Redwood National and State Parks: Across a Bridge and Up the Coast to a Hidden Beach

Gold Bluffs Beach, Redwoods National and State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks protect over 138,000 acres of far northern California coast, old growth Redwood groves, second growth coastal forest, and watersheds large and small, including the mouth of the Klamath River. Interest in protecting the fantastic groves began in earnest with the creation of the Save the Redwoods League in 1918 (only two years after the creation of the Park Service). In a pattern that mirrors the creation of Indiana Dunes National Park, first National Park Service director, Stephen Mather, was involved in some of the early protection efforts, but corporate lumber interests blocked creation of a National Park. Also like Indiana Dunes, the state stepped in, creating four California State Parks in the late 1920s and early 1930s to protect the trees: Jedediah Smith State Park, Del Norte Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and (a bit further south) Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Again like Indiana Dunes, federal protection would not come until the 1960s when Redwood National Park was established by Congress in partnership with the Johnson administration. Ten years later, in 1978, 48,000 acres were added to Redwood National Park to protect the watershed of Redwood Creek before it entered the Park. Unlike Indiana Dunes, in 1994, the administrative functions of the National Park and the three northernmost state parks were combined.

Journeying from San Francisco to Redwood National Park was our adventure for Tuesday, September 10. It’s a long drive (some five and a half hours) even going the most direct route. We intended though, to take the opportunity to drive up the California coast on Highway 1. This would at least double the driving time. But here the journey was absolutely the destination.

I was up a touch before my 6am alarm. Sleepy and groggy, but ready for the drive. I showered and got Sean up, slowly. We had done a lot of our packing up the previous evening before dinner. So while he showered, I loaded up the car and checked out of the hotel. We got on the road at just about 7:45am. Not bad at all. I just wanted to reach camp and get settled in before dark.

We headed north through the city toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

It felt appropriate to cross the Golden Gate as we began our adventures.

On the other side, perched on the Marin Headlands, we pulled into a lookout and stopped to take in the bridge and the city.

Alcatraz Island and the Bay Bridge

San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge

We continued on and almost immediately got off the 101 in favor of Highway 1. This took us down into Sausalito on a route we were familiar with from our visit to Muir Woods and Muir Beach three years earlier.

We stopped at Equator Coffee in Sausalito for breakfast of yogurt, overnight oats, and a ham and cheese croissant. It was a fun little place with a surf shack vibe. We also picked up a pound of ground beans for camp.

Sean’s experience here with overnight oats inspired him to make it a staple of his diet this fall.

We continued on along a familiar route to Point Reyes Station, where we stopped for gas.

We also used the restroom at Toby’s Playground.

Tamales Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore

In planning the trip, I’d toyed with the idea of heading out into Point Reyes National Seashore to see the lighthouse if it was clear. On our previous visit, it had been too cloudy to see the light. In reality, that would have added hours to our drive, so instead we stopped for a few views of Tamales Bay, adjacent to the Seashore.

Tamales Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore

Tamales Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore

Tamales Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore

Tamales Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore

Then we were off on a pretty incredible road trip. Ultimately we’d drive up the coast all the way to Crescent City just south of the Oregon state line. With this drive, I all but completed a drive of the entire California coast over the course of my life. In 1999, twenty years earlier, I’d driven with my parents, my Aunt Judy, and my cousins Jenny and Amy from Orange County to San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway. (I happened to be driving as we hit Big Sur and I don’t know who was more nervous, my Dad riding shotgun or me.) And I’d been down the coast from Orange County to San Diego multiple times.

In an echo of that drive along Big Sur in the previous century, I had plenty of white-knuckle moments on the steering wheel as we snaked along above the crashing Pacific. Probably more moments than Sean even realized. Particularly in Sonoma County. Oof.

Despite those nerve-wracking moments, it was a beautiful day for a drive up the western edge of North America.

Mouth of the Russian River

We crossed the Russian River and thus crossed an invisible ecotone into the very, very, very beginning of the Pacific Northwest.

Mouth of the Russian River

Just before noon we made a pit stop to use the restroom at Stillwater Cove Regional Park. We had sort of been on the lookout for somewhere to stop for lunch, but there really weren’t many options. Nor would there be for a while.

Kelp beds

Somewhere through here, Sean had a good signal and had to touch base with work to finalize a strategy around the matter that had come up the day before when we were in San Francisco.

There was a fair amount of road construction along our route, including full stops for follow-the-leader where the two lane highway was down a lane.

After a couple of false starts…How hungry are you?…Should we stop here?…(including pulling into a restaurant parking lot only to discover that it was closed)…we arrived in tiny, charming Mendocino at 1:45pm.

After looking about for a good place to eat, we decided to try Mendocino Cafe.

Its menu looked good, and it had a giant mural of AOC that said “Green Revolution” painted on the side. I had a bowl of clam chowder and a steak and brie sandwich. The food was great.

Sean remarked that he really liked Mendocino. I don’t think either of us would mind returning for a long weekend at a bed and breakfast.

After our lunch, we stepped into Good Life Cafe, where a queer barista sold us some cookies for the road and a coffee for Sean.

Back in the car, we continued north/north-west, passing through Fort Bragg and on up the coast. As we drove along, we admired the ocean and coastal range views and listened to podcasts: Here and Now, Minor Adventures with Topher Grace, and most impressively the wonderful The Memory Palace, which would be a touchstone throughout the rest of the trip.

Around 3:30pm, we reached the Lost Coast, where the highway turns inland as it crosses the King Range. With few inhabitants and no major roads, the rugged Lost Coast area of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties is one of the most inaccessible and remote coastal areas in the lower forty-eight.

Lulled by a view now hemmed in by forest, Sean dozed.

But the winding highway through the King Range offered some unexpectedly dramatic views as I drove along.

Highway 1 ended at a junction with Highway 101, which we’d last seen as we exited it in Sausalito many hours earlier. From here the highway followed the South Fork Eel River down into Humboldt Redwoods State Park, which, inland and south of the other Redwood state parks, is not part of the Redwood State and National Parks administrative group.

From there, the highway and the river led us down into the coastal city of Eureka, seat of Humboldt County.

In Eureka, Sean noticed a homeless man pushing a cart while wearing a Trump t-shirt. In downtown Eureka, Sean observed that it felt like we’d been there before. It felt a lot like Carlsbad, New Mexico and other small cities in the West that our adventures had taken us to. “This feels like an economically depressed region,” he remarked.

We continued on and finally stopped for gas and groceries, which for us means lots of camping kombucha, at Murphy’s Market in tiny Trinidad. Our friend, Aimee, who had lived and worked in the area (at Redwood National Park), had warned us away from a couple particular places to get gas and supplies further north (because of the meth-head owners and such). But Murphy’s was great, well stocked and employing friendly staff.

From Trinidad it was about forty-five minutes to camp. The whole drive, nearly twelve hours at this point, had been sunny. But as if on cue, as we passed Big Lagoon and reached the outskirts of the Parks, the fog rolled in, obscuring much of the views and shrouding our arrival.

We passed signs for one of the main visitor centers, and we passed through the tiny community of Orick. (I made a mental note to tell Aimee that the service station she’d warned us away from had closed.) As we turned onto the road that led to Gold Bluffs Beach, we stopped briefly in Elk Meadow to, well, view a herd of Roosevelt Elk. But we only stopped briefly. Darkness was coming on fast, particularly given the fog, and I wanted to make it through the final, tricky, thickly forested part of the drive before it got too dark.

The dirt road over a ridge of Redwoods and Douglas Fir (within the boundary of the National Park) was steep, narrow, and winding. At the end of it, we passed out of Redwood National Park and into Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. At the quiet entrance booth, we confirmed our reservation and campsite number on the list posted in the window.

Then we continued on another two miles up a dirt road to the campground.

As we unloaded, the sunset happening out in the fog turned the thick air mauve.

We were delighted with our site. At the outer, southern edge of the loop, we had no neighboring campsites to the south or west, and we were shielded by some scrub from the rest of the loop on the north. To the east, in the direction of the bluffs, the neighboring site was for dispersed, walk-in campers, so they were off in the distance. It felt very private.

Previous campers had left a little centerpiece on the picnic table.

And someone had left a painted crab shell in camp. I’m not necessarily keen on the fad of leaving painted rocks and such in National Parks, but if you’re going to do it, I suppose doing it in camp is better than leaving it somewhere else.

Foot trails through the grasses led to the ocean.

And behind us the Gold Bluffs appeared and disappeared through the fog.

We walked over to check out the ocean, which was making a ruckus.

Sean posted on Instagram about how imposing it felt:

It’s not that it was frightening, but between the surf and the fog and the weird mauve sky it was out of our comfort zones.

After taking it in, we began setting up camp in earnest. We built a fire, and Sean started our supper of hot dogs while I set up the tent. The campsite had large bear boxes on legs, which made for a nice base for organizing things.

Around 10pm, while we were enjoying the campfire and having a bit of wine and chocolate, the moon appeared from behind the bluffs.

The fog was breaking up, and the intensity of the moonlight lit our way back over to the surf for a nighttime look at the waves. It was so bright, that I had a distinct moon shadow.

After taking it all in, we went to sleep around 10:30pm.

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