The Best of the Redwood Coast

The Avenue of the Giants snaking through Humboldt County's Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
The Avenue of the Giants snaking through Humboldt County's Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Jake Wheeler
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Tucked in a remote corner of California's far north coast, Humboldt County is a 4,000 square mile chunk of land home to rugged mountains, more miles of coast than any other county in the state, and the tallest trees on Earth. The weather can be trying, ranging between clouds and drizzle to fog and pounding rain, and to get there, it's a demanding 6-hour-drive from San Francisco or Sacramento and over 8-hours from Portland. But for locals and hardy adventurers, they love the isolation, the undeniable natural beauty, and the mysterious shroud the fog and geography lends to the land.

It’s an entirely different world "behind the Redwood Curtain", and it's home to one of the most distinctive and fascinating landscapes in America—a place where visitors can stand beneath impossibly large redwoods and feel their magisterial power and ancient wisdom, watch enormous pounding waves crash into sea stacks, and appreciate a slower way of life. You don’t have to pick between stunning redwood forests, spectacular coastal views, or mountain peaks. You get it all here. For lack-of-a-less-cliché term, Humboldt County really is a must-visit for anyone.

Here are some of the most iconic adventures you can have while you’re there.

1. Primordial Hiking in Fern Canyon

Hikers exploring the primordial passage of Fern Canyon.
Hikers exploring the primordial passage of Fern Canyon. Jake Wheeler

Fern Canyon is bound to look familiar; a scene from “Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World” was filmed here. This 30-foot-deep canyon has vertical walls covered in ferns and moss and you’ll often see and hear the constant dripping of mini-waterfalls making their way down the walls and into the creek. Some of the canyon’s fern species are 325 million years old, and the canyon is also a haven for Pacific giant salamanders—which can be a foot long—and other wildlife.

Fern Canyon is located in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and you have two options to reach the canyon: driving or hiking. The unpaved road can be quite rough, and it’s sometimes closed, so call ahead for conditions. Or make a loop of the James Irvine, Fern Canyon, and Miners Ridge trails for a strenuous 10-mile day. Hiking in Fern Canyon is often wet, so plan accordingly.

2. Visiting Arcata Marsh

When you think of wastewater treatment, you probably think of a smelly eyesore. But the City of Arcata’s wastewater treatment facility is something entirely different—it’s a place to get outdoors. wildlife sanctuary and marsh where people come to play. With five miles of walking and biking paths, the 307-acre Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary is a favorite stop for locals to run or walk after work, and a great stop for anyone to get outside and explore. Plus, it’s conveniently located across the street from Redwood Curtain Brewing for an after-run pint. Explore the three types of marshes (freshwater, brackish, and salt), tidal sloughs, mudflats, and grassy uplands, and bring out the binocs to catch a peek at the 300 species of birds seen in this birding haven located along the Pacific Flyway.

3. Moonstone and Luffenholtz Beaches

A spectacular rocky cove at Luffenholtz Beach.
A spectacular rocky cove at Luffenholtz Beach. Kirt Edbolm

Moonstone Beach, located just south of the town of Trinidad, is a wide open playground where locals love to bring their dogs, go for a stroll after work, toss a frisbee, or congregate with friends to relax and play a little music. Wander to the far end (away from the parking lot) at low tide to check out the small cave and waterfall.

Luffenholtz Beach is Moonstone’s steeper and rockier cousin just up the Scenic Drive from Moonstone. The Scenic Drive is a gorgeous one-lane unpaved road on a crumbling bluffside that’s not for the faint of heart. Park at the small pullout (it’s easy to miss) and consider a strenuous jaunt down the steep, slippery, unwieldy bluff staircase down to the beach and back. Sometimes, the river below blocks the base of the stairs and the beach is not accessible, but even from the blufftops, the views are spectacular. This beach is particularly steep (and the water comes up fast), so be sure to always keep an eye on the ocean and beware of “sneaker waves” that come out of nowhere.

4. Tidepooling at Patrick’s Point State Park

When the tide goes out, it’s tidepool time at Patrick’s Point State Park. Keep an eye to the ocean and search the pools in search of sea anemones, sea stars, and other crazy looking sea creatures. For terrestrial creatures that look otherworldly, check the treed areas for the ubiquitous fat yellow banana slugs and their slime trails. Look for seals, sea lions, whales, and dolphins and, if you’re lucky (or unlucky depending on how you look at it), you might just see a great white shark. They're known to visit this stretch of coast. Comb the beach for agates, tour the park’s restored Yurok village, and if a day isn’t enough, stay in the park’s campground.

5. Backpacking in Redwood National and State Parks

For a backpacking trip to remember, Redwood National and State Parks do not disappoint. Home to over 200 miles of backcountry trails as well as 8 backcountry campsites, there are options galore. Some sites have bear lockers, toilets, and fire pits (no potable water, though), and dispersed camping is allowed along Redwood Creek with a permit. Try Nickel Creek Backcountry Camp for a sweet spot perched above Enderts Beach (it’s 6.5 miles from the Damnation Creek Trailhead).

6. Hiking Among Ancient Redwood Groves

Hiking beneath the tallest trees on Earth.
Hiking beneath the tallest trees on Earth. Jake Wheeler

Hike among the ancient old-growth redwoods and see how many friends it takes to encircle a tree in your arms. (It’ll be more than you think.) Walking among the redwoods is an unforgettable experience—one that will leave your neck aching from peering up so much. The 1.4-mile Cathedral Trees Trail in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is a quick jaunt among some of the largest trees in the area, including long-fallen trees that host new life. The Prairie Creek Trail is 4 miles long and follows the creek through the forest with a spur leading to a “fairy ring” tree. Drive the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway and you’ll find plenty of enticing trailheads (be sure to get a map ahead of time).

7. Paddling Big Lagoon

Getting out on the water is an important part of the Humboldt experience. While expert surfers battle crashing waves and treacherous terrain along the coast, kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders, and windsurfers can find somewhat protected waters to play in at Big Lagoon County Park. During the summer, kayak and SUP rentals are often available on the beach. Search for agates shoreside or bring a pole and try fishing for cutthroat trout, a popular pastime (license required).

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