Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Into the Redwoods

Following Hwy. 1 north from Mendocino County leads to Leggett and the junction with Hwy. 101. The big attraction here is the Drive-Thru-Tree Park, as schlocky as it sounds, but for some reason we humans just love driving through trees. They carved this car-sized hole in the Chandelier Tree in the 1930s, and for a fee you can “drive thru” it, or bike or walk (RVs won’t make it).

A couple miles farther north is the 1,000-acre Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area, a forest of second-growth coast redwoods, firs, bigleaf maples, oaks, and alders also thick with ferns and, in spring, water-loving wildflowers. Good camping, and you can also hike to the 225-foot-tall Miles Standish Tree and then continue on to the waterfall. Two miles farther is lovely Smithe Redwoods State Reserve, reached from the west side of the highway though most of the park’s protected trees are to the east. Nearby is Confusion Hill, one of those places where gravity is defied and water runs uphill, etc. Open year-round. You can also take the kids on a train ride through the redwoods (summers only).

Redwoods with redwood sorrel (photo by Justin Kern)

Redwoods with redwood sorrel (photo by Justin Kern)

Richardson Grove State Park is where you’ll find the first serious groves of old-growth redwoods. There’s even a walk-through tree here. It’s an easy stroll to the historic Hartsook Inn, at last report still in need of new purpose. The Richardson Grove Nature Trail is fully accessible. Picnic near the Eel River then choose from three developed campgrounds (Huckleberry/Madrone open all year). The old Richardson Grove Lodge serves as a seasonal visitor center.

Next north is Benbow Lake State Recreation Area, in the midst of open woodlands two miles south of Garberville but aptly named only in the summer, when a temporary dam goes up on the Eel River’s south fork to create Benbow Lake. State budget cuts in recent years, however, mean both the lake and campground are questionable. Even the 20-year-plus run of Shakespeare at Benbow Lake is no more. Find out what is going on when you’ll be around at the historic Benbow Inn. 

A former sheep ranching town, Garberville is not an outlaw enclave paved in $100 bills by pot-growing Mercedes Benz owners, as media mythology would have it. The town was once considered the sinsemilla cultivation capital of the world, an honor most locals are fed up with. Big-time growers have long since gone elsewhere. But this is a good stop for groceries or a meal.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

This is the redwood heart of Humboldt County, where more than 40 percent of the world’s redwoods remain. The Save-the-Redwoods League and the state have added to the park’s holdings grove by grove. Most of these “dedicated groves,” named in honor of those who gave to save the trees, and many of the park’s developed campgrounds are along the state-park section of the 33-mile Avenue of the Giants parkway.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park is one of the largest state parks in Northern California and the state’s largest redwood park, with more than 51,000 acres of almost unfrequented redwood groves, mixed conifers, and oaks. The park offers 35 miles of hiking and backpacking trails, plus 30 miles of old logging roads—and surprising solitude so close to a freeway. Down on the flats are the deepest and darkest stands of virgin redwoods, including Rockefeller Forest, donated by the John D. Rockefeller family, the world’s largest stand of stately survivors. The rolling uplands include grass-brushed hills and mixed forest. Calypso orchids and lilies are plentiful in spring, and wild blackberries and huckleberries ripen July-September.

Fallen redwood (photo by Miguel Vieira)

Fallen redwood (photo by Miguel Vieira)

Camping is easy at Humboldt Redwoods, which offers hundreds of developed campsites—hot showers, restrooms, tables, the works—some wonderful backpackers’ and environmental camps, group and horse camps, plus four picnic areas.

Worthwhile stops on the way north to Redwood National Park include neat-as-a-pin Scotia, home to generations of Pacific Lumber Company employees and their families but now an LLC. The Scotia Museum and visitor center on Main is a storehouse of local logging history housed in a stylized Greek temple built of redwood, with logs taking the place of fluted columns. (Formerly a bank, the building’s sprouting redwood burl once had to be pruned regularly.) The Scotia Inn is still the town’s social center. With extra time on your hands also take in Del Rio across the river and much larger Fortuna not far beyond, established in 1875. Come in July for the Redwood Fortuna Rodeo, the oldest rodeo in the West.

Eureka and Vicinity

If you’ll be spending time in and around Eureka, you won’t want to miss the very Victorian town of Ferndale, the kind of place Disney imagineers would create if they needed an old-timey movie set. Ferndale, however, is the real thing, a thriving small town settled by Danish immigrants in 1864. Ferndale also happens to be the final destination every Memorial Day weekend for participants in the annual Cross-Country Kinetic Sculpture Race from Arcata. Stop by the Kinetic Sculpture Museum on Main to appreciate some memorable kinetic-sculpture contenders.

Lost Coast Mutineers During the Kinetic Sculpture Race (photo by Sandwich Girl)

Lost Coast Mutineers during the Kinetic Sculpture Race (photo by Sandwich Girl)

Then there’s the big city of Eureka, also notable for its neighborhoods of redwood Victorians, vividly painted as if to burn away the fog. When James T. Ryan slogged ashore here from his whaling ship in May of 1850, shouting (so the story goes) Eureka! (“I have found it”), what he found was California’s largest natural bay north of San Francisco. Russian-American Fur Company hunters actually entered Humboldt Bay earlier, in 1806, but the area’s official discovery came in 1849 when a party led by Josiah Gregg came overland that winter seeking the mouth of the Trinity River (once thought to empty into the ocean). Gregg died in unfriendly forests on the return trip to San Francisco, but the reports of his half-starved companions led to Eureka’s establishment as a trading post and port serving the far northern inland gold camps.

Humboldt Bay was less than ideal as a port, with its treacherous sandbar, and dozens of ships foundered in heavy storms or fog. But it offers attractions for landlubbers, including

Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, established on the edge of the bay’s South Jetty to protect the black brant, a small migratory goose, and more than 200 other bird species. Other harbor life includes sea lions, harbor seals, porpoises, and gray whales, seen offshore here in winter and early spring. Humboldt Bay’s Egret Rookery and other refuge features are best observed from the water. The Humboldt refuge also includes Lanphere Dunes near Arcata.

The Samoa Bridge connects the city of Eureka with the narrow peninsula extending south from Arcata (almost across Humboldt Bay) and the onetime Simpson Lumber Company town of Samoa, the name inspired by the bay’s resemblance to the harbor at Pago Pago. The Samoa Cookhouse, noted rustic restaurant and the last logging camp cookhouse in the West, also offers a fascinating museum.

Detail of Eureka's Carson Mansion (photo by David Berry)

Detail of Eureka’s Carson Mansion (photo by David Berry)

Take in Eureka’s Victorians, especially the geegawed Gothic Carson Mansion, 143 M St. at the foot of Second St. (locals say “Two Street”), once the home of lumber baron William Carson. Those in the know say this is the state’s—perhaps the nation’s—finest surviving example of Victoriana. Now home to the exclusive all-male (how Victorian) Ingomar Club, even unescorted men are not welcome inside or in the club’s palatial gardens. So be happy with a look at the ornate turrets and trim of this three-story money-green mansion built of redwood.

Romano Gabriel Sculpture Garden (photo by Denise Comiskey, used courtesy Eureka Heritage Society)

Romano Gabriel Sculpture Garden (photo by Denise Comiskey, used courtesy Eureka Heritage)

Also well worth extended appreciation is the Romano Gabriel Sculpture Garden nearby at 315 Second St., a blooming, blazing, full-color world of delightful plants, people, and social commentary, crafted from packing crates with the help of a handsaw. This is “primitive art” (snobs say “poor taste”) on a massive scale, one of two pieces of California folk art recognized internationally; the other is Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Gabriel worked on this garden, which includes likenesses of Mussolini, the Pope, nosy neighbors, and tourists amid the fantastic flowers and trees, for 30 years. After Gabriel’s death it was restored then transplanted downtown from his front yard on Pine Street. Worth it, too, is a stop at the fine and friendly Clarke Historical Museum, 240 E St. (at Third), where you’ll feel as though you’re stepping into a 19th-century parlor.


What lumberjacks do when they don’t have jobs? Arcata is not resigned to the status quo. (photo taking during the Kinetic Sculpture Race by Sandwich Girl)

After poking around in the galleries and shops of Old Town Eureka near the bay—lots of local events happen here—head to Humboldt State University and the city of Arcata nearby, to sample the North Coast college scene. Arcata is Eureka’s alter-ego, no more resigned to the status quo than the sky here is blue. It would be natural to assume that the genesis of this backwoods grass-roots activism is the presence of academia, namely Humboldt State, the only university on the north coast. But the beginnings of the Arcata attitude go back much further. When Arcata was still a frontier trading post known as Union Town, 24-year-old writer Bret Harte set the tone. An unknown underling on The Northern Californian newspaper in Arcata between 1858 and 1860, an outraged Harte—temporarily in charge while his editor was out of town—wrote a scathing editorial about the notorious Indian Island massacre of Wiyot villagers by settlers and was summarily run out of town, shoved along on his way to fame and fortune. Besides activism, general community creativity, and education, farming and fishing are growing concerns. Appropriately enough, the popular semipro baseball team, a proud part of the community since 1944, is called the Humboldt Crabs. The Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Preserve at the foot of I St. was one of the first wildlife preserves in the U.S. to be created from an old landfill dump and “enhanced” by treated sewage water. The aesthetic settling ponds offer pleasant walks and excellent bird-watching.

North From Arcata

In the Mad River Valley just northeast of Arcata on Hwy. 299 is Blue Lake, a tiny town in farm, dairy, and timber country with a fish hatchery, museum, roller rink, and amazing Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. One thing not in Blue Lake is a lake, due to the Mad River changing its course some time ago; the original lake is now a marsh. East via Hwy. 299 is Willow Creek, where folks around here go when the summer fog finally becomes unbearable—and where Bigfoot is everywhere, starting at the local museum.

Heading north from Arcata on Hwy. 101, the first wide-spot-in-the-road is fast-growing McKinleyville. The town lies adjacent to the Azalea State Reserve and offers good whale-watching from McKinleyville Vista Point. Then comes charming Trinidad, once a booming supply town and whaling port complete with lighthouse, museum, great beaches, and Humboldt State marine lab and aquarium. Almost as beloved is Patrick’s Point State Park, where the point itself is one of the finest spots anywhere for whalewatching (not to mention camping, picnicking, and winter mushrooming). The Yurok people who for centuries seasonally inhabited this area believed that the spirit of the porpoises came to live here just before people populated the world—and that the seven offshore sea stacks that stretch north to south like a spine were the last earthly abode of the immortals.

When you arrive in the community of Big Lagoon just off the highway north of Patrick’s Point you’ll know you’re almost arrived at Redwood National Park. Humboldt Lagoons State Park includes Big Lagoon itself and the miles-long barrier beach separating it from the sea, along with three other lagoons, a total of 1,500 beachfront acres best for beachcombing, boating, fishing, surfing, and windsurfing (swimming only for the hardy or foolhardy).

Redwood National Park & Vicinity

Pointing north to Oregon like a broken finger is Redwood National Park, California’s finest temple to tree hugging. Well-traveled Hwy. 101 passes through the park, but much of the temple is remote and empty of worshippers. Visitors just passing through to the Trees of Mystery are likely unaware that they’re witnessing a miracle—forests being raised (albeit slowly) from the dead.

Redwood National Park is complete, yet unfinished. Standing in the shadow and sunlight of an old-growth redwood grove is like stepping up to an altar mindful only of the fullness of life. But elsewhere in the park—out back toward the alley, looking like remnants of some satanic rite—are shameful scars of sticks and scabbed-over earth, the result of opportunistic clearcutting during the political wrangling that accompanied the park’s formation. Today, these areas are still in the early stages of healing.

Yet Redwood National Park features some magnificent groves of virgin old-growth redwood. Three of the world’s 10 tallest trees grow here—one of the reasons for UNESCO’s 1982 declaration of the area as a World Heritage Site, the first on the Pacific coast. Redwood National Park is also an international Man in the Biosphere Reserve.

Driving Howland Hill Road (photo by Brian Hoffman)

Driving Howland Hill Road (photo by Brian Hoffman)

But other people call it other things. When the sawdust finally settled after the struggle to establish this national park—the costliest of them all, with a total nonadministrative pricetag of $1.4 billion—no one was happy. Despite the park’s acquisitions to date, purists protest that not enough additional acres of old-growth redwoods have been preserved. Philistines are dismayed that there is so little commercial development here, so few gift shops and souvenir stands. And some locals are still unhappy that prime timber stands are now out of the loggers’ reach, and that the prosperity promised somewhere just down the skid roads of Redwood National Park never arrived—or, more accurately, never matched expectations.

Federal and state lands within the boundaries of Redwood National Park are technically under separate jurisdictions, but as a practical matter the national and its three associated state parks—the Prairie Creek, Del Norte Coast, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Parks—are cooperatively managed. In general, the visiting weather is best in late spring and early autumn. August and September are the busiest times here (the salmon fishing rush), but September after Labor Day offers fewer crowds and usually less fog.

Some of the lush terrain included within the borders of Redwood National Park is so strange that filmmaker George Lucas convinced much of the world it was extraterrestrial in his Return of the Jedi. The park’s dominant redwood forests host more than 1,000 species of other plants and animals. Roosevelt elk, or wapiti, survive only here and in Washington’s Olympic National Park, though they once roamed from the San Joaquin Valley north to Mt. Shasta. The park is also home to 300 species of birds, including Pacific Flyway migrants, gulls, cormorants, rare brown pelicans, raptors, and songbirds.

Banana weren't featured in Return of the Jedi, filmed in the exotic wilds of Jed Smith Redwoods (photo "Parenting" by Michael Mees)

For some unknown reason the redwood coast’s famous banana slugs weren’t featured in the George Lucas film Return of the Jedi, shot in Redwood National Park (photo “Parenting” by Michael Mees)

The rehabilitation of clearcut lands remains a top park priority—more important than recreational development. Because of the immensity of the task and the slow healing process, Redwood National Park will probably not be “finished” for decades.

That said, the main thing to do in Redwood National Park is simply be here. “Being here” to many area visitors means little more than pulling into the parking lot near the 49-foot-tall Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox at Klamath’s Trees of Mystery, buying big-trees trinkets, or stopping for a slab or two at roadside redwood burl stands in Orick. Though fishing, kayaking, surfing, and rafting are increasingly popular, nature study and hiking are the park’s main recreational offerings.

For those seeking views with the least amount of effort, take a drive along Howland Hill Rd. (one-lane dirt road) through some of the finest trees in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. (Howland Hill Rd. transects the park and can be reached via South Fork Rd. off Hwy. 199 just east of the park, or via Elk Valley Rd. south of Crescent City.) Or try a sunny picnic on the upland prairie overlooking the redwoods and ocean, reached via one-lane Bald Hills Rd., eight miles or more inland from Hwy. 101.

Hiking here is not to be missed. The together-but-separate nature of the park’s interwoven state and federal jurisdictions makes everything confusing, including figuring out the park’s trail system. Pick up a copy of the local trails at park information centers. Among must-do walks is the easy and short self-guided nature trail on the old logging road to Lady Bird Johnson Grove. Nearby at the overlook is an educational logging rehabilitation display comprised of acres of visual aids—devastated redwood land clearcut in 1965 and 1970 next to a forest selectively logged at the end of World War II. The traditional route for true tree huggers, though, is the long (but also easy) 11.5-mile roundtrip hike (at least five hours one-way, overnight camping possible with permit) along Redwood Creek Trail to the famous Tall Trees Grove. The longest and most memorable trek in Redwood National Park is the 30-mile-long Coastal Trail, which runs almost the park’s entire length (hikable in sections) from near Endert’s Beach south of Crescent City through Del Norte Redwoods State Park, inland around the mouth of the Klamath River, then south along Flint Ridge, Gold Bluffs Beach, and Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. A summers-only spur continues south along the beach to the information center.

Roosevelt Elk, Redwood National Park (photo by Steve Dunleavy)

Roosevelt Elk, Redwood National Park (photo by Steve Dunleavy)

Beyond Orick and the park’s excellent Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center is 14,000-acre Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Heavy winter rainfall and thick summer fog produce rainforest lushness. Redwoods rub elbows with 200-foot-tall Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, and Western hemlock above an amazing array of shrubs, ferns, and groundcover, not to mention 800 varieties of flowers and 500 different kinds of mushrooms. Fern Canyon is unforgettable. Also particularly worthwhile at Prairie Creek: beachcombing, surf fishing, nature walks and photography, picnicking, and camping. Prairie Creek’s Revelation Trail loop, which includes a rope guide for the blind, has been put forth as the national standard for trail accessibility.

You’ve arrived in traditional Yurok country when you get to Klamath. The 263-mile-long Klamath River—California’s second-largest—drains 8,000 square miles and is fed by more than 300 tributaries, including the Salmon, Scott, and Trinity Rivers. Despite the shocking die-off of 33,000 salmon along the river’s lower reaches in 2002, due to excess water use upstream (a long and ongoing story), the Klamath is still one of the world’s finest fishing streams. Anglers line the Klamath and the lagoon from late fall through winter for the salmon run, though fishing for cutthroat trout downstream from town is good year-round.

Just south of Klamath is the Tour-Thru-Tree, in case you haven’t toured-thru one yet. (To tour thru, take the Terwer Valley/Klamath Glen exit off Hwy. 101 and go east a quarter mile.) “New Klamath” (the old town washed away in massive floods) is dominated by the Trees of Mystery on the highway,  made famous by Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Most notable in tiny Requa is the historic Requa Inn, a Yurok-owned bed-and-breakfast with good restaurant.

Next north is Del Norte Redwoods State Park, a dense and foggy coastal rainforest comprised of 6,400 acres of redwoods, meadows, beaches, and tidepools. It’s so wet here in winter that the developed campgrounds close.

Stout Grove redwoods (photo by Ray Bouknight)

Stout Grove redwoods (photo by Ray Bouknight)

Though the competition is certainly stiff even close by, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park farther north is one of the most beautiful places on earth—and almost unvisited. Few people come inland even a few miles from Hwy. 101 near Crescent City. The Smith River, which flows through the park, was crossed by mountain man Jedediah Smith on June 20, 1828, after his grueling cross-country effort to reach the Pacific. Despite subsequent incursions this 10,000-acre stand of old-growth redwoods, Douglas fir, pines, maples, and meadows seems almost unscathed.

If so much verdant natural beauty cries out for balance—as in the comforts of civilization—head back to Eureka and environs or try nearby Crescent City, the only incorporated city in Del Norte County. See the Battery Point Lighthouse near town, originally known as the Crescent City Lighthouse and first lit in December of 1856. Weather and tides permitting you can walk out to it on a path more than 100 years old and visit the island museum.

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