Home » Travel Photography » Photo Guide to Redwood National Park and California's North Coast

When to Go

As far as weather is concerned, the California Redwood Coast can be surprising. One of the key ingredients to happy redwoods is moisture and you will find plenty of it here as rain and fog. Late October through early March are the rain and storm months. This can be depressing or provide some of your best photo opportunities. Sunny days come between the storms and waves may be spectacular. Whales parade by during this period, but are too far offshore for you to photograph. It is definitely the time when few people visit.

A few storms may still pass through during April and May and it is also very windy. This is when some of the azaleas and rhododendrons start blooming and you are still ahead of the crowds.

The summer months are often very foggy and surprisingly cold, but there are plenty of sunny days as well. This is also the most crowded season with the worst crowds over Memorial Day, during August, and Labor Day. September and October probably have the best weather. There is plenty of sun and an occasional storm to make the landscapes and sunsets interesting. Go in spring if you want to photograph wildflowers and baby elk, fall if you're looking for elk in full antlers, and late fall for the addition of fall color.

What to Bring

A tripod is essential. You will be under a dark canopy of trees most of the time. Bring fast film, if shooting film, and choose one that renders brown, green, and red (pastel rose to purple) colors well. You will want close-up equipment for wildflowers, and a telephoto is essential for photographing elk. Photographing redwoods and the other trees will be a challenge. An ultra wide-angle and even a fisheye lens is effective-not for straight-on shooting but for straight-up shooting. Stand in the middle of a grove of tall trees or right next to the side of a single tree and point your wide-angle lens straight up.

Remember, everything is going to be wet. An extra large poncho works well to keep both you and your equipment dry. An extra inexpensive plastic poncho can be thrown over your camera and tripod with your lens peeking through the head hole.

Redwood National Park

Photo Guide to Redwood National Park and California's North Coast
Photo Guide to Redwood National Park and California's North Coast

Redwood National Park includes three state parks: Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Redwood and Jedediah Smith Redwood. Although there are jurisdiction differences, the entire area is known as Redwood National Park.

Fog is common here, especially in summer. Fog can be both your photographic friend and foe. It spoils views, adds delicate mystery to a scene, and can provide dramatic lighting when the sun just begins to break through it. To get the right degree of sun and fog, you will want to scout the area and then plan your shoots according to the fog patterns.

If you don't have much time to spend at Redwood National Park, concentrate on the Prairie Creek Redwood State Park area. Stop at the Visitor Center and then hike the Prairie Loop Trail to photograph the elk and the redwood forest. Then take the Davison Road to Gold Bluff Beach in the late afternoon or early morning to photograph the elk there, and hike the short distance from the beach through Fern Canyon. If you have some extra time, I would put the Stout Grove in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park next on your list. You can make the short hike there from the Visitor Center, but if you can, try to include the Howland Hill Road as part of your route.

Orick Area

Just west of the town of Orick north of Freshwater Lagoon is the Redwood Information Center. If you are arriving at Redwoods National Park from the south, this is a good place to stop and get a map and other information. The center is open from 8 am to 6 pm daily. The Tall Trees Shuttle leaves from here. See below. Bald Hill Road

This road leads off the highway to the right (heads east or inland) and is two miles north of Orick. It is a paved road but steep, and not recommended for RVs. The Bald Hill Road takes you through redwoods and oaklands and is the access to Lady Bird Johnson Grove and the Tall Trees Area. About eight miles along the road, just beyond the Redwood Creek Overlook and the Tall Trees Access Road, you may see elk early or late in the day in a very photogenic setting.

Lady Bird Johnson Grove

Two miles from Route 101 on Bald Hill Road is the parking area for the Lady Bird Johnson Grove. Across the bridge from the parking area is an easy one-mile loop through the grove along an old logging road. You can easily do the loop in a half hour. This grove has a more open feeling than some others and you can actually see the sky above the trees and photograph entire redwoods.

Tall Trees Grove

Some of the tallest trees in the world are found in the Tall Trees Grove. Reaching the grove, however, is not always easy. During the summer, you can take a shuttle from the Visitor Center near Orick. The rest of the year you must obtain a permit (only a limited number of cars are allowed each day) to drive the road. It is a 17-mile drive. The limited access area is a winding, unpaved logging road from Bald Hill Road. Whether by car or shuttle, once you reach the access point, it is a three-mile round-trip hike to the grove with a steep return. You should allow around four hours. From the trail head, you are looking down into the grove. If you decide to do the hike, you will be passing giant ferns and moss-covered logs. The grove is particularly pretty in spring when redwood sorrel, dogwood, rhododendron and azalea are in bloom. You can't see the tops of the trees within the grove.

You can also reach the Tall Trees area via the Redwood Creek Trail. This is an eight-mile trek that follows Redwood Creek (the "worm"). Allow about five hours one-way. This hike can only be done during the summer-the bridges over the creek are removed the rest of the year. You should plan it as an overnight if you intend to hike the full trail both ways. Consider either a two-car shuttle or leaving your car at the Redwood Creek Trail head (or the Visitor Center with an additional four-mile hike back to your car at the Visitor Center) and taking the Shuttle Bus to the Tall Trees upper access area. You then have a one-way walk down to your car.

Coastal Trail

Just after Bald Hill Road, on the west side of the road, is a short road to the southern end of the Coastal Trail. This trail follows the coastal bluffs all the way to Enderts Beach near Crescent City. Sections of it can be picked up at various locations in the park.

Prairie Creek Area

Davison Road

About four miles north of Orick, is Davison Road. This is an eight-mile, narrow, unpaved road that takes you through a spruce and redwood forest to Gold Bluffs Beach and Fern Canyon. The Gold Bluffs Beach area is an excellent place to photograph elk usually seen feeding from where the road turns north at the Pacific Ocean to the parking area for Fern Canyon. Gold Bluffs Beach is a sand dune area backed by high cliffs. Fern Canyon should be high on your "must photograph" list and can be reached by trails if you do not take the road. Fern Canyon is covered in more detail below. Trailers are not allowed on this road.

A couple miles past the Davison Road turnoff, the area adjoining both sides of the highway opens into a meadow. From here to the park entrance is a prime area for elk. There are plenty of parking areas where you can pull over to photograph the elk. Actually, elk are found everywhere in the Prairie Creek area. Other good places to photograph elk are in the meadow next to the campground and along the Elk Prairie and Cathedral Trees trails.

Elk Prairie Loop (three miles, easy)

This route takes you around the edge of the prairie area popular with elk. From the Visitor Center go southwest past the campground, then follow the trail southeast across Elk Prairie Parkway and then up the east side of the prairie area with a return to the Visitor Center. If you don't find enough elk views to your liking, you can add another two miles to your walk by turning east at the northernmost point of the trail for half a mile and then going north on the more moderate Cathedral Tail, around the Circle Trail and then south either along the Foothill Trail or the south portion of the Prairie Creek Trail. Rhododendron Loop

If it is springtime and you are looking for photos of rhododendrons and other wildflowers, you might be up to the slightly more strenuous hike up the Rhododendron Trail. A loop section that includes the Brown Creek Trail with a return via the South Fork Trail is about three miles. The trailhead is about two miles north of the Visitor Center on the east side of the Parkway.

James Irvine Trail

If you do not drive to Fern Canyon via Davison Road, you will want to plan a day hike to Fern Canyon. This is a 4.5-mile hike down and then a moderate hike back up through a forest of old growth redwoods and Douglas firs with giant ferns and delicate redwood sorrel along the way. A good alternative would be to hike it one way with a car shuttle at the end of Davison Road.

Fern Canyon Loop

This very short but beautiful hike takes you a half-mile through a canyon with sixty-foot walls carved by Home Creek. The walls are covered with ferns-maidenhair, five-finger, and sword. The creek is shallow in summer, but access to the canyon can be blocked by the swollen creek during the rainy season. This canyon is best photographed early in the day or late afternoon.


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