It’s all about the trees! And there’s plenty of them to see along US-101 from behind the wheel, but some of the most incredible Redwood National Park sights are a short walk away. Rising an average of 300 feet, the Stout Memorial Grove (accessed via the east end of Howland Road and from Jedediah Smith Campground by way of a seasonal summer bridge) contains the tallest trees within the Jedediah Smith region. It’s an easy 0.5-mile walk among sword ferns that carpet the forest floor, and the flow of the nearby Smith River is entrancing.
No doubt the giant coast redwoods are the cynosures of Redwood National and State Parks, but there is also an abundance of wildlife and stunning viewpoints that should not be overlooked. Possibly the best spot to spy migrating whales in the winter is from Crescent Beach Overlook, located less than two miles past Crescent Beach within the Del Norte section of the parks. The cliffside platform offers dominating views of the seascape that are simply hard to beat. A short trail leads down the bluffs to Enderts Beach, where driftwood, seashells, and the best tidepools are aplenty. The trail is part of the larger 70-mile-long Coastal Trail, which is a good way to explore—feet willing.
Farther south in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park lies a beautiful natural landmark and popular destination, Fern Canyon: Water streams down its 50-foot steep walls, draped with thick emerald ferns. It’s no wonder the site was used as a filming location for movies such as The Lost World: Jurassic Park and the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs, as the canyon exudes a prehistoric aura. Wear waterproof shoes or expect to get your feet wet!
To see Big Tree, a 304-foot-high redwood measuring 21 feet in diameter, follow Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. It’s a short 100-yard walk from the Prairie Creek Visitor Center, and worth the 30-minute drive off US-101. Nearby, the Ah Pah Trail provides a glimpse into the past logging era, with interesting trailside exhibits.
A mile north of Orick on Bald Hills Road (watch for a sign at the junction of US-101) are two well-known groves: the regal Lady Bird Johnson Grove, where gathered giants create a cathedral-esque canopy, and Tall Trees Grove, whose star attraction is the soaring Howard Libbey Tree. The Lady Bird Johnson Grove is named in honor of the former first lady (wife of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson) in recognition of her efforts to help preserve America’s natural beauty, which ultimately led to the bill that created Redwood National Park. But what really makes the trees here special is that in comparison to other groves, these trees are highlanders—sitting 1,200 feet above sea level.
To visit Tall Trees Grove, stop by Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center to pick up a free permit and combination to unlock the gate that leads to some of the most massive trees on the planet. There is a limit of 50 cars per day, and if you’re one of the lucky ones (trailers and RVs are not permitted), it’s a 45-minute drive to the trailhead up the narrow unpaved Bald Hills Road. The trail drops about 800 feet in elevation before arriving at Tall Trees Grove (2 miles) and the 367.8-foot former reigning giant, Howard Libbey Tree. Although larger redwoods have been discovered, Libbey continues to be popular among visitors due to its accessibility and the locations of rival giants never being revealed for their protection.
Beneath the lush green canopy, majestic Roosevelt elk roam the northern redwood region; their noble antlers are observable in late summer through winter. In the 1920s, only 15 elk could be found here, but today, they are a common sight thanks to the protection of critical habitat. Safe viewing areas can be navigated by car at Elk Prairie along Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway (34 miles south of Crescent City) and Elk Meadow via Davison Road (3 miles north of Orick). Another good viewpoint is less than five miles up the road from Elk Meadow at Gold Bluffs Beach. However, there is a day-use fee and trailers are not allowed, as this portion of the road is unpaved. As a gentle reminder, please do not approach Roosevelt elk. These wild animals need no introduction, and are perfectly hospitable—but from afar. It is also imperative that drivers respect speed limits and be attentive to wildlife along the roads and highways, as Roosevelt elk (or other forest critters) do not yield to drivers or look both ways.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip.