62 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every U.S. national park in one year. Avid backpacker and public-lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built out a tiny van to travel and live in, and hit the road. The parks as we know them are rapidly changing, and she wanted to see them before it’s too late.
Pennington has returned to traveling and is committed to following CDC guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the safety of herself and others. She’s visiting new parks as they open and closely adhering to best safety practices.
As I backpacked through old-growth trees in Redwood National Park, only one thought dominated my brain waves: dear God, I want to see an Ewok. This forest of towering sempervirents (coastal redwoods) was made famous in the early 1980s when it appeared in the Star Wars franchise as the landscape for the fictional planet of Endor. Today it is no less striking or wonder filled, and even a short drive through the ancient trees is sure to tickle any fantasy lover’s mind.
I hiked deeper into the thousand-year-old redwoods and found myself drifting into childlike daydreams full of imaginary creatures. The world around me was teeming with magic. Head-high sword ferns and redwood sorrel acted as a lush, green carpet, while 300-foot-tall redwoods as thick as a car burst up from the forest floor.
It was a serene afternoon for a day that started off with a big hitch—due to heavy rains the week prior, the creek crossing necessary to get to my campsite was too high. Frantic, I began researching alternate plans and found a horse trail that could work, turning my breezy, three-mile creek-side stroll into an eight-mile leg buster with 1,500 feet of elevation gain.
I parked my van at the rodeo grounds in the tiny town of Orick, California, heaved my heavy overnight pack onto my shoulders, and set off. Not half a mile into the journey, I was surrounded by colossal redwoods.
Coastal redwoods inhabit a narrow strip of land that stretches for 500 miles, from the southwestern tip of Oregon down to central California. This foggy, moisture-filled environment provides them with ideal growing conditions for a long life as the world’s tallest trees.
The northwestern corner of California is a patchwork of one national and several state parks dedicated to preserving old-growth forests that survived decades of logging. Many of the groves were saved by fierce environmentalists, like Laura Perrott Mahan, who literally stood between the trees and logging equipment to prevent their destruction in 1924.
As I neared my site at Elam Camp, I couldn’t help but strain my neck as I gazed up in gratitude for these giants that were saved. I pitched my tent under a moss-cloaked maple and lay down on a picnic table to read.
Come morning, the air was filled with unfamiliar birdsong. With nowhere to be, I stayed in my tent for a solid 20 minutes, looking up at hazy light dappling the nylon ceiling.
After a brief run-in with a yellow banana slug on the bear box, I packed up, hiked out, and returned to my van to find a herd of 700-pound elk grazing not 30 yards away. They had no intention of moving. Instead the animals just stared, wide-eyed, as though saying, You looking at me, punk?
It was too easy to anthropomorphize them into fictional characters, given my surroundings. After all, the previous 48 hours had felt like a dream. But as I watched the sun fade behind the coastal hills from a picnic table in Orick, I had to pinch myself to remember that this was all real.
62 Parks Traveler Redwood Info
Size: 131,983 acres (all four state and national parks combined)
Location: Northwestern California
Created In: 1923 (state park), 1968 (national park)
Best For: Forest bathing, hiking, fishing, backpacking, scenic drives, car camping
When to Go: Redwood is a fantastic national park for year-round recreation. Winter (39 to 56 degrees) is the wettest season, while spring (41 to 62 degrees) and fall (43 to 68 degrees) are more moderate. Summer (48 to 68 degrees) is the driest time of year.
Where to Stay: Jedediah Smith Campground and Elk Prairie Campground (each $35 per night) are located in neighboring state parks, and both offer visitors the opportunity to sleep among giants.
Where to Eat: Edebee’s Snack Shack in Orick serves up delicious elk burgers, chicken sandwiches, and French fries that are guaranteed to end hiker hunger.
Mini Adventure: Trek through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove. This easy, 1.5-mile lollipop loop winds through an old-growth section of redwoods made famous by the former first lady.
Mega Adventure: Backpack the Redwood Creek Trail. Grab an overnight permit online or at the visitor center, and enjoy the only dispersed camping allowed in the national park on this eight-mile (one-way), mostly level hike. Those looking to add additional mileage will want to tack on the 2.5-mile Tall Trees Trail, where the tallest trees on the planet grow.
Worth a Detour: Avenue of the Giants, located about two hours south of Redwood National Park, is a popular scenic drive through a lush, old-growth redwood forest. This 31-mile road provides plenty of places to park and head off for a mellow stroll among the ancient trees.
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Lead Photo: Emily Pennington