Why you should care
Because it might be the most beautiful drive in the world.
The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.
Driving off the freeway and entering Humboldt Redwoods State Park, I was gobsmacked by the view. It was a windswept, sunny day and the giant redwood trees — the biggest in the world — took over my whole windshield periphery, only a few swaying or letting in fractured beams of light. This was the Avenue of the Giants: a 30-plus-mile scenic highway splitting the Northern California redwood forest that locals say is the perfect place to appreciate nature.
To start that appreciation, there are eight stops along the park road, many with fishing and swimming holes. Although drought recently forced rangers to enact catch-and-release regulations, Humboldt County spokesman Richard Stenger says this area, especially the South Fork Eel River, is great for sportfishing. But the main attractions are the ancient giants themselves, whose dimensions are mind-boggling. Many reach heights beyond 250 feet — and a handful tower above 375 feet — including the Giant, the biggest redwood in the world in terms of mass. The first time I walked around it, I craned my neck back so far to see its crown that I fell over. Redwoods can live more than 2,000 years. Not far from the Giant is a handful of redwoods you can drive through at $5 a pop.
… 100 miles of hiking trails, some through beautifully dense prairies from which you can look for elk, deer — or Bigfoot.
Families usually stay at one of two campgrounds: Burlington and Hidden Springs each contain dozens of individual campsites private enough to make you feel like the Lord of All Forest-Dwellers. There are 100 miles of hiking trails, some through beautifully dense prairies from which you can look for elk, deer — or Bigfoot. “He’s been spotted near here,” Stenger says, completely serious. As with other parks, making early camp reservations online is encouraged. If you don’t feel like camping or making your meals, there are several lodges, historic inns and roadhouses. The Riverwood Inn is known for its ’50s-style ambience and authentic — often raucous — honky-tonk nightlife. There’s also the Benbow Historic Inn, a Tudor-style English manor near the South Yule River that has hosted some of the world’s elite, such as the King of Jordan. Two major marathons are conducted here annually, and the forest has been used as a backdrop to movies, including Return of the Jedi (as the location of the Ewok-dwelling planet of Endor), and a recent Brad Pitt photo shoot.
Despite its idyllic-for-beardies setting, there are some downsides to consider before scheduling a trip here. For one, it’s not anywhere near a major hub city — a five-hour car ride from San Francisco, an eight-hour drive from Portland, Oregon. And it can get quite cold and rainy in the fall; if you haven’t booked a hotel and the campgrounds are closed, you’re going to have to travel many miles to Eureka or Ferndale to find lodging.
But visitors have been appreciating the majesty of the forest for decades and a little rain has never stopped them; the park recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. However, now that timber harvesting has been moved to younger-generation trees outside of the park, tourism is sorely needed, says David Stockton, former director of the Humboldt County Visitor Center. So any eruptions on the Avenue are likely people just laughing in the woods.