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Discover California’s Venerable Giant Trees—Without the Crowds

By Jacqueline Kehoe

May 26, 2022

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California has many lesser-visited parks full of mighty trees.

Photo by Yaya Ernst / Shutterstock

California has many lesser-visited parks full of mighty trees.

When crowds are small, these titans of Mother Nature loom larger.

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California’s giant trees offer us a glimpse at a magical world—one where wilderness climbs higher and runs wilder. Two species tend to steal our hearts: the tallest trees on the planet, coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), which run for some 500 miles from Monterey, California, to the Oregon border and grow at elevations below 3,000 feet, and the biggest trees on the planet—giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum)—which stand on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, between 4,000 to 8,000 feet.

You don’t have to line up at a national park to take in their majesty. Skip the crowds and timed reservations, and head instead to any of these eight California spots, many of which are less-visited state parks, to lose yourself in these forests of giants.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Weott

One-third of this 53,000-acre state park—and UNESCO World Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve—protects old-growth forest. About four hours by car from San Francisco, it’s the largest swath of coast redwoods left in the world, with some trees thought to be around 2,000 years old. 

Humboldt’s Avenue of the Giants is more famous than the park itself—the epic 32-mile road through the park makes for some of the state’s most accessible tree-gazing, connecting can’t-miss spots like Women’s Grove and the Eel River Overlook. Beyond the iconic drive, there are also more than 100 miles of hiking and biking trails, three campgrounds, and opportunities to swim, fish, and bird-watch underneath the tallest life on the planet.

Sequoia Park Zoo

Eureka

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The oldest zoo in California has one of the state’s newest gems: the Redwood Sky Walk. When it opened in 2021, it became the longest skywalk in the western United States, a quarter-mile trek 100 feet above the verdant forest floor. 

Almost entirely wheelchair-accessible, the skywalk combines a series of bridges and platforms—and one launch deck—to expose and educate visitors to these marvels of Mother Nature. Suspended roughly a third of the way up to the trees’ canopy, getting on their level offers a grander, more nuanced understanding of this delicate and increasingly temperate ecosystem.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Orick

Prairie Creek is an exercise in contrasts—sandy beaches, open meadows, herds of Roosevelt elk, fern-lined canyons, and green groves of coast redwoods, all holding council together north of Eureka (and abutting Redwoods National Park). A UNESCO World Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve, Prairie Creek is no lightweight: There are three scenic drives, 75 miles of hiking trails, and a 19-mile bike loop for visitors looking to experience all of the park’s varied terrain.

If nothing else, drive through old-growth forests along the 10-mile Newton B Drury Parkway; if time allows, check out the California Coastal Trail and the nearby Fern Canyon Loop, a walk through a veritable hanging garden. 

Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve 

Guerneville

Just 90 minutes by car to the north of Marin County’s beloved Muir Woods National Monument (where you need reservations just to park), Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve offers similar landscapes minus the crowds.

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The Pioneer Nature Trail, an easy one-mile hike, offers a chance to get acquainted with the reserve’s primeval forest and its tallest and oldest redwood trees, including Parson Jones and Colonial Armstrong, both of which are more than 1,000 years old. For those ready for a challenge, trails extend for as long as 10 miles. 

Carbon Canyon Regional Park

Brea

While not exactly wild nature, Carbon Canyon is worthy of a visit. At three acres, it’s the largest grove of redwoods in Southern California, planted in the 1970s by a local bank using leftover seeds from a new-customer promotion. The trees are smaller than their northern cousins—they’re simply not built for Orange County’s climate—but they offer a peaceful and shady respite from the region’s ample sunny days. Find them about a mile into the park via the Redwood Trail; the walk is lined with benches and makes for accessible appreciation of these southern stalwarts.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Crescent City

Just a few miles south of the Oregon border, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park rakes in the superlatives and accolades: 7 percent of the world’s old-growth redwoods are found right here; visitors can kayak and snorkel in the Smith River, the longest major free-flowing river in the state; and Jedidiah Smith campground is the only spot in any of the Redwood National and State Parks where you can sleep among the giant trees.  

Thanks to a $4 million project, the Grove of Titans—some of the largest redwoods by volume—is now accessible via boardwalk. With no roads bisecting the park’s core, those in search of off-grid adventures should scope out the main backcountry route, the Boy Scout Tree Trail, a 5.3-mile out-and-back hike through a silent, undeveloped, truly old-growth expanse.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is a few miles inland from the ocean and contains many ancient trees.

Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park

Oakland

If you or your pup needs a quick urban escape, check out Dr. Aurelia Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park, just 15 minutes from downtown Oakland. While second- and third-growth trees anchor the park’s landscapes, these vertical giants still reach as high as 150 feet. 

Once here, stop by the Old Growth Redwood Heritage Viewing Deck and Interpretive Exhibit to learn about the park’s megafauna, and look to the six-mile Stream-French-Chown Trail loop from Canyon Meadow for the deepest immersion into the Bay Area’s former standing glory.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Arnold

Encompassing two groves of giant sequoias, Calaveras’s aptly named “big trees” spread out to 30+ feet in diameter. The grandest giants stand guard in the less-trafficked South Grove, with looped hiking trails wandering underneath the high canopy for 3.5 to 5 miles. 

North Grove, more accessible and popular, includes two history lessons: the Discovery Tree, now a helipad-sized stump, and “Mother of the Forest,” the second-largest tree in the park, stripped bare of her bark and now a snag, a standing dead tree. Both fellings—settlers were looking to monetize the trees’ existence—sparked outrage in the 19th century and helped spawn California’s conservation movement, inspiring the parks we benefit from today. 

Despite modern-day protection, these beloved trees are more threatened than ever because of increasing temperatures and rampant wildfires. Always do your part to protect this fragile environment: Avoid overcrowded parks, stay on trails, and leave no trace.

>> Next: The Grove of Titans in Northern Californias Redwood Park Is Now Open to the Public

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