When the fires in Lassen forced us to revise our travel plans, we were a little lost. We’re big planners, and heading into the redwoods, we had no idea what was even there, except for tall trees, of course. We’d been to the park before, but it had been 14 years. We figured this would be a good test case, though, in case other travelers found themselves in a similar situation. Could we maximize our travel time coming into a national park with no plan and no reservations on a Saturday in August?
We started at the Kuchel Visitor Center at the south end of the park (there’s a similar one at the park’s north end). We picked up the essential Park Map and Guide (the key to planning a visit to any one of the 58 US National Parks), a campground information sheet, and the official park newspaper (full of detailed info about the park). We asked the ranger about campsite availability. Based on our newly gleaned knowledge, Plan B started to form. We sketched a three-day travel plan from south to north through the park that included campgrounds and a variety of hikes & sights.
Everything turned out pretty well, although if given a choice, we’d definitely choose having a plan, at least for lodging, ahead of time. Taking time to find a campsite forced us to skip some sights on the south end of the park and backtrack to see others, and, on day two, we lost about an hour of our day tracking down a new campsite.
Luckily, asking about campsite availability even after seeing campground full signs paid off — there were two cancellations both days! (Good thing, too, since we hadn’t really hatched Plan C yet.) There is a 48 hour advance reservation requirement, so, on our first night, we were able to book a reservation for the third night by phone, although this too involved backtracking to a spot in the road that had cell service. It was worth it, though, since it meant we didn’t have to spend time on day three in search of a campsite (or stressing in the meantime about whether we would!).
Our campsites were all really terrific. I especially liked the one at Elk Prairie that had a stream running right next to it and the one at Mill Creek with the little “secret fort” kind of space among several giant redwoods. When we were kids, we’d have spent hours playing in there!
Both of the campgrounds we stayed at were very quiet, but Mill Creek seemed especially so. The sites there were a little more isolated form each other than at Elk Prairie. We also took a little tour of the oceanfront Gold Bluffs Beach campground. Sites are very open there, but if you want to be on the beach, this is a terrific spot. A sporty and sometimes one lane dirt road with size restrictions for vehicles leads there, so do your homework if you’re interested in this spot. No reservations are available at this campground, either, so arrive early. When we got to the park at around 1:00 PM on Saturday, this campground was completely full, and it was full again on Sunday.
Once we got our campsite on Saturday, we headed back south a bit to see a herd of elk we’d passed on our way north since we were focused on getting a campsite. Luckily, they were still there! There were about twenty elk just hanging out next to the road, mostly females, a few calves, and one large buck. Many people were out of their cars and up way too close to the elk for my comfort, but the elk are clearly used to people and didn’t seem fazed unless someone got really close. We also saw two cows, two calves, and another bull moose near Gold Bluffs beach. Even though we’ve seen elk before, we never get tired of watching them. The same with deer, which we saw some of in the park as well. We were wondering why that is. What do you think?
We did a short hike on Saturday afternoon up to Trillium Falls, one of the few waterfalls in the park, which seems strange for a place that gets up to EIGHTY inches of rain a year. It only took about fifteen minutes, and we got to pick and eat wild blackberries on the way! You’re usually not allowed to pick any plants or flowers in a national park, but you are allowed to pick berries for your own consumption. The trail winds through a redwood grove of large trees but not the giants found in some other places in the park. Like most of the redwood groves, it’s pretty dark and quiet in there. Because we were there in August, the falls were pretty small. I’d love to come back in the spring to see the difference. We stretched this stop into ninety minutes because we saw some birds, of course. Barn swallows, mostly, including two nests with babies in them and mamas who were less than thrilled we’d found them.
Saturday we were at the visitor center when they opened at 9:00. We were sure there would be a line waiting to get the limited number of special permits needed to drive down the road (complete with combination-locked gate) to the Tall Trees Trail, and we really wanted to do it. Well, there was a line alrighty, and we were it. I guess not that many people want to drive down a seven mile dirt road to hike after all. It was worth it, though, since we had the time. However, those visiting the park for two days or less might want to skip this four-hour excursion.
The Lady Bird Johnson Grove is on the way to the Tall Trees Trail and does not require a permit, but RVs are not recommended on the 12% grade road. Even our Eurovan was not a fan of this road! The grove is where the national park was dedicated in 1968, and it’s gorgeous. You can definitely understand why they chose this spot. We were there in the morning — there were wispy clouds going by and the sunshine coming through the trees was spectacular. Again, it’s not a difficult trail or a long one. The parking lot was full when we were here, but the grove trail didn’t seem crowded.
To go down the Tall Trees Trail we had to open a padlocked gate using the combination we got with our permit, so we felt pretty special. The dirt road is special, too… The hike is not too long, but it’s a steep one. It’s an 800′ descent in 1.25 miles. And of course that means it’s an 800′ ASCENT in 1.25 miles as well. One foot in front of the other. Actually, it wasn’t that bad coming up. The benches along the way were a good idea!
The hike switchbacks down through the forest and there are some tall trees along the way, but it’s the 1+ mile grove loop at the bottom that we enjoyed the most. It’s along a river (where you can backcountry camp on the gravel sandbars), and there are some ginormous trees down there. It’s really quite stunning. We counted the rings on one tree stump — well, maybe not an exact count, but it was somewhat scientifically done — and it was about 250 years old. The inner rings were much wider than the outer ones. Redwoods can live to be about 2000 years old!
We had planned to go check out Gold Bluffs Beach and Fern Canyon on Sunday, too, but it always takes us longer to do things than the guidebooks suggest, so we had to push that back to Monday. We didn’t want to go out on a dirt road in the dark, and once we’d done it in the daylight, we realized what a really good decision that was! That road is a doozy.
Way worth it, though, as Fern Canyon turned out to be one of our favorite spots in the park. We actually weren’t planning to visit it until another tourist asked us if we knew the way to Fern Canyon and mentioned that was where “Jurassic Park 2” was filmed. This piqued our interest and reminded us of the importance of chatting with fellow tourists along the way.
The trailhead doesn’t look too promising, honestly. But when the trail turns east into the canyon, crisscrossing the creek on little strategically placed footbridges, and the fern-covered canyon walls appear, it’s pretty magical. The walls are 50-80 feet high and covered top to bottom with bright green ferns. In many places there are little drip waterfalls cascading down. Again, there are lots of people taking this hike of about a mile (it can easily be extended via a return loop, but the canyon part is about a mile). Yet it doesn’t feel crowded because there are so many twists and turns that you don’t actually see other people very often.
You can read more about the trail and watch a little video of someone walking through the canyon here. It is pretty Jurassic parkish. We’ll have to watch the movie again now just so we can shout at the TV, “We were there!”
We worked our way up the coast Monday, stopping at various small groves on the way up — there are numerous short stops right on the main highway that you can make to see the giant trees up close — and took a walk along the coast at the Yarok trail. We were looking for birds, but to our surprise and delight, saw harbor porpoises and seals instead. Watching the seals flop themselves up onto the rocks was pretty entertaining. Although it’s true we’re pretty easily entertained… Unfortunately, Erin also found nettles, and that whole stinging self defense thing they’ve got going is really working for them. Stay on the trail!
We didn’t know it in advance, but it turned out that we saved what turned out to be the best spot for our last morning in the park. As we were heading north, we drove along Howland Hills Road through the Jedediah Smith section of the park. Redwood NP began as a series of state parks, so it’s actually called Redwood National and State Parks. Accordingly, the various sections still go by their state park names. It’s unusual for a national park, but it seems to work here. Howland Hills Road is another of those lovely dirt roads not recommended for RVs. If you’re towing a trailer, I’d recommend finding a place to park it in order to make this drive. It is incredible! The road is very narrow and the trees grow right up to its edge in many places. This area gets a lot of flooding, so the understory is sparse and you really get a sense of the massive size of these trees. It’s just awesome. The Stout Grove, ironically named after a logging baron, is at the north end of the road and is well worth a walkthrough. It is an easy half mile walk and is also spectacular.
We also did a few fun touristy things on our road trip: we drove through the Tour Thru Tree in Klamath (only five bucks!), chatted with Paul Bunyan (who has a snazzy new paint job since the last time we saw him) at the Trees of Mystery (free to chat, but not to tour), and ate the mandatory road trip foods of Moon Pies and Chick-O-Sticks. We also played the license plate game (free iPhone apps!). With five days to go before our trip officially ends, we’ve still got eleven states and DC to go. I’m thinking we’ll see two more. Maybe.
Have a story about your own Plan B that worked out well for you? Leave us a note in the comments – we’d love to hear about it! Want to learn more about Redwood National Park and plan your own visit? Start at the NPS site for the park, and feel free to email us with any questions.
Enjoy your week or your weekend among the trees!