A California Redwoods Camping Trip to Remember
Our Summer 2006 family vacation for some California Redwoods camping and exploring Sequoia National Forest definitely had a theme—BEHEMOTH. Our behemoth Yukon guzzled behemoth quantities of gas while pulling our behemoth 30′ home-on-wheels across a behemoth stretch of asphalt in search of behemoth trees.
The travel trailer setup was a compromise between the my hunger for nature and my staunchly indoorsy family. On this wander, my goal was to park us on some dirt—under trees or near water—and soak up some trees.
Days 1 + 2—Dunnigan & Redding
En route to the northernmost tip of the California coast, we would be stopping for an Independence Day pontoon boat excursion with family on Lake Shasta. We almost made it without a pitstop…but, in the tenth hour, the husband demanded one at the next RV park within coasting distance of the offramp.
It was in the “town” of Dunnigan that we found a convenient park with an interesting personality—we were directed to our space in the center of the park, which was reserved especially for pitstop travelers bound for prettier pastures.
We bolted the next morning and made it to JGW RV Park in Redding. Although the grounds were covered in a variety of hard substances in various shades of grey, we did have access to the Sacramento River and intermittent patches of green grass.
When we commenced floating that afternoon, I was especially grateful for the vibrant colors of Lake Shasta—the red dirt shoreline, the dark green trees encircling the lake, and the deep blue water. Being from SoCal, we didn’t see the horrendous crowds our family members were disgruntled about. To us, it was gloriously serene.
Day 3—Redding & Gasquet
By late morning, we were cruising west on Highway 299 toward the Redwoods. But, first…a quick visit to the new Sundial Bridge.
This pedestrian-only bridge decorated with aqua-colored glass and granite spans the Sacramento River and is a functioning sundial, displaying the time in a garden to the north. It was designed by world-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava, who was inspired by a bird in flight. It’s definitely the work of art we’d heard that it was! Some day I hoped to see it lit up at night.
Curvy mountain roads and a formidable wind soon had the two adult imaginations in the car running amok. The fact that we were driving [45 feet of moving vehicle!] through what seemed like an oil painting of a conifer forest next to a winding river was somewhat of a distraction, but I couldn’t stop seeing a news reporter giving a play-by-play of the emergency crews’ efforts to retrieve the family of four from the Trinity River.
As we approached Highway 101, the wind died down, temperatures dropped, and fog rolled in. I immediately began mentally reviewing the contents of the three suitcases I packed. Were there enough warm clothes to avoid the wrath of two freezing kids? Sudden braking jolted me back to the present. The smiles that accompanied the finger pointing of the looky loos were a relief. Clearly this was no accident, just some curiosity worth seeing. The reward for pulling over 45′ of vehicle to the side of the narrow road was a much-needed leg stretch and eight (behemoth) elk chewing on cuds underneath the ‘Elk Info’ sign. We were revived and even more excited to get to our slab of dirt in Jedediah Smith State Park.
In a perfect world, stressful and inconvenient lessons would be universally banned from vacations, especially those including worn out children and their parents. Alas, imperfection reigns. Stressful + Inconvenient Lesson #1 of our first long distance travel trailer wander – “When reserving a space at a campground, especially those operated by any branch of the government, add at least 5′ onto the length of your trailer so you can be assured of actually fitting into your space.” While technically a 30′ trailer could fit into a 35′ space, the 45 degree angle of entry and three solid iron poles obliterated all our hopes. Our suspicion of a completely full park was confirmed by the same ranger who informed us of the no refund policy.
Out came the adrenaline from my glands and the (behemoth) RV park bible. I prayed that we would be graced with a nearby [behemoth] space in this high season. Great! The highest rated private park in the area was just up the road! Hiouchi Hamlet RV Park was the bearer of Stressful + Inconvenient Lesson #2 – “The name of an RV park is not obligated to have the slightest correlation with its actual physical characteristics.” This was no hamlet.
As resistant as I was to tossing more cash into the government coffers, I went back to the book in search of a public campground as it was clear they had nabbed all the attractive spots in the area. A quick phone call led us several miles up the road to Panther Flat Campground in the Six Rivers National Forest near the town of Gasquet (“GAS-kee”). God Bless America…and the (behemoth) Space 38, and the dirt, and the trees, and the middle fork of the Smith River.
Day 4—Howland Hill Road & Boy Scout Tree Trail
We were enlightened by the ranger that Gasquet’s 515 residents can boast that their little neck of the woods has the highest level of rainfall in the entire state of California. More than 90 inches per year. That’s great, but I was hoping my good weather karma would be staving off every drop of rain. It worked! The next several days were blue and cloudless with only occasional temporary rolling fogs.
Following the (brilliant) recommendation of friends, the internet, and a local ranger, we took our detached Yukon for a drive on Howland Hill Road, a narrow dirt side road that starts on the east side of Crescent City and winds through 12 miles of redwood groves until it ends on Highway 199. We stopped midway to hike the 5.6 mile [round trip] Boy Scout Tree Trail through a majestic and magical forest.
Seriously, if fairies, gnomes, and elves exist, they live here. Even we humans felt a bit like dwarves amidst the towering trees. We were so fascinated by the frightening black centipedes, brown and yellow (behemoth) banana slugs, and slippery forest salamanders, we nearly missed the Boy Scout Tree. The icing at the end of the trail was a mini-waterfall beside which we inhaled chocolate chip cookie crumbs and guzzled down orange Gatorade.
Day 5—Myrtle Beach & Crescent City
It was a perfect day for a visit to Myrtle Beach. After a round of rock skipping, dad and the kids decided to douse themselves in the river. I chuckled at their fruitless efforts at enticing me into the frigid water. The days of caving to peer pressure were but a distant memory to me, so I remained peacefully planted in my [warm] beach chair thoroughly enjoying their squeals and shivers.
At the end of Washington Boulevard in Crescent City, you can see the St. George Reef Lighthouse far out in the sea. The only way to get there is by a helicopter that lands near the base of the tower, so we opted for a wade in the tide pools instead. And some seriously good tide pools they were…jam-packed with purple and orange starfish, sea anemones, and hermit crabs.
On the way back “home,” we cruised along Pebble Beach Drive, of the Crescent City not Carmel-by-the-Sea variety. Too bad the rest of Crescent City wasn’t as beautiful as this oceanfront street with sweeping views of the rocky coastline and Battery Point Lighthouse. It’s a mystery why the only incorporated city in Del Norte County that is home to both the county seat of government and the Redwood National Forest headquarters leaves so much to be desired. I had a brief fantasy about buying a town.
The day ended gloriously with some fishing back at the campground, a barbecue dinner, a campfire complete with s’mores, and piping hot showers in gloriously clean bathrooms.
Day 6—Mill Creek Campground & Trees of Mystery
It’s moving day! We packed up and headed south to Mill Creek Campground in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park.
Had we known on Day 3 what we know now, we would have come here after our failed attempt at occupying Jedediah Smith State Park. The entire park occupies nine miles of rocky coastline and is one of a very few places where (second growth) redwoods grow near sea level. The 145-space campground, which is open year round (but busiest in July, August, and early September), is situated in Mill Creek Canyon where large red alders and redwoods are accessed by 15 miles of moderate to strenuous hiking trails. It’s the only public campground within the Redwood National Forest that can accommodate 45 foot RVs. The ranger let us in on a little secret…it’s the favorite of locals as it’s less crowded with bigger spaces and an even prettier setting than Jedediah Smith State Park.
Our space—Space 104—was arguably the best in the campground. No neighbors in sight from our front door and a lush forest of ferns, rhododendron, azalea, huckleberry and redwoods as our back yard. The kids kept themselves gloriously occupied only returning to show us the transportable treasures they unearthed.
Next stop was the 1950-esque family-owned Trees of Mystery in Klamath. You can’t possibly miss the 49 foot hairy-chested Paul Bunyan beside his giant (well-endowed) bull at the entrance. Once you pay for your tickets, you embark on a self-guided tour along a winding dirt path through a redwood forest. At each stop, you encounter a particularly unique tree complete with a hokey speaker box sharing its story. Two of said trees were featured in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in 1939 and 1942. About halfway through the walk, you can (and should) hop on an authentic Swiss gondola and get some awesome perspective on just how tall these trees are. A very quick two hours later, and the path conveniently ends at the gift trap shop.
Day 7—Gold Bluff State Beach & Fern Canyon
After a family bike ride around the campground this morning, we headed south in search of fresh clam chowder. At the end of Newton B. Drury Scenic Drive, which took us through yet another redwood forest and the (at that moment) elk-less Elk Meadow, the tiny town of Orick seemed to be a sure source.
Sadly, our choices were limited to La Hacienda Mexican restaurant, Palm Café, and Cowgirl Mud Wrestling. Since we live in a town filled with outstanding Mexican food and we weren’t in the mood for mud wrestling, the café it was. This tiny retro diner had everything…an original juke box, a dusty collection of “all things ducky,” and a gallery of for-sale oil paintings of broken down trucks, Native Americans and eagles…but, fresh clam chowder. Hamburgers it was.
I’ll never forget Palm Café. Not because of its eclectic atmosphere or fine cuisine, but because of what happened in the women’s restroom. As I swiftly replaced my daughter on the commode, I watched in horror as my brand new LG 9800 mobile phone (with GPS capabilities) slid from my back pocket, plopped into the water, and descended deep into the black hole. What could I do, but laugh? As soon as she saw it was safe, my daughter joined in. Next was my husband and son. The belly laugh of the toothless man sitting at the counter next to us almost justified the whole experience. My daughter’s spot on impersonation of him in the car for the next two hours definitely did. “Yeeouu dropped yer cell phone in the terlet…that’s a good un!”.
Just north of Orick is the turn-off to Gold Bluff State Beach, inside of which is a 0.1 mile trail to Fern Canyon. This is a site that cannot be missed!
After a short walk on a dirt path through a small forest, you turn a corner and are thrust into another world. A 30+ foot high canyon cut through the landscape millions of years ago and is now carpeted with thousands of several varieties of ferns (whose ancestry can be traced back 325 million years). The path meanders through the canyon, crossing back and forth over an ancient creek and around fallen moss covered trees. The walls of the canyon ooze water. Rumor has it that portions of Jurassic Park II and Return of the Jedi were filmed here.
On our way back to the car, we took a quick detour to the beach. Chilly, foggy, and damp…a different, but equally delicious flavor, as our sunny SoCal beaches. It was the perfect way to end our wander of the Northern California coast. Tomorrow we leave for Sequoia National Forest where we will meet up with friends underneath more [behemoth] trees.