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TPG's complete guide to visiting California's redwood forests

March 11, 2020
18 min read
A couple tourists hiking in Redwood National Park, California
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As the tallest and most massive trees in the world, redwoods are well worth traveling for, and California welcomes millions of visitors a year drawn to see their might and majesty. These trees are found nowhere else on the planet (the only exception being a small slice of Southern Oregon just north of the California state line).

The trees generally referred to as redwoods are actually two distinct species, although they share certain characteristics such as reddish bark and dark green clustered needles -- and the distinction of being California's state tree. Read on to learn more about California's redwoods and the best places to see them.

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All about the redwoods

Towering as much as 370 feet above the earth, coastal redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) are the tallest living things on our planet, and also among the most massive at 16 to 18 feet across.

Sequoia sempervirens (Photo courtesy of National Park Services)
Sequoia sempervirens (Photo courtesy of National Park Services)

Not quite as tall but even more massive are the trees known as giant sequoias, or “big trees,” (sequoiadendron giganteum), which are found only in a few isolated forests high in the Sierra Nevada mountains of eastern California. Growing to widths of up to 30 feet across, they are also among the oldest trees on earth, some as much as 3,000 years old. (Only the bristlecone pine, also found in California and neighboring Nevada, lives longer at up to 5,000 years.)

A third species of redwood, the dawn redwood, grows in a remote region of Central China and has very little in common with California's gargantuans, reaching heights of just 70 to 160 feet and with trunks less than seven feet in diameter.

With lifespans like these, you know redwoods have adapted themselves to variations in climate, but the last two decades of rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall have taken their toll. Scientists don’t know what the future holds for these precious trees, making it all the more urgent to go see them while you still can.

Related: Tips for taking kids to national parks

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See the redwoods in Northern California

Coastal redwoods evolved when the northern hemisphere’s climate was much more humid than it is today, and they require the cool temperatures and foggy weather characteristic of the north coast of California to thrive. In fact, scientists think they are specifically adapted to fog, with the ability to condense moisture among their dense needles and drip it onto their roots. Because it takes a lot of water to quench the thirst of such big trees, they’re typically found along stream canyons, and their habitat ends as you move eastward and temperatures rise.

Logging, one of California's biggest industries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, took an enormous toll on the redwoods, and today just five percent of the original trees still stand. Referred to as "old-growth," these are the titans that have survived for millennia, inspiring awe and wonder.

From south to north, here's where to see them.

Big Basin Redwoods and Henry Cowell State Parks

Founded in 1902 and now California's oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains is one of the more convenient places to see redwoods for those visiting San Francisco and San Jose. The Redwood Loop takes you through a stand of truly majestic trees, including two known as the Mother and Father of the Forest, the tallest in the park.

Nearby Henry Cowell State Park protects a 40-acre swath of old-growth trees. As in Big Basin, the clearly named Redwood Grove Trail makes it easy to figure out where to go.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (Photo by Orenda Randuch/EyeEm/Getty Images)
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. (Photo by Orenda Randuch/EyeEm/Getty Images)

In both parks, the trees are protected by fencing and visitors must stay on trails. This is to protect the trees' root systems, which are remarkably shallow, extending only 6 to 12 feet below the ground. Growing out rather than down, a redwood’s roots can extend to a diameter of 50 feet, giving the tree ballast but making it vulnerable to trampling feet even quite far from the trunk.

Related: The best national parks to visit in the winter

Muir Woods National Monument

If there’s one place that’s utterly synonymous with redwoods, it’s Muir Woods National Monument, created to protect a large stand of redwoods in the vicinity of San Francisco. Walking the hushed paths of Muir Woods does indeed feel like a tribute to naturalist John Muir, considered a founder of the movement to protect America's most precious natural resources.

(Photo by Adam Hester/Getty Images)
Muir Woods National Monument. (Photo by Adam Hester/Getty Images)

Although Muir Woods is just 45 minutes from downtown San Francisco and looks like a quick drive on the map, a visit there is actually at least a half-day experience. This is thanks to strict new restrictions on parking, which make it necessary for visitors to reserve parking well ahead of time or take a round-trip shuttle bus from Sausalito, the nearest town - which also must be reserved. There are three shuttle stops, only one of which has parking. Another serves the bus transit system and a third serves the ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito, making it possible to combine a visit to Muir Woods with a wander around this colorful former fishing village.

How to get there and where to stay: The San Francisco International Airport is served by nearly every major national and international carrier, so your flight options are pretty much unlimited.

Related: The best airline credit cards

If you're making Muir Woods or Big Basin/Henry Cowell a day trip from San Francisco, you can stay at one of the many hotels in the tourist-friendly Fisherman’s Wharf and Marina districts. Top choices for points-planners are the San Francisco Marriott Fisherman’s Wharf and the Courtyard by Marriott Fisherman’s Wharf.

The Hyatt Regency San Francisco is just steps from the Ferry Terminal, giving it top marks for convenience when it’s time to catch your boat to the Muir Woods shuttle stop. If you prefer to stay even closer to Muir Woods, an easy, budget-friendly favorite is the confusingly named Holiday Inn Express Mill Valley San Francisco, located just off the highway outside another quaint shopping village, Mill Valley.

Related: Planning a family trip to San Francisco

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Since 1921, when the Save the Redwoods League first began advocating to protect old-growth redwoods from logging and acquired a single grove, Humboldt Redwoods State Park has slowly expanded to enclose 53,000 acres, almost one-third of which is old-growth forest, the largest expanse of ancient redwoods left on the planet. In fact, of the 137 existing redwoods known to be more than 350 feet tall, 100 are here in this park.

While the Founders Grove Nature Trail, just off Highway 101, is the most popular stop, the tallest trees are located along Bull Creek and the Eel River further to the west. Hike the Bull Creek Trail North, Big Tree Loop or the Rockefeller Loop Trail/Bull Creek Flats to immerse yourself in a huge swath of primeval forest.

Tourists in front of "The Giant Tree" in the Redwood National Park, recognized by the American Forestry Association as the National Champion coast Redwood Sequoia Sempervirens. Height 363 Feet, Circumference 53.2 Feet, Average Crown Spread 62 Feet. Humboldt Redwoods State Park. California, USA.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park. (Photo by Carmen Martínez Torrón/Getty Images)

The tallest tree in the park, the Stratosphere Giant, was considered the tallest in the world until the discovery of three taller trees in Redwood National Park to the north. Note that like other very tall trees, the Stratosphere Giant is protected from visitors, but the Bull Creek Trail brings you through a grove of similarly massive trees.

Avenue of the Giants

Until 1960 merely a spectacularly scenic stretch of Highway 101, the Avenue of the Giants Parkway was created when 101 was rerouted around it, allowing the narrow, winding road -- now officially re-named State Route 256 -- to be designated a scenic drive and protected in its original form. Today the 31-mile stretch is part of Humboldt Redwoods State Park and snakes its way around and through groves of titans so tall they close over the road in a dense canopy. Stop at the Visitors’ Center to pick up a guided driving tour with eight stops marked along the way.

Leftover from a bygone era of tourism heavy on the family-owned roadside attractions, the drive-through trees on Avenue of the Giants are privately owned, with a fee for admission. The Chandelier Drive-Through tree in Leggett and the Shrine Drive-Through Tree in Myers Flat make for fun, if kitschy, stops.

The Chandelier tree (Photo by Peter Baker/Getty Images)
The Chandelier Tree. (Photo by Peter Baker/Getty Images)

How to get there and where to stay: The town of Garberville, 15 minutes south of the start of Avenue of the Giants, is the closest base from which to explore Humboldt Redwoods State Park. In addition to numerous quaint family-run motels, there's a Best Western Plus Humboldt House Inn, though you'll thank yourself for stepping up to the comfortable elegance of Historic Benbow Inn Resort, located right on the banks of the Eel River.

Related: How to visit America's national parks for less

Redwood National and State Parks

It’s a little-known fact that close to half of the world’s tallest trees are located in just one park -- the sprawling complex known as Redwood National and State Parks -- which stretches along 37 miles of California’s northernmost coast.

The Redwood National Park (Photo courtesy of National Park Service)
Redwood National Park. (Photo courtesy of National Park Service)

Now designated both an International Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park complex includes Redwood National Park and three state parks: Jedediah Smith Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods, and Prairie Creek Redwoods. Within them are a wealth of trees measuring more than 370 feet tall, including Hyperion, which at 380 feet now holds the title of the world's tallest tree. Look up through the cloud-high canopy and it's easy to see why these forests were the setting for The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

The locations of Hyperion and several other record-setting giants are kept secret to protect them, but you'd never know it standing in Tall Trees Grove, which shelters Libbey, the previous record-holder. It's hard to select the best among the many stunning hikes in these parks, but the Lady Bird Johnson Grove in Redwood National Park and the James Irvine Trail in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park are good places to start.

Related: Guide to visiting Redwood national and state parks

How to get there and where to stay: The closest airport to the north coast redwoods is the Humboldt Airport, which has direct flights to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Denver on United. Closer than San Francisco and served by Alaska Airlines and American Airlines is the Charles M. Schultz Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa.

There are several possible towns in which to base your stay, all of which boast a number of loyalty program hotels. In Eureka, the county seat and the area’s liveliest hub, choose from the Best Western PLUS Humboldt Bay Inn and the Comfort Inn Humboldt Bay from Choice Hotels.

However, I prefer to deepen my experience of the north coast’s long relationship with the redwood forests by staying at the Carter House Inns, a collection of five elegantly restored 19th-century mansions built by wealthy lumber barons. Similarly, storied Eureka Inn, whose guests have included Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan, has seen its wood-beamed Tudor revival interior fully restored to its original craftsmanship. Whether or not you stay in one of these tributes to past glory, Restaurant 301 in Hotel Carter is the place for fine dining in Eureka’s Old Town while Eureka Inn's Palm Lounge has the clubby atmosphere of a Victorian lounge.

A pretty town of colorful Victorian buildings laid out around a central square, Arcata has much to offer in addition to the redwoods, including a colorful Saturday morning farmer’s market and the wetlands of Humboldt Bay, a birdwatchers paradise that’s home to more than two million native and migratory birds.

Thanks to the presence of Humboldt State University, Arcata offers all the pleasures of a college town, including several bookstores, lots of crafty boutiques, and the oldest operating movie theater in the U.S., the Minor Theater.

Wyndham Rewards members will be pleased with the options in Arcata, choosing from the Days Inn & Suites by Wyndham Arcata, the Ramada by Wyndham, and a Super 8 by Wyndham. Other choices include the Best Western Arcata Inn and, in family-oriented McKinleyville, the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites.

Visit the trees in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Sequoia National Park

Half of the world's largest and most ancient trees -- 8,000 of them -- grow here in one grove, the Giant Forest, which is as magical as the name suggests. Visitors tend to make a beeline for 2,100-year-old General Sherman Tree, which with its 100-foot-wide trunk easily holds its title as the world’s most massive tree.

Giant Sequoia known as the General Sherman tree. (Photo by DonNichols/Getty Images)
The giant sequoia known as the General Sherman tree. (Photo by DonNichols/Getty Images)

Other highlights are the much-photographed drive-through Tunnel Log and the park museum, which will teach you everything you ever wanted to know about the ecology of these fairy tale trees.

Kings Canyon National Park

Sharing a boundary with Sequoia National Park and jointly managed by the National Park Service, Kings Canyon National Park is best known for its pristine high Sierra terrain and the dramatic glacier-sliced valley from which it takes its name.

But Kings Canyon also boasts two distinct areas of giant sequoias: Grant Grove, home to the General Grant Tree, the second most massive sequoia after General Sherman, and Redwood Canyon, by acreage the largest remaining grove of sequoias in the world.

Related: Use points to stay at hotels near national parks

Yosemite National Park

While most visitors come to Yosemite to see the park’s world-famous waterfalls and granite peaks such as Half Dome and El Capitan, the park also boasts a stand of giant sequoias.

A fearless male hiker is standing on an overhanging rock at Glacier Point enjoying the breathtaking view towards famous Half Dome in beautiful post sunset twilight in summer, Yosemite National Park, California (Photo by bluejayphoto/Getty Images)
A hiker standing on an overhanging rock at Glacier Point takes in the view toward Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. (Photo by bluejayphoto/Getty Images)

Located near the park’s southern entrance, the Mariposa Grove was recently reopened after extensive renovation and features four trails of varying lengths, with highlights being the Great Grizzly Giant, the Bachelor and the California Tunnel Tree.

Related: How to see Yosemite's famous firefall

Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Two large groves of giant sequoias are the focus of this state park, located off Highway 4 in a less-visited area of the Sierras north of Yosemite and one of the easiest places to see the awe-inspiring behemoths. These sequoias were actually the first such trees discovered in the state, stumbled on by a hunter in 1852.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park (Photo by haveseen/Getty Images)
Calaveras Big Trees State Park. (Photo by haveseen/Getty Images)

While the North Grove, reachable by car, is the most visited, it's worth making the five-mile round-trip trek to the South Grove to commune with the awe-inspiring giants in relative solitude. In spring, the forests are bright with flowering dogwood, with its puffy white blooms contrasting beautifully with the rust-colored trunks and green branches of the redwoods.

How to get there and where to stay: The most affordable -- and most common -- way to travel to Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks and Calaveras Big Trees State Park is to fly into San Francisco or San Jose (SJC) and then drive. But for ultimate convenience, The Fresno Yosemite International Airport is closer; it is served by Alaska Airlines, United, American and Delta, along with Allegiant to Las Vegas.

The Yosemite Area Regional Transportation system, or YARTS, serves the airport, with shuttle buses to the Yosemite Valley Visitors Center as well as to the gateway towns of Sonora, Mariposa and Merced. In summer, YARTS also serves the Mammoth Lakes Airport on the east side of the Sierras. To see all three national parks, however, you will need a car.

All three parks have a variety of lodges, tent camps and campgrounds within the park boundaries, though you will need reservations well in advance to stay there. More rustic lodges and family-owned motels dot the small towns surrounding the parks.

You are most likely to find points-friendly accommodation in the gateway towns of Mariposa, Oakhurst, and Sonora. Loyalty program hotels include the Quality Inn Yosemite Valley Gateway from Choice Hotels in Mariposa, the Best Western PLUS Yosemite Gateway Inn in Oakhurst, and the Best Western PLUS Sonora Oaks Hotel & Conference Center.

Personally, though, I prefer to use my Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card to pay for one of the spacious rooms at Tenaya Lodge, just outside the Yosemite park boundary, where the Yosemite Park Pass Package is great value and my pup can stay with me in comfort in one of their Fido-friendly rooms.

Located just over an hour equidistant from each of the three national parks, Fresno is a budget-friendly home base for those wishing to see all three from the comfort of a modern hotel. Here, points travelers will find options for every loyalty program. Bonvoy members have lots to choose from here including Courtyard by Marriott Fresno, Springhill Suites by Marriott Fresno, and the Visalia Marriott at the Convention Center on the way east towards the parks.

Hilton Honors members have nine different options in the area including DoubleTree by Hilton, Hampton Inn & Suites, Homewood Suites and Hilton Garden Inn. More choices include the Hyatt Place Fresno, Radisson Hotel Fresno Conference Center and Ramada by Wyndham Fresno.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.