Our first stop on our Northern California road trip was for the Redwood National & State Forest. I’ve been to this part of California three times now, and every time I’m amazed at the beauty and size of these trees. Coastal redwoods can be found from southern Oregon into California. I recommend two specific stops that are the best places to see the redwoods on your California coast road trip.
Redwood Trees vs Giant Sequoia Trees
It’s important to note that a drive along the Northern California coast will give you the chance to see giant coastal redwood trees. These are often confused with the giant sequoia trees that are found in other places in the state, such as Yosemite National Park. Redwood trees are the species, Sequoia sempervirens, whereas the Giant Sequoias are Sequoiadendron giganteum.
Both species can grow tall and big. One of the tallest giant sequoia trees, Columbia, is found in the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite and comes in at over 286 feet tall. However, the coastal redwoods outstretch the sequoias with most of the giant redwood trees measuring well over 300 feet tall and some are very close to 400 feet. The sequoia trees normally beat out the coastal redwoods in girth and mass.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
The Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is within the Redwood National Park and a great stop on a CA coast road trip. Plus, it holds some of the largest Redwood trees in the state. To reach Prairie Creek you’ll exit onto the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. This road runs parallel to Highway 101, so you’ll still be moving south during your exploration. This part of the Redwood forest offers some great easy hiking trails right off the road and will showcase some amazingly large trees.
If you can find the Rotary Memorial Grove, also in what is considered the Atlas Grove, you’ll be on the path to seeing some of the biggest trees in the park. It can be accessed just off Cal-Barrel Road and is marked by a stone marker that has a carved rotary gear symbol.
Trees to Find in Prairie Creek
Iluvatar is considered to be the largest tree in the park and the third largest coastal redwood in the world. It’s located along this Rotary path on the right of the path not too far down after you enter from Cal-Barrel Road. Measuring Iluvatar took five climbers over 20 days. Iluvatar has been measured at just over 300 feet tall with a 20-foot diameter. This tree also graced the October 2009 cover of National Geographic.
Also in the Atlas Grove, on the left just before you reach Iluvatar, you’ll find Atlas, considered to be one of the fastest-growing redwood trees by mass. You’ll recognize Atlas because it has a funny looking branch growing out of it that almost looks like a dinosaur.
You’ll also find a popular tree called Big Tree, which is massive but unfortunately lost its top due to a lightning storm. There’s also a tree called Corkscrew tree which is popular, but we wonder if we found it because we didn’t see any sign labeling the tree.
That leads me to one of my biggest tips about visiting the redwoods. Often the big and unique trees aren’t labeled or mapped. They, unfortunately, have to do this to prevent vandalism (and to prevent damage from over-tourism). If you really care about seeing these special giant trees, you’ll want to do some google image research beforehand, so you know what you’re looking for. I wished we had looked up the Corkscrew tree while we were looking for it!
**Local’s Tip: in the comments below it was pointed out how people trampling around the bases of the large trees can be harmful to the trees. So, a lesson for our own family and a note to you, be kind to nature and stay on the marked trails and paths.
This area is also prime Elk territory so keep your eyes open for herds in the open spaces.
Avenue of the Giants – Humboldt Redwoods State Park
On our first trip from Seattle to Disneyland, we stopped along the Avenue of the Giants which is in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. This is farther down the coast from the Redwood National and State Forest and sits inland versus running along the coast. However, it’s still located on the 101. The Avenue of the Giants is another scenic drive that runs parallel to Hwy 101, so it doesn’t require any major detours to enjoy the space. It’s 31 miles long and has a few great stops along the way.
The feel of the Humboldt forest is a bit different from the Prairie Creek forest to the north. It feels drier and there’s less heavy ground vegetation. Both have some great hikes and walks, but the Avenue of the Giant groves offers more space to run around and fun trees you can walk thru. I think visiting both parks and keeping an eye out for the different feel of the forests is what makes them both the best spots to see redwoods along the coast.
What to See in Humboldt
We stopped at Founders Grove which is where you can find some giant trees you can walk through, plus you can see the massive 370-foot fallen Dyerville Giant. It’s been sawed in half after falling in 1991, allowing you to see it’s massive ring structure and understand how old these old-growth redwood trees really are. To put it’s height into perspective, at 370 feet tall it’s 200 feet TALLER than Niagra Falls!
Another popular spot to visit in the Avenue of the Giants is Rockefeller Forest. It’s the largest remaining contiguous old-growth coastal redwood forest in the world. You can hike the 0.7 mi Rockefeller Loop to see some of the biggest trees in Humboldt, including Giant Tree which is thought to be the second-largest tree in Humboldt and the 18th largest single-stem coast redwood. To find the trail, take Lower Bull Creek Flats/ Mattole Road from the Avenue of the Giants and look for signs to Rockefeller Forest / Lower Bull Creek Flats.
One thing we’ve never done on any of our trips is a Drive-Thru tree. Use your own judgment on whether this is worth a stop for you. They’re always privately owned and cost a fee to be able to drive-thru or walk-thru.
There are a few along the route, including The Shrine that’s on the south end of the Avenue of the Giants, but the information I’ve read suggests that the Shrine is deteriorating and could even be a safety risk. If you’re wanting a drive-thru tree experience I recommend doing the popular Chandelier Redwood which is in Leggett. It’s considered the prettiest setting and a perfect stop if you’re planning to drive Hwy 1 since Leggett is where you catch Hwy 1 from the 101 to head towards the coast.
Other Notable Places to See Redwood Trees
While I think Prairie Creek and Humboldt are the best places to see Redwood trees, there are a few other options if you don’t have time to make the trek up along the northern California coast. Just north of San Francisco is the famous Muir Woods. Named for John Muir who was such a pivotable voice in the recognition and conservation of California nature.
Muir Woods is a National Monument and does charge an entrance fee. It’s very easy to explore and hike through beautiful trees, however, you’ll be dealing with crowds and you have to make reservations for parking or a shuttle in order to access the park. You’ll also be missing out on seeing some of the coastal redwood giants the northern parks have to offer since Muir woods trees often “only” reach around 200 feet in height. However, it does allow the opportunity to see redwoods near San Francisco since it’s just over a half an hour away from the city.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Another popular spot is just south of San Francisco near Santa Cruz. The Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park has a popular redwood grove that is easily self-guided and offers up many old-growth redwoods, many that are 1,400-1,800 years old.
This park also offers a great opportunity to compare the three types of giant trees, the Coast Redwood, the Giant Sequoia, and the Dawn Redwood since they have all three planted at the entrance to the park. At just over an hour away from the city, this is another opportunity to visit redwood trees near San Francisco.
I highly recommend planning a trip to see the redwoods. Prairie Creek and Humbolt Parks are the best places to see redwoods in California. You’ll be able to get up close and personal with these tall trees and enjoy some easy redwood hikes that are great for all ages.
Read more about all of our great stops on our WEST COAST ROAD TRIP!