By John Flinn

Until you’ve seen one up close, it’s hard to grasp just how neck-craningly tall a coastal redwood tree is. Remember the gargantuan Saturn V, the 35-story-high rocket that sent astronauts to the moon? The largest Sequoia sempervirens grow even taller, topping out at 379 feet. These 3,000-year-old arboreal titans—nature’s loftiest skyscrapers—grow in only one place in the world: a narrow strip of fog-shrouded mountains along California’s wild and relatively unvisited North Coast.


Old-growth redwoods are preserved in a chain of parks strung along Highway 101, known in these parts as the Redwood Highway. In southern Humboldt County, Humboldt Redwoods State Park straddles the scenic drive known as the Avenue of the Giants. In northern Humboldt and Del Norte counties, a cluster of parks—Redwood National Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods and Jedediah Smith Redwoods state parks—form one contiguous redwood reserve.

The sounds of chainsaws and buzzing sawmills that once dominated the North Coast are rapidly fading as the lumber industry winds down. In former mill towns such as Fort Bragg, tourism is replacing timber as innovative galleries, restaurants and brew-pubs spring to life.

Although it’s sometimes called the Redwood Empire, the North Coast is more than just tall trees: It’s also salmon-fishing boats bobbing in tiny harbors; Roosevelt elk bugling across misty meadows; steam trains chuffing through a damp and dripping forest; hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving fish smoked according to traditional Native American recipes; vineyards close enough to the coast to catch the salt spray; an old Russian trading fort; handsome Victorian villages; possible glimpses of the elusive creature known as Bigfoot; wealthy, tie-dyed growers of the region’s largest cash crop, which California voters recently legalized; and bouts of creative madness such as elaborate sculptures racing across the landscape.

For generations, the North Coast was said to be on the far side of the “redwood curtain,” the psychological barrier formed by narrow, tortuous Highway 101, which was little more than a two-lane conduit for heavily-laden logging trucks. But California has spent the last two decades improving the road—straightening curves, widening it in many places to four lanes—and now the road is an easy drive.


Transplanted New Englanders founded the town of Mendocino on a rocky bluff above the crashing Pacific Ocean, and it still sports a whitewashed Cape Cod look. Once a mill town, it went into decay in the 1930s as the local timber trade waned but was rediscovered in the 1960s by bohemians and artists. On the shore of Humboldt Bay, Eureka, the largest town on the North Coast, has also reversed decades of decline and turned its waterfront Old Town into an inviting Victorian district of galleries, boutiques and caf├ęs. Crescent City was virtually wiped off the map by a tsunami in 1964. Rebuilt now, it sports a smattering of hotels and motels that make it a good base for exploring nearby Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.


Native American tribes such as the Yurok and Hoopa lived along the North Coast for centuries before the arrival of fur trappers—both Russians working their way down from Alaska and American mountain men such as Jedediah Smith coming overland. For more than two centuries, resource extraction—primarily logging—was the region’s economic engine. As dwindling forests and stricter environmental laws took their tolls starting in the 1970s, the North Coast has transitioned to tourism as its mainstay.


Young children might have trouble fully appreciating the timelessness of an ancient redwood tree, but they’ll enjoy a gondola ride through the silent forest canopy and a chance to have their picture taken with four-story-high statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Look for it at Trees of Mystery, near the town of Klamath.


Forest Tracks
Built in 1885 to haul redwood logs from the tangled backcountry to coastal sawmills, the iconic Skunk Train now carries passengers on two different runs starting at Fort Bragg and the inland town of Willits, respectively. The shorter coastal route snakes along the Novo River canyon, through redwood groves and past an old logging camp. And don’t worry: The train’s name derives from an original, stinky gasoline engine that long ago was consigned to the junkyard.

Drive-Thru Tree
It’s an urge that belongs to another era–and certainly wouldn’t gladden the hearts of Muir or Thoreau–but there are still a few places along the North Coast where you can drive your car through a tunneled-out redwood tree. The most convenient is Drive-Thru Tree Park, near the town of Leggett, just off Highway 101. But be warned: The opening in the so-called Chandelier Tree is just 6 feet wide and 6 feet, 9 inches tall. Not all supersized SUVs can squeeze through.

On the Waterfront
Eureka has transformed its waterfront Old Town from a skid row into a lively and inviting district of Victorian storefronts housing restaurants, galleries, shops and museums, crowned by the iconic Carson Mansion, a masterpiece of Victorian opulence.

Ferry Tales
Tour Humboldt Bay aboard the Maraket, the last of a fleet of tiny ferries that once carried mill workers to their jobs. It’s the oldest vessel in continuous service in the country, with the tiniest licensed bar in California.

Victorian Hamlet
Gaily painted Victorian mansions line the streets of Ferndale, an idyllic hamlet on the Eel River delta in southern Humboldt County. Lovingly preserved, they give the town a turn-of-the-last-century look that has proven irresistible to Hollywood. More than a dozen movies have been filmed here. Main Street’s shops keep the Victorian theme going, with old-fashioned mercantiles and even a blacksmith shop. Cradled between two redwood forests, the entire town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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