Redwood trees are always described in superlatives: the tallest, the biggest, the oldest, the most massive. But the best way to describe them is simply magnificent. California is one of the only places in the world where you can see these mighty conifers and a trip to the Golden State isn't complete without visiting these iconic trees. You can easily visit a redwood grove just 12 miles north of San Francisco, but if you have the time to make a longer trip, it's worth traveling to experience the best of the California redwoods.
The trees in California that people call "redwoods" are actually two distinct but related species. Coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are the tallest living things on our planet, growing up to 380 feet tall and 16 to 18 feet across. You can find them in redwood forests near the California coast from the Oregon border down to Big Sur.
Giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) grow only in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains near the state's eastern border. The most massive living things on Earth, the largest of them rise a little more than 300 feet tall and spread almost 30 feet across. The oldest ones have been around for more than 3,000 years.
Redwood forests are so plentiful in California that you'll find over a dozen state 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 not just in California, but in the entire world.
Yosemite's Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is the national park's largest redwood grove and 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.
If you're arriving at or leaving Yosemite via the South Entrance at Highway 41, you'll pass directly by Mariposa Grove. It's about an hour south of Yosemite Valley, but this is definitely a pitstop you'll want to make time for. The South Entrance is the default entrance if you're coming from Los Angeles or Southern California, but visitors from San Francisco typically enter at the Big Oak Flat Entrance. However, the chance to see these giant sequoias is well worth the small detour.
If your goal is to see the very biggest of the giant sequoia trees, you should plan a trip to Sequoia National Park in the southern Sierra Nevadas, home to some of the largest specimens of Sequoiadendron giganteum in the world. Sequoia National Park 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 these trees to be between 1,800 and 2,700 years old.
General Sherman is not only the largest, but might be the most impressive-looking giant sequoia tree, and you have to see it in person to truly grasp the sheer size of this behemoth. You'll find it in Giant Forest, an area of the park that contains five of the 10 largest trees in the world. The famous drive-through Tunnel Log—a fallen sequoia tree that cars can drive through—is also in Giant Forest on Crescent Meadow Road.
In the winter and into the spring, snow chains are often required and roads may even be closed. Check the current road conditions to make sure you'll be able to enter the park.
Many San Francisco visitors who want to see California's "Big Trees" go to Muir Woods. It's an easily accessible redwood forest with three well-groomed hiking trails that aren't strenuous at all. Rangers also give frequent guided walks that will help you learn about the redwood forest. Located just 12 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County, this is the only place to see redwood trees in the Bay Area.
However, the accessibility of Muir Woods also means it's one of the most crowded places to see the trees. In summer, it's often packed with tourists and the parking lot quickly fills up, forcing visitors to park in nearby Sausalito and wait for a shuttle. It's become so crowded that advance reservations are required both to park and to use the shuttle. The busiest time at the park is from April to October, especially in the summer months and on weekends.
Also, keep in mind that the coastal redwoods in Muir Woods aren't nearly as big as the giant sequoias in the Eastern Sierras. They're also relatively small compared to the much taller coastal redwoods further north in the state, which can reach up to 380 feet in height (although the tallest tree in Muir Woods, at 258 feet, is nothing to thumb your nose at).
The coastal redwood trees are impressive on their own, but they aren't the only reason to visit Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Prairie Creek is close to Redwood National Forest in northern Humboldt County, between the towns of Arcata and Crescent City and conveniently located along the Redwood Highway, the best driving route you can take to experience the best of California's state tree.
Prairie Creek sometimes seems almost magical on summer mornings, when it's often cloaked in fog with the old-growth trees soaring through it into the sunlight. And there's a lot more to see in this park than just the redwoods. In Fern Canyon, seven kinds of ferns drape the walls, giving the impression of a flowing, green waterfall. Prairie Creek is also home to a herd of Roosevelt elk and during their mating season, their calls echo through the forest as the bulls challenge each other for mating rights.
Along with Del Norte Coast and Prairie Creek Redwoods parks, Jedediah Smith is part of the Redwood National and State Park, located just a few miles northeast of Crescent City. At Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, you don't even need to get out of your car to enjoy the majesty of these towering trees. Just take a drive through Howland High Road, a path that is only 6 miles long but takes about an hour to wind through, giving you plenty of time to take in the trees and other beauty around you.
If you would rather get out of the car and take a walk, several easy and flat hiking trails give you a chance to trek through a redwood forest full of these 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 three UNESCO World Heritage sites in California (the others being Yosemite National Park and Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House in Los Angeles). It's also an International Biosphere Reserve. Fans of the "Star Wars" films may recognize this park as the Forest Moon of Endor from the movie "Return of the Jedi."
Some people say Big Basin is a much better place to see the coastal redwood trees around the Bay Area than the more-popular Muir Woods. It's a bit further of a drive if you're coming from San Francisco, but it's much less crowded than Muir Woods so you can better take in the idyllic landscape. Plus, you can spend the night in the middle of the redwood grove in one of their tent cabins for an unforgettable experience in the forest among the trees.
Big Basin is located in the mountains about 65 miles south of San Francisco, between San Jose and the beach town of Santa Cruz. With over 81 miles of hiking trails to explore, there's plenty to see and do in California's oldest state park.
Visit an Urban Grove of California Redwoods Near Oakland
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. Redwood Regional Park 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. While it may not have the grandeur of the forests farther north, it's accessibility makes it an ideal spot to visit for visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area. It also receives far fewer visitors than the more popular Muir Woods in Marin County.
The Skyline Gate Staging Trail in the park is a moderate 4-mile loop that is perfect for a day outside in the shade of the redwoods.
Check Out Redwood Trees Turned to Stone
At the north end of the Napa Valley west of Calistoga is a redwood forest of a different kind. The trees in the Petrified Forest no longer tower into the sky, but they're impressive in their own right. While these redwoods are no longer alive, they were growing much, much earlier than the oldest trees in California—over 3 million years earlier, to be more exact, just before the start of the Ice Age. During a volcanic eruption, local redwood trees were toppled and covered with a layer of ash, preserving them until the present day.
Now, these trees are fossilized and technically made of 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 the Painted Desert out in the Arizona desert). However, these are the largest petrified trees in the world. Join a guided tour or take your own self-guided tour to round out your outdoor hike with some informative facts.
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.
People no longer damage the trees by carving them open, but 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 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 U.S. Highway 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.
The Avenue of the Giants runs right beside U.S. Highway 101 from Garberville to Pepperwood, and the road is built to curve around the massive trees. Even though it's only a 30-mile stretch, the Avenue of the Giants route takes about two full hours to drive through, not including time to pull over and admire the trees. It's really best to devote half a day to this scenic drive, but if you're in a hurry, you can speed it up by driving part of the way on U.S. 101 and cutting onto the Avenue of the Giants at a midway point (the northern 15 miles are the most impressive part of the Avenue).
You'll see road markers for a different grove of redwoods about every half-mile along the route, but you don't need to stop at them all. The Founder's Grove is one of the highlights and, after a short hike, you'll be able to stand next to one of the largest fallen trees in the park. The Shine Drive-Thru Tree is along the route and has a natural split through the trunk that is big enough for a car to fit in, although you'll have to pay an admission fee to drive through it.
Preserving the Redwood Forests
Redwood trees—both the coastal redwoods and the giant sequoias—are considered an endangered species. After decades of unsustainable logging practices throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, today only 5 percent of the redwood forests remain as compared to before 1850.
Thankfully, many of California's remaining old-growth redwood forests are now protected in state or national parks. The groves that contain the biggest, tallest, or oldest trees get the most attention from conservationists, but they're also the most durable and most protected. It's the fledgling forests with new growth that are most vulnerable to forest fires and other threats, but they're crucial to rebuilding the lost forests.