway-clogging crowds, so consider a visit in spring or fall, when migratory birds flit through the towering trees. Rhododendrons burst forth in spring; deciduous trees add color in fall. Rains, welcome to the redwoods but not to visitors, drench the park in winter. (Read an article for kids about Redwoods National Park.)
Tree-lined US 101, the Redwood Highway, runs north from the Golden Gate Bridge, weaves through several big tree groves, and continues throughout the length of the national park. From the south, take US 101 to the Kuchel Visitor Center, where exhibits and a film illuminate the park’s natural history and the information desk has updates on rangerled walks and talks. Nearby Orick has transformed itself from a logging towninto an adventure sports hub. Local outfitters offer guided kayak trips on Stone Lagoon and horseback rides and mountain biking along Redwood Creek. The town also hosts the Orick Rodeo each summer.
One mile north of Orick, a right turn onto Bald Hills Road leads into the oldgrowth forest and restored areas along Redwood Creek. In the 1960s and 1970s, this valley was the front line of the struggle between the timber industry and conservationists over the future of the redwoods. Much of the landscape was devastated by clearcutting. But you would hardly know it driving up Bald Hills Road today to the Lady Bird Johnson Grove—the must-see spot if you have limited time. For a longer tour, turn south into the 50-mile-long park and head for the Tall Trees Grove, which shelters a sequoia once thought to be the world’s tallest tree. (The current record-holder, the Hyperion Tree, stands at a secret location in the Redwood Creek watershed.)
Turn north again to explore Prairie Creek, the first of three state parks that stretch along the coast between Orick and Crescent City. This state park, nearly a hundred years old, has much more of a traditional national park feel than the much newer federal reserve. Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway leads to the “prairie”—a large meadow often grazed by elk. From the small Prairie Creek Visitor Center, trails lead down to Gold Bluffs Beach and through primeval Fern Canyon, where Steven Spielberg filmed scenes for The Lost World: Jurassic Park.If you’re driving an RV or towing a trailer, some stretches of road may be closed to you; check at information centers.
The Klamath Riveris another hub for park activities. Kayak the river, cruise along the Coastal Drive Loop down to the World War II radar station on Klamath Beach, take in stunning vistas from several clifftop overlooks, or go river fishing on the Yurok Reservation, home to California’s largest Native American tribe.
Continue north to Del Norte Coast, much of which is inland and inaccessible to all but the hardiest hikers. Nevertheless, several spots along Highway 101 are easy to access, including Ednerts Beach with its sandy stretches and tide pools, and Damnation Creek Trail, which ambles through oldgrowth forest to a secluded beach.
Named for the legendary trapper and explorer who “discovered” these redwood groves in 1828, Jedediah Smith is the northernmost of the four parks. Tall trees flank the Smith River as it flows through the heart of the park, past campgrounds and the Hiouchi Visitor Center. Among great hikes in this area is the Boy Scout Tree Trail (2.8 miles one way to Fern Falls) and the solemn Stout Memorial Grove. Adventurous souls can drive unpaved Howland Hill Road, an old stagecoach route that leads to the National Tribute Grove of oldgrowth redwoods.
If entering the park complex from the north, stop at the Crescent City Visitor Center, also an information center site. From the east, take US 199, another redwood-flanked highway, to Hiouchi.
Updated on October 9, 2019, this article was partially adapted from the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.