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Up The Road: North Coast Tour: Redwoods First

Bob Wick
US Bureau of Land Management

It’s a cliché to say it’s magical to meander through coast redwoods. That’s probably because the experience is magical, so people keep saying it. The magic is strongest among stands of surviving old-growth redwoods—the last stand, ecologically, of these prehistoric giants.

President Ronald Reagan’s most famous gaffe, while still governor of California, and fighting the expansion of redwood parks, was widely quoted as: “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen ’em all.” Which of course is ridiculous. Reagan was misquoted. What he actually said was: “A tree is a tree—how many more do you need to look at?”

The ancestors of these trees were well established here—throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere, in fact—when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Once millions strong, after settlement California’s coast redwoods were steadily whittled down by logging and agriculture. Only isolated groves survive—and only here, along a strip of foggy coast stretching from Big Sur into southern Oregon.

Credit Ken Lund / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons
Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Redwood National State Parks.

The best place for full-on appreciation is Redwood National Park and its three entwined state parks. Some 45 percent of existing old-growth redwoods are protected here, along the far North Coast. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and also an international Man in the Biosphere Reserve, some of this lush terrain is so otherworldly that filmmaker George Lucas convinced the world it was extraterrestrial in his Return of the Jedi.

Each of Redwood National Park’s associated state parks is more appealing than the last. Good luck deciding where to start. Magnificent Roosevelt elk graze placidly, like cattle, in the meadows at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, where you can set out on ambitious hikes and explore Fern Canyon and Gold Bluffs Beach.

Imagine Howland Hill Road in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park before it was graveled, when motorists instead thumped across redwood planks, to marvel at the big trees and banana-sized slugs. Then fish and kayak on the Smith, California’s last undammed river system.

Credit Kirt Edblom / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons
Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods.

Explore the old-growth trees at deep, dark Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and the tidepools at Wilson Beach.

There are redwood parks and preserves throughout the region. Without tons of time, at least add Humboldt Redwoods State Park to the trip list too. The Save-the-Redwoods League and the state have added to the park’s holdings—now more than 53,000 acres altogether—grove by grove. Access much of the park, and many of the park’s developed campgrounds, from the state-park section of old-timey, trinkety Avenue of the Giants.

If none of that is enough to inspire a tour of the redwood coast, consider these thoughts from Salinas native John Steinbeck:

No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes. No, they are not like any trees we know. They are ambassadors from another time.

Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel

Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course, depending on your potential vulnerability to the deadliest effects of this new virus. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:

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Kim Weir, a former NSPR news reporter, is editor and founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project dedicated to sustaining the Northern California story. She is also an active member of the Society of American Travel Writers. North State Public Radio’s Up the Road program is jointly produced by Up the Road.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.