California's third largest state park, Humboldt Redwoods State Park spans across 53,000 acres and is filled with trails and campgrounds that sit underneath ancient redwood forests. Hiking and camping amongst some of the oldest and tallest trees on Earth makes for a breathtaking and awe-inspiring summer trip, and while sequoias are known for their gigantic size by circumference and volume, redwoods, on the other hand, are the tallest trees in the world; Humboldt Redwoods in Northern California is full of their groves. The state park not only has the largest contiguous old-growth forest in the world, but also features three of the 10 tallest trees in the world. These magnificent giants are around 1,200-1,600 years old and climb some 350 feet into the air (as tall as some skyscrapers in the Upper West Side of New York City!). They're so thick that it would probably take 15-20 people holding hands to encircle the trunk.
The park is located in the city of Weott, about a four-hour drive from San Francisco and is surrounded by four other national forests: Six Rivers, Shasta-Trinity, Lassen, and Mendocino. Exploring its redwood groves is easy; there are a couple of scenic drives that reach them all, hiking trails are mostly flat and short, and camping and accommodations are nearby.
The Avenue of the Giants Road
The Avenue of the Giants is the most famous attraction in the state park. It's a 32-mile long scenic road that runs parallel to the modern coastal Highway 101 and the South Fork Eel River. Towering redwoods line both sides, and there are many great stops along the way. In the 1950s, the road was actually the original Highway 101 and was planned to be built into a four-lane highway, destroying the redwood groves that stood in the way. Thankfully the 101 was built elsewhere, the groves were preserved, and now the Avenue of the Giants is the foremost drive through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Although it only takes 50 minutes to complete, keep in mind that it can still get pretty busy.
Some of the outstanding stops along the Avenue of Giants include restaurants, hotels and inns, campgrounds, and trailheads. But the drive itself is enjoyable because of the sights along the way. Just four miles south of the Humboldt Redwoods State Park Visitor Center on Myers Flat is the Shrine Drive Thru-Tree. As one of the last three redwood trees you can drive through, the Shrine's natural opening is seven feet wide and seven feet tall, just enough to fit vehicles. The other two, the Chandelier and Klamath Drive Thru-Trees, are 45 and 150 miles away respectively from the Shrine. But because it's the oldest of the three, it has increasingly needed support from metallic cables to stay upright. You do have to pay a small entrance fee to drive through the tunnel. But your kids can also play on the two-story treehouses and walk-through stump, and the gift shop has quality local redwood crafts worth checking out.
Founders' Grove Nature Trail is the most popular trail in the state park for a couple of reasons. First, Founders' Grove is the largest grove in Humboldt Redwoods and is so big that from most vantage points along the loop trail, there are massive redwoods as far as you can see. Second, it's located along the Avenue of the Giants, making it a convenient stop on that popular drive. At the end of the trail, you'll find the famous Dyerville Giant. This once-standing, 362-foot redwood was considered the tallest tree in the park before it fell in 1991. Its fall was so powerful that a seismograph registered its impact on the earth and a local who was half a mile away thought a train had crashed. Although the grove is worth visiting, this might not be your first choice if you want to avoid the crowds. Since the grove sits on the Avenue of the Giants and next to Highway 101, the serene quiet that one imagines when looking at pictures of these redwoods is in reality ongoing, loud traffic noises.
Many park visitors consider the Grieg-French-Bell Grove the prettiest grove in the state park because of the redwood sorrel (small, clover-shaped leaves) that densely covers the forest floor and even fallen trees. An unnamed trailhead that's easy to find along the Avenue of the Giants leads through what are actually three smaller groves. It first takes you through the Grieg Grove, where you're welcomed by a clear area that's surrounded by large trees. The trail then takes you to the right to the French Grove, where you can see the surprisingly still-standing Girdled Tree. The Girdled Tree is easy to find because of the twenty feet of missing bark around its bottom, which was foolishly removed back in 1901 to be displayed in San Francisco. The trail finally leads to the last grove, Bell Grove, where you can see the stark contrast between the old-growth forest and second-growth forest (forest that has regrown after timber harvest or clearing).
Adjacent to the trail that leads into the Grieg-French-Bell Grove is the Drury-Chaney Loop Trail. Although it's not as impressive as the Grieg-French-Bell Grove, it still takes you across a beautiful forest floor covered by redwood sorrel. It has fewer signs of logging and the trail is much longer and better maintained. Since the trail is surfaced with gravel underneath a thick layer of fallen redwood needles, it's wheelchair-accessible. But it's also one of the most popular trails on the Avenue of the Giants because of its high visibility.
While the Avenue of the Giants runs adjacent to the forest, Mattole Road goes for five miles through it. Its rough path winds through into the dense woods, and it almost seems like the surrounding trees are going to swallow it. But by taking Mattole Road, you'll follow the Central Fork Eel River into the thick of the Rockefeller Forest, where there are more beautiful groves and trails to explore.
A less-crowded alternative to Founders' Grove, the Rockefeller Loop is a great place to enjoy the peacefulness of the forest. The trailhead begins at the end of a short road off of Mattole Road that steeply descends to a dark-forested parking lot. The grove's biggest trees greet you at the trailhead, but the path leads you along the edge of the woods where there aren't many trees until you pass Bull Creek. From there, you'll see a grove of redwoods that are so heavily packed, you might only see tree trunks at times. The loop then intersects with the Bull Creek Flats Trail North, which you can get on if you choose to continue.
Bull Creek Flats is the biggest old-growth alluvial flat in all of the California redwood forests, and the redwood groves have been called the "world's tallest forest" because of its fertile floodplains are where some of the most striking redwoods grow. Unlike most of the state park hikes (short and easy), the Bull Creek Flat Trail is a 10-mile loop that takes you through Upper and Lower Bull Creek Flats. But if 10 miles is too much of a commitment, then you can cut out two miles during the summer by crossing Bull Creek on a seasonal footbridge at the Big Trees Area.
The loop trail is actually made up of two trails that connect at the parking lot at the beginning and the seasonal footbridge and its end: Bull Creek Flats Trail South and North. Both take you to the Big Trees Area where, as its name implies, are where all the biggest trees of the park are. The Big Trees Area sits in between Bull Creek Flats Trail South and North and is one of the state park's more popular places to explore. On the south side of Bull Creek stands the Giant Tree, once known as the biggest coastal redwood back in 1991. But because people tend to go to this area just to check out the Giant Tree and leave, the gorgeous surrounding redwood groves tend to get missed.
The Tall Tree, also known as the Rockefeller Tree or Tallest Tree, was once known as the world's tallest tree back in 1957. Although it might seem less impressive than the Giant Tree from the ground, it's still a magnificent tree worth seeing and there's another great redwood grove just a quarter-mile past it.
The tallest tree in the state park is the Stratosphere Giant Tree. It also was considered as the world's tallest tree from 2000-2006, but is still the world's fourth tallest tree. At almost 1,300 years old, it's 375 feet tall. But it's kind of difficult to find without a GPS device because it's not on an actual trail and surrounded by a stronghold of massive fallen trees. But you can see it by taking the Bull Creek Flats Trail North towards the Big Trees Area, and turning right along Bull Creek. Then using a GPS, you'll hike northeast towards its latitude and longitude of 40.35055, -123.97437.
Places to Camp
Albee Creek Campground
Sitting five miles into Mattole Road, this small and quiet campground is a nice getaway from the crowds that the Avenue of the Giants can bring. It's only a five-minute walk to some of the best hikes including Bull Creek Flats Loop and has a bathroom building with showers in its center. It's also only open from May to mid-October, and reservations can fill up pretty quickly. There are also three ADA campsites that can be reserved if you have a disabled placard or license plate. Otherwise, they are available for first-come, first-serve.
Hidden Springs Campground
For more private camping, head to Hidden Springs Campground. Although you won't be camping underneath any big redwoods and will have to drive to go anywhere, the campground is pretty quiet and less busy than the other drive-in campgrounds.
Whiskey Flat Trail Camp
For those who want to backpack through the park, Whiskey Flat is the most scenic campground to camp at. It's located in a small, but beautiful old-growth redwood grove, and there aren't a ton of people that will be around. There's one official campsite, an outhouse, horse trough, bear box, and a couple of other unofficial places where people have clearly camped. The camp can only hold up to six people, and even if you don't have six people in your group, others can join until there is. It sits on the side of Grasshopper Mountain, where hiking up it is the main activity.
Johnson Trail Camp
Also located on Grasshopper Mountain, this campground is a convenient halfway stop up to the summit. It's the most popular trail camp in the park and sits just past the edge of the old-growth redwoods. There aren't any actual defined campsites, but most people set up near the outhouse. There's also a food locker and trough, and there's no need for reservations. All you have to do is go to any one of the drive-in campgrounds on the first day of your trip to buy a permit. Similar to Whiskey Flat, the camp can only hold up to six people.
This camp is noteworthy for the four, shabby cabins that were once used to produce hand-split redwood products. Although none of them are suitable to sleep in, they're a nice historical site to stop by during your journey.
Lauren Pineda is based in Austin, Texas, and found her love for writing in local music journalism. She now enjoys writing about all the hilarious mishaps and adventures that happen when traveling somewhere for the first time and prides herself on being a budding traveler with an ambitious drive to learn more about the places she visits. Instagram: @lt.jpeg
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