In the shadows of the world’s tallest trees, the trails of California’s Redwood Parks promise hikers a verdant escape. Walking through the primeval forest feels like stepping back in time to 65 million years ago, when coastal redwoods covered much of the northern hemisphere. Though they occupy a small fragment of their prehistoric range, today’s trees can survive for over 2,000 years, making them not only the tallest, but also among the longest-lived organisms on earth. Expertly adapted to the coastal environment, redwoods absorb water from the dense coastal fog that blankets the landscape, reaching over 350 feet tall as they compete with their neighbors for sunlight and combat strong winds and salty air. Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods—located along a rugged stretch of California’s north coast—protect more than half of the state’s old growth coast redwoods and the delicate ecosystems that depend on them. For this reason, the parks are designated as a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. With over 200 miles of trail to choose from, hikers can explore the far reaches of the parks, reveling in the damp, shadowy stillness of the forest. A relatively mild climate allows hikers to visit year round, though it’s necessary to arrive prepared for damp weather and mud during most seasons. The area receives over 120 days of precipitation per year, and the coastal fog often rolls in so thickly that it feels like rain. Whether the parks are your final destination or a stop on a longer journey, be sure to take a few hours—or a few days—to explore the trails. Here, seven of the best hikes on the redwood coast:
1. JAMES IRVINE-MINER’S RIDGE LOOP
Towering stands of old-growth redwoods, a fern-lined canyon, and sandy coastline make this 12-mile loop one of the area’s most scenic. Located in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, the trail follows the James Irvine trail immediately into the depths of the forest. After about 5.5 miles, descend into Fern Canyon, a steep, emerald ravine with myriad fern species clinging to its walls. Emerge from the canyon and hike along the pristine sands of Gold Bluffs Beach before re-entering the forest and following the Miner’s Ridge trail back to your starting point.
2. REDWOOD CREEK TRAIL
One of the most popular trails in Redwood National Park, most people choose to hike the 16-mile Redwood Creek as an overnight backpacking trip to allow for ample time to appreciate the scenery. The only area in the park that permits dispersed camping, the trail traces Redwood Creek through a gentle valley lined with lush ferns and brushy trees. At the end of the trail, traverse a bridge to enter Tall Trees Grove, a stand of ancient behemoths. Look for the 368-foot Libby Tree, discovered by national geographic in 1963 and deemed the tallest tree in the world. The current title-holder—an elusive 379-foot giant called Hyperion—resides in a secret location within the Redwood Creek watershed.
3. LADY BIRD JOHNSON GROVE
Walk this trail for a slice of history and the chance to meander slowly through a beautiful ridge top grove, but skip it if you are looking for a backcountry experience. Dedicated by Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan in honor of the former first lady, the 1.4-mile trail winds over flat ground through the trees. The even footing provides ample opportunities to read the interpretative materials that impart lessons on how redwoods survive fire and detail the variety of plants and animals that call the park home.
4. BOY SCOUT TREE TRAIL
Pristine and remote, the Boy Scout Tree Trail showcases some of the redwood forest’s most graceful old growth. Located in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, visit this popular trail early morning or mid-week to enjoy the muffled stillness created by the soft tree trunks and dense carpets of dropped needles. The 5.3-mile trail plunges you immediately into a lush redwood forest, gradually climbing to reveal views of the surrounding trees. An out-and-back hike, the trail passes a tree that resembles a Boy Scout salute and ends at a small cascade called Fern Falls.
5. STOUT GROVE
Don’t overlook the 0.6-mile loop through Stout Grove in Jedediah Smith Redwoods because it lacks distance. The focal point of the cathedral-like grove is the Stout Tree, distinguishable by its bulk and rippled bark. In the afternoon, sunlight penetrates the loft canopy, illuminating the foliage and casting dappled shadows on the fern and sorrel-covered ground.
6. COASTAL TRAIL TO FLINT RIDGE CAMP
For a lengthier hike through old-growth redwoods in the National Park, follow the Coastal Trail for 9.2 miles as it ascends a ridge through a patch of old-growth redwoods and descends towards the coast. Start from a pond near the mouth of the Klamath River, climbing switchbacks to gain about 1,000 feet and attain the Flint Ridge. Descend the ridge until you reach the Flint Ridge Campground, perched above the coast and within earshot of the surf.
7. DAMNATION CREEK TRAIL
The Damnation Creek Trail is a favorite in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. A four-mile, out-and-back hike starting from Highway 101, the trail is both accessible and beautiful, beginning in a stunning grove and descending through old growth. Massive rhododendrons characterize the understory, and blooming brightly in the spring. After 1.5-miles, spruce trees replace the redwoods, and the trail descends the bluff to a narrow beach.