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, they can reach 280 feet tall and 23 feet across. 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, with record specimens soaring to 360 feet. That's as tall as a 36-story building. 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.
Best Places to See California's Redwood Forests
If you want to get the most from your redwood experience, try reading a little bit about the redwood forest before you visit so you can better appreciate it. This list is in order from north to south.
- Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park: Located between Crescent City and Eureka, this redwood forest park is also home to a herd of Roosevelt Elk.
- Redwood National Park: Several redwood forest parks in one, it preserves almost half of the remaining old-growth redwood forests.
- Muir Woods National Monument: Just 12 miles north of San Francisco, Muir Woods is an easily accessible redwood forest with well-groomed trails most anyone can manage.
- Yosemite National Park: The Mariposa Grove is Yosemite's largest redwood forest, home to specimens of giant sequoias. It's 4 hours' drive east of San Francisco.
- Big Basin Redwoods State Park: In the mountains south of San Francisco, it's less crowded than Muir and has tent cabins where you could spend the night in the middle of the redwood forest.
- Petrified Redwood Forest: Nature turned this redwood forest to stone. It's located just west of Calistoga at the north end of Napa Valley.
- Sequoia National Park: This is the place to go if your goal is to see the very biggest giant sequoia trees.
There are also quite a few drive-through redwood trees and tunnel trees in California if you like that kind of thing.
If you like these 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.
Preserving the Redwood Forests
01 of 08
Drive-Through Redwoods, Tunnel Logs and Scenic Drives
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 into 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.
- Klamath Tour Thru Tree is a privately owned attraction located north of Klamath Bridge. 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.
- Pioneer Cabin Tree in Calaveras State Park is closed to vehicles, but you can walk through it on a 1.5-mile loop trail in the North Calaveras Grove.
Hercules Tree in Mountain Home State Forest has a room carved inside but miraculously is still alive. You can walk up steep steps into the middle of it
Tunnel Log at Sequoia National Park is in Giant Forest along the Moro Rock 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.
02 of 08
California Giant Sequoia Redwood Trees in Yosemite National Park
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 about a 4-hour drive east of San Francisco.
03 of 08
California Giant Sequoia Redwood Trees in Sequoia National Park
If your goal is to see the very biggest of the giant sequoia trees, you must go to Sequoia National Park. This one national park contains 18 of the 30 largest specimens of sequoiadendron giganteum in the world.
Sequoia is where you'll find the world's most massive tree, the 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 along with nine more of the 30 largest giant sequoias. 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 Redwood Mountain Grove near Grant Village. It's the world's largest grove of giant sequoias.
Get more detailed information about visiting in the Sequoia National Park visitor guide.
04 of 08
California Coastal Redwoods in Muir Woods
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.
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.
Get more detailed information about how to go Muir Woods in the Muir Woods National Monument guide.Continue to 5 of 8 below.
05 of 08
California Coastal Redwoods in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
The redwood trees at Prairie Creek 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. Get more detailed information, hours and fees at the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park website.
06 of 08
California Coastal Redwoods in Redwood National Park
The coast redwood is the tallest living thing on earth. More than 35 percent of all the old-growth coastal redwoods left standing in the world are in Redwood National Park. 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. Take an hour-long, six-mile drive through the park on Howland Hill Road, that is sure to make you feel like you're in heaven. If you would rather get out of the car and take a walk, there are several easy, flat hiking trails that 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. Get more detailed information, hours and fees at the Redwood National Park website.
07 of 08
California Coastal Redwoods in Big Basin Redwoods State Park
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 has some nice tent cabins where you can spend the night in the middle of the redwood forest.
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.
08 of 08
Redwoods Trees Turned to Stone in California's Petrified Redwood Forest
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).
This 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.