The AFT Guide to Redwood National Park

Redwood National Park has everything going for it: beaches, wildlife, history, jurassic landscapes, and ancient groves of giant trees. It’s accessible (right off the 101), with a good mix of activities, and its history perfectly highlights the past hundred plus years of public lands issues in the U.S.

Redwood is actually a collection of state parks and a national park, managed jointly by the California Parks and Rec. Department and the NPS. The total park area includes Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, along with the unassociated but very nearby Humboldt Lagoons State Park.

Throughout this guide we are going to use “Redwood” to refer to all the park units together.

Read notes from our first visit to Redwood here.

Where Redwood National Park is located:

Redwood National Park is located on the far northern California coast, about 6 hours north of San Francisco. The park area stretches about 50 miles, from Crescent City in the north to Orick in the south.

Getting to Redwood National Park:

The nearest airports to Redwood are in Crescent City, CA, McKinleyville, CA and Medford, OR. Redwood Coast Transit runs busses around the area. See routes and schedules here.

Redwood runs along both sides of US 101, but you won’t see much of the trees from the road. For that, you’ll need to get onto some side roads or hit the trails! The easiest way to do that is with your own transportation, though you could certainly use the RCT bus and a bike, or your feet!

Where to Stay in Redwood National Park:

The only lodging within the parks are rustic cabins (they have electricity, but no kitchens or bathrooms.) Four are in the Elk Prairie Campground and four are in the Jedidiah Smith Campground. BYO bedding. Make reservations here.

There are plenty of places to stay in the surrounding communities, including Arcata, Eureka, Orick, Brookings, Crescent City, Klamath, Trinidad and McKinleyville.

Camping

There are four developed campgrounds within the parks. Jedidiah Smith and Elk Prairie are open year-round. Mill Creek is open from mid-May through September. Gold Bluffs Campground is on the beach and is usually open all year, subject to funding.

All are administered by California State Parks and require reservations; make them here. If you’re bringing an RV or trailer, verify length restrictions beforehand; none of the sites can accommodate a vehicle longer than 28 feet. There are no hookups.

How Long to Stay in Redwood National Park:

Redwood incorporates so many different areas and activities; you could easily spend more than a week hiking, camping and playing on the beach.

But if you’re short on time, a two-day visit will allow you to see both redwood groves and coastal areas. You’ll just have to be choosy about which units you check out.

When to Go to Redwood National Park:

The park is open year-round. Winters can be chilly and wet, but less crowded. Summer weather is generally sunny and warm, and brings the majority of the park’s visitors. The shoulder seasons bring a good mix of pleasant weather and smaller crowds to make camping and parking easier.

Best For:

  • Beaches
  • Hiking
  • Scenic Drives
  • Conservation History
  • Camping
  • Mountain Biking
  • Paddling

Pair With:

If you want a national park binge, Lassen Volcanic and Crater Lake are both within 4 hours! Or extend your drive north or south along the 101, one of America’s most scenic stretches.

Prairie Creek State Park Highlights:

  • Gold Bluff Beach & Campground
  • Fern Canyon
  • Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway
  • spotting Roosevelt Elk in Elk Prairie
  • 19-mile bike loop
  • Redwood Access Trail (especially for those with limited mobility)
  • Revelation Trail, an interpretive trail designed to help you experience the park with all 5 senses
  • Coastal Drive Loop to Klamath Beach

Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park Highlights:

  • Damnation Creek Trail
  • exploring the beaches and tidepools of Enderts Beach Road
  • hiking or biking the Coastal Trail

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park Highlights:

  • Howland Hill Road
  • Stout Memorial Grove
  • paddling or swimming (or just enjoying the scenery of!) the Smith River

Redwood National Park:

  • Bald Hills Road
  • Lady Bird Johnson Grove
  • Tall Trees Access Road (by permit only) to Tall Trees Trail
  • Lyons Ranch
  • Schoolhouse Peak

Activities:

Hiking:

The national park’s hiking page has advice on which hikes to do with specific limits on time and accessibility, and also has a list of dog-friendly trails. Check it out here.

Here are a few of our favorites:

Lady Bird Johnson Grove:

An easy 1-mile loop with interpretive signs, this is an ideal place to learn about the redwoods and their conservation. Rangers often lead guided walks around the grove; we highly recommend going on one if you can! (in Redwood National Park)

Fern Canyon:

There are several options for checking out this popular fern-covered canyon (a filming location for Jurassic Park!) You can walk a short distance into the canyon and turn around whenever you’re ready. Or take a longer hike up the creek to a trail that leads out of the canyon and back to the beach via the canyon rim. If you’re up for an all-day venture, you can get from the Prairie Creek Visitor Center to Fern Canyon and back along the 12 mile James Irvine Trail.

A creek runs through the canyon and there are frequent log jams. You may have to climb a bit or ford the creek, so be prepared to get a bit wet. In the summer, the park often constructs temporary bridges to help with creek crossings.

This is one of the busier parts of the park. Especially in the summer, the parking lot can fill up and rangers may turn you back from Davison Road until spots open up. The road to Fern Canyon’s parking is rough and not recommended for RV’s, trailers or very low-clearance vehicles. (in Prairie Creek State Park)

Stout Memorial Grove:

An easy half-mile walk through old-growth redwoods, this grove can be accessed at the end of the Howland Hill Road, or by walking an additional half-mile in from the Jedediah Smith Campground. (in Jedediah Smith State Park)

Tall Trees Grove:

The beautiful and highly popular Tall Trees Grove requires a permit to access. You can get one online up to 48 hours in advance; 50 permits are issued per day. The 4-mile hike covers a strenuous 1600 feet in elevation. The park recommends the Prairie Creek-Foothill loop for very similar scenery with an easier hike and no required permit. (in Redwood NP)

Damnation Creek Trail:

A 4.5-mile trail that leads you on a steep descent to the rocky coast of the Del Norte section of the park. Try to arrive at low tide if you want to access the beach. (in Del Norte State Park)

Prairie Creek-Foothill Trail Loop:

A flat 2.5 mile loop with educational signs, full ADA accessibility and some of the tallest redwoods in the world make this a fantastic family trail. (in Prairie Creek State Park)

Trillium Falls:

An easy 3-mile loop through old-growth redwoods to a small waterfall. You can also just hike to the falls and back for a 1-mile roundtrip. The park recommends this as one of the best family-friendly trails in Redwood. (in Prairie Creek State Park)

Backpacking:

Redwood State and National Parks has 200 miles of backcountry trails and seven designated backcountry campsites. There are a range of routes, including options for hiking, biking or horseback riding.

You must have a permit for backcountry camping; apply for one up to two weeks in advance and before two days in advance. You must have your permit before 9 a.m. two days before you want to go camping.

For more information on backcountry routes, campsites and permits, go here.

Scenic Drives:

Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway:

This 10-mile stretch of road is the most accessible way to view old-growth redwoods. If you have to do a drive-through visit, this is the spot to drive through. But be sure to check out the road on a longer visit, too, stopping to explore trails and scenic viewpoints along the way. (in Prairie Creek State Park)

Howland Hill Road:

This rough and narrow 10-mile stretch of dirt road gets you up-close-and-personal with redwoods and leads to lots of hiking trails (though parking is limited.) Don’t attempt it with a wide vehicle! (in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park)

Bald Hills Road:

This steep and winding 17-mile road will take you above the redwoods to sweeping views of prairie meadows and the Pacific Ocean in the distance. (in Redwood NP)

Enderts Beach Road:

This short stretch of road just south of Crescent City boasts beautiful ocean views and access to Crescent Beach. (in Del Norte State Park)

Tidepooling:

Access tidepools at Enderts Beach, Damnation Creek and False Klamath Cove. Check the park’s calendar for ranger programs about the tidepools and coastal ecosystems, including 2-hour guided tidepool walks.

Water Activities:

Enjoy the largest free-flowing river system in California by paddling, swimming in or lazing along the Smith River.

During the summer, the park offers ranger-guided kayaking tours of the Smith—and they’re free! Tours run on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at noon. Register up to one week in advance in person at the Hiouchi Visitor Center. Participants must be at least 10 years old and weigh between 50 and 220 lbs. Find more info here.

Other companies offer guided paddling tours and watercraft rentals. Check out Redwood Rides.

Biking:

Redwood is one of the rare national parks that offers access for mountain bikers, on rehabilitated logging roads. See maps and a list of trails here.

On the first Saturday of every month between October and May, the park closes the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway to vehicles, leaving an open road for people to explore on foot or with their own wheels.

Bringing Kids:

Redwood is a great park for families! Kids will be awed by the giant redwoods, inspired by the tiny seeds they grow from, and happy to play and explore tidepools at the beach.

Most of the hikes we recommended above are great for kids, barring the Tall Trees Grove and the James Irvine Trail.

FAQ’s:

The following are questions we received from our readers about visiting Redwood National Park.

Could you explain the difference between the different individual parks?

The park was formed over a period of about 50 years, with organizations such as the Save-the-Redwoods League and the Sierra Club buying up tracts of land with a mix of private donations and state funds. The resulting patchwork was formed into the three state parks.

More land was added and the national park was formed in 1968. The state parks and national park have been administered jointly since 1994, and the units feel very cohesive.

In terms of activity, all of the units have good hiking trails. Del Norte and Prairie Creek are the best places to access the beach. Jedediah Smith has the Smith River running through it, where you can paddle or swim. The national park has the most opportunities for backcountry exploring.

Any good wildlife to spot in the park?

Yes! Roosevelt elk are one of the easiest to spot. You can see them in Prairie Creek, near Gold Bluffs Beach, on Bald Hills Road and around Orick.

You can also spot gray whales along the coast. Peak migration months are November – December and March – April.

Where is the best place to camp?

Each of the park’s campgrounds looks amazing! We are itchy to go camp at Gold Bluffs Beach in particular.

Where is the best place to stay? I love/hate when the parks are divided and I have so many options!

Orick is a good central location, but has limited options for lodging. Klamath is another good, central option. Crescent City has a lot more lodging and good access to the northern sections of park.

Advice from Our Readers:

“Hike or drive to see the elks and Fern Canyon at Prairie Creek State Park.”

“I don’t know if this is part of Redwood NP, but go drive on the ‘Avenue of the Giants.'” note: Avenue of the Giants is another redwood grove about 2 hours south of the national park. It’s home to the drive-through tree and lots of hiking, too! See more here.

“Not about the park, just want to say that redwoods are the best trees ever!”

“Mill Creek is the most amazing campground!”

“Friendship Ridge Trail via Fern Canyon is bomb.”

“Drive the Newton Drury Parkway. Also visit Humboldt Redwoods State Park—much of the old growth in the national park was logged.”

“Jedediah Smith Campground is great. We also loved Fern Canyon.”

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