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The Redwood Highway in California: An Iconic American Road Trip

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The Redwood Highway in California is widely considered one of the most scenic drives in all of California, if not in America. I had the pleasure of making a road trip on the Redwood Highway in California back in 2018 as part of my larger trip up the Pacific Coast. I loved every minute I spent among those monster trees. They truly help to make you appreciate your place in the world. Recently, I’ve wanted to revisit and rewrite about some of my past trips. With the redwoods leaving such a lasting impression on me, I figured they would be a great place to start. So come take a journey down memory lane with me and plan how to take your own trip down the Redwood Highway in California.

What is the Redwood Highway?

The Redwood Highway in California takes its name from the massive coastal redwoods that can be found along much of its route. The highway passes through most of the Redwood National and State Parks that cover much of Northern California. These colossal trees gained protection during the early 20th century. Thanks to the tireless work of conservationists and environmentalists, we can enjoy these beautiful trees. With much of the protection happening during the rise of the automobile, the Redwood Highway in California was born.

The route begins in Manzanita, where US 101 (Redwood Highway) and California 1 (Pacific Coast Highway) split just north of San Francisco. This beginning stretch of the highway runs through wine country. Its a beautiful length of road, but doesn’t feature many redwood trees. Don’t hold that against it though. This portion is essentially an inland counterpart to the coastal Pacific Coast Highway. During our trip in 2018, we hugged the coast instead of following US 101 north.

394 miles is a breeze when you take time to enjoy it!

The Redwood Highway and Pacific Coast Highway meet back up in Leggett. From this point north, its easy to see how the highway got its name. It will wind and weave its way north for another 193 miles to the Oregon state line. Over the years the highway has been modernized and expanded to handle heavier traffic. About 30 miles north of Leggett is the Avenue of the Giants. This is an older routing of US 101, which is now the preferred way to visit many of the groves on this trip.

When the highway passes the city of Eureka, its serves as a worthy “successor” to the Pacific Coast Highway. It hugs close to the coast and provides access to countless small towns, state parks, and amazing parts of mother nature. You’ll be able to find some truly titanic trees along this route. Now that you know what the Redwood Highway is, lets find out everything you need to make your road trip a huge success!

Best Groves on the Redwood Highway

The biggest reason (pardon the pun) for taking a road trip on the Redwood Highway through California are the gigantic redwood trees. While many individual trees are famous, they’re often found in groves. These named portions of the larger forest are going to be a major way for you to plan your trip.

There wasn’t anyone in sight while we walked through Rockefeller Grove

My favorite grove of all was the Rockefeller Grove. The loop trail that runs through here is a quintessential and easy redwood hike. The grove was protected as part of a larger purchase by John Rockefeller, Jr in 1931. The entire forest preserves the largest contiguous stand of old-growth redwoods in the world. The loop trail skirts both Eel River and Bull Creek. I found an immense amount of peace among these trees, especially since we were the only ones on the trail the entire time. Just down the road from this grove is the Big Trees area which features one of the tallest trees in the world, as well as the former largest tree in the world as well. All in all the entire surrounding area is worth spending hours exploring.

Fern Canyon is a lush hike that’s different than many along Redwood Highway

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is full of fantastic hikes and groves. Most people will walk the Big Tree Loop. Clearly, naming trees isn’t humanities strong suit. This trail can be done in a variety of sections. Though the best portion doesn’t go past Big Tree and stays to the western side of the road. After a rain, the creek will bubble happily while the cool air makes for a wonderful hike. Since you’re in the area, I also suggest exploring Fern Canyon. It doesn’t have any redwoods, but the fern covered canyon walls make for a super unique hike.

The Grove of Titans is the largest grove off the redwood highway in California
The Grove of Titans features some absolutely massive trees. They’re hard to photograph!

The final grove that everyone needs to check out is the Grove of Titans. While this was once a well-guarded secret, in the last few years efforts have been made to make the grove more accessible. It wasn’t hard to find, especially with the internet telling all about it. A new elevated walkway was installed in 2021 which protects the trees. This moved the main trail through the grove, allowing easier access and better preservation. These mighty trees are truly titanic, and make for an awesome capstone to your California road trip down the Redwood Highway.

This is just a small selection of my favorite groves. Everyone will find their own personal favorites, so I encourage you to do more research at Redwood Hikes. They are a fantastic resource for hikes throughout the entire area. I relied on them heavily when planning much of my 2018 trip through the area.

Towns and Cities to Make a Stop In

There are a lot of little towns and cities along the Redwood Highways as it winds through Northern California. The first of these I recommend making a stop in is Willits. For train enthusiasts, you’ll find the “world-famous” Skunk Train. This is a great family-friendly ride on an old steam engine that will take you into the Noyo River Canyon. It’s a super unique way to see the surrounding area and the redwoods as well. Willits also serves as one of the final places where there is a road between the Pacific Coast Highway and Redwood Highway, for those wanting to link the two on their journey through California.

The Skunk Train is a unique way to explore the redwoods found off the redwood highway in california
Steam Engine 45 is happy to carry you through the redwoods from Willits. Image courtesy of Skunk Train.

The next major city you’ll encounter is Eureka. As the largest city between San Francisco and Portland, it’s a natural stopping point. The city experienced a population boom in the early 20th century, thanks to railroad connections and the completion of the Redwood Highway in California in 1922. Visitors to town can enjoy the gorgeous Victorian mansions (such as Carson Mansion) that dot the older parts of town. You can also visit the wonderful Sequoia Park Zoo. It’s the oldest zoo in California, and stands among a grove of second-growth redwoods.

Carson Mansion is a must see in Eureka.
Photo by Don Forthuber. Courtesy VisitRedwoods.com

Crescent City is the final town you’ll make a stop in. Just 20 miles from the Oregon border, it serves as the gateway to the northern redwood parks. Many of the largest redwoods in the world are in the parks that surround Crescent City. This coastal town is also a great place to watch sunsets over the rocky coast. As one of the most likely ends of your trip, it’s easy to settle down in town for a couple days to reflect on the journey you’ve taken.

Battery Point Lighthouse is isolated on a rock and only accessible at low tide!

Beyond the big cities along the way, there are countless small towns. Miranda is a good spot to stay if you’re doing a deep exploration of the Avenue of the Giants. Like Eureka, Ferndale is also famous for its well-preserved Victorian homes. Trinidad is just north of Eureka and features some excellent coastal hiking. Klamath stands on the banks of the Klamath River. It’s a good option if you want to setup shop for four or five days thanks to its central location between all the major parks along the Redwood Highway in California.

Camping and Lodging For Your Trip

When we made the journey up the highway in 2018, we hadn’t yet adopted our car camping ways. Each of the nights along the way, we stayed in small hotels that I found during my research. All of these were great choices that I’d stay in again for sure. My favorite hotel was View Crest Lodge. This lovely little lodge was just north of Trinidad in Patrick’s Point. We could hear the sea lions barking away on the rocks below, but couldn’t quite see them. The rooms were great, and an amazing deal as well. I highly recommend the View Crest Lodge. The other hotel we stayed at was the Lighthouse Inn, located in Crescent City. This was a more traditional hotel experience. The staff were accommodating of our late check-in and the beds were comfy after a long day on the road.

A cabin at View Crest Lodge located just off the redwood highway in California
Look how cute these are! Image courtesy View Crest Lodge

There is also a huge amount of camping options along the way. If you’re going to spend a couple nights in one spot, camping will also be much more affordable option as well. For a unique experience, I’d suggest Gold Bluffs Beach. You’ll be right along the Pacific Ocean with easy access to Fern Canyon or Prairie Creek State Park. Sites here are limited, so make sure you reserve in advance. The best campground is Jedediah Smith Campground. In the summer, you can use the footbridge to cross the Smith River. This takes you onto Mill Creek Trail and eventually onto the Grove of Titans. It’s also the prettiest campground of the group. One final campground I’ll mention is Albee Creek. It provides amazing access to hiking in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. If you’re looking to spend more time on this part of the trip, its a great option.

Just a short hike from Albee Campground to this beautiful picnic spot in Rockefeller Grove

I think that if we were to do the trip all over again, I’d mix the two. The Lighthouse Inn was great for accessing the two northern most Redwood State Parks. These don’t have quite as many camping options, so the hotel is nice. Since I’d want to spend 5-7 days driving the Redwood Highway in California, it also makes for a comfortable end to the trip. Camping the other days at Gold Bluffs Beach and Albee Creek would be perfectly fine to me.

When to Travel the Redwood Highway

There honestly isn’t a “bad” time of year to make your trip along the Redwood Highway. However, there are certainly a number of considerations you should have when choosing the right time for YOU to make the trip.

Wildflowers bloom where the redwoods don’t grow. Image courtesy NPS.

Spring along the Redwood Highway, especially in the more northern reaches, can still be chilly. Rains continue to fall, though they aren’t as constant or voluminous as the winter. Our trip back in 2018 surprisingly didn’t get a single drop of rain the entire time we were up there. I’d say that’s abnormal though. Visitors are minimal across all the parks in the area, so its a fantastic way to get solitude if you’re seeking it. A detour through Sonoma and Napa also brings beautiful wildflowers and a unique way to experience wine country.

Summer trees are vibrant green near redwood highway in california
The trees and landscape is at it’s most verdant colors in the summer

Summer is the most popular time of year to visit. The weather is at its warmest and driest. This makes for perfect camping and hiking conditions. The southern reaches of the Redwood Highway in California can still get into the 80s or 90s, so keep that in mind. Once you reach Humboldt, however, its a beautiful 70° every day. I’m personally planning for our return trip to be in June to take advantage of the amazing weather. Redwood National Park is also one of my top ten national parks for summer, so don’t miss it!

Drury Parkway splits off the redwood highway in California to run through Prairie Creek State Park
Fall is an excellent time for a road trip

Fall isn’t quite as popular as some other parts of the country, and for good reason. Redwoods are “evergreen” trees, so their leaves don’t change color. As the rest of the country explodes in reds, oranges, and yellows; the redwoods continue to be who they are. For travelers along the Redwood Highway, fall is an excellent time of year to explore the area north of San Francisco. Sonoma and Napa Valleys are bursting with activity. Harvest in wine country is an amazing experience. If I wasn’t so drawn to spending time with the big trees, I’d make the road trip in the fall to vacation with a bottle of wine!

Redwoods in the snow are an ethereal experience

Winter is the rainy season. Coastal Northern California gets very little snow, so don’t expect a winter wonderland. Everything will be wet, including you! If you don’t mind that, then it can be a truly unique experience among the Redwoods. Being the off-season, there is a pretty great chance you could be the only person on your hike. Visitors in the winter need to make sure you alert someone to where you’re going to be, especially when backcountry hiking.

Reflections on Our 2018 Trip

The 2018 trip my wife and I took was the first big trip we had done as a couple. There had been plenty of vacations, but nothing close to the extent of taking nearly two weeks off work and driving from Los Angeles to Portland. It was truly an adventure. When I think back on that trip, the portions north of San Francisco bring the fondest memories. There is nothing like those redwoods back home in Florida. It was a major shift in perspective standing in a grove of mighty redwoods. I constantly think of going back and spending more time along the Redwood Highway in California.

Two people hiking near the redwood highway in California
Along our journey to find the Grove of Titans!

If (or more likely when) I have the opportunity to return, the biggest change that I’d make from that 2018 vacation is the time spent. The journey through Northern California and among the redwoods deserves more time than I was able to give then. You could easily spend a whole week or more up there. For every easily accessible grove, there was another just out of reach. I’m extremely happy with the places we did get to visit. Spending an afternoon strolling through Rockefeller Forest or on the search for the Grove of Titans were wonderful times. Yet, there are even more places that I planned to visit or simply didn’t know about back then.

Massive redwood trees growing near the redwood highway in California
Looking back on these pictures and I’m still in awe at the size of these trees

Time honestly does make the heart grow fonder. The fond memories of that trip still stick with me. Five years later and I still anticipate when Google Photos or Facebook will hit me with the “Remember This Day” feature. There have been a lot of miles driven and sights seen since then. Maybe it’s simply the fact that it was our first big trip that made it so meaningful. Or maybe it’s simply a place that has its own meaning that I can’t shake. Either way, I’ll always be planning that return trip and one day I’ll be back among the giants.

Extending Your Trip Through California

One of the best parts about the Redwood Highway is the ease of connecting it to any trip in California. Since the southern end is just north of San Francisco, the most natural connection is the Pacific Coast Highway. In fact, its entirely possible to drive from Los Angeles to the Oregon State Line simply alternating between the two whenever they cross. For those extending their trip south, taking California 1 through Big Sur is an awesome way to see so much of what California offers.

Continue your road trip south down the PCH for iconic views like this one!

At the northern end of the trip, there are also two potential options. The first is to simply continue on US 101 into Oregon. We took this option on our trip in 2018 and followed the fantastic Oregon Coast Highway. Alternatively, you can split off and take US 199 when you reach Crescent City. This will bring you inland and reconnect you with Interstate 5. This would be the quicker route to Portland and take you through the beautiful Willamette Valley.

Alternatively, head north to find friends like these in Newport, Oregon!

There are a plethora of other detour options you can take as well. Alternate routes on California 12 or 29/128 will take you deeper into wine country. If you fancy a visit to Sonoma or Napa, these are wonderful options. A visit to Clear Lake might be a refreshing way to spend a day or two away from the Redwood Highway in California. You can even take a less traveled detour to the coast. Places like Shelter Cove or Mattole Beach might offer a different perspective of Northern California than most other travelers will experience. No matter what choices you make, Northern California has more than enough answers for you.

Final Considerations for a Redwood Highway Road Trip

Road tripping down the Redwood Highway as it winds over 360 miles through California is a trip full of wonder. The southern portion provides awesome access to wine country. If redwoods aren’t your main attraction, then spend the bigger portion of your time here. However, for our next trip we are still gonna beeline for the trees. There are very few places on earth quite like the Northern California coast. When you do make this trip, ensure you’re taking plenty of time. I’d advise at minimum a week to honestly get the most out of it.

There was a big reason why our first big trip was exploring the California coast. The trip ended up being all I hoped it could be, and even more once we reached the redwoods. I truly hope your journey among these titans is as impactful for you as it was for me. There are certainly a lot of ways to spend your time and money. A trip along the California coast down the Redwood Highway is well worth it, I promise!

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