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Exploring California's Redwood Coast

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

This article feature's Ryan Luis' time exploring the 472 mile Redwood Coast Adventure Trail. To get more information about this track, please visit the RedCAT Route Guide Page.

The 2022-2023 California winter was one for the record books. In early April, the California Department of Water Resources measured in South Lake Tahoe 126.5 inches of snow depth, which is 221% of average. The images from social and print media of full reservoirs, deep mountain snowpack and incessant winter storms was a common sight for several months. As spring wore on and my late June vacation drew closer, I knew a solo family overland adventure to the alpine would not be a reality in the early summer. Off to the Overland Trail Guides (OTG) website I went for direction. After filtering out winter friendly routes that would likely be in the triple digits by late June and preferring to not travel long distances outside of my home state of California, the Redwood Coast Adventure Trail piqued my interest. It seemed like the perfect coastal adventure along a beautiful and rugged stretch of coastline. Also, the kids could get a new stamp to add to their National Parks "passport book", ride a historic train through the redwoods and we would have time to relax on various pristine rivers of Northern California.

Our trip began in Ukiah, CA where we would start the hour and a half drive to Fort Bragg in our well-used second-generation Nissan Xterra. Although not flashy, it is equipped with a factory locking rear diff, mild suspension lift, and some aftermarket armor. None of which should be needed for this trip. Having purchased this rig as a bachelor approximately 14 years prior, I'm still surprised this short-wheelbase SUV can carry my Wife (Christine) and I, a 60-pound Hungarian Vizsla (Branch), two kids (Jane [6] and Parker [8]) and all the essentials required for vehicle dependent overland travel.

The Banana Slug-- one of our favorite critters in the redwood forest

The weather was beginning to warm up in Ukiah, with an anticipated high in the 90s for the day. For those who have spent time on the northern California coastline know the natural air conditioning in the form of a marine layer would likely greet us in Fort Bragg. We exited the 101 corridor and began traveling west on Highway 20. As anticipated, the temperature began to drop as we descended into the redwoods, through the Jackson Demonstration State Forest and into the Pacific coast shoreline city Fort Bragg. The weather was about what you would expect, high 50s with 100% cloud cover. We continued to drive through the city center and pulled up to the self-described "World Famous" Skunk Train Depot. Having young children this was a mandatory discovery point along our route, and luckily a dog-friendly one! We were still over an hour early for our slated departure time, and luckily for us the Model Railroad Barn was open. The exhibit featured several model railroads twisting through the cliff sides, hidden sasquatches, loggers cutting lines to lay new rail, and even a fog machine. After enjoying the Railroad Barn, it was time to board the real train. We made our way back to the cabin with room for two per seat. Branch had to jump on my lap for the beginning of the ride and each boarding passenger looked at us twice in amusement.

The "Pudding Creek Express" took us east into the Redwoods and along the Pudding Creek Estuary. I decided to accompany the kids onto the open platform where we immersed ourselves into the environment and marveled at the massive redwoods as they passed by. The train ride was short, less than 7 miles round trip with the option to stay at "Glen Blair Junction" until another train would bring you back. We decided this would be a good option, as there was a short hiking trail nearby and a beautiful pavilion setup with string lights, group games and an unfortunately closed "watering hole". The hike was just enough to stretch our legs, count about a half-dozen banana slugs and come back to the pavilion to have lunch and catch the last train back to Fort Bragg.

Camp at Jug Handle Creek Farm, Mendocino coast.

It was early afternoon, and we had a Hip Camp reservation 10 minutes away at Jug Handle Creek Farm. If not for OTG, I would have driven right by this establishment not knowing it offers camping or much of anything else to the public. Like many online reservations, I did the best I could regarding site selection. Site 1 was named "Shady and Private”, and I hoped it would live up to the billing. Before this trip, I couldn't remember the last time I had to reserve a campsite, sticking to locations offering free and dispersed camping for over a decade. I knew this would not be such a trip. As we pulled off Highway 1 and drove down the long driveway into the forest, our site was situated within the trees. A large grassy area separated our site from the neighbors, which would remain unoccupied for the night. After setting up camp, we then set out for the short walk to the beach. We made our way through the reserve, under the Jug Handle Creek Bridge and down to the Jug Handle Beach. The beach itself was a beautiful setting. With the Jug Handle Creek flowing under the bridge and feeding into the Pacific. The modest sandy beach had craggy rock bookends and it was the perfect place to spend our evening. The kids played in the creek while Christine and I took Branch for a walk. Once back at camp, we ate dinner and s’mores. The "Scenic and Private" remained true to its name, with only one other couple in sight setting up camp in their 4-wheel camper for the night. It was a nice, quiet evening on the Farm.

Jughandle State Beach near Mendocino, CA.

The next morning, we loaded up, bid farewell to Jug Handle and jumped on Highway 1 for the less than 10-minute drive to Mendocino. I knew we would not have much time to enjoy what this small town had to offer other than grabbing an Americano from a local coffee shop and continuing our drive through the Mendocino Headlands State Park. As the omnipresent cloud cover began to break up, we decided

Trail to sinking hole, Russian Gulch SP.

to make our way back north to Russian Gulch State Park. One of the discovery points listed within the park was the Sinking Whole [sic] Trailhead. With kids interested in earth abnormalities and wanting the chance to stretch our legs and get Branch on a walk the price of admission was worth it. All the campers were down at the beach with only a couple cars parked at the trailhead where the sun finally won the battle against the fog and blue skies treated us as we walked along the bluffs to the sinkhole. This was an interesting sight with the waves crashing through a cave and into the sinkhole, which made me wonder what it looked like during the king tide and high surf events during the California winter months. The kids took notice of a single pine tree that managed to take hold along the cliff face growing out of the opening. We continued along and noticed a use trail continuing down on some rocks below where the kids explored the tide pools and did some easy class two scrambling on the rock faces. Knowing we had several hours in the car to make it to our second night destination of A.W. Way County Park, we made a stop at Point Cabrillo Lighthouse before continuing north.

The suggested route continues along dirt through Sherwood Road before meeting up with the 101 and back to dirt on Bell Springs Road. I knew if I were to stick to the pavement only this would still be a 3 1/2 drive. Not wanting excessive car time for the family and still wanting to experience the backroads, the plan was to skip Sherwood Road and stick to the pavement until Bell Springs Road. Unfortunately, a couple of hours into the drive, Jane became carsick, and we decided to get to AW Way the easy way, by pavement. While still a winding road, the drive time would be less, and the kids would have more time to play in the Mattole River.

Mattole River, AW Way County Park

We pulled up to A.W. Way County Park (campground) and set up on one of their large grassy sites backing up to the Mattole River. It was a quiet day at the campground, with only a handful of other campers and several vacant sites buffering neighbors. Offering potable water, a couple of bathrooms and picnic tables, it was glamping for us. The temperature was pleasant, and the sun was shining, so we took the short walk down an embankment to the Mattole River. The river is perfect for families this time of year. Shallow enough so the kids could reach bottom in most areas and not swift enough to push them down stream. We spend the next few hours jumping off rocks, taking inner tubes down the "rapids" and enjoying a refreshing swim. After tiring the kids out and taking an evening stroll around the campground, it was time for bed for the night.

The road to Punta Gorda ligthouse.

The morning greeted us with warm, sunny skies and a desire to spend at least part of the day back at the Mattole River. This place was going to be hard to leave. After a morning swim, we headed to Mattole Beach and onto a dirt road to get to the Punta Gorda Lighthouse. If starting the hike to the lighthouse along the Lost Coast Trail at Mattole Beach, it would be approximately 6.5 miles of hiking. I heard about the 'Windy Pont 4WD" road which would shorten the hike to a little over 2 miles, so we started up the well-maintained forest service road gaining about 1,000 feet of elevation over a couple of miles. As we approached the summit, the road ran away from the Pacific and into a short section of forest before exiting back onto a windswept, grassy, and exposed section that began to descend steeply back towards the coastline. A weathered sign warned traveling further required 4WD. What followed was a steep and exposed set of switchbacks that I am happy were recessed far away from the coastal bluff erosion. Upon making the first turn, my wheels slipped some so into 4LO the Xterra went, and I made a controlled descent to the unassuming trailhead. It was not named Windy Point for nothing, and after reading an information board at AW Way about the unique landscape of the Mattole Valley and onshore wind events from the Pacific making intense wind commonplace for this stretch of coastline, I was not much surprised to feel the rig rocking back and forth when we parked. I cracked the driver door open, and it was violently ripped from my hand. We put on some light shell layers and dropped down the hillside on a blocked off road before hitting the sand. We were now a little more protected from the wind and continued the beautiful hike along this rugged coastline passing backpackers and elephant seals as the Punta Gorda Lighthouse came into view. The Lighthouse had just been restored less than a year prior, which included a new spiral staircase the kids loved to climb up and look down at the elephant seals below.

A 1-mile hike leads you to the abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse.

After lunch at the lighthouse, we headed back up the trail and departed, continuing along the Mattole Road and passing some of the most untouched landscape of the California Coastline I have ever seen. We pressed on via the impressively scenic Bear River Ridge Road. As we climbed in Elevation It was hard to believe earlier in the morning, we were enjoying 70-degree sunny skies because now the fog was thick, requiring intermittent windshield wipers to clear my view. The route suggested a lot more dirt today, however being out a throw-up bag already and spending more time than planned on the river and hiking, we decided to skip the dirt of Kneeland Road and continue past Fortuna, through Eureka and towards our campsite for the night at Lacks Creek BLM. We exited Highway 299 towards Lacks Creek and followed the road through a mixture of densely forested sections and open hillsides before we were on the dirt climbing in elevation. I could not find much information about Lacks Creek before the trip besides a few videos’ mountain bikers had uploaded to YouTube, and as we approached the area a BLM sign greeted us stating, "Ride your horse or bike along the shared use trails or find your own secluded campsite with a view." We were back to the type of camping we were accustomed to. We continued down a well-used dirt road interspersed with some larger rocks to a large, more established camping area that already had two vehicles present. Not wanting to disturb them with our sometimes-loud children and not wanting to be disturbed by their overly protective K9, we backtracked to a site directly off the road we had driven past. Once parked beginning to unload, we realized this site- with a fire ring, table and sign that said "established campsite"- was placed directly in the path of approximately 3 intersecting trails. Luckily, for the remainder of the night we only saw one vehicle drive past and no one riding or hiking through the site. This site we initially passed up was quite nice, large enough to deploy our hammock for the first time and obviously close by to some trails to take Branch on a quick walk.

Bald Hills Drive, Redwood NP.

The family awoke early the next morning as this would be a big day exploring Redwood National Park and the surrounding area. To get to the park, we had about 40 miles of dirt to traverse with the first destination being the Grasshopper Peak Lookout. We continued along Blair Road which provided expansive views of the Hoopa Valley to the east which I enjoyed so much I missed the turn onto Pine Ridge Road and had to backtrack. This section was more densely forested, and we came across the only other traffic for this section. A heavy log loader and work truck from the Hoopa Valley Tribe blocking the road and the nearby workers quickly moving them to allow us to pass. We asked if there were any other heavy equipment or workers ahead and they gave us all clear. Continuing along Pine Ridge Road for several miles we were stopped dead in our tracks by a tree that blocked the road. I saw the tree had broken from the trunk and was just small enough for my wife and I to manage off the side of the trail. The growing family and ever-increasing gear capacity requirements relegate items such as chainsaws expendable, however a hand saw most likely would have helped the situation and is on my pack list for future excursions. Spending the first part of the morning traveling through the forest we were now on a wide-open prairie like setting with views all the way to the Pacific Ocean. We could see the Grasshopper Peak Fire lookout in the distance. We parked at a locked gate below the lookout which required about a 1/4-mile hike to reach. Unfortunately, the lookout was vacant, and the stairs had been pulled so one could not climb to the top. This lookout appeared in good shape, contrary to some in the higher mountainous elevations that suffer through harsh winters.

Redwood National & State Parks.

Back on the dirt, we drove to the next stop, the Tall Trees Grove within Redwood National Park.

As of Summer 2023, reservations are required, and I made two of them online. One for this hike and the

Tall Trees Grove, Redwood NP.

other for Gold Bluffs Beach/Fern Canyon. I received an email from the National Park Service (NPS) with the permit and locked age combination the day prior and saved a screenshot as I knew cell service would be nonexistent. We approached the locked gate on the spur road to the Tall Trees Trailhead, unlocked it, and proceeded a few miles down a dirt road to the trailhead. In this instance I was happy the park required permits for this destination, as it was still mid-morning, and we snagged the last parking spot in the overflow lot. We put on our packs and departed down the trail which was in an idyllic and peaceful setting, far from highways and campgrounds. Once we made our way down the grove where the trail splits into a loop, we stopped and marveled at these giants whose canopies appeared to keep stretching into the sky as far as the eye could see. We listened to the nearby Redwood Creek as we ate lunch before retracing our steps back to the car.

Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods SP.

We headed towards the coast and after making a quick stop at the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center so the kids could get their passport stamps, we were off to Fern Canyon. We were once again within the marine layer and parked in the dirt lot adjacent to Fern Canyon. It would be hard to beat the spectacular hike of the Tall Trees Grove, but Fern Canyon came close. Walking into the canyon which stretched to 80 feet in some areas was mesmerizing. Green plants and foliage blanketed the canyon walls as water trickled down the sides. The NPS had set up small foot bridges to traverse over the water and the kids made a game of jumping from one to another to stay dry. In another section, Parker enjoyed climbing through a massive tree that had uprooted in the canyon exposing its root system. After spending a couple of hours in the canyon, we took Branch for a stroll on nearby Gold Bluffs Beach, one of the only non-developed areas in the park dogs are allowed.

Being exhausted from the driving and hiking for the day, we grabbed drinks and burgers from the Abalone Bar and Grill in Klamath before heading to our campsite for the night at Cher'ere Campground and RV Park. While not a place I would typically stay, options are limited in this area if you really want to "get away". This location did provide as much solitude as a campground could offer only because it was sparsely occupied, having a few RV's and one van staying that night. We spent an hour or so skipping rocks on the Klamath River before retiring to the tent for the night.

Trees of Mystery sky bridge in Klamath, CA.

After a quick departure in the morning, we headed across the Golden Bears Bridge enroute to the Trees of Mystery. The OTG route guide notes you will know when you arrive by the sight of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, and sure enough, their towering presence appeared right off the highway. We knew this place would be a hit with the kids, because of not only the massive Redwoods but also the Redwood Canopy Trail. Jane and Parker did two trips along the Canopy Trail, which allows guests to walk from one giant redwood to the next along suspension bridges to the trunk platforms high above the ground. They enjoyed waving to Branch (the Canopy Trail is the only attraction that is not dog friendly within Trees of Mystery) far below. After exiting the Canopy Trail, we headed for the Sky trail gondola, which takes riders up a 1570-foot trip to the top of the mountain. There had been patchy fog throughout this morning, and descending off the mountain and into the fog with the massive redwood canopies partially exposed was a surreal sight.

Howland Hill Road is a 10-mile drive through the old growth redwoods in Jedediah Smith SP.

Back on the road we headed to Crescent City to refuel before jumping on Howland Hill Road and into Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park. Our goal was to hike the Grove of Titans; however, it was now early afternoon, and the parking lot was full. Oh well, we will have to save this one for another time.

Forks of Smith, Smith River NRA.

We continued to the Forks of the Smith Trail. Now that we were further inland, the fog was gone, and we were left with blue skies and a temperature in the high 70s. We hiked the Forks of the Smith Trail, which took us out on the rocks above the two forks converging. We saw a group of about 5 kayakers paddle by, some jumping in the water, others enjoying a beer and one fishing. We decided a swim in the crystal clear and inviting river would be a perfect way to end the day, so we headed across the Nels Christensen Memorial Bridge to Myrtle Beach. After a short hike down to the sandy beach, we spent the remainder of the trip in the refreshingly cool Smith River while admiring the redwoods that surrounded us. It was an amazing way to end the trip.

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