We used to go camping every summer in our 1963 Wheelcamper, inherited from my husband’s parents. We wanted to show our daughter the natural wonders of California and beyond. Among my favorite memories are the times we camped among the majestic redwoods and sequoias in Northern and Central California.
I’ll never forget the morning a California Scrub Jay flew off with my daughter’s breakfast pastry, picking it up from the picnic table and flying off into the trees.
Summer will be here before you know it, and the best camping spots may already be reserved — so now is the time to plan your escape to see California’s majestic “big trees.” Memories await.
Here are a few places to visit and special to trees to see.
California’s Big Trees
There are two distinct type of redwood trees.
Coast Redwoods are considered the “true” redwood. Coastal redwoods grow only within a foggy 500-mile belt along the Pacific, from Big Sur to southwestern Oregon. These sky-scraping conifers approach 400 feet in height, and may live as long as 2,000 years.
Giant Sequoias have a more limited range and number than Coast Redwoods. Only about 70 groves exist, sprinkled along the western Sierra Nevada range, from Placer County south to Tulare County. Unlike redwoods, which commonly form pure stands, sequoia groves are typically scattered throughout the mixed-conifer forest alongside trees such as white fir, sugar pine and incense-cedar.
The world’s “tallest tree” designation changes frequently because the “crowns,” or tops, of many trees frequently fall off, changing the tree’s height.
To reserve a campsite at any California state park, call Reserve California at 1-800-444-7275.
Popular parks and must-see trees:
Redwood National and State Parks
There are four developed campgrounds and seven back-country sites to camp in this 131,983-acre park. In the 1920s, three state parks were created in the area, Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Coast and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. In 1968, the discovery of the world’s tallest tree (at that time) in a hidden old growth forest led to the creation of Redwood National Park. A unique federal-state partnership was born to manage the parks.
There are five visitor centers: Hiouchi Visitor Center, Jedediah Smith Visitor Center, Crescent City Information Center, Prairie Creek Visitor Center and Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center.
Big Tree: This old growth giant has a circumference of 68 feet. Located on the Newton Drury Scenic Parkway near the Prairie Creek Visitor Center, the tree is an estimated 1,500 years old.
Tall Trees Grove: Pick up a free permit to hike to the grove, considered by some the most beautiful in the park, at the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center. The current record-holder for “Tallest Tree” remains hidden in an undisclosed location, to prevent vandalism.
Yosemite National Park
The Mariposa Grove, which closed in the spring of 2015 for the largest restoration project in the park’s history, re-opened to the public June 15 of last year.
The habitat for sequoias was improved by removing parking lots and roads and restoring the natural flow of water. Parking was relocated two miles from the grove, and is connected by shuttle buses.
Located near the South Entrance, the Mariposa Grove is the largest grove in the park and is home to more than 500 mature giant sequoias.
A variety of trails, from easy to strenuous, are within the grove.
The Mariposa Grove is home to some of the oldest sequoias in existence.
Camping reservations: /www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/camping.htm.
The Grizzly Giant: The oldest tree in the grove. It is believed to be between 1,900 and 2,400 years old. The tree stands 210 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter. It is the 25th largest tree in the world.
The California Tunnel Tree: Only a few living trees still stand with tunnels. The California Tunnel Tree was created in 1895 to allow coaches to pass through the tree. Today, people can walk or bike through it. The California Tunnel Tree and the Grizzly Giant can be reached by a hike of less than a mile from the Mariposa Grove parking lot. The most famous “tunnel tree” in the Mariposa Grove, was the Wawona Tunnel Tree (created in 1881). It crashed to earth in February 1969.
Telescope Tree: One of the most fascinating trees in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is a living tree that has become completely hollowed out as the result of withstanding countless forest fires over the centuries. Visitors can stand inside the base of the tree and see all the way through its trunk to the sky above.
Other Famous Sequoias: The Washington Tree, the largest tree in the grove at 35,950 cubic feet; the Faithful Couple, a pair of trees who grew so close to each other that their bases fused together; and the Fallen Monarch, a tree that fell over more than 300 years ago. Giant sequoias are extremely resistant to decay and it is unknown how long the remains of a fallen tree can last if left undisturbed.
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve
Located in the tiny town of Guerneville along the Russian River the area predates logging in the northern part of the state, so the preserve is home to some of the oldest and tallest trees in Sonoma County.
Parson Jones Tree: More than 310 feet tall this tree can be found on a hike along the self-guided nature trail behind the visitor center.
On foggy summer mornings, the damp pathways inside Armstrong are great places to spot banana slugs, a kid-friendly park benefit. The park features more than 30 miles of trails to explore. Info: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=450.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
The Save the Redwoods League acquired a single grove of redwoods in 1921. Through the years the League has raised millions of dollars to build and expand the park. Today Humboldt Redwoods spans 53,000 acres. About one third, or 17,000 acres, of the park is old-growth redwood forest, the largest expanse of ancient redwoods left on the planet.
Avenue of the Giants: The 32-mile-long Avenue of the Giants is a great drive that allows you to see the trees by car. Tour brochures are available at either end of the Avenue of the Giants, and at the Humboldt Redwoods Visitor Center.
Giant Tree: Designated as the National Champion Coast Redwood for having the best combination of height, diameter and crown spread. Located in the park’s Rockefeller Forest, the world’s largest stand of old growth redwoods at 10,000 acres.
Dyerville Giant: Once perhaps 400 feet high, this champion tree fell in 1991, creating a thunderous roar heard for miles around. It’s still impressive as it sports a huge uprooted root cluster and an enormous crater where it once stood, off the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park’s Founders Grove.
Albino Redwood: Only a handful of these rare forest ghosts exist, including the most picturesque of them all, the so-called Christmas Tree in the Women’s Federation Grove on the Avenue of the Giants. It’s near the grove entrance, but there’s no marked trail.
Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks
There are 14 campgrounds in this 768,000-acre wilderness complex. It is one of my favorite places to camp in California.
General Sherman Tree: Perhaps the most “famous” of the “big trees” in California. By volume, it is the largest known living single-stem tree on Earth.
The Giant Forest also includes the President Tree (the 3rd largest tree) and the 2-mile Congress Trail.
General Grant Tree: The second-largest tree in the world is located in Grant Grove. An easy trail will walk you past a settler’s cabin and the Fallen Giant Tree.
There is also a fallen Tunnel Log you can drive under (as long as your vehicle is less than 8-ft tall.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Big Basin Redwoods State Park was founded in 1902, and is California’s oldest state park, as well as the first park in the world to protect the coastal redwood tree. Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, it’s home to ancient coast redwoods, some as old as 1,800 years old. The park also offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and a trio of lush waterfalls.