In Search of Giants
Visitors come from all over the world to hike through California’s primeval forests and stand in awe beneath canopies of ancient redwoods and giant sequoias, the tallest trees on earth
Among California’s unique attractions are the world’s tallest trees, massive conifers that can live for thousands of years. The coast redwood grows along the state’s northwestern edge from the Oregon border south to Big Sur near Monterey. The giant sequoia, also known as the Sierra redwood, grows inland. Although the coast redwood stretches taller (to 379 feet, higher than the Statue of Liberty), it’s smaller in diameter (to 22 feet), with bark averaging 12 inches in thickness. Its inland cousin tops out at 311 feet with a 40-foot-diameter and bark that measures up to 31 inches in thickness.
What follows are some of the best spots for communing with California’s towering trees and a selection of RV parks and public campgrounds. State park campground information
can be found at www.parks.ca.gov, and reservations can be made at www.reserveamerica.com. Reservations for national park and forest service campgrounds can be made at www.recreation.gov. Websites are listed for nearby commercial RV parks.
Most of California’s coast redwoods can be found within 50 miles of the Pacific Ocean between San Francisco and the Oregon border. Rain, fog and moderate temperatures contribute to their survival.
Muir Woods National Monument, Mill Valley
A national monument since 1908, Muir Woods is the closest place to San Francisco to view significant groves of coast redwoods. Muir Woods has two groves that are easily accessible via a well-maintained trail that is suitable for the handicapped. Parking spots fill up quickly, so get there before the 8 a.m. opening. A seasonal weekend and holiday shuttle stops at a parking lot just off the State Route 1 exit from northbound U.S. Route 101, but that can fill up, too. Leave the trailer at your campground, as vehicles over 35 feet are prohibited on the access road.
Camping: Muir Woods has no on-site camping. A good option for RVs up to 32 feet is Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Lagunitas, 26 miles distant. For RVs up to 31 feet, Sonoma Coast State Beach, about 65 miles from Muir Woods, has several campgrounds. My favorite is Bodega Dunes with 98 sites, no hookups, hot showers, flush toilets and a dump station. Nearby Bodega Bay RV Park(www.bodegabayrvpark.com) has 73 full- and partial-hookup sites for vehicles up to 60 feet, free cable and Wi-Fi, a dump station and restrooms with showers. A closer option is San Francisco North/Petaluma KOA (www.koa.com/campgrounds/san-francisco), 34 miles away, with 312 mostly shaded sites for rigs up to 60 feet, 20/30/50-amp hookups, some pull-throughs, a dump station, sewer service, cable TV, Wi-Fi, a dog park and a heated pool.
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve and Austin Creek State Recreation Area, Guerneville
This 700-acre park complex is a popular place for hikers and people seeking easy access to the Russian River for kayaking and summer fun. The park has two significant redwoods, the 310-foot Parson Jones Tree and the 1,400-year-old Colonel Armstrong Tree. Each fall (September 12 and 13 this year), the town plays host to the Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival, which attracts well-known talent, with much of the seating in kayaks and canoes floating in the river.
Camping: RV camping is prohibited at the park complex. Good options are to camp and leave your trailer at nearby Samuel P. Taylor State Park or Sonoma Coast State Beach, both mentioned above. Just 9 miles west in Duncan Mills is Casini Ranch Family Campground (www.casiniranch.com) with 225 sites near the Russian River, including some pull-throughs, some with 30-amp hookups and all with access to restrooms with showers, a dump station and laundry facilities, plus boat and canoe rentals.
Hendy Woods State Park, Philo
If wine tasting and camping sound like a match made in heaven, this park should be on your list. Located in the Anderson Valley wine district, Hendy Woods has two virgin redwood groves within its 845-acre boundaries. The microclimate here especially suits the pinot noir grape, featured in nearby wineries that host the annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival each May.
Camping: With 92 sites, the park campground is a pleasantly shaded retreat, and being inland can be a nice alternative to oceanside parks that are often fogged in. Trailers are limited to 35 feet. About 33 miles to the west near the village of Mendocino are some of the best state parks in Northern California, including Van Damme State Park, with 64 sites for trailers up to 35 feet, full-service restrooms and a dump station. Located 3.5 miles from Mendocino, Caspar Beach RV Park (www.casparbeachrvpark.com) is a Good Sam Park with full hookups, cable, Wi-Fi and beach access.
Richardson Grove State Park, Garberville
Eight miles south of Garberville, you can leave Route 101 and drive the old Highway 101, which predates the freeway, for 31 miles on a stretch aptly nicknamed Avenue of the Giants. Richardson Grove is the first park you encounter featuring significant old-growth coast redwood groves, many accessible by just pulling off the road and gawking. Watch for signs indicating the recommended Exhibit and Settler’s trails.
Camping: Plenty of on-site camping is available for trailers shorter than 24 feet. Garberville’s Richardson Grove Campground and RV Park (www.redwoodfamilycamp.org) has 45 sites with full or partial hookups, including 10 pull-throughs. Amenities include restrooms with showers, groceries, a dump station, laundry facilities and Wi-Fi.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Myers Flat
This 51,000-acre state park is the largest in California catering to redwood trees and their admirers. It hosts one of the state’s largest groves, Rockefeller Forest, and has many trees exceeding 300 feet. Hiking trails abound, ranging from quick ½-mile jaunts, like the must-do Founders Grove Nature Trail, to those best suited to the truly fit. One of the attractions is Giant Tree, and at 354 feet in height and 53 feet in circumference, it is aptly named. As a bonus, the Eel River runs through the area, known in non-drought times as a prime salmon and steelhead fishery.
Camping: Three campgrounds at the state park cater to RVers with trailers up to 24 feet. Beware of a tight squeeze between two trees on the drive to Albee Creek if you’re towing anything wider than 8 feet. For bigger rigs, Giant Redwoods RV and Camp (www.giantredwoodsrv.com), a Good Sam Park in Myers Flat, has 30/50-amp sites, including some pull-throughs, plus a dump station, laundry facilities, groceries and free Wi-Fi.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Orick
This park is at or near the top of my list of favorite places to camp. It’s a 14,000-acre playground with more than 300 old-growth redwood groves, 10 miles of beautiful, unspoiled beach, 75 miles of trails and as many Roosevelt elk as campers. Start by driving the 10-mile Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, which parallels Route 101, and then double-back so you can wander on foot or bike. Hike to the aptly named Big Tree — 300-plus-feet tall, 21 feet in diameter and 1,500 years in age. Fog is possible, particularly in the morning.
Camping: The state park has two campgrounds, Elk Prairie and Golf Bluffs Beach. Nirvana for campers and elk, Elk Prairie has 76 sites for RVs up to 27 feet. The first-come, first-served Gold Bluffs Beach Campground has 26 sites for RVs up to 24 feet and an 8-foot-width limit. Options for those with longer rigs are just 10 miles north in Klamath. Klamath River RV Park (www.klamathriverrv.com) is a Good Sam Park with 30-amp hookups and some pull-throughs. Amenities include a laundry, RV supplies, a boat dock and Wi-Fi. Another Klamath Good Sam Park, Mystic Forest RV Park (www.mysticforestrv.com), has 20/30-amp campsites and some pull-throughs, plus laundry facilities, groceries and Wi-Fi.
Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Crescent City
This 6,400-acre park was logged in the 1920s, and about half is old-growth coast redwoods with the rest second-growth redwoods and other species. The park has 8 miles of Pacific shoreline, so it suits folks who like to leave the forest and watch the waves. Much of the coast is steep, but Damnation Trail provides good access, and Wilson Beach offers a half-mile of sand.
Camping: The park’s campground has 107 campsites for RVs up to 31 feet. The park is open year-round, but the campground usually closes in winter; check before you visit. Two RV parks can be found within a couple of miles in Crescent City. Hiouchi RV Resort (www.hiouchirv.com), a Good Sam Park, has with 90 sites and 30/50-amp hookups, a dump station, a laundry and showers. Crescent City Redwoods KOA (www.crescentcitykoa.com) has 41 sites, including some pull-throughs, and 30/50-amp hookups. Amenities include a dump station, a laundry and Wi-Fi.
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Crescent City
Named for one of the famed mountain men who opened the area to exploration, this excellent 10,000-acre state park includes two significant groves of coast redwoods, the 5,000-acre National Tribute Grove and the smaller but equally impressive Stout Grove. Close to the town of Crescent City, the park is almost in Oregon. Hiking trails abound, and I highly recommend driving the 6.9-mile Howland Hill Auto Tour, a well-maintained dirt-and-gravel road that has some twists and turns but is negotiable by vehicles that fit the campground parameters of a 31-foot limit. Nearby is the Smith River National Scenic Byway, which tracks one of the state’s few free-flowing (undammed) rivers.
Camping: The state park campground has more than 100 campsites, some of which accommodate larger RVs up to 45 feet. The campground has restrooms with showers and a dump station. Nearby RV parks include Hiouchi RV Resort and Crescent City Redwoods KOA, both mentioned above.
The area around Santa Cruz has several notable coast redwood groves and the added benefit of proximity to such popular destinations as Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. The following two state parks are definitely worth a visit, though they do not have the prolonged scenic drives of other redwood areas to the north, and their campgrounds are limited to smaller RVs. Plenty of nearby commercial RV parks make up the difference for those traveling with larger rigs.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek
California’s oldest state park, this 18,000-acre reserve has the largest stand of redwoods in this part of the state and is known for its variety of waterfalls. An impressive 80 miles of trails traverse the park, including the must-hike Redwood Nature Trail, just over half a mile.
Camping: The park’s campground has 31 sites for trailers up to 24 feet. A Good Sam Park in Felton, 23 miles away, Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort (www.santacruzredwoodsrvresort.com) has 30/50-amp sites, including some pull-throughs and big-rig sites. The park also has Wi-Fi, cable, laundry facilities and recreational amenities.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Felton
This 4,650-acre park in the Santa Cruz Mountains has several old-growth and second-growth redwood groves. With 15 miles of trails, the park is best suited to folks who enjoy hiking and horseback riding, as well as fishing for steelhead on the San Lorenzo River. The Roaring Camp Railroad takes passengers from Felton through the park’s forests.
Camping: The park campground has 103 sites for RVs up to 33 feet. Outside Capitola, New Brighton State Beach has an excellent campground with 82 sites for RVs up to 30 feet, some with 30-amp hookups. Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort, noted previously, is only 7 miles away.
Until now the focus has been on Northern California’s coast redwoods. Giant sequoia trees live inland in a narrow 60-mile strip along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada range. They are best viewed in the following three state and national parks.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park, Arnold
This is a prime spot for viewing giant sequoias. Within the 6,500-acre boundaries are two large groves. The less ambitious can explore the North Grove Loop, with 150 sequoias within 1.5 miles. For the more energetic, the 5-mile hike to the South Grove is a fine one, with relatively little elevation gain and shade most of the way. The park’s two largest trees, the Agassiz Tree and the Palace Hotel Tree, are on short, well-marked spurs off this trail. Nearby is Columbia State Historic Park, a restored gold mining town.
Camping: Campgrounds within the state park include the North Grove Campground and Oak Hollow Campground, both limited to RVs up to 30 feet. This area is in California’s gold country with no shortage of RV accommodations. Just down the road, Golden Pines RV Resort and Campground (www.goldenpinesresort.com) is a Good Sam Park with 30-amp full-hookup sites, including some pull-throughs, a dump station and a heated pool.
Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Village
Yosemite is home to three significant groves of giant sequoias. Two are close to Crane Flat Campground, only 5 miles from the park’s Big Oak Flat Entrance off State Route 120. The other, the Mariposa Grove, is close to the Wawona area of the park, just inside the South Entrance off State Route 41. All of the groves can be reached on foot less than a mile from the parking lots. The Mariposa Grove contains what is thought to be Yosemite’s oldest sequoia, the 1,800-plus-year-old Grizzly Giant. For the next couple of years, an extensive restoration project will limit access to the Mariposa Grove, so be sure to check the park’s website for the latest visitor information.
Camping: You could write a book on camping in Yosemite National Park, but two campgrounds are best for seeing giant sequoias. Five miles from the Big Oak Flat Entrance, Crane Flat Campground has 166 sites for RVs up to 35 feet and trailers up to 27 feet, and is close to two redwood groves. Wawona Campground has 93 sites for RVs up to 35 feet with the same amenities. It is just inside the park’s South Entrance and close to the Mariposa Grove. Reservations at all Yosemite campgrounds should be made well in advance, particularly during summer. Nearby RV parks include a couple of Good Sam Parks. Twenty miles from the South Entrance, Sierra Meadows RV Park (www.sierrameadows.com/rv-park) in Ahwahnee has pull-through and back-in 50-amp sites and access to a golf course and swimming pool. High Sierra RV Park (www.highsierrarv.com) in nearby Oakhurst has 30/50-amp sites, some pull-throughs, and a dump station and laundry facilities.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Three Rivers
A little further afield, these two national parks are managed as one and are home to some 75 groves of giant sequoias, including the world’s largest by volume, the General Sherman Tree. Sequoia is the second oldest national park in the country, celebrating its 125th anniversary this year; Kings Canyon turns 75. If that weren’t enough, the west slope of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, is within Sequoia’s borders. And if all that real estate is too confining for you, nearby Sequoia National Forest contains the world’s greatest concentration of giant sequoia groves, including 33 groves in Giant Sequoia National Monument. There are several points of entry, but the epicenter is Grant Grove Village, site of the Kings Canyon Visitor Center, reached via State Route 180 east of Fresno.
Camping: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have a multitude of campgrounds, generally with size limits of either 22 or 30 feet. If you have a smaller rig and enter at the Big Stump Entrance, I suggest camping that first night at Azalea, Sunset or Crystal Springs campground. Then drive the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway and camp at Sentinel, Sheep Creek, Canyon View or Moraine. In neighboring Sequoia National Forest, Princess Campground has 90 sites, including some for RVs up to 50 feet, near the paved, accessible hiking trail through Indian Basin Grove. In Fresno, there’s Blackstone North RV Park (www.blackstonenorthrvpark.com), a Good Sam Park with large 30/50-amp sites, cable, Wi-Fi, restrooms and a laundry facility.