Family Road Trip: Redwood and Crater Lake National Parks

This is part 3 of my two week, no RV, family road trip, travelogue. If you haven’t read part 1 and part 2 yet, you’ll want to do that first!

June 1, Friday

The drive from our hotel at Fort Bragg, CA to Redwood National and State Parks isn’t terribly long, and we get more pretty Pacific coast views along the way. Eventually, highway 1 ends and meets up with 101.

Not knowing where to start upon arrival, we take a short drive up Bald Hills Road and have lunch in the parking lot of the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trailhead. Then walk the trail. It’s 1.4 miles and relatively level, with a self-guided tour component. All in all a nice stroll.

My parents – smiling this time – and I, taken by my brother

Coast redwoods and giant sequoias are related, but they look quite different. These redwoods have bark that is more brown, and they aren’t quite as big around at the base, but grow much taller. In fact, the tallest living trees on Earth are coast redwoods. They also frequently grow in clusters as shown in the photo above – when the trunk of a mature redwood dies, little ones may sprout up from the same root system around the old trunk. Like the giant sequoias they live a long time (1,800 years or more), and are an endangered species: naturally occurring only along the coast of California (excluding southern CA) and the southwest corner of coastal Oregon.

After the short walk, we stop at the visitor center, and get some advice from the rangers about what to see. California and the National Park Service work together for the redwoods, and there are individual park units spread out over an area of northern California, but they’re managed together – some officially part of the national park, some state parks. Having a national park pass gets you into everything, including the state parks.

Per their directions, we drive north along 101 to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and take Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, a pretty two-lane road surrounded by mature redwoods. Off of this road is a tiny dirt track called Cal-Barrel Road (RVs and trailers not allowed), an old logging road that twists its way uphill. It’s one lane out-and-back, with pullouts on either side to pass and a turnaround at the end. Luckily traffic is very light today. Here the trees come right up the road and it’s impressive to drive through them. My dad has pointed out of both sequoias and redwoods that they seem to have no problem growing on steep hillsides.

After that, we stop to see the Big Tree. Not as tall as some of its kind, but quite wide at the base, and the sign next to it makes me smile.

June 2

Early in the morning we leave our hotel room in Crescent City to drive back south to the visitor center to get a permit for Tall Trees Grove.

The tallest tree in the park (and the world) is an unmarked specimen nearing 380 feet along Tall Trees Grove Trail, a 3.5-4 mile trail that switchbacks 800 feet down a steep hillside, runs a loop through the grove, and then you retrace your route back up. The access road to the parking lot is blocked by a gate, and you need a code from the visitor center to open it. Only 50 cars are allowed daily, permits are first-come-first-served.

My parents stay up at the car, while my brother and I take the trail in. The farther down we go, the more damp the air gets and the more mature redwoods there are. Alas, we don’t make it all the way down before needing to turn back, we agreed on a certain amount of time and don’t want to be late. So I probably didn’t see the tallest tree, but it was still a beautiful hike and nice to get some physical activity in.

We have lunch at High Bluff Overlook Picnic Area, off of 101 on Coastal Drive (labeled D7 in Google) near where the Klamath River empties into the sea. When we arrive the ocean is mired in fog, hampering visibility. But as we eat the sun burns it off, and by the time we’re done the view is revealed in all its glory.

Coastal Drive is a one way loop, and another point of interest along it is Radar Station B-71, a WWII era radar station disguised as a farm house. Along this road it’s also possible to see seals and during the right time of year, whales. We do see the seals playing just beyond the surf, but the whales remain at large.

After that we take one more narrow dirt road through the woods, this one the 7 mile Howland Hill Road that winds through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Being a Saturday there’s more traffic on the roads today, but this road is wider than Cal-Barrel and passing is a bit easier.

As we roll between the massive trees, I spot something from the window. “Stop! Stop the car!” I get out and get a photograph of a banana slug, with my finger for size. I’d learned about these at the visitor center, and was hoping to see one. The Pacific banana slug is the second-largest species of terrestrial slug in the world, growing up to 9.8 inches long. This guy is smaller than that, he’s still got some growing to do.

June 3

The drive from Crescent City, CA to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon takes a few hours: up 199 to a brief stretch on I5, then 62 the rest of the way to the park.

At Sequoia and Yosemite, we’d arrived at the start of the busy season. At Redwood we’d arrived in that sweet spot all full-time travelers love to hit: after everything is open for the season, but before the crowds arrive. Farther north here at Crater Lake, we’re too early. The eastern half of the rim road is still closed due to snow, in fact, getting into the visitor center requires walking over a slushy snow drift. Likewise most of the picnic areas and trails are still buried under snow.

I’ll say though, that snow hanging around makes the lake look even better. It’s hard to describe the color of Crater Lake, “blue” seems entirely inadequate. I’ve seen blue lakes before, but nothing like this.

Crater Lake is the ninth-deepest lake in the world (and the deepest in the US), at 1,949 feet. And as the name suggests, it’s in a crater. What is not immediately obvious is that it’s at the top of a volcanic mountain. It was a strange feeling driving up a mountain for miles and miles, and then reaching the top and seeing, not a summit, but this huge lake.

You’ll notice that the water does not come up entirely to the rim of the crater. There is no outlet, but layers of permeable rock exist on the lake bed that water seeps out of. Where does the water go? No one is really sure. Scientists have tested the mineral composition of Crater Lake compared to nearby springs and not found a match, it remains a mystery. Based on how old growth fir trees can be found right near the water’s edge, it’s been concluded that the surface level of Crater Lake has remained relatively stable for quite some time.

Within Crater Lake sits Wizard Island, a miniature volcanic cone inside of the older, larger one. The peak of Wizard Island has its own little crater. There are paid tours you can take out to the island, and you can even walk around on it.

And yes, you can swim in Crater Lake, but it’s only allowed in one part of the park. I would imagine the water remains cold year-round.

We stop at pretty much every overlook that is open over the course of a couple hours and then have lunch at another trailhead parking lot, this one for the Pacific Crest Trail. After that, we take 138 west to I5 to continue north to Eugene to spend the night.

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  1. Upriverdavid on July 5, 2018 at 1:42 am

    In 1975??..I dragged my little brother on a road trip from Seattle..He went easily….We hiked down to where the boat tour takes off and dived into the crater.
    It was a hot day and felt so good and the water did not feel too cold….What felt weird was knowing what we were jumping into we couldn’t feel the bottom!..Or see it…
    Too bad the hike back up the hill heated us up again….Ah!..years ago traveling in Dodge Vans……

  2. Kirk on June 27, 2018 at 5:17 pm

    I saw the video and enjoyed your story. I decided to look at your website. In light of my history, I had to read about your visit to the redwoods. I’m glad you and your family enjoyed your visit behind the Redwood Curtain. Glass Beach in Ft. Bragg and the old Russian fort (Ft. Ross) north of Ft. Bragg are very nice. Fern Canyon, the rivers (Mad, Eel, Elk, Trinity, Klamath, Smith, Van Duzen), the leagues and leagues of ocean beaches, Victorian “villages” Ferndale, Fortuna and Eureka, great seafood, etc. are some of the charms of redwood country. On Hwy 199, you travel from Crescent City and Gasquet to Grants Pass, OR (which has a beautiful city park). Hwy 299 is also a beautiful drive starting north of Arcata.

    I grew up in the Redwoods (Eureka, CA), graduated from Humboldt State University, moved to Oregon for graduate school, and then left the west for the midwest. I was in high school when Lady Bird Johnson attended the August 27, 1969 dedication of the “Lady Bird Johnson Grove” north of Orick, CA. I watched the “stranded” whale in the Klamath river from the Hwy. 101 bridge in Trinidad in 2011; unfortunately, the whale did not survive but her calf escaped to the Pacific ocean. I will spend half of July visiting Humboldt County with a weekend in Ft. Bragg and I am excited to return again. It rains a lot at times on the coast but I hope you return someday.

    • Becky on June 28, 2018 at 12:05 pm

      Thanks for sharing Kirk, always nice to get recommendations from a local and it’s clear that you have a lot of great memories of the area. 🙂

  3. Noreen N on June 20, 2018 at 9:15 pm

    What a lovely family trip you are taking. Thanks for sharing! Isn’t Crater Lake gorgeous?

    • Becky on June 21, 2018 at 3:27 pm

      It sure was Noreen, you’re welcome!

  4. Norm H. on June 20, 2018 at 2:46 pm

    Still enjoying your journey! We just missed crossing paths, too, as my DW and I were in Mendocino and Ft. Bragg on June 4th!
    I’m glad to know that my Senior Pass will get us into both the National and State units of the joint park.
    If you have not done so, come back and at least do an overnight (or two) at the Crater Lake campground.
    Safe travels.

    • Becky on June 21, 2018 at 3:29 pm

      That is such a lovely part of California! Hope you had a good trip.

  5. SHERRI D. BURRIS on June 20, 2018 at 1:58 pm

    Loved the photos. I have forgotten how majestic the Redwoods are. It’s been many years since I’ve seen them. Sounds like a great trip to start planning for.

    • Becky on June 21, 2018 at 3:30 pm

      Yes Sherri, the redwoods are something else! I definitely think it would be worth going back to see them again. 🙂

      • Noreen N on June 29, 2018 at 6:07 pm

        I agree! I’ve seen them once and would love to see them again!

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