Most travelers to the San Francisco Bay Area are content to visit Muir Woods National Monument to get their fill of ancient redwoods. Unfortunately, this guarantees elbowing their way through mobs of gawkers — the least-optimum means of experiencing these trees. You have to stand alone among the ancients to truly appreciate them.

I would never go to Muir Woods during summer vacation season. Best time is on a weekday in winter and spring, when there’s water running in the creeks from seasonal rains (click for one of my hikes there); if you’re in town on business and have a half-day to kill before your flight, it’s worth checking out. But if you’re summer-vacationing in the area and really want to see excellent examples of ancient redwoods, you have far better choices if you’re willing to rent a car and drive down into the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco.

The biggest and best

To do it up right, you must check out Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s first state park and home to the most impressive stand of old-growth redwoods in the Bay Area. It’s almost two hours south of San Francisco but hey, you’re on vacation, right? From my park profile on Big Basin:

Easy: Don’t miss Mother and Father of the Forest — the tallest and fattest redwoods at Big Basin — along the flat, 0.6-mile Redwood Trail. Or take the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail north for a couple of miles to the Maddock Cabin site for a lesson on frontier living, where a mom’s prime concerns were her kids getting an education and not getting eaten by grizzly bears (the cabin’s long gone but an interpretive board tells the Maddock family’s story).

Big Basin has nice campgrounds and wonderful hiking trails. The 12-mile Berry Creek Falls loop is consensus pick as best strenuous hike in the Bay Area.

To get there from San Francisco: Take Interstate 280 south out of the city to the Highway 92/Half Moon Bay exit. Head west till you reach Highway 35 (aka Skyline Boulevard), where you turn south and enjoy an excellent (though curvy) drive along the spine of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Turn right at Highway 9 and right again at Highway 236, which goes into Big Basin (this road is narrow and twisty; be careful!). Old wooden lodge is the park HQ; there’s a small fee to park.

Add redwoods to a Highway 1 road trip

California Highway 1 south of San Francisco is one of the world’s most amazing drives, a must for any Bay Area visit (north through Marin County is pretty amazing too, but much more crowded). I love to drive south on the Coast Highway and stop in at Santa Cruz to watch the surfers. A great side trip is Butano State Park, which is tucked into a canyon near the town of Pescadero. The redwoods here aren’t ancient because the area was heavily logged, but the second-growth forest here has amazing biodiversity — young redwoods and a whole lot more. From my Butano park profile:

Easy: The one-mile Six Bridges Trail shows off the park’s biodiversity. At one end, it’s alder woodland with thick, enclosing greenery. At the other it’s towering second-growth redwood — mostly flat with a few reasonable climbs along the way

How to get there from the city: Take I-280 south to the Highway 1 South exit at Pacifica. This a long, curvy drive, leave yourself plenty of time. Check your odometer at Half Moon Bay: The turn-off on Pescadero Creek Road is about another 15 miles south of the town’s center. Turn left at sign pointing to Pescadero (on Pescadero Creek Road). Go 2.5 miles and turn right on Cloverdale Road, then go 4.3 miles to Butano Road, the park entrance, and turn left. If you go during the week, the park HQ will likely be unstaffed; if so, use the iron ranger to pay for parking. If you drive far enough into the park you’ll eventually get to the redwood-canopied camping area. Very nice place to pause for a picnic. Duartes Tavern in Pescadero is a nice little restaurant prized by locals.

Add redwoods to a Santa Cruz visit

Santa Cruz is a funky/cool surfer town that’s always worth a visit. In the summer, the amusement park along the Boardwalk has excellent thrill rides for the kids. A calmer escape is Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, which has camping, hiking and a small grove of old-growth redwoods. Redwood Grove Trail is where you want to be. It’ll be quieter here on weekdays. There is a fee to park.

How get there: From Highway 1 in Santa Cruz, head north on Highway 9 (River Street) for about four miles till you see the park entrance. (There’s a far more complicated route involving Highway 17 if you come down from Silicon Valley, but you’re better off just taking Highway 17 to Highway 1 in Santa Cruz and heading back north on Highway 9).

If the state parks are closed for budget reasons

  • Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains has a lovely grove of second-growth redwoods not far from your car. You won’t see the mind-boggling ancient redwoods, but the young ones are pretty impressive. (Click for my park profile)

    How get there from San Francisco: Take I-280 south out of the city to Half Moon Bay exit; head west on Highway 92 (Half Moon Bay Exit) to Highway 35 and turn south. After about 4 miles you’ll see a large parking lot for the open space preserve; don’t park there; keep going till you reach a small lot on the right about 6.5 miles from the Highway 92 turn-off. The Redwood Trail is next to this parking area. It has picnic tables and a privy.

  • Redwood Regional Park in the hills east of Oakland is all second-growth redwoods, but offers an important history lesson: The ancient forest here included trees that were so tall that mariners used them as points of navigation. It was all cut down in one of humankind’s great crimes against nature, but an impressive new forest has grown back in its place. It’s also much closer to San Francisco, though it’s not quite the getaway you get heading down toward Santa Cruz.

    How to get there from San Francisco: Take Interstate 80 (Bay Bridge) east toward Oakland. Once you’re over the bridge, exit onto I-580 east towards Hayward/Stockton a little over 6 miles and take the 35th Avenue exit. Turn left and stay on 35th till it turns into Redwood Road, and follow it into the park. It might take some more hiking to see the redwoods here but it’s worth a look. See Jane Huber’s site for more info on Redwood Regional Park.

A note on California state parks

The state’s budget crises of 2009 included a threat to close almost all state parks, presumably including some listed here. Check the California State Parks site before you leave on any of these excursions.

What if they’re closed? Click for a few suggestions

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