Standing in an old-growth grove of redwoods commands a certain degree of awed silence. Craning our necks upwards, looking beyond the massive chocolate-brown tree trunks at the lush green canopy hundreds of feet above the ground, one can only stand in hushed silence, listening to the wind make music among the magnificent redwoods. California is home to the Coast Redwood which grows all along the Pacific coast from California to Oregon. Many of the state and national parks are home to these Redwoods and are easily accessible from the Bay Area. The closest is Muir Woods, a stone’s throw away from the bustling city of San Francisco. Continue driving North on US-101 beyond San Francisco and very soon the familiar sights of the Bay Area give way to quaint tucked-away towns like Cloverdale, Ukiah and Willitis. Humboldt Redwoods State Park is approximately a 4-hour drive from the Bay Area. It makes for a perfect long-weekend getaway destination, especially for a camping trip! Who wouldn’t want to sleep beneath a canopy of Redwoods completely obscuring the dark night sky with twinkling stars out of sight and wake up to glorious sunshine filtering through the branches and lighting up the trees like in a dream?
Earlier this year, we visited Humboldt Redwoods State Park for two nights of camping, and we spent the 3rd day driving all along the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway (CA-1) via Fort Bragg and Mendocino back to San Francisco. Campsites at Humboldt Redwoods State Park need to be reserved in advance if you’re heading there for a long-weekend holiday. ReserveAmerica’s website is the go-to place to make reservations for campsites. We chose Burlington Campground after reviewing available options. Hidden Spring and Albee Creek are both secluded and quiet, but since this was our first time in the park, we chose the popular, family-friendly Burlington Campground, ideally located right next to the Visitor Center. The campsite is walking distance to a number of hiking trails that go along Eel River and deep into the Redwoods. Other campsites like Whiskey Flats are harder to get to and need one to be prepared for some hiking and backpacking before reaching the campground.
The drive at the start of our trip was uneventful on US-101 North, since there are no pretty coastal sights to stop for and no winding scenic roads to slowdown on. It was business all the way. But as we continued further North, we came upon what must be the best avenue in the world – the Avenue of the Giants! This detour is extremely scenic and is only slightly longer than continuing on US-101, so make sure to take it. Craning our necks to look up at the giant trees on either side of the road made us dizzy and absurdly happy. Drive slowly, stop often and get out of the car to stretch your legs!
Savoring the drive through the Avenue of the Giants, we got to the Humboldt Redwoods Park Visitor Center, adjacent to Burlington campground. We checked-in, bought a few piles of firewood for the campfire and settled into our camp. We were lucky we got a secluded site, it gave us the feeling of being by ourselves in this glorious forest. A grove of redwood trees right next to our site made us feel like we had our very own “redwood backyard”.
Camping at Burlington campground has it’s advantages. There are Ranger-led walks during the daytime and Campfire programs in the evenings. At the campfire program that evening, the ranger put on a fun show with songs and stories to get kids involved in learning about the forest, the trees, wildlife and nature. It’s a great event for the adults too!
We awoke the next morning knowing that today would be all about Redwoods! As we explored one of the nearby trails with a Ranger, I learnt all about “goosepens”! Apparently, the Native Americans and early settlers used to use natural hollows in the tree trunks of huge Redwood trees to store their live pigs, chickens and other farm animals, even keeping their children safe for the night in these hollows when traveling from one place to another. Another interesting rumor the Ranger told us is that treasure-seekers had hidden gold into the hollows of these trees a long time back (from the glory gold-rush days of California), and left them in the trees for safe-keeping. Unfortunately for them, the hollows of the trees had naturally sealed over the course of time, and the intriguing story was that there were still mounds of gold hidden away in many of these Redwood trees. So every time a Redwood tree falls due to natural causes, there appear a handful of believers, intently looking through the roots and base of the tree for long-lost treasure. Believe it or not, it’s still makes a fascinating story!
The famed Founder’s Grove is a few miles away from Burlington where one can see several old-growth trees and the Founder’s Tree – a spectacular 346 foot behemoth. The Founder’s Grove has some easy walking trails, since most of the trails in Redwood groves are pretty flat. There’s no rush here to get to a destination or make it somewhere in time. Instead the focus is on being present. Taking your own time and soaking up the beauty of nature which takes on many forms. It could be ground-level ferns which spread their branches and leaves far and wide, thirsting for some rays of sunlight that make it past the thick canopy, it could be the intriguing sculptured burls on a Redwood tree, it could be a fallen redwood that is being assimilated back into the earth, everything growing on everything else. This world, pulsating with life everywhere you look. Not loud, look-at-me-now-and-here life, but quiet, I-take-a-hundred-years-to-grow-an-inch life. Nothing like standing in a Redwood grove to put things in perspective. We are tiny. The world is immense.
As we hiked the trails, we watched rays of sunshine dance in and out of the canopy. A spot would get sunshine for not more than a few minutes before the sun moved on and the lush canopy sucked up the rest of the life-giving warmth for itself. Ferns, however delicate and fragile they may look have developed a hardy skill over centuries of evolution. Their motto is to spread out and conquer.
We explored many of the old-growth trails in Founders Grove and Rockefeller Grove. Bull Creek Flats has a lot of intersecting hiking trails, along with the Eel river that runs through it. The trails are not clearly marked though, so it’s easy to lose one’s way and go around in circles. We ended up doing that in Rockefeller Grove when trying to find the trail to Bull Creek Flats. After coming across half a dozen two-forked trails when there was supposed to be only one trail going ahead, we decided to turn back since we did not want to get hopelessly lost.
Our time with the redwoods soon came to an end. We headed out of Humboldt Redwoods State Park and were eager to get onto Hwy 1 to catch sight of the Pacific Ocean! The weather changed within minutes of hitting Hwy-128. From the warm, sunny-shady Redwoods, it was onto the cold, misty-foggy Pacific. We drove through more Redwoods and thinning forests, and finally made it out on the open coast. The endless horizon and the sea, the rock outcroppings which hug the beach as the ocean reclaims more and more land, the cold cutting-through-your-bone wind, and the salty smell of fresh spray. Ahhh!
We took longer heading back but that’s because the rugged Pacific Coast is meant to be enjoyed leisurely. It was the perfect end to a glorious long-weekend spent in nature. From sleeping underneath stately redwoods to driving across California’s coastal highway, camping and hiking in California’s state parks amongst the redwoods is indeed a soul-refreshing experience.