Day 76: Saturday 27th May
California redwood trees are known for being the tallest and among the oldest trees on planet Earth. You would think that people would have appreciated or even been awestruck by these natural giants’ size and venerability – but that wasn’t the spirit of the 19th-century commercial mind, and heavy clearing of the trees began in the 1850s. By 1968, after many decades of unrestricted logging, around 90% of the original 8,500 km2 of redwoods that had grown in most of coastal northern California had been destroyed, with the result that the tree is now considered an endangered species. Luckily, starting in the 1910s some forward-thinking people had the sense to try and protect what was left of the quickly dying redwood, which would have been driven to extinction had it not been for the foundation of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in 1923, quickly followed by the Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park in 1925, and later the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in 1939. To these was added Redwood National Park in 1968, and these four parks comprise the Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP), which together protect 45% of all remaining coastal redwood old-growth forests.
So Redwood is not just one park as I had thought when starting to plan the trip – there are four different parks that comprise the whole. I was a bit confused by this at first, and didn’t understand whether the parks were one thing or separate things, with the result that I ended up booking a campsite not in Redwood National Park itself as I intended, but rather in the Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park (still part of RNSP, though).
Most of this day was spent driving – we left Portland at around 9.30am, ate lunch at a place called Joe’s Diner, and apart from stops for petrol and groceries, we were on the road the whole time. There were only four of us by this point – Graham had left early that morning to get his flight home, so we had a little more room in the car for the long drive, fortunately. It was around 6pm by the time we had checked into the campsite and set up the tent, so we’d been on the road for a good eight hours. However, determined not to let fatigue set in and to make the most of the remaining daylight hours, we set off for Stout Grove in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, where there is a short 0.6 mile circular walking trail. Even as we were driving there, we stopped at several points along the way to admire the massive trees and take some silly photos.
It’s quite hard to take pictures that capture the enormous size of these trees – indeed, it’s hard to even comprehend their full size when you see them in real life, because you can’t even see the upper parts of the tree most of the time – but here are some pictures that try to do the job.
Stout Grove itself was beautiful – calm, peaceful, majestic and quiet in that way you can only experience in nature. We walked around the trail, stopping often to climb, take photos, and bask in the wonder.
There were a lot of fallen trees which made me think there must have been a bad storm recently:
We came to a clearing where a river flowed (from looking at a map, it could be either Mill Creek, Cedar Creek, or Smith River):
There was lots of this weird-looking and colourful plant around (apparently called horsetail):
And I saw this slug which had a smiley face on it:
We also passed THIS as we were making our way around the trail – I don’t understand how this isn’t Internet famous, but it isn’t – we tried searching for other pictures of it afterwards and couldn’t find any. But LOOK AT IT!
We spent a long time staring at it trying to work out if it was a natural growth on the tree or if it had been carved in, but we were all pretty sure it was just part of the tree. Crazy!
We had taken our time walking around the trail and it was starting to get dark, so we hurried back just as dusk was falling. As we were driving back to the campsite we passed the twinkling lights of a coastal town – from looking at a map I think it was probably Crescent City.
We got back to the campsite around 9.30pm and were in bed by 10pm – back to our old camping ways.
Day 77: Sunday 28th May
We got an early start in order to spend as much time in Redwood as we could before heading to San Francisco in the evening. The weather in northern California is not at all like I expected – it was grey and overcast, and apparently this is normal for the region. There was this ethereal mist hanging over everything:
RNSP is not just trees – there are also beaches. A USA Today article I read says, “the coastline… is as much a part of the Redwood National Park experience as the forests are.” However, the image of beaches where the sun shines all year long does not apply here – that’s an image gleaned entirely from TV shows and movies set in southern California. To quote USA Today, “the beaches here are not what you would normally expect. They are craggy [and] cold.” Indeed, our first encounter with one of northern California’s beaches seemed to bear this up.
It was kind of beautiful in its own grey, windy way though – reminded me a bit of England. The only slightly sad moment was when I found this dead crab floating in the sea:
I am a little ashamed to tell you what we did after the beach. To give you a bit of background, shortly before we had set off on the road trip, I had come across a New York Times article with the headline ‘Giant Sequoia Tunnel Tree in California is Toppled by Storm’. It was about a tree so big that they had built a road through it and you could actually drive through the tree. A drive-thru tree! (I obviously didn’t read the article very carefully because looking at it now, it actually says that in recent years they stopped allowing cars through it and it had only become accessible to hikers). I was devastated by the news that this tree was no more as I – stupidly! – believed this to be the only one of its kind. Little did I know that there are several other drive-thru trees in California. Foolish child! I should have known. Of course America has drive-thru trees – they have drive-thru everything!
So, of course, we wanted to experience one of these abominations on nature. We selected a drive-thru tree near Klamath and paid the entrance fee (these things ain’t free, you know!). Here are some of the results:
We then headed for Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and the imaginatively-named Circle Trail (another nice short walk that leads you round – surprise, surprise – in a circle)…
… past the even more inventively-named Big Tree.
Thus, having camped in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, hiked in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and now going for a walk in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, we managed to visit all of the parks that make up Redwood and National State Parks, except, ironically, Redwood National Park itself.
Jenn had not forgotten that she was still looking for bears – there are black bears in Redwood, as this sign reminded us.
This would have been her last chance to see a bear, as she was leaving us in San Francisco – but sadly it was not to be. However, as we were leaving the park, we were delighted to at least be able to spot some black-tailed deer – once again, the amazing zoom on my camera and my flourishing wildlife photography skills allowed me to capture some decent pics:
Then it was sadly time to leave RNSP. We tried to stop for coffee in the town of Eureka but weren’t able to find any fast enough (we didn’t want to lose too much time as we still had a way to go), so we drove on and stopped for lunch at La Costa Mexican Restaurant in Fortuna, CA. Although we had already left the boundaries of Redwood National and State Parks, there were still plenty of big trees around. We headed for the Avenue of the Giants, a well-known scenic highway that runs through Humboldt Redwoods State Park for 31 miles…
…and passed this pretty scene (I think this might be the Eel River):
Hankering for some more scenic drives, and on the recommendation of a friend, we joined the Pacific Coast Highway. We had been told it was a picturesque and classic road trip route and the pictures we had looked up seemed to bear this up, but this was not our actual experience. I think we unfortunately picked a not-very-exciting part of the Highway (we joined it at its northern terminus by branching off from Route 101 near Leggett), and it doesn’t seem that anyone has very much to say about this initial northern section of State Route 1 – the famous and more beautiful section is between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Our experience of the Pacific Coast Highway was that it looked like Cornwall – grey rainy craggy coastline; even the houses somehow looked like British holiday homes.
We drove along it for a while, but we soon discovered, as was our experience with every scenic drive that we tried on our road trip, that it was simply taking way too long. Maybe for a different kind of road trip where you’re only covering very short distances and can afford to go at a leisurely pace, scenic drives are great, but since we were trying to cover quite a distance, we realised after about an hour that we had only covered about 40 miles, and it would be the next day by the time we reached San Francisco at this rate. We were also in a bit of a rush because we were hoping to stop to see a friend of mine in Santa Rosa on the way. So we left the Pacific Coast Highway near Fort Bragg and rejoined the much faster U.S. Route 101.
The weird thing was that as soon as we left the coastline and got a mile or so inland, the grey sky and clouds magically lifted and it was blazing hot sunshine. The difference was truly staggering – it was like a wall of fog and cloud hugs the northern California coastline but you only need to travel a tiny way inland for it to disappear and for the weather to turn into what you typically expect from California.
So my advice for you if you’re trying to decide whether to travel on the Pacific Coast Highway or Route 101 is: take the Pacific Coast Highway if you have a lot of time and can afford to go slow, and if you don’t mind shitty weather (if you’re doing it in northern California) 😉 Its northern section doesn’t seem to be as scenic anyway, so I’d probably only recommend taking it in its southern portion after San Francisco – the part my friend who had recommended it to me had driven.
We were able to make it to Santa Rosa around 7pm, while it was fortunately still beautiful weather – blue skies and warm sunshine. I was able to catch up with my friend Colleen who I did my Masters with in London.
We hung out with her and her friends by the sunny outdoor pool you see above (it was part of one of her friends’ apartment blocks), and those of us that didn’t have to drive anymore had a beer. Unfortunately we were only able to stay for about half an hour because we had to crack on to San Francisco, but it was still nice to be able to catch up, however briefly!