The trees in California that people call "redwoods" are actually two distinct species, both of them best described in superlatives like tallest, biggest, most massive, or magnificent.
Sometimes called simply the "big trees," giant sequoias (sequoiadendron giganteum) grow only in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains near the state's eastern border. The most massive living things, the largest of them rise a little more than 300 feet tall and spread almost 30 feet across. The oldest ones have been around more than 3,000 years.
Coastal redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) are the tallest living things on our planet, growing 300 to 350 feet tall and 16 to 18 feet across. You can find them in redwood forests near the California coast from the northern border down to Big Sur.
Redwood forests are so plentiful in California that you'll find almost a dozen parks with "redwood" in their name, along with a national park and quite a few regional ones. Any of them will give you a glimpse of the magnificent trees and the forests they grow in, but the redwood forests listed below are some of the best places to see them.
If you want to get the most from your redwood experience, try reading a little bit about redwood forests in general before you visit so you can better appreciate them.
Yosemite's Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is the national park's largest redwood grove. It contains about 500 mature trees. You can see some of them from the road and parking area, but it's more fun to get out and walk among them. Most visitors choose a 0.8-mile hike from the parking lot to the Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Trees, which has about 500 feet of elevation gain.
The grove is located near the south entrance to Yosemite, about an hour's drive south of Yosemite Valley. From November through April, the road to it may be closed because of snow.
On summer days, the small parking area closes periodically when full. To avoid that, you can take the free Wawona-Mariposa Grove shuttle. Yosemite National Park is less than a four-hour drive east of San Francisco.
If your goal is to see the very biggest of the giant sequoia trees, you plan a trip to Sequoia National Park. Why? It contains some of the largest specimens of sequoiadendron giganteum in the world.
Sequoia is where you'll find the world's most massive tree, General Sherman — and the only-slightly-smaller General Grant Tree. Not only are they big, but they're old, too. Scientists estimate they're between 1,800 and 2,700 years old.
The General Sherman Tree might be not only the largest but also the most impressive-looking giant sequoia tree. You'll find it in Giant Forest. The famous drive-through Tunnel Log is also in Giant Forest on Crescent Meadow Road, cut through a fallen tree.
The General Grant tree is in Grant Grove near Lodgepole Village.
After the snow is cleared in mid to late spring, you can drive on a dirt road to the world's largest grove of giant sequoias, the Redwood Mountain Grove near Grant Village.
Many San Francisco visitors who want to see California's "Big Trees" go to Muir Woods. It's a pretty, easily accessible redwood forest, with three well-groomed hiking trails most anyone can manage. Rangers also give frequent guided walks that will help you learn about the redwood forest. To avoid annoyances and disappointments, plan your perfect trip using the Muir Woods National Monument guide.
Also, know this before you go: Muir Woods' trees are coastal redwoods. They're tall, but they're not the massive trees you may be looking for. Muir Woods can also be overcrowded, and at the busiest times, you'll have to take a shuttle bus from Sausalito to get there.
If you're looking for those big, massive sequoia trees, you'll have to go to Sequoia or Yosemite National Parks, described on the previous pages.
The redwood trees at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park are coastal redwoods, the tallest living things on earth. They've existed along the northern California coast for about 20 million years, fed by winter rains.
Prairie Creek sometimes seems almost magical. On summer mornings, it's often cloaked in fog, the old-growth trees soaring through it into the sunlight. In Fern Canyon, seven kinds of ferns drape the walls, giving the impression of a flowing, green waterfall.
This park is also home to a herd of Roosevelt Elk. During their mating season, their calls echo through the forest as the bulls challenge each other for mating rights.
Prairie Creek is close to Redwood National Forest in northern Humboldt County, between the towns of Arcata and Crescent City.
The coast redwood is the tallest living thing on earth. Along with Del Norte Coast and Prairie Creek Redwoods parks, Jedediah Smith is part of the Redwood National and State Park.
At Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, the best thing you can do is stay in your car. However, if you would rather get out of the car and take a walk, several easy, flat hiking trails give you a chance to walk through a redwood forest full of the tall trees. The park also protects prairies, oak woodlands, wild rivers, and close to 40 miles of coastline.
Quite a few threatened animal species also live in the Redwood National Park, including the brown pelican, Chinook salmon, northern spotted owl, and Steller's sea lion.
The park is one of only two World Heritage sites in California (the other is Yosemite National Park). It's also an International Biosphere Reserve.
This beautiful forest became the Forest Moon of Endor in the Star Wars films. Find out more about that in the guide to Star Wars sites in California.
The park is a few miles northeast of Crescent City.
Some people say Big Basin is a much better place to see the coastal redwood trees than the more-popular Muir Woods. It's much less crowded than Muir, and you can spend the night in the middle of the redwood forest in one of their tent cabins.
Big Basin is located in the mountains about 65 miles south of San Francisco, between San Jose and the town of Santa Cruz.
Get more detailed information, hours, and fees at the Big Basin Redwoods State Park website.
The second you step foot into this beautiful 500-acre park, you'll feel like you're in another world, but you're actually just outside of the busy city of Oakland. It contains a rare redwood forest that exists in an urban setting. This park is a local favorite for hiking, cycling, and horseback riding. They also have a dedicated, fenced area for dogs to roam off-leash.
For more information on fees, parking, hours, and events, visit the Joaquin Miller Park website.
At the north end of the Napa Valley, west of Calistoga is a redwood forest of a different kind. The trees in this one are made of stone. Toppled and covered with volcanic ash during an ancient eruption, these trees slowly petrified (turned to stone).
The petrified forest is a privately-owned attraction, with an admission fee. And just so you aren't disappointed, don't expect to find colorful petrified wood here — that's out in the Arizona desert instead. Get more detailed information at the Petrified Redwood Forest Website.
Drive Through a Redwood Tree or a Tunnel Log
In times past, people often created a tourist attraction by cutting a hole right through the middle of a huge redwood tree. Travelers enjoyed the idea that a tree could be so big that you could drive through it.
A few of those relics of yesteryear still survive:
- Chandelier Drive-Through Tree in Leggett is a privately-owned attraction that charges an admission fee. Most visitors who give in to the cheesy urge to drive through a tree say this one is the best in Northern California.
- Shrine Drive-Thru Tree south of Humboldt Redwoods State Park near Myers Flat charges a small fee to drive through. This one is a naturally split tree, not one that was carved out for vehicles. The park also features a Step-Thru Stump and the fallen Drive-On Tree with a partially paved ramp you can drive up.
- Tour Thru Tree is a privately owned attraction located in Klamath. To get there, take the Terwer Valley exit from US Hwy 101. Its opening is 7 feet 4 inches (2.23 m) wide and 9 feet 6 inches (2.9 m) high, big enough for most cars, vans, and pickups to pass through.
- Tunnel Log at Sequoia National Park is in Giant Forest along the Crescent Meadow Road. It's a fallen tree with an arched section cut out for the road to pass through. The opening is 17 feet wide and 8 feet high (5.2 m by 2.4 m), with a bypass for taller vehicles. Also in Sequoia is Tharp's Log, a fallen tree that a 19th-century cattleman turned into a house. It's in Giant Forest near Crescent Meadow.
At one time, you could drive through a tunnel tree in Yosemite National Park, but the famous Wawona Tree fell in 1969.
Driving Through the Redwoods
The Avenue Of The Giants runs beside US Hwy 101 from Garberville to Pepperwood. The road is built to curve around the massive trees. It's a pretty drive, but it's also peppered with tourist stops of all kinds, some of them touting the most mundane-sounding features like an Upside-Down Root or an L-Shaped Branch.
If you like the redwood trees, you may also like the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest off Highway 395 in eastern California, where the oldest specimens have been around for about 5,000 years.