Why Go: This 53,000-acre state park in the Eel River Basin of northern California protects magnificent coastal redwoods—some as old as 2,000 years and more than 370 feet tall. Outside the pure redwood groves, you’ll find grassy meadows and other mixed-wood forests.
Where to Start: Head straight to Albee Creek Campground, five miles west of the Avenue of the Giants on the scenic Mattole Road that snakes through a fantastic forest with some of the world’s tallest trees. The campground features 40 sites located under redwood trees or within an open meadow. Forest sites work best to help guard your privacy and offer an aura of peacefulness—if you don’t mind the perpetual shade. In the evening, stroll around the looped campground drive, where you might see deer or black bear in the historic apple orchard that occupies part of the meadow. Each campsite is furnished with a fire ring, picnic table, and food locker, with drinking water nearby. You’ll especially appreciate the coin-operated showers and modern restrooms. Reservations are encouraged during busy summer months, but in the late fall and early winter you’ll practically have the place to yourself.
Hike: Although visitors can traverse more than 100 miles of trails, one of the best in Humboldt is the Bull Creek Flats Loop Trail. You can access it along the Mattole Road near the Albee Creek Campground. Plan to spend at least five hours hiking the relatively easy nine miles. The trail winds through some of the 17,000 acres of old-growth coastal redwoods, the largest remaining such redwood forest in the world.
Bike: The park allows bicycles, but you’ll have to bring your own. Then, you can pedal more than 75 miles of multiuse trails and many backcountry fire roads. For road bikes, the Avenue of the Giants and the Mattole Road offer level riding over paved surfaces through tall, narrow canyons formed from huge trees, dark cathedral-like groves, and plush carpets of redwood sorrel.
Backpack: Start at the Big Tree Area for a good 18-mile weekend loop. This moderate-to-strenuous route takes you through redwood groves, past Johnson Camp, and continues south on Grasshopper Trail, where a night under the stars awaits at a camp on Grasshopper Mountain (seven miles from the trailhead and a 3,100-foot elevation gain). At the 3,379-foot summit, you’ll find a setting of mixed woods and upland prairies with majestic 360-degree, hundred-mile views of the surrounding basins. And take the short hike to the lookout for a spectacular sunset with hawks wheeling overhead. The next day, expect to lose altitude as you head toward Bull Creek Flats, offering a look at the storybook-perfect Rockefeller Forest. Camp choices nearby include Whiskey Flats, a cool, damp area graced with mature redwoods, ferns, and natural springs, located 4.5 miles from the Big Tree Area. Or try Hansen Ridge Camp, 6.5 miles from trail’s end, known for its spectacular sunsets, especially when ocean fog creeps in over the lowlands below. You can pick up backcountry permits at the park visitor center, which is open daily, year-round. While there, $3 will buy you a detailed topographic map.
Fishing Details: Cast a line on the South Fork of the Eel River. It flows through outstanding stands of redwoods, and fishermen say it’s a great place to hook salmon, steelhead, and squawfish. All fishing is catch-and-release.
Fast Facts: Up until 2006, a coastal redwood in the park was considered the world’s tallest tree. Called the Stratosphere Giant, this colossus stood 371 feet tall, and, laid on its side, would sprawl more than the length of a football field—including both end zones. A few years ago, the Stratosphere Giant lost its title to not one, but three other coastal redwoods in nearby Redwood National Park. Rangers still keep the exact locations of these record-setting trees secret to avoid damage by hordes of gawkers.
When to Go: The wet season begins in mid-November and lasts through May, when the park receives between 60 and 80 inches of rainfall. However, if you’re willing to take a chance on the weather—and enjoy solitude in this often-busy park—a visit in winter can pay off with absolute serenity and sheer scenic beauty. June through September offers less rain (and more visitors) with daytime temperatures between 50 and 90 degrees.
Local Wisdom: Explore at least one other state park during your visit. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (bit.ly/jedediahpark), nine miles east of Crescent City, has the most photogenic, light-filled redwood forest. Take the 5.3-mile out-and-back Boy Scout Tree Trail to really experience this extraordinary environment. A short, unmarked side trail leads to the Boy Scout Tree, a giant, double tree resembling the two-fingered Cub Scout salute.
Getting There: Access Humboldt from Highway 101, about 230 miles north of San Francisco or 35 miles southeast of Fortuna. The breathtakingly beautiful Avenue of the Giants parallels Route 101 for 32 miles and allows you to drive either within or near park boundaries for its entire length.
Resources: Humboldt Redwoods State Park. 707-946-2409; bit.ly/humboldtredwoods.
Author LARRY RICE (Gathering Paradise: Alaska Wilderness Journeys and Baja to Patagonia: Latin American Adventures) resides in Buena Vista, Colo., and is a former contributing editor for Backpacker Magazine.