Northern California Road Trip Full of Spectacular Sights

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The Founders Tree is one of the most spectacular redwood trees along the Avenue of Giants in Humboldt County, California.

The Founders Tree is one of the most spectacular redwood trees along the Avenue of Giants in Humboldt County, California.

America is full of natural wonders, and I’ve been fortunate to experience many of her most glorious. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, been inside Mammoth Cave, watched Old Faithful erupt, kayaked in the Everglades and hiked to a glacier. Yet nothing has left me more awestruck than standing beside a 2,000-year-old tree that has a base the size of a swimming pool and stretches over 350 feet high. The California redwoods are the most mesmerizing natural phenomenon I have ever seen.

My wife and I recently took a three day road trip through northern California to experience the coast redwoods region for the first time. We flew into San Francisco, picked up our rental car and took off north. Fighting our way through traffic, we made it to the Golden Gate Bridge an hour later. As we crossed the spectacular expanse, my anticipation for solitude grew rapidly. It didn’t take long to arrive.

Darkness fell as we navigated Highway 101 north towards Garberville in Humboldt County. Our first night destination was the famed Benbow Historic Inn. Heavy fog blanketed the highway. With each curve in the road, our headlights illuminated another giant redwood. Just catching quick glimpses of the trees was thrilling.

Benbow Historic Inn is a magnificent structure that opened to the public in 1926. Rooms are decorated in classic fashion without the distraction of a television. The dining room is revered for its food and service. Since we were late to arrive, we shared a light, but perfect dinner of shared appetizers, soup and salad. After which we relaxed with cocktails in the parlor beside a natural log fire.

I woke before light and ventured downstairs for coffee. As dawn broke I took a short hike along the South Fork of the Eel River. There I found myself standing for the first time amongst the redwoods. The misty morning setting was surreal. After a hearty breakfast, we took off to discover the giants.

The Avenue of Giants is a 31-mile stretch of old Highway 101 that leads through many of the most magnificent redwood groves. There isn’t just one big chunk of land preserved as a park. There are actually many state parks and sections of national park that make up the entire redwoods experience. Humboldt Redwoods State Parks, which the Avenue runs through, has the largest remaining stand of virgin redwoods in the world.

Along the Avenue of Giants you’ll find plenty of places to pull over and explore. One of the most breathtaking spots is Founders Grove, where we hiked a short loop and saw the famous Founders Tree. There are plenty of amenities along the Avenue. Gift shops offering local crafts abound. We paid the small fee to drive our vehicle through the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree. Doing so was well worth the cost.

Once we completed the Avenue, we stopped in the quaint village of Ferndale for lunch. Then we continued our journey north to Crescent City. Along the way, we encountered a herd of Roosevelt Elk in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. These are the largest of the four subspecies of North American elk. A giant bull put on a show pushing around some smaller males and keeping his harem of cows tightly clustered. We reached the coast in time to pull over and watch the sun set behind some of the giant rocks just off shore.

Crescent City is an inviting small town far removed from the hustle and bustle often associated with California. The locals we met at Seaquake Brewery were laid back and friendly. The food and craft beer was incredible, especially the calamari strips. We picked the perfect place to spend the night. Scopa at the Sea is a beautiful bed and breakfast mere feet from the ocean. We left the window open in our room, and fell asleep to the sound of waves breaking on the shore. The next morning, after the best eggs benedict ever, we toured Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and Stout Grove. These trees were certainly some of my favorites.

Then we backtracked to Leggett where we picked up Highway 1. We survived the twists and turns over the mountains and through the forests before popping out on the coast once more. The ocean view along this stretch of highway is hard to put into words. We made it to Fort Bragg and were able to explore Glass Beach in MacKerricher State Park just before sundown. In the early 1900s, residents created a dumped site over a cliff into the ocean. Mother Nature responded with sea glass, which washes up on the shore. It’s a must visit location along the coast.

Fort Bragg is a great seaside city with a vibrant downtown. We splurged on our last night and enjoyed a fabulous Italian seafood dinner at Cucina Verona, before joining a packed house at Coast Cinema on the opening night of the latest Star Wars movie. Then we checked into the Noyo Harbor Inn, where we again slept with the window open, but this time listening to the sounds of sea lions barking below. The recently remodeled inn was extremely cozy with a fireplace and spa in our suite. The next morning we had breakfast in Mendocino, then drove the reminder of Highway 1 back to San Francisco.

Vacations don’t have to be long to be amazing. Even though it was only three days long, this Northern California road trip was an incredible adventure. If you haven’t seen the redwood trees, you must add this trip to your bucket list. They are truly remarkable. I can’t wait to return, and next time you can bet I’ll have a fly rod with me.

See you down the trail…

Brandon Butler


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