In between the trees, it’s cool and dark. The air is pungent with damp earth and tree smells. There are virtually no birds, no bugs, and no hint of wind. The daylight streams through in weak beams of light, fighting its way to the forest floor past sprawling branches and behemoth trunks. In the Redwoods, it’s almost always dawn or dusk.
The California Redwoods are one of the most unique species in Northern California. In January 2018, I was offered the chance to spend a weekend among the trees and leaped at the chance.
Many travelers want to see Redwoods near San Francisco, as they’ve been popularized in movies (Return of the Jedi, anyone?). Whether you’re visiting San Francisco or driving the Pacific Coast Highway, the call of these ancient giants is powerful. If you’re one of those travelers, here are my tips to see California Redwoods on your trip.
Quick Facts about the Redwoods near San Francisco
Before you head out among the trees, here are a few quick facts to help educate you about these huge, ancient beings.
Where can You See Redwoods? What are the Types of Redwoods near San Francisco?
In the whole world, the Sequoias genus of trees is made of two types of trees: Sequoia sempervirens, also called the Coastal Redwoods, and Sequoiadendron giganteum, the Giant Sequoias. Giant Sequoias only exist in parts of eastern California, along the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (Here’s a guide about how to spend a weekend in Yosemite National Park in the Sierras.)
Coastal Redwoods only grow in southern Oregon and Northern California. Near San Francisco, the only Redwoods you can see are Sequoia sempervirens, California’s coastal Redwoods.
How far is the Redwood Forest from San Francisco?
If you’re curious how far the Redwoods are from San Francisco, you might be surprised. There are Sequoias right in San Francisco and around the Bay Area. (Here’s a San Francisco packing list that includes gear for your Redwoods adventure.)
If you want to visit one of the Redwood groves though, you’ll have to go a bit further – the closest Redwood groves are within an hour of San Francisco, but the further you’re willing to go, the better! Below, I’ve detailed three of the best places to see Redwoods near San Francisco.
What are Albino Redwoods?
You might have noticed the small, white Redwood in the photo above. This is called an albino Redwood, and I had never heard of them before my weekend among the Redwoods in early 2018.
There are only about 400 albino Redwoods in the world, and researchers still aren’t sure why these trees display albinoism; some believe they help the whole Redwood community process toxins and pollutants. They can grow on the ground or up off a sibling tree (an “alboreal” albino). If you’re visiting a Redwood grove and find an albino Redwood, please don’t pluck them. These trees are incredibly rare and have a much shorter life than other trees in their community. Instead, you can admire them and take a bunch of pictures, like I did!
The Best Places to See Redwoods Near San Francisco
1. Muir Woods
For most people in the Bay Area, the first place that comes to mind when they want to see the Redwoods is Muir Woods. A 35-minute drive from San Francisco, Muir Woods is an easy day trip for most cities in the Bay Area – especially when there’s no traffic!
Unfortunately, Muir Woods’ proximity to San Francisco also makes it the most popular place people go to see the Redwoods. You can expect to encounter hoards of fellow travelers at Muir Woods, so many that starting in 2018, you need a reservation to visit, which must be made in advance on the National Park Service website.
While Muir Woods is certainly impressive, I personally find it hard to enjoy the trees when navigating around slow-moving city folk and the quiet spaces are interrupted by people loudly asking questions and making observations. For this reason, I certainly recommend Muir Woods if it’s the only place you can get to. If you only have one day in the area and want to see the Redwoods, then it’s your best option, but there are better places further north. (Muir Woods is also a good spot for hiking near San Francisco, and those trails do get you away from the crowds.)
If you have your heart set on visiting Muir Woods, here’s what you need to know:
- The best time to visit Muir Woods is weekday mornings, especially when the fog is still hanging in the trees. Weekends and later in the day, you’ll face more crowds.
- The best way to visit Muir Woods is to park and take the Muir Woods Shuttle. Learn more and see timetables on the Marin Transit website. The shuttle runs May through October each year.
- Admission to Muir Woods is $10 per person, and the Muir Woods Shuttle is $5 per person.
2. Redwoods Regional Park
My favorite place to see redwoods near San Francisco is actually closer than Muir Woods, though admittedly not as impressive. Redwoods Regional Park is located in the Oakland hills, in the East Bay. It takes about 20 minutes to drive from Oakland to Redwoods Regional; if you don’t have a car, you can also get to the park on public transportation.
In addition to admiring the Sequoias, there are 40 miles of hiking trails to hike, run, or bike along. Also, one of my favorite sites in Oakland, Chabot Space & Science Center, is located within Redwoods Regional Park. I highly recommend stopping there if you love space as much as I do!
3. Humboldt Redwoods State Park
While the vast majority of people flock to Muir Woods and a few intrepid folks come explore the East Bay, my favorite place to see the Redwoods is in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
How to Get to Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Humboldt Redwoods State Park is home to many of the most famous Redwood groves in California. For being “only” a state park, it is surprisingly good at fulfilling any desire you have to surround yourself with and learn about California Redwoods. This state park is a short four-hour drive north of the Bay Area.
To get to Humboldt Redwoods State Park, you can go two ways:
- The faster option is four hours north on U.S. Highway 101. This route will take you through San Rafael, Petaluma, Santa Rosa, and many small towns.
- The more leisurely, scenic route, is along famous California Highway 1. This drive takes 7-8 hours but is worth it if you have the time. You’ll work your way up the Northern California Coast, passing through Point Reyes, Mendocino, and Fort Bragg before turning inland.
For my recent trip, I took Highway 101 on my way north. I split the drive south by cutting out to Highway 1 to Fort Bragg, then turning inland to drive home on California Highway 20 and 101.
Where to Go in Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Humboldt Redwoods, the nickname it is affectionately given by locals, is 53,000 acres – 17,000 of which is old growth forest. It’s in these 17,000 acres that you can find the biggest, most beautiful trees, and several famous groves. It’s important to understand the history of Humboldt Redwoods to make sense of why some of the areas in the park are so significant.
One hundred years ago, in 1918, the Save the Redwoods League started their efforts in what became Humboldt Redwoods State Park. This was in response to deforestation in the region to continue rebuilding San Francisco in 1906. Three years later, in 1921, Humboldt Redwoods State Park was added to the California Parks system. Here are some of the most famous sights in Humboldt Redwoods.
Avenue of the Giants
If you only have time to do one thing in Humboldt Redwoods, driving the 31.6-mile Avenue of the Giants is it. This winding stretch of what was once U.S. Highway 101 is now called State Road 254 and cuts through the center of Humboldt Redwoods and the small communities along its route. It’s slow, bumpy at times, and incredibly narrow where the tall trees press in, but it’s one of the most scenic ways to see the Redwoods quickly.
If you have time, you should really stop off and see some of the other sites on this list…
Located just north of the small town of Myers Flat, the Humboldt Redwoods State Park Visitor’s Center is a must-stop spot if only to get oriented to the rest of the park. Here, you’ll find a history of the park, memorabilia, and helpful docents to show you maps and give directions to the best groves.
Created by the Save the Redwoods League, Founders Grove is the most ‘must-see’ spot in Humboldt Redwoods. Here, you can gaze up in wonder at the towering Founders Tree, and take a self-guided interpretive walk through the woods. You can also see the fallen Dyerville Giant; before this tree fell in 1991, it measured 370 feet tall (taller than the Statue of Liberty) and was estimated to be at least 1,500 years old. Now, it stands in a clearing of downed Redwoods, as several others have fallen in wind storms the past few winters.
Known officially as the California Federation of Women’s Clubs Grove, the Women’s Grove is perhaps overshadowed by Founders Grove and Rockefeller Forest nearby. Nevertheless, this grove was purchased by and honors the efforts of California women to preserve the Redwoods in the early 20th Century.
In this grove, you can also find a beautiful four-way hearthstone designed by famous California architect Julia Morgan, and a beautiful albino redwood. Remember – don’t pick it!
The largest section of old growth in Humboldt Redwoods is the 10,000-acre Rockefeller Forest. After a trip to see the beauty of the region John D. Rockefeller Jr. purchased the land from lumber companies in the early 1930s, and it was named in his honor after his death.
The Grieg-French-Bell Grove
One of the most picturesque spots in Humboldt Redwoods, the Grief-French-Bell Grove is beautiful not because of the trees themselves. The whole area is filled with a downy layer of Redwood sorrel, the clover-like plant that covers the forest floor.
This grove is also home to the Girdled Tree, pictured below as well. This tree was so named after lumber barons removed most of the tree’s bark for demonstration. Astonishingly, the tree survived and still towers over its neighbors.
Drury Chaney Trail
Close to the Greig-French-Bell Grove, Drury Chaney Trail is another spot if you want picturesque photos of the Redwoods and sorrel undergrowth. I took the picture of the Lonely Planet California guidebook below near Drury Chaney trail.
Where to Stay Near Humboldt Redwoods
During my weekend exploring California’s Redwood Coast, I stayed as a guest of the Historic Benbow Inn. A few miles south of the southern entrance to the Avenue of the Giants, this historic property is approaching its 100th year in operation and has stunning historic importance and records of life in the region over the past century.
As you can see, the Historic Benbow Inn is has preserved the old style in their rooms, including some knick-knacks – and daily sherry complimentary for guests. The rooms oscillate between being dated and ‘quaint’ in design and the walls are paper-thin when the room next door is host to a group of rowdy bachelors on a Saturday night. To balance this, the property and surrounding countryside are stunning, and they’re making exciting new developments to rooms and the property as a whole. Next year, some of the new rooms will be on par with any five-star accommodation in the area. Rooms start from $135/night.
Other – more rustic – accommodation in the area includes:
- Miranda Gardens Resort – Private cottages with queen-size mattresses. Located near the southern entrance to Avenue of the Giants. Call for rates. (website)
- Myers Country Inn – Antique rooms and fixtures in a 10-room inn. Located in Myers Flat, a bit south of the Visitor Center. Rooms from $200. (website)
- Redcrest Resort – Cottages and RV park near the north part of Avenue of the Giants. Winter rates from $85, summer rates from $105. (website)
Planning Your Trip to Humboldt Redwoods
Hopefully, you’re sold on why Humboldt Redwoods is the best place to see Redwoods near San Francisco. Unlike Muir Woods, you’ll have space to enjoy your time among these massive trees. To plan your trip, I recommend grabbing a copy of the Lonely Planet California guide. The newest version is due out in February 2018 (linked above). I used my guidebook for this trip – and I found it was incredibly useful and up-to-date. It was my first time using a guidebook to plan a trip, and I will share more about that process in an upcoming post.
Other important details to keep in mind when planning:
- Summer is the most popular time to visit Humboldt Redwoods, especially over long holiday weekends (and weekends in general). If you have the time, plan at least one weekday into your trip. Similarly, a shoulder season or off-season trip still promises great weather and the trees look beautiful year-round.
- You should definitely consult the website for Eureka-Humboldt Visitors Bureau/Visit Redwoods, visitredwoods.com. I worked with their team and consulted their website repeatedly in my planning process.
- I can’t stress enough that a stop at the Visitor Center is worth making. During our stop, a woman named Corky gave us the most up-to-date information about the park that day – including her preferences on the most picturesque spots and where to look for albino Redwood trees.
My trip was arranged in collaboration with Lonely Planet, and this post was created as part of that partnership. Special thanks to Richard from Visit Redwoods for showing me around. Any businesses included or recommendations were made at my own discretion.
This post was originally published in February 2018, and was updated in September 2019.