Seven Tips for Exploring Redwood National Park
Arguably as American as apple pie and baseball, the Redwood National and State Parks of California are as stunning as you’ve heard. Located in Northern California and a multi-hour haul from big cities like Sacramento and Portland, Oregon, a trip to see the world’s tallest trees requires a bit of planning. We reached out to New Zealand native Greg Litten—who has worked for the National Parks Service for “twenty-odd years” and who specifically immigrated to America to be a park ranger—for his top Redwood National Park tips.
Bring Warm Layers
“People are often surprised that we are a cool, foggy place in the summertime,” said Litten. “Most people traveling through find they have to get themselves a jacket. ‘Hot,’ for us, is about 72 degrees!” So bring warm layers and always be prepared for a bit of a fog. Litten noted this wouldn’t “put a damper on anybody’s vacation, since [fog] makes for beautiful photography.”
Book Lodging or Campgrounds in Advance
With its 200 miles of hiking trails, it’ll be tempting to stay overnight in the park. But there are no hotels or park lodges here, so bring plenty of food and water and book backcountry permits or campgrounds well in advance, Litten advised.
“People who show up in summertime without a plan will have a problem finding some place to sleep.” He suggested reserving state campgrounds three to four months in advance—particularly during the busy summer months. He's personally partial to Prairie Creek, which is “close to the parkway, has campground opportunities, biking, ranger programs" as well as an amphitheater during summer nights where rangers discuss the parks for 45 minutes around a campfire.
Go to the Beach
Yes, Gold Bluffs is the famous beach, but parking a car here can be a real bear, Litten warned. Between locals and tourists it can get “overwhelmingly crowded.”
But this is a 40-mile stretch of coastline, he reminded us, with plenty of lovely beaches including a fun freshwater option at Redwood Creek, accessible from the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center. Just be sure to stop off at an overlook by the ocean: You might see a whale floating by, or a passel of sea lions.
Take a Detour
The supermodel of American highways, 101 is renowned for its stunning vistas, but to truly see the Redwoods, Litten suggests getting off the main drag. He recommended a detour along the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, as charming as its name suggests.
“It’s an absolutely glorious 10-mile stretch of narrow road going through the old-growth redwoods. There’s nothing but the big trees, and no other development.”
Best of all, there are walks for “any level of accessibility,” he promises, whether a five-minute walk or a five-hour hike, at various points along the way.
Go For a Hike
If you’ve followed Litten’s advice to get off the beaten path, you’ll be nearby one of his favorite hikes, called Trillium Falls.
“It’s really good for families with kids of any age,” he said. You can make the trek as short as a two-mile loop, and you might see owls, black bears, and a little waterfall. There are nearby restrooms and plenty of parking, the latter of which is hard to come by in the summertime.
Don't Forget to Look Up
This isn’t the place on the postcard your Aunt Edna sent you, in which her VW bus was parked under a tree. They don’t have a “drive-through tree” here. Just really, really tall old-growth redwoods—379 feet tall and taller—although Litten doesn’t like to promote one tree over the next.“It’s a gorgeous and complicated ecosystem.”
In fact, he noted, “what’s going on in the canopies is as fascinating as what’s happening on the ground floor.” He talks of species of salamanders that have spent their lives 300 feet up and have never been down on the forest floor, of branches the size of cars, and of trees growing inside of other trees, with root systems an equally impressive 300 feet off the ground.
Remember All This Was Almost Lost
Poignantly, Litten reminded us that these majestic redwoods represent “five percent of what used to be there.” Though today the park “leads the world in restoration efforts,” supply and demand throughout the 20th century almost decimated the forest completely.
“Redwoods are a very good timber, and all the way back until almost the 1980s they were harvested. Ninety-five percent were turned into homes and railway ties all across the world.” So appreciate that five percent, don't leave a trace, and learn about local conservation efforts while you’re there.