Morning sunlight streams through a redwood forest in Muir Woods National Monument.
Facts about California's redwood trees and forests
California’s giant redwood forests are my favorite place on Earth. The giant redwoods along the western coast of North America begin along Big Sur in Central California, and extend northward to the southwest corner of Oregon.
These are the world’s undisputed tallest trees, with some approaching 400 feet (120 meters) in height. Individuals over 300 feet (90 meters) in height are fairly common in some locations. In the redwood forests, I love looking up. Sometimes you can’t see the tops of the trees because they’re so unbelievably tall. The trunks are enormous, and some of the largest are over 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter.
The tallest known redwood tree stands 380 feet (116 meters) tall, and is located in Redwood National Park. It is named Hyperion, and was measured in 2006, and surpassed a 370-foot (113 meters) tree in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. See the image below, comparing the tallest known tree to the Statue of Liberty and Big Ben.
Some of the largest trees are well over 1,000 years old, and a few are over 2,000 years old. Only a handful of tree species are known to live longer, one of which is a close relative, the giant sequoia of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The giant sequoias are not as tall, although they are the most massive trees on Earth, with the coastal redwoods coming in at second place.
The bark and wood of the trees is famous for its beautiful reddish brown color. The trees are in the cypress family, which is a variety of conifer, and they have small cones about an inch in length. The small dark green leaves are distinctive.
The forests are generally cool, moist, green, and peaceful. It’s common to see ferns and other plants at ground level. On the trees are sometimes large growths called burls, and other times there are various large fungi, or green moss. The smell of the trees is pleasant, and their small leaves litter the forest floor. The mostly-shady forests are especially enjoyed on hot summer days.
The largest trees inhabit valleys and gullies which benefit from moist air and precipitation coming from the nearby ocean, and there are often creeks and streams nearby. These valleys often fill with fog. The trees are never found higher than about 3,000 feet (900 meters) elevation, and are never more than 50 miles (80 km) inland.
Tree species located amongst the redwoods include the coast Douglas-fir, western hemlock, tanoak, Pacific madrone, and others. Animal species that I’ve seen within the forests include frogs, salamanders, salmon (in the creeks), Steller’s jays, brown bats, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons, banana slugs, and deer. The forests can also include Northern spotted owls, elk, black bears, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, skunks, and more.
"Hyperion" is the name of the tallest known tree in the world, and it is located in Redwood National Park. The tree is estimated to be between 700 and 800 years old.
Top five places to see California's redwood trees
Although this list is somewhat subjective, and other fantastic places exist where you can see these super amazing trees, here are my top picks, not necessarily in order of favoritism. Read descriptions of each of these amazing destinations below.
1. Redwood National Park
2. Humboldt Redwoods State Park
3. Muir Woods National Monument
4. Silver Peak Wilderness along Big Sur
5. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Redwood forests are often foggy, as seen in this photo taken in Redwood National Park.
#1 - Redwood National Park
Located mostly in Humboldt County, and partially in Del Norte County in the northwest corner of California, this national park contains the tallest giant redwoods of them all. The park is right next to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, discussed below, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and these are collectively called Redwood National and State Parks.
The national park was created in 1968 to preserve what was left of massive redwood forests. Unfortunately, by that time almost 90% of the forests had been logged, although what remains is precious, and fortunately is protected.
These parks encompass a long portion of the Northern California coast. To the south are the towns of Eureka, Arcata, and McKinleyville. At the northern end, near Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, is Crescent City.
Nearly half of all remaining old-growth redwood forests, of which over 90% were sadly logged decades ago, are found within Redwood National and State Parks. In total, the old-growth forests found here cover nearly 40,000 acres (nearly 160 square kilometers).
As mentioned above, the grand champion 380-foot (116-meter) tree is found in Redwood National Park, and is named Hyperion. Two other trees are known that are just a few feet shorter.
Hiking and camping are the top activities here, although campers need to understand how to properly keep their food safe from bears, which have the most sensitive sense of smell of any mammal.
The three visitor centers offer guided nature walks. Horseback riding and bicycling are allowed on certain trails, and at the beaches kayaking and canoeing are popular. Another popular activity at the beaches is fishing, which requires a license.
Scenes from the forest moon of Endor on Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi were filmed here, as well as scenes from The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
The incredible Chandelier Tree
One of three drive-through trees left
#2 - Humboldt Redwoods State Park
About 85 miles (135 km) south of Redwood National Park along US Highway 101, and south of Eureka, Arcata, and McKinleyville, is another fantastic location, Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The park is not located on the coast like Redwood National Park, but is located about 10 miles (16 km) inland.
Closely paralleling US Highway 101, and passing through the incredible redwood groves of Humboldt Redwoods State Park is a scenic highway called Avenue of the Giants, with some small towns, picnic areas, and interesting places to stop. The scenic highway is about 32 miles (51 km) in length. Avenue of the Giants is also called State Route 254.
The world’s last remaining drive-through redwood trees are located along the Avenue of the Giants, and there are three of them. Each is on private property, and there is a toll to drive through.
There used to be other drive-through trees in California, which included some giant sequoias, although many have fallen, or have been cut down, and it is no longer legal to make a new one. Three are left, and they’re all located here.
One is natural – it is called the Shrine Drive-Through Tree, and it is located by the town of Myers Flat. The other two are man-made, meaning humans cut out the gaps that cars drive through. They are the Chandelier Tree in the town of Leggett, and the Klamath Tour Through Tree, located in the town of Klamath.
The largest single contiguous old-growth giant redwood forest is located in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, covering 17,000 acres (69 square km). There are currently about 140 trees in the world known to exceed 350 feet (110 meters) in height, and about 100 of them are found in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
The tallest in the park stands 371 feet (113 meters) tall. For awhile this tree was the tallest known, until several taller trees were discovered in Redwood National Park. Another one 372 feet tall fell in 1991.
A five-mile (8 km) road passes through the park. The park is also popular for hiking, horseback riding, bicycling, fishing, and also swimming in the South Fork Eel River. Don’t worry, there aren’t any eels in the river.
Muir Woods National Monument, just 12 miles (19 km) from San Francisco.
#3 - Muir Woods National Monument
This is the park I am most familiar with, of those featured in this article. I’ve visited here many times, and used to live about 40 miles (64 km) away in the town of Sonoma.
This small but spectacular park is just 12 miles (19 km) from San Francisco, the third-most populous city in California. San Francisco is my favorite large city, and is a wonderful place to visit.
When the redwoods were sadly being cut down like crazy in the 19th Century and early 20th Century, one valley just north of San Francisco was not logged because it was hard for the loggers to get to.
A US Congressman bought the land in the first decade of the 20th Century, and after a fight with a water company that wanted to flood the valley by damming a river, he donated the land to the US government. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the land a national monument.
The park covers 554 acres (640 acres is one square mile), or 2.2 square kilometers. Of this, 240 acres (1.0 square km) is old-growth giant redwood forest.
The park may not be very big, although when you’re within the forests, it’s as awesome as any of them. The trails are easy to follow, and cross over a stream several times. I’ve seen salmon in the stream before, and it doesn’t take much hiking before the outside world is left behind and you’re standing amongst breathtakingly beautiful trees, many over a thousand years old.
The trails are easy, even for many small children. A loop that covers the best parts of the forest is less than three miles (5 km) long. I first walked through when I was seven years old.
The park’s tallest trees are in the range of 250 to 260 feet (75 to 80 meters). Although not as tall as some in the parks discussed above, they are still super massive and will leave you in awe.
I like this park because it’s easy to get to, easy to find, and has short easy trails. In a short amount of time you’re within an authentic old-growth redwood forest that rivals any of the others. Simply amazing.
Redwoods in the Silver Peak Wilderness are the furthest south of any redwoods along the western coast of North America.
#4 - Silver Peak Wilderness
This area is located about halfway between Morro Bay and Monterey Bay, near the exact middle of California’s coastline. It is significant in that it has the very southernmost redwood forest.
Silver Peak Wilderness is part of the Los Padres National Forest, and the trails are not well-maintained. Additionally, good quality maps are hard to come by.
The very southernmost redwood forest is easy to miss as you’re driving along State Route 1, which stays very close to the coast. The highway has a lot of twists and turns, but offers incredible views of the coast, and you’re often up above cliffs looking down at the waves crashing on the rocks below.
Big Sur is a vaguely-defined name for much of the area in between Morro Bay and Monterey Bay. Besides the Silver Peak Wilderness, there is another wilderness area, in addition to a few state parks.
The area I recommend is called the Nathaniel Owens Memorial Redwood Grove, located on the Salmon Creek Trail. The Salmon Creek Trailhead is located on a big bending turn in the highway. If you look at maps, it stands out as the largest such turn for tens of miles. It points inland toward a sizable canyon, which is where the redwood grove is located.
This grove of trees, and a waterfall, are located less than a half mile (0.8 km) from State Route 1. If you intend to go along this highway, this is a highly recommended stop.
Note that the area often has many ticks and plenty of poison oak. Wearing pants is essential, plus ensure that you know what poison oak looks like and how to avoid it – and what to do if a tick gets on you.
One reason I list this location along with the others featured on this article is because it’s the easiest to get to if you are coming from Southern California.
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. This photo gives you an idea of how large around these trees get.
#5 - Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
This park was established to preserve old-growth giant redwood forests along the Smith River. It is located north of, and touches, Redwood National Park and is part of the above-mentioned group of parks known as Redwood National and State Parks. It is located a few miles east of Crescent City, California, along US Highway 199.
Giant redwoods cover about 9,500 acres (38 square km) of the park’s 10,400 acres (42 square km). There are several groves of old-growth forest, the largest of which contains the world’s most massive (as opposed to tallest) coastal redwood tree. This tree is about 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter a few feet above the ground, and stands 340 feet (104 meters) tall.
The Smith River, which flows through the park, is the last remaining major river in California that does not have a dam. The largest trout in the state swim here.
There are many campsites, and miles of hiking trails. A few of the trails are short and easy, good for children or people with disabilities, and they allow anyone to behold the majesty and wonder of these breathtaking trees.