The redwoods had been on my list of places to visit for years. Finally, my husband Jason and I had the chance to visit, and it exceeded all of our expectations. I expected lots of tall trees and scenic hiking trails. What I didn’t expect was one of the most romantic destinations we’ve been to in years.
We stayed in a historic lodge, took a quick tour of a city forgotten by time, and walked for miles through scenery so beautiful it didn’t seem real. This part of Northern California is an ideal destination for couples looking to disconnect and spend some quality time together.
California redwoods only grow within 50 miles of the Pacific Ocean. They stretch from the southwest corner of Oregon 150 miles south of San Francisco to Big Sur. When planning a trip to see the redwoods, most people head to Redwood National and State Parks, a unique arrangement combining one national park and four state parks. It’s definitely a great way to experience redwoods, but it’s important to know that there are dozens of other state and local parks that feature these massive trees as well. And with so many ways to experience the beauty of the region, you’re unlikely to see crowds.
Things to do in the Redwoods
It goes without saying that the first item on everyone’s list when visiting the redwoods is to see these massive trees, but there are plenty of other things to do as well. This sparsely populated region is full of surprises.
Driving the Avenue of the Giants
Our journey began in Southern California, so we entered the region from the south, and our first introduction to the Redwoods was an extremely scenic drive through the Avenue of the Giants. This 31-mile stretch of road parallels Highway 101 and is located in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, home to the world’s largest remaining stand of virgin redwoods. We stopped several times along this slightly winding road to admire the trees and take pictures.
Earlier in the year we had the opportunity to visit Sequoia National Park and marveled at the size of these trees, which are indeed the tallest in the world. What impressed us about the Redwoods, however, was the density of the trees. Some grow so close together that they look like several trunks of the same tree.
After 15 miles of driving along this route, we elected to return to Highway 101 to reach our next destination faster. But it was definitely one of the main attractions at the Redwoods, and I highly recommend it.
Stop at a visitor center
In Redwood State Park, there are five visitor centers, and we stopped at the first one when we came to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. I highly recommend stopping at one of these centers on any visit. First, it’s a great way to learn about the plant and animal life of the area. It’s also a great opportunity to chat with a park ranger to select a hike, learn about road closures, and just get information about your visit. Although I usually research hikes beforehand, I always appreciate the advice and expertise of the ranger.
Take a walk along the beach
Knowing we were near the water, I was completely surprised to find the visitor center next to the ocean. So before leaving for our first hike, we spent some time strolling on the beach, which was completely empty. Big waves crashed loudly on the sand where we found big twisted pieces of driftwood. It was a beautiful (and romantic) place to hang out and take some selfies.
Hike the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail
Our first hike of the day was to Lady Bird Johnson Grove, named after First Lady Claudia Alta Johnson, an environmental activist well known for her efforts to beautify cities and highways across the country. This grove was named in his honor in 1969.
The trail is short, only 2.2 km and relatively flat, making it a great introduction to the park. Because this grove is located at a higher elevation of 1,200 feet, the trees are not as tall as in other areas. Anyone short on time or new to hiking would find this trail ideal.
Explore the Prairie Creek Trail
It’s never easy to pick a favorite moment on a trip, but if we absolutely had to, this would be our hike along the Prairie Creek Trail. Recently renamed the Karl Knapp Trail, in honor of a longtime State Parks employee, this easy 2.4-mile hike follows the creek through a forest of massive ferns and old-growth redwoods. It was so perfect it didn’t seem real. Other than the occasional sounds of the babbling stream, the forest was surprisingly quiet and we only passed a handful of other hikers.
Pro tip: Although we went for an easy hike, there are several connecting trails that are more challenging and could extend your hike by several hours.
Look at the big tree
After completing the hike on the Prairie Creek trail we crossed the road to the Big Tree trail. While many trees in Sequoia and Kings National Parks are named after American leaders and institutions, the trees here are relatively anonymous. During our visit, the only named tree we discovered was Big Tree, a fairly simple and straightforward nickname. At 286 feet high and 23.7 feet wide, it is estimated to be 1,500 years old. The 0.3 mile trail is completely flat and would be great for walking with kids or anyone with reduced mobility.
Watch for Roosevelt’s elk
Throughout our drive and hike we saw signs warning us to watch out for elk. In this area, there are approximately 1,000 Roosevelt elk, a breed that has been hunted almost to extinction and has rebounded well from conservation efforts. If you’re hoping to spot them, head to Elk Prairie in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Here you will find a large open meadow that attracts elk for grazing. We arrived at the meadow mid day and found it empty. Luckily, as we left the park, we spotted a few near the road.
Take a detour to Ferndale
After a great day of hiking in the redwoods, we decided to head to Ferndale and have a snack. This town has captured worldwide attention for its well-preserved Victorian homes, hotels and shops, many of which are located along Main Street. We spent some time browsing the lovely shops and then walked into the Mind’s Eye factory and coffee lounge for chai tea and a snickerdoodle. This quirky café is full of games and books that invite visitors to stay a while.
Best Restaurants in and near the Redwoods
Dining tends to be casual in the Redwoods area, which is perfect in an area known for its outdoor adventures.
Main and Mill, located at Scotia Lodge, is an ideal stop for dinner (lunch also available on weekends) after crossing the Avenue of the Giants. Their menu features comfort food like fried chicken and burgers. As a vegetarian, I appreciated that they had vegetarian options as well. Beer, wine and cocktails are also available.
For great clam chowder and fish and chips, head to Trinidad Restaurant in Trinity. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, guests rave about their nasty fries and praise the laid-back setting.
For breakfast, lunch, dinner, or just a quick cup of coffee, head to the stylish Cafe Brio in Arcata. And be sure to save room for dessert as their pastries are highly sought after.
We like to pack a picnic while exploring national parks, so wild berry market in Arcata is the perfect morning stop. Before heading out into the wild, grab some sandwiches from their cafe and top it up with fresh fruits and veggies and cold drinks.
Best Campgrounds and Hotels in the Redwoods
There are plenty of accommodation options in the Redwoods to suit all budgets, from rustic camping to cozy lodges.
We were lucky enough to stay at the newly renovated Scotia Lodge. This century-old hotel is located at the northern end of the Avenue des Géants, making it an ideal place to stay for a few days while exploring the region. I loved the large wood-paneled lobby with several seating areas that invite guests to sit and relax. The rooms are spacious and have lots of nice touches, like a kettle and pour-over coffee, a fridge and microwave, and a roll-top bath. Every morning, freshly brewed coffee and muffins are available in the lobby. There’s a restaurant and bar on site, so it’s easy to come back after a busy day and not leave until the next morning. Board games are provided in the public areas so we grabbed one each evening and played while waiting for our dinner. I couldn’t imagine a more romantic place to stay.
If you’re looking forward to camping under the redwoods, there are plenty of options in the area. Within the national park, there are four serviced campgrounds: Jedediah Smith, Mills Creek, Elk Prairie, and Gold Bluffs Beach. All are operated by California State Parks and can be Reserve in line. Throughout the region, there are many other campgrounds and RV parks, both in state and county parks. More information can be found here. Backcountry camping is also allowed – just make sure you get the free permit in advance.