Home to the Tallest Trees on Earth
Giant redwoods are as much a symbol of California as they are of the National Park Service. Yet these stately trees, the tallest in the world, would not survive without the complex ecosystems that support them. For example: beaches, dunes and coastal scrub provide a buffer between the delicate redwoods and the harsh, salty winds that come off of the ocean.
Redwood National Park might be named for its famous sequoias, but the park preserves and protects a variety of ecosystems, from 40 miles of shoreline to alluvial and riparian flats and prairies. In addition to the giant trees, visitors to the park can enjoy fields of wildflowers, wild coastal deltas and gorges, and dramatic rocky beaches replete with sea stacks and colonies of sea lions.
As with many national parks, visitors should seriously consider hiking and camping to experience the park’s beauty up close. But Redwood National Park also offers unique opportunities that are all its own. Explore the coastline via sea kayak, check out an American Indian dance in the summer, or spot gray whales with binoculars from high bluffs along the ocean during their spring and fall migrations.
Activities in Redwood National Park
Day Hikes and Backpacking
Day hikes and backpacking are a great way to enjoy the natural beauty of Redwood National Park’s diverse ecosystems. There are both inland trails though old-growth redwood forest, and trails along the coast. Sections of the Coastal Trail run along high oceanside bluffs — where you can spot gray whale spouts on a clear day — and down to secluded beaches where sea creatures lurk in tide pools and sea lions hang out on rocky offshore islands.
Recommended inland day hikes in the south focus on Prairie Creek Redwoods State park, and includes the aptly named Rhododendron Trail, which blooms pink and red during the spring and early summer. In the north, short loops around Jedediah Smith State Park offer a number of day hiking options for families. Be sure to check out the giants trees in Stout Memorial Grove.
There are 200 miles of trails that provide access to the park’s backcountry. Overnight camping in the wilderness requires a free permit that can be picked up at any visitor center. Permits are good for five consecutive days in the park, with a limit of 15 days per person per year. Visitors may only camp at designated backcountry campsites.
One really cool feature of Redwood National Park is that it allows backcountry bicycling on some trails, usually rehabilitated logging roads. Cyclists can camp with their bikes at Little Bald Hills and Ossagon Creek. The latter campground is on a challenging 19-mile loop within Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park that combines several backcountry trails and includes some steep passes.
For those visitors looking to get an up-close look of the North Coast’s seastacks — eroded rock formations that are home to thousands of marine birds — sea kayaking is an adventure that can’t be beat. You can also kayak on rivers, coves and lagoons in and around the park. Kayaking trips are arranged through a concessioner, and are popular during the summer months. Winter outings can be arranged by appointment. Spring and fall offer exciting opportunities to see migrating whales on guided tours.
Historic Sites and Cultural Attractions
Redwood National Park has a rich cultural history, from American Indian traditional dance demonstrations presented by the Tolowa and Yurok tribes to numerous historic trails and landmarks — fish hatcheries, pioneer homesteads, abandoned railroads.
Visiting Redwood National Park
Seasons, Fees and Reservations
There is no entrance fee for Redwood National Park, but the adjacent state parks – Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Coast, and Prairie Creek Redwoods — collect fees of $35 per vehicle overnight or $8 for day-use, and $5 per hiker or biker. Fees are collected at campground entrance sites. Some spots may be available on a first-come, first-serve basis, but reservations are recommended during the peak use season of May 25 through September 3. Parks are open year-round, but individual campgrounds (Mill Creek, Gold Bluff) operate seasonally.
Coast Redwood Trees
Although there are many ecosystems to explore, the primary attraction at Redwood National Park is the old-growth coast redwood forest that made the region famous. These coniferous trees are the tallest in the world, commonly reaching heights of more than 200 feet, and have been known to grow more than 370 feet tall. The oldest known redwood is estimated to be 2,200 years old. Although they are giants, much of their water needs are satisfied by the coastal fog that rolls in daily. Visitors, too, will likely find satisfaction in the quiet solitude of the fog-blanketed redwood groves.
Until 2010 lodging in the park was available at the Redwood National Park Hostel, a converted pioneer homestead that provided the only beds in the national and nearby state parks. The hostel is currently closed indefinitely, due to lack of funds for repairs. Campgrounds in the parks are a good alternative for folks looking to rough it a little, but there are also bed-and-breakfast inns to be found in the picturesque seaside communities around Humboldt Bay.
Visitor and Information Centers
Redwood National Park is served by five visitor centers. Two main visitors centers in Crescent City and Orick are open all year, as is the Praire Creek Visitor Center within the state park of the same name. Other visitor centers are seasonal. Rangers are on staff at all centers when open, to provide information about current conditions as well as lead educational programming. Centers regularly feature interactive exhibits about redwoods, watershed areas and other park features. Junior Ranger programs are available seasonally at select ocations.
Wildlife in Redwood National Park
Few national parks can claim their very own community of gray whales, but a pod of these once-rare sea beasts resides offshore at Redwood National Park all year round. On a clear day with calm tides, visitors can check for their spouts from the Klamath River Overlook. The parks service also recommends other places that are great for whale watching. Peak seasons for grays and other whales are during fall and spring migration periods.
Steller’s sea lions can be seen in colonies along the rocky, jagged Pacific coast in Redwood National Park. This species is among the largest seals in the world, and researchers speculate that its decline in the last half of the 20th century is linked to overfishing of the kinds of fish it hunts for food, such as Alaska pollock and herring. The species primarily breeds off the Aleutian coast of Alaska, and the rock outcroppings offshore of Redwood National Park are one of it’s few breeding spots in the Lower 48.
Northern Spotted Owl
The endangered northern spotted owl lives in old-growth forests from British Columbia down into Marin County, California, where it preys on small mammals like flying squirrels. One of its favorite homes is Redwood National Park, where it nests in holes and notches between limbs high up in the sequoias. Listen for their high-pitched hoots under the dense canopy of the Trillium Falls Trail, a misty 2.5-mile loop through the forest.
For many years, the primary threat to this species was habitat loss due to logging. The owl’s protected status created a controversy in the Pacific Northwest that pitted environmentalists against loggers and sawmill owners. Today, despite massive reduction in the logging industry, the owl maintains a downward population trend.
The marbled murrelet is a marine bird that only comes inland to nest. And when it does nest, it usually comes to Redwood National Park to make its home in the mossy limbs of the coast sequoia. The adult marbled murrelet is camouflaged to blend in with redwood boughs, but their chicks are not. This poses a special danger to chicks from predatory birds. Visitors that leave food waste in the park have had a negative impact on the murrelet by giving predatory birds incentive to revisit an area, increasing the likelihood that they’ll find and prey on chicks and eggs.
History of Redwood National Park
Many American Indian societies inhabited the region of Redwood National Park for thousands of years before Euro-American settlers came, living in tandem with nature and its resources. The animism central to their religious beliefs held that even fallen trees and the traditional dwellings that the people made from their planks had powerful spirits. A house itself was thought to be alive, the body of a guiding Spirit Being.
While anthropologists have described the North Coast Indians as tribes, their societies were more or less independent villages that shared social, economic and religious ties, with no one group exerting dominance over others. Today, the descendants of these people constitute the Yurok, Hupa, Tolowa and Karuk tribes.
While these peoples lived in relative harmony for millennia, their interactions with white settlers were brutal and bloody. Newcomers violently forced the native inhabitants from their ancestral lands and were rewarded for it by the state government. While the state usually drew up treaties with American Indians, such arrangements were never ratified in this part of California. This loophole robbed the tribes of their sovereignty, thus clouding their legal rights even to this day.
Early settlers’ treatment of the area’s resources were about as fair and judicious as their dealings with the North Coast tribes. Westward expansion — particularly after California’s mid-19th century gold rush — fed the need for lumber, and the giant trees in the region were seen as a logical source. Large-scale logging operations sprouted up on the North Coast, with nine sawmills operating out of the boomtown of Eureka alone. By the end of the century, large tracts of redwoods had disappeared, and this trend only worsened with the introduction of new technology. An estimated two million acres of old-growth redwood forest was reduced to only hundreds of thousands of acres in the space of 60 years. In many cases, ownership of public lands were fraudulently transferred to private industry for the purpose of logging.
To enact some sort of protection for the trees, concerned citizens — several of them prominent East Coast academics who were interested in the region mostly for paleontological research — formed the Save-the-Redwoods League, which purchased tracts of land with matching funds from the state. These tracts would form four state parks in the 1920s that laid the foundation for the establishment of Redwood National Park. The national park was founded in 1968, and the state and federal parks were administratively joined in 1994.