Guide to visiting Redwood National and State Parks

May 6, 2020

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Editor’s note: The team at The Points Guy loves to travel, but now is not the time for unnecessary trips. Health officials say the fastest way to return to normalcy is to stop coming in contact with others. That includes ceasing travel. We are publishing travel guides because we should all use this time to think about and plan our next adventures. National parks are closed right now but will hopefully reopen soon.


Visiting the Redwood National and State Parks brings back many childhood memories for me. As a native of coastal Northern California, it was the prime vacation spot for my family when I was growing up. Camping and hiking in this natural wonder became the norm, so much so that I sometimes take this stunning park for granted.

But it’s not just our “backyard” spot, Redwood National and State Parks are a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site. The parks draw visitors from around the globe, and for good reason: They are home to the world’s tallest trees. I sometimes forget how awe-inspiring the majestic redwoods are, at least until I see a group of tourists seeing them for the first time. Then it hits me all over again.

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In This Post

Park basics

The Redwood National and State Parks are made up of several separate parks that all get lumped together into one entity. They are located in one of the most remote parts of California, along the coast not far from the Oregon border.

Redwood National Park
Redwood National Park (Photo by Mike Tauber/Getty Images)

How to get here

Getting to California’s north coast isn’t an easy feat. Most people think of San Francisco when they hear “Northern California” or “NorCal.” But there is a whole lot of state between San Francisco and Oregon. The parks are a six-hour drive from San Francisco. Alternatively, you can fly into tiny Arcata-Eureka Airport (ACV), but fares are expensive and flights relatively unreliable. Medford, Oregon is another option. I suggest flying into a larger airport and making the drive.

Related: Best credit cards for family travel

Entrance fees

The day-use entry fee to any of the state parks is $8 per vehicle. There are usually several fee-free days each year, including the first day or two of National Park Week (late April), the Park Service birthday (Aug. 25), and National Public Lands Day (end of September). Entry to Redwood National Park itself is free.

The American the Beautiful National Parks Pass is also accepted. If your family is considering visiting multiple national parks, it may be the best annual investment you can make. Here are other great ways to visit national parks for less.

When to visit the Redwood National and State Parks

Summer is peak season at the Redwood National and State Parks. Winters here are relatively mild, with rain beginning in late October and generally lasting through spring, with the bulk received December through February. If you want to avoid the largest crowds, but still catch the best of the weather, visit in September.

The various parks are all open year-round, but some facilities do close during the winter. The visitor centers are open daily, except for holidays. The only seasonal one is Jedediah Smith, open June through September. Some campgrounds are also seasonally closed, these being Mill Creek and occasionally Gold Bluffs Beach.

Lodging near Redwood National Park

Depending on whether you want to be right in the middle of the parks or don’t mind driving a bit, there is a great range of lodging options.

Camping

There are four campgrounds within Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, including Elk Prairie Campground and Gold Bluffs Beach in Prairie Creek Redwoods, as well as Jedediah Smith and Mill Creek on the northern end. Campsites must be reserved by phone or online between 48 hours and six months ahead of arrival. The standard camping fee is currently $35 per night. There are also a very limited number of cabins available in two of the campgrounds, which cost $100 per night during the summer.

The campgrounds are very popular in the summer, especially on weekends. Plan well in advance! Reservations open on a rolling six-month window, so try to snag your site the day it opens.

If you’re interested in backcountry camping, there are plenty of these as well. You must apply for a permit in-person, and permits are granted on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Elk Prairie Campground has long been my favorite. Located in the middle of Prairie Creek Redwoods, it provides easy access to the best hiking and wildlife viewing in the parks.

Image by Ian Snyder

Hotels and vacation rentals

There is a very convenient Holiday Inn Express in Klamath that is within 20 minutes of most of the park. If you’re headed to Fern Canyon, you’re looking at about 50-minute drive one-way. Rates in the summer fluctuate from $140 to $220, plus tax. Award nights start at 30,000 IHG Rewards Club points, which means you can use you’re your annual reward night certificate from the IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card or use points and get your fourth award night with that card. One thing to note: Rooms with two queen beds that will accommodate a family are in short supply, so start looking early if you need that room type.

There are several other hotels located in the communities of Arcata/McKinleyville to the south and Crescent City to the north in the Wyndham, Best Western and Choice chains, but you’ll be about an hour from Prairie Creek Redwoods. If you need more space, consider renting an Airbnb in charming Trinidad. Here are some tips for families using Airbnb.

Finally, I’ve heard great things about Elk Meadow Cabins, which are one of the most conveniently located lodging options. And, as the name might imply, they are right in the middle of one of the areas frequented by elk.

You can use flexible miles from the Discover it Miles or Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card to cover the cost of an Airbnb or vacation rental.

Or, look at earning or using Chase Ultimate Rewards points on lodgings booked through the Chase Travel portal. When I checked, there were 118 options in and around Klamath. You can earn Ultimate Rewards points with cards like Chase Freedom® (No longer open to new applicants), Chase Freedom Unlimited®, Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve®.

The information for the Chase Freedom and Chase Freedom Unlimited has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Chase Travel portal

Must-see places and must-do activities

Most people come to the Redwood National and State Parks to see their namesake tree. The sequoia sempervirens, more commonly known as the coast redwood, is the highlight. You will not be disappointed. They are plentiful.

Hyperion, the literal tallest tree in the world, is located within a remote area of the northern section of the Redwood National and State Parks. It tops out at a jaw-dropping 379 feet. That’s taller than Big Ben and the Statue of Liberty. Don’t get too excited about visiting this specimen, however. The exact location is a secret.

Image by Ian Snyder

Fern Canyon

Fern Canyon is the crown jewel of Redwood National Park, in my opinion. I’ve been there many times, and it never gets old. If you are only in the area for a couple of days, this is one place you should not miss. While I much prefer hiking to the canyon, you can also get there by driving Davison Road from Highway 101. The road is well-maintained, except for the last section that includes one substantial section that will generally be impassable for a sedan or minivan.

The day hike option is a nine-mile round-trip. You may be thinking this would be crazy with kids, but the terrain is easy and heat is never an issue. As a kid, I handled it easily. That being said, we were definitely a family of hikers.

The hike from the Fern Canyon parking lot on the coast is a short 1-mile loop. If time is of the essence, this is the easiest way to visit. No matter how you get there, be prepared to wade ankle-deep in the creek within the canyon. Plank bridges are typically installed during summer, but not during the rest of the year. (Note: They were not present in mid-June this year.)

Image by Ian Snyder

Hiking

If you have time for only one day hike, I recommend the James Irvine Trail from Elk Prairie to Fern Canyon, the aforementioned 9-mile trek. It’s easy, pleasant and lets you see the most wondrous place in the parks. It’s likely the best redwoods hike you’ll ever find.

Other personal favorites that are great for kids include the Ossagon Trail and Lady Bird Johnson Grove. Big Tree is not much of a hike, but it is a great redwood to see. A final family favorite is the Coastal Trail, accessed off Coastal Drive on the north end of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. We’ve quite literally been the only people on this lovely, secluded beach.

Wildlife viewing

The Roosevelt elk are a prevalent sight as well. You can most often catch them in aptly named Elk Prairie. During certain times of the year, you may also catch them out along the beach near Fern Canyon. You might even see them holding up traffic on Highway 101.

Image by Ian Snyder

Be safe around the elk — approaching them on foot is unwise, not to mention against park rules.

Bottom line

Redwood National and State Parks have so much to offer as a family vacation. Whether you immerse yourself in the beauty of these ancient trees by camping among them or stay more comfortably at the nearby Holiday Inn Express, let your children fall in love with nature as you experience the wonder of this incredible park together. Here are some top tips for visiting national parks with kids.

Images by author.

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