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Tourist boards and chambers of commerce like to create easily-remembered sobriquets for their regions. So the far northern coast of California from Humboldt County to the Oregon border is called the “Redwood Coast,” and also the “Redwood Empire.” While the coast indeed contains some 340 square kilometers of redwood preserves in state and national parks, the name is somewhat misleading. Redwoods grow all along the coast of northern and central California. And there’s more to the Redwood Coast than trees.
“Unique” is a much-overused word. And “very unique” or “most unique” are just plain wrong. But any of those terms could appropriately apply to Sequoia sempervirens, the coast redwood. The tallest trees in the world are redwoods— the current record-holder is just over 115 meters tall, but ordinary individuals can grow 60 to 90 meters high. The trees can live over 1,000 years. In addition to propagating through seed cones, redwoods are unique among conifers in employing two different forms of asexual reproduction. However they originate, the offspring can grow two meters or more per year. Redwoods inhabit a unique coastal climate zone where heavy rain in winter and dense fog in summer provide the cool moist climate they need. And the tannins that make redwood wood red— try saying that three times fast!— also make it uniquely resistant to decay and insects.
Tannin-laden wood that’s also fire-resistant, strong, and lightweight is what lets redwood trees grow to sky-scraping heights. But it also makes them very desirable for all sorts of construction. As early as 1850, entrepreneurs who couldn’t strike it rich in the California gold rush found they could make a reliable fortune from cutting down the seemingly limitless redwood forests. An estimated 90% of California’s redwood groves had been logged by 1968. A group of conservationists established the Save-the-Redwoods League in 1918. The League quickly found a winning strategy that continues to the this day: Solicit donations, buy up redwood groves, name them for major donors, and then deed them to appropriate governments as parks and reserves.
The largest of the League’s successes is a unique entity called the Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP). As the name suggests, it’s a network of four national and state parks on the Redwood Coast. In the only venture of its kind in the country, the state and federal park bureaucracies cooperate to preserve not only the redwoods but an ecosystem that includes threatened and endangered species. While much of RNSP is accessible only to backpackers, it includes “developed” groves that have easy drive-up access. In Redwood National Park, the 3-kilometer loop trail through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove probably offers the easiest way to experience the redwoods. It’s where President Lyndon Johnson’s wife dedicated Redwood National Park in 1968.
If you’re looking for a redwood-themed family vacation, the Avenue of
the Giants (State Route 254) is the nearest thing to “Redwoodland.” The
52-kilometer road bisects Humboldt Redwoods State Park, a Save-the-Redwoods
League acquisition separate from RNSP. While most of the park is a genuine
old-growth redwood preserve, the sections along the Avenue are “developed”
groves with drive-in access to trails and campgrounds. There are also
motels for visitors who prefer the trappings of civilization, as well as
the inevitable schlocky tourist traps.
80 kilometers north of Eureka and 40 kilometers south of Crescent City, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park may well provide the best proof that there’s more to the Redwood Coast— and to the Redwood National and State Parks— than just big trees. Of course Prairie Creek has plenty of redwoods, including a grove containing the second tallest one in the world (the locations of both the grove and the tree are unpublished). But also within its 57 square kilometers are a secluded windswept sandy beach with a collection of driftwood trees and logs, a primeval canyon overgrown with ferns, and meadows with a resident herd of elk.
Gold Bluffs Beach is a 17-kilometer stretch of sand and dunes. It’s littered with an impressive collection of weathered driftwood in all shapes and sizes, including whole trees. Flooding from heavy winter rains washes dead trees and debris from inland forests over the cliffs and onto the beach. There the sun bleaches it white; and the surf smashes it to smithereens and ultimately pulverizes it.
Although the bluffs above Gold Bluffs Beach indeed take on a golden color in the late afternoon on a clear day, the beach actually got its name during the 19th century gold rush. In 1850, prospectors found a few gold flakes on the beach. The discovery brought the usual mob of miners eager to stake their claims, but they soon left disappointed.
Among the dunes are 29 beach campsites that reportedly can get filled
up on summer weekends. But if you visit off-season during the week you
could have the eerily beautiful beach all to yourself. The weather is
also likely to be better in the spring and early fall, since summers
tend to be damp and foggy along the Redwood Coast. Be aware that the
road to the beach (Davison Road) is narrow, unpaved, and very rough.
It’s passable in a normal car if you drive slowly and carefully, but
it’s off limits to trailers and large motor homes.
Davison Road ends at a parking area just north of Gold Bluffs Beach.
From there, a one-kilometer trail through a forest and a meadow leads
to the entrance of Fern Canyon. An easy 1.3-kilometer loop
trail winds through the bottom of a canyon with sheer walls 15 meters
high and covered with ferns. At least that’s what the official guide
brochure says. But when I was there in late April, the canyon trail
was blocked with trees and debris, and full of mud and puddles from
rain earlier that day. Perhaps it really is an easy walk in the
(comparatively) dry summer or autumn, but I could only get a look at
the entrance to the canyon.
The Redwood National and State Parks have a resident herd of around
2000 Roosevelt elk, the largest sub-species of North American elk
(also called wapiti). Large males can weigh 500 kilograms. The
sub-species is named for President Theodore Roosevelt, who created a
preserve for them in Washington State. The wetlands area near Gold
Bluffs Beach is a favorite grazing spot, so it’s not surprisingly
called Elk Prairie. But the elk can wander anywhere in the park. If
you inexplicably encounter stopped cars, it’s likely that the
occupants are taking pictures of elk, or at least gawking at them.
Besides the trees and the parks that preserve them, the Redwood Coast has an abundance of the wild coastal scenery for which the Northern California coast is renowned. Trinidad is a fishing village on a scenic bay 13 kilometers north of Eureka. You can clamber down a steep trail to a sandy beach where the surf breaks against large rocks. Captain Bruno de Hezeta discovered the bay in 1775 during an expedition to claim the Pacific Northwest for Spain. Since he reached the bay on Trinity Sunday, he named the bay La Santisima Trinidad, the Holy Trinity.
Patrick’s Point State Park is a scenic headlands 8 kilometers north of Trinidad. It was named for one of two possible Patricks, neither of whom would qualify as a role model for children. Patrick Beagan was a gold prospector who bought the site in 1851. He intended to build a trading post for the miners who arrived in California at Trinidad Bay. But he gave up on that when miners started using a different port. Beagan was reportedly an alcoholic bigot who was ultimately killed by Indians. By the 1870s, loggers had clear-cut the park site. That’s when Patrick McLaughlin took up residence there as a farmer. He planted apple trees, and reportedly buried money under them because he distrusted banks. Today he might be considered mentally ill. The first known reference to “Patrick’s Point” is on a map from the mid-1880s, which would tend to favor McLaughlin as the namesake.
The 3-kilometer Rim Trail along the headlands cliffs provides some
great coastal views. Another trail leads down a bluff to Wedding Rock,
probably the iconic symbol of Patrick’s Point. Viggo Andersen, the
park’s first caretaker, married his wife on the rock in 1931. Since
then hundreds of couples have followed Andersen’s example. But you
don’t have to be married there to enjoy the view from Wedding Rock.
Finally, the map in the official guide pamphlet for Patrick’s Point
shows a creek called Ickie Ughie Creek. The pamphlet offers no
explanation, but there must surely be an interesting story behind it.
Other Northern California Coast pages: