Explore the Californian Redwood Coast

Staggeringly beautiful and literally scraping the skies, California's ancient redwoods are amongst the tallest on the planet. Louise Hanzlik enjoys a unique perspective of these spectacular goliaths on a scenic drive along the Redwood Highway.

Exploring California’s Redwoods

The gap is too small. There’s no way we’ll fit – with the car in one piece anyway. But the truck ahead is considerably larger than our Mitsubishi, so if anyone gets stuck, it’ll be him. We watch as he inches forward, wing mirrors millimetres from the sides. And then he’s through without a scratch. We look at each other and start the engine; it’s our turn to drive through a living redwood, 96m (315ft) high and 6.4m (21ft) in diameter.

Californian redwoods, native to the Pacific Coast, are the tallest trees on earth, their canopies so dense that sunlight barely penetrates. Half of the world's redwoods are on the Redwood Coast, a 724km (450 mile) strip between southern Oregon and Big Sur. My partner and I are travelling along the 'Redwood Highway', or Highway 101, between San Francisco and Crescent City, and we plan to drive the Avenue of the Giants, a scenic detour amongst the tallest trees. But first, we have to drive through this redwood.

‘Drive-Thru’ Trees

redwood chandelier treeDrive through the massive Chandelier Tree
Louise Hanzlik

Our car is sticking out of the Chandelier Tree in Leggett, 48km (30 miles) south of the Avenue. The car-shaped gap cut into its trunk is 1.8m (6ft) wide and 2m (7ft) high, carved in the 1930s to attract tourists to the redwoods (driving a car through a tree makes a great photo opportunity). Although I disagree with butchering a tree for tourism - and conservationists no longer let this happen - for some unfathomable reason, it does make you want to drive through.

There are two other privately-owned ‘drive-thru’ redwoods on the California coast; one on the Avenue, and one 241km (150 miles) north at Klamath. Each charge around $5, but it’s not every day you can drive through a redwood, visit the gift shop, and have a picnic.

We edge left and right, driving forward hesitantly. Then, we make it through - with no damage to our hire car! We park and stand inside the tree's gigantic trunk, its bark smooth and shiny and my arms not long enough to touch the sides. 

The Avenue of the Giants

redwood avenueAvenue of the Giants
Louise Hanzlik

We arrive at the turn-off for the Avenue of the Giants, a 52km (32 miles) scenic route running parallel to Highway 101. The Avenue passes through Humboldt Redwoods State Park with over 53,000 acres (21,000 hectares) of redwoods and 75% of the world's 100 tallest trees - this is the most impressive display of redwoods.

Towering giants dominate the twisting two-lane Avenue, with the green shimmering water of the Eel River occasionally visible behind the thick brown trunks. The Californian sun gently filters through in dappled ribbons. It's overwhelmingly beautiful.

Rustic Villages

We fill up with fuel in tiny Miranda and eat breakfast in the roadside Avenue Café. We visit Stones Redwood Gallery selling handmade burlwood products, then drive into Myers Flat, a village with several timber stores, an antiques shop and deli. We see the renowned Riverbend Cellars and Groves Restaurant, a 4-star winery and restaurant. Shame we've just eaten.

Then we spot the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree, one of California's oldest tourist attractions - coaches have been pulled through its tunnel since the 1880s. We just can't bypass a drive-thru tree, so we crawl slowly through it, sunlight visible through the hole in the tunnel. There's also a fallen 'Drive-On Tree', a 'Step-Thru Stump' and tree house.

Walking amongst Giants

The park has over 161km (100 miles) of hiking, cycling and horse-riding trails, an easy stroll being the half-mile Founder’s Grove trail near the Visitor Centre. We enter a serene grove with fragrant smells and quiet birdsong and walk solemnly around nature's skyscrapers. We spot the towering Founders Tree at 105m (346 feet), named after the founders of the Save the Redwoods league in 1918. Next Hyperion, 116m (379ft) and discovered in 2006 in Redwood National Park, is now the tallest redwood.

redwood hikeHike among the giant redwoods
iStockphoto / Thinkstock

The ancient 4,047 hectares (10,000 acres) Rockefeller Forest, just off the Avenue, contains incredibly tall trees and offers trails, from the gentle Rockefeller Loop to eight-hour hikes, like Grasshopper Peak (only for the fit!), offering stunning views. We spot lizards and blue steller's jays amongst the fern-filled groves, and keep a lookout for black bears and Bigfoot, said to roam these parts.

Back to the 101

Back on the Avenue, we see more redwood attractions: the Eternal Tree House, a 6sq m room (20sq ft) carved into a redwood, and 1,000-years-old Immortal Tree which has withstood lightning and floods.

And then we re-join the 101 and head north through further redwood parks, historic towns, and seaside villages.

It would be wrong to take the Redwood Highway without driving through all three 'drive-thru' trees, so our last stop is the Tour-Thru tree at Klamath, a ‘young’ redwood (under 800 years old) measuring 2m (7ft) across and 3m (9ft) high to squeeze through. Easy.

So we continue along the Redwood Coast towards Crescent City, pleased that we got up close and personal to California’s magnificent coastal redwoods. And we have the photos to prove it.

When to go: The redwood parks are open all year round, with winters mild (although wetter) with less visitors.

Travel Tips: Although the Avenue is only 52km (32 miles) long, take it slowly; grab a map at the entrance and go walking, cycling, or even rafting – spend a few days exploring the area.

Where to stay: The park has over 250 campgrounds, with Burlington Campground on the Avenue open all year offering nature trails, fishing and swimming.

An alternative to chain motels en route is Garberville's historic Benbow Inn, which has an elegant restaurant and award-winning wine list. Myers Country Inn is a cosy B&B with fantastic forest views. The Miranda Gardens Resort has a heated swimming pool and rustic cottages, some with whirlpool baths and kitchens. And in Ferndale, the 19th century Victorian Inn offers charming rooms with vintage furnishings.

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