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Redwood Coast, California

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Picture of a redwood grove Photo of redwood trees Picture of redwood trunks Photograph of redwood grove Picture of moss and fern on a dead redwood

Tourist boards and chambers of commerce like to create easily-remembered sobriquets for their regions. So the far northern coast of California from Humboldt County to the Oregon border is called the “Redwood Coast,” and also the “Redwood Empire.” While the coast indeed contains some 340 square kilometers of redwood preserves in state and national parks, the name is somewhat misleading. Redwoods grow all along the coast of northern and central California. And there’s more to the Redwood Coast than trees.

“Unique” is a much-overused word. And “very unique” or “most unique” are just plain wrong. But any of those terms could appropriately apply to Sequoia sempervirens, the coast redwood. The tallest trees in the world are redwoods— the current record-holder is just over 115 meters tall, but ordinary individuals can grow 60 to 90 meters high. The trees can live over 1,000 years. In addition to propagating through seed cones, redwoods are unique among conifers in employing two different forms of asexual reproduction. However they originate, the offspring can grow two meters or more per year. Redwoods inhabit a unique coastal climate zone where heavy rain in winter and dense fog in summer provide the cool moist climate they need. And the tannins that make redwood wood red— try saying that three times fast!— also make it uniquely resistant to decay and insects.

Tannin-laden wood that’s also fire-resistant, strong, and lightweight is what lets redwood trees grow to sky-scraping heights. But it also makes them very desirable for all sorts of construction. As early as 1850, entrepreneurs who couldn’t strike it rich in the California gold rush found they could make a reliable fortune from cutting down the seemingly limitless redwood forests. An estimated 90% of California’s redwood groves had been logged by 1968. A group of conservationists established the Save-the-Redwoods League in 1918. The League quickly found a winning strategy that continues to the this day: Solicit donations, buy up redwood groves, name them for major donors, and then deed them to appropriate governments as parks and reserves. Forest Scene

The largest of the League’s successes is a unique entity called the Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP). As the name suggests, it’s a network of four national and state parks on the Redwood Coast. In the only venture of its kind in the country, the state and federal park bureaucracies cooperate to preserve not only the redwoods but an ecosystem that includes threatened and endangered species. While much of RNSP is accessible only to backpackers, it includes “developed” groves that have easy drive-up access. In Redwood National Park, the 3-kilometer loop trail through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove probably offers the easiest way to experience the redwoods. It’s where President Lyndon Johnson’s wife dedicated Redwood National Park in 1968.

If you’re looking for a redwood-themed family vacation, the Avenue of the Giants (State Route 254) is the nearest thing to “Redwoodland.” The 52-kilometer road bisects Humboldt Redwoods State Park, a Save-the-Redwoods League acquisition separate from RNSP. While most of the park is a genuine old-growth redwood preserve, the sections along the Avenue are “developed” groves with drive-in access to trails and campgrounds. There are also motels for visitors who prefer the trappings of civilization, as well as the inevitable schlocky tourist traps.
Picture of weathered driftwood and lupines Photograph of driftwood logs, grass, and lupines Picture of driftwood tree on Gold Bluffs Beach Photo of driftwood tree on Gold Bluffs Beach Pic of driftwood tree on Gold Bluffs Beach

80 kilometers north of Eureka and 40 kilometers south of Crescent City, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park may well provide the best proof that there’s more to the Redwood Coast— and to the Redwood National and State Parks— than just big trees. Of course Prairie Creek has plenty of redwoods, including a grove containing the second tallest one in the world. (The locations of both the grove and the tree are unpublished to protect them from crowds of visitors.) But also within its 57 square kilometers are a secluded windswept sandy beach with a collection of driftwood trees and logs, a primeval canyon overgrown with ferns, and meadows with a resident herd of elk.

Gold Bluffs Beach is a 17-kilometer stretch of sand and dunes. It’s littered with an impressive collection of weathered driftwood in all shapes and sizes, including whole trees. Flooding from heavy winter rains washes dead trees and debris from inland forests over the cliffs and onto the beach. There the sun bleaches it white; and the relentlessly pounding surf smashes it to pieces and ultimately pulverizes it.

Although the bluffs above Gold Bluffs Beach indeed take on a golden color in the late afternoon on a clear day, the beach actually got its name during the 19th century gold rush. In 1850, prospectors found a few gold flakes on the beach. The discovery brought the usual mob of miners eager to stake their claims, but they soon left disappointed. Picture of a redwood tree on Gold Bluffs Beach

Among the dunes are 29 beach campsites that reportedly can get filled up on summer weekends. But if you visit off-season, and particularly during the week, you could have the eerily beautiful beach all to yourself. The weather is also likely to be better in the spring and early fall, since summers tend to be damp and foggy along the Redwood Coast. Be aware that the road to the beach (Davison Road) is narrow, unpaved, and very rough. It’s passable in a normal car if you drive slowly and carefully, but it’s off limits to trailers and large motor homes.
Picture of entrance to Fern Canyon

Davison Road ends at a parking area just north of Gold Bluffs Beach. From there, a one-kilometer trail through a forest and a meadow leads to the entrance of Fern Canyon. An easy 1.3-kilometer loop trail winds through the bottom of a canyon with sheer walls 15 meters high and covered with ferns. At least that’s what the official guide brochure says. But when I was there in late April, the canyon trail was blocked with trees and debris, and full of mud and puddles from rain earlier that day. Perhaps it really is an easy walk in the (comparatively) dry summer or autumn, but I could only get a look at the entrance to the canyon.
Picture of Roosevelt elk does in a meadow Photograph of Roosevelt elk bucks

The Redwood National and State Parks have a resident herd of around 2000 Roosevelt elk, the largest sub-species of North American elk (also called wapiti). Large males can weigh 500 kilograms. The sub-species is named for President Theodore Roosevelt, who created a preserve for them in Washington State. The wetlands area near Gold Bluffs Beach is a favorite grazing spot, so it’s not surprisingly called Elk Prairie. But the elk can wander anywhere in the park. If you inexplicably encounter stopped cars, it’s likely that the occupants are taking pictures of elk, or at least gawking at them.
Picture of Trinidad bay coastline Picture of Trinidad State Beach

Beyond the trees and the parks that preserve them, the Redwood Coast has an abundance of the wild coastal scenery for which the Northern California coast is renowned. Trinidad is a fishing village on a scenic bay 13 kilometers north of Eureka. From there you can clamber down a steep trail to a sandy beach where the surf breaks against large rocks.

The Yurok people called their village on the bay Chue-rey. They had lived in the area for centuries before Spanish naval captains Bruno de Hezeta and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra “discovered” the bay on 9 June 1775. On 11 June they erected a wooden cross to officially claim the site for Spain in the name of King Carlos III. As this was Trinity Sunday on the Catholic calendar, they named the bay La Santisima Trinidad, the Holy Trinity. Photograph of Su-meg (Patrick's Point) seascape, from the Overlook Trail Pic of Su-meg (Patrick's Point) shore, from the Wedding Rock Beach Trail Su-meg (Patrick's Point) coastline, from the Overlook Trail Picture of Wedding Rock Su-meg (Patrick's Point) shore, from the Wedding Rock Beach Trail

Sue-meg State Park is a scenic promontory 8 kilometers north of Trinidad, with trails that offer splendid coastal views. It was called Patrick’s Point State Park until October 2021. You’re likely to see it referred to by that name in guidebooks and on numerous Web sites.

The former name derived from two possible Patricks, neither of whom deserved commemoration. The most frequently-cited story— with multiple versions differing in some details— is about Patrick Beagan, an Irish gold prospector or homesteader who bought the site in 1851. (One version of the story relates that he decided to homestead there after finding a wild potato, an inedible relative of the Irish staple food.) He intended to build a trading post for the miners who arrived in California at Trinidad Bay. He gave up on that when miners started using a different port. Beagan was reportedly an alcoholic bigot who became a fugitive and forfeited the property in 1854, after being accused of killing a Yurok boy. Ten years later, he returned to lead a militia that massacred a Yurok village. One version of the story says he was ultimately killed by Indians.

By the 1870s, loggers had clear-cut the park site. According to the other account, that’s when Patrick McLaughlin took up residence there as a farmer. He planted apple trees, and reportedly buried money under them because he distrusted banks. Today he might be considered mentally ill. The earliest known reference to “Patrick’s Point” is on a map from the mid-1880s that offers no insight into which Patrick gave it its name.

As part of the “Reexamining Our Past Initiative,” a statewide effort to identify and eliminate racist names for places, parks, and geographical features, the California State Park and Recreation Commission unanimously voted on 30 September 2021 to rename Patrick’s Point State Park. It was the first state park to be renamed under that Initiative. The new name restores the traditional Yurok name for the promontory, Sue-meg, as representatives of the Yurok Tribe had requested.

The park’s main hiking trail is the 3-kilometer Rim Trail. Trails branching from it lead to lookout points with great coastal views. One of those trails leads down a bluff to Wedding Rock, probably the iconic symbol of Su-meg. Viggo Andersen, the park’s first caretaker, married his wife on the rock in 1931. Since then hundreds of couples have followed Andersen’s example. But you don’t have to be married there (or married at all) to enjoy the view from Wedding Rock.

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