The forgotten jewel of
Northern California's highway system is US-101, also known in this
stretch as the Redwood Highway. Sandwiched between the
incredible coastal vistas of California Highway 1 and the major truck
thoroughfare of Interstate 5, Highway 101 runs from downtown Los
Angeles all the way up the Oregon and Washington Coasts, wraps around
the Olympic Peninsula at the far Northwestern point of the United
States, and heads South to Olympia, the capital of Washington State.
The Washington and
Oregon portions of Highway 101 are well known for their coastal
panoramas, but the portion from downtown San Francisco to the Northern
climax of California coastal scenic byway Highway 1 is largely ignored
by travelers. Those who want incredible scenery head for the
coast while those who are looking to make good time head for the wide
lanes of Interstate 5. Forgotten in the mix is some of the
most beautiful scenery that the state of California has to offer.
The highway twists and
turns through the rolling vistas of Marin County, the vineyard covered
hillsides of Sonoma County, and continues up into the coastal
mountains of Mendocino County before it's eventual merge with
California Highway 1 and the famed Redwood forest and eventually the
dramatic Oregon coastline.
The San Francisco end
of Highway 101 is well touristed, as it is the highway that passes
over the famed Golden Gate Bridge, the symbol of San Francisco.
On the San Francisco side of the bridge lies Golden Gate Park, a stop
on all tour routes. As you drive over the historic bridge, you
enter wealthy Marin county. The first stop is Vista Point, just
the other side of Golden Gate, where you can take photos of the bridge
with San Francisco and the bay in the background, as well as photos of
the Bay Bridge and San Francisco skyline.
As you leave the city,
the difference is striking. The congested city is instantly
replaced with rolling hills, dotted with mansions interspersed with
cow pastures. The area is beautiful - just a joy to drive
through. The road passes the city of San Rafael, the only
sizeable community in mostly rural Marin County, then continues to the
famed wine country of Sonoma County. As you enter Sonoma County,
the scenery is largely unchanged except it's notable that the tree
covered hillsides of Marin County are steadily giving way to bare
grass hills carpeted with green. You pass through the city of
Santa Rosa, the largest community of Sonoma County, then approach the
renown wine retreat of Windsor. The drive through the rest of
Sonoma County is enchanting - vineyards cover the rolling green
hillsides and wine tasting rooms dot the sides of the freeway.
As with Marin County, this area is primarily rural, with just a few
small towns such as Geyserville and Cloverdale breaking up the endless
As you pass from
Sonoma County into Mendocino County, the vineyards continue through
the small community of Hopland most of the way to Ukiah, which is the
biggest city in the xx square mile county, with a population of just
xx. After Ukiah, the vineyards start to give way to mountains,
covered by pine forests. Shortly down the road, you pass over
the Russian River and through the town of Capella at the junction with
California Highway 20, then soon arrive in Willits.
Willits is the
self-proclaimed "Gateway to the Redwoods" as they proudly boast on a
large sign as you enter the town. Willits is also known for the
Skunk Train, one of the country's premier scenic railways, which is located just off the highway on Commercial
Street. Almost immediately after Willits, you are catapulted
into the beautiful, tree draped mountain sides of the Coast Range, and
the highway is cut into the sides of the mountains, giving panoramic
views of the mountain range. After passing through Longvale, at the junction of Highway 162, the highway shrinks to two
lanes and flattens out, passing through areas of pasture filled with
oak trees before re-entering the forests just before passing over
Rattlesnake Summit, elevation xx feet. The two-lane highway
snakes now along the banks of the xx River for xx miles before
widening out again into a four lane freeway and opening back up to
outstanding panoramas of the Coast Range about 10 miles South of
The views continue
until you reach Exit xx which takes you to the big town of Leggett,
population 315, and the route's most famous attraction, the Drive-Thru
Tree. The mammoth Chandelier Tree stands 315 feet high and is 21
feet wide at it's base, a size achieved by it's age, estimated at an
ancient 2400 years. WOW - that's old. Drive Through Tree
Park costs $5.00 per vehicle to enter. Inside the park is a gift
shop and a snack bar, the Chandelier Tree, and nothing else. If you
have an RV, large van or raised pickup, you will probably not fit
through the drive-thru tree. Our Infiniti SUV barely fit.
Just up the road in
Garberville, you can see the One Log House, a gigantic 2100
year old redwood that was hollowed out in 1946 and turned into a 7x32
foot, 42 ton home. The house went on tour in it's early years
and still remains attached to the original trailer to this day.
Redwoods State Park, at the Philipsville exit, you'll want to take
a detour off the Redwood Highway (US-101) and take a scenic 32-mile
drive through the best and most
impressive portion of the Redwood Forest of California, the amazing Avenue of the Giants.
After touring the Avenue of the Giants, you'll hook back up with the
Redwood Highway at the Jordan Creek Exit, near the town of Scotia.
There isn't much to
see for the next xx miles or so as the highway makes its way through
the redwoods to Humboldt Bay and it's largest community, Eureka.
A short sidetip to the west will take you to the Victorian village of
Ferndale, but that's about it. Eureka has all the conveniences,
and it's historic bayfront contains a number of shops and restaurants
and a couple cozy bed & breakfast-type inns.
The next town past
Eureka is Arcata, home to Humboldt State College. The
college-town environment keeps the town hopping, and the lively town
square makes Arcata a good place to stop for the night before tackling
the rest of the North California Coast the next day or two.
You'll find the usual array of business-class hotels in Arcata.
The stretch from
Eureka to Orick runs through marshlands, farms, and along the Humboldt
Lagoons - no redwoods to see here, which is almost welcome after how
many you just saw at the Avenue of the Giants. In about a
half-hour or so, you'll come to the small resort town of Trinidad,
which doesn't have much to offer a traveler except a few B&B inns, a
casino, and a couple of small restaurants. However, it's worth a
quick stop to go down to an overlook of the beautiful beach here.
As you approach
Redwood National Park, you'll see the world's largest herd of
endangered Roosevelt Elk - the largest and most impressive of the Elk
species. You'll know where to look because they'll be out in
front of the Stone Lagoon School, easily identified by it's cute red
paint (and of course all the Elk Crossing signs). As you enter
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park just up the road, you'll almost
immediately see more Elk grazing along the roadway. Stop and
take some photos, but don't get out of your car - they can charge at
any time, which would be bad news for you.
Here you'll want to
take the exit for the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway - this will take
you through the middle of the biggest redwoods in the park. Not
far into the park, you'll see an "opportunity" to drive the
Coast Scenic Byway. If you have lots of time and don't value
your vehicle, you can try to drive it - be prepared for massive
potholes and rough, bumpy gravel and dirt roads without much payoff.
There is one good viewpoint not far up the road - do yourself a favor
and turn around after getting a good look at the coast. The
Parkway offers very big trees along the roadway, but not as many
attractions as it's counterpart, Avenue of the Giants.
After merging back up
with US Highway 101, the Redwood Highway, you'll cross over the
Klamath River bridge (notable by two golden grizzly bears straddling
the entry to the bridge) into the small town of Klamath, marking where
the Klamath River meets the sea. There's not a lot to see in
Klamath except the Tour-Thru Tree, which costs $2.00 to drive through
it. Three miles past Klamath, you'll see (trust us - you'll see it)
huge signs for the "Trees of Mystery", also marked by massive statues
of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his Blue Ox. Trees of Mystery, featured
on Ripleys Believe it or Not, is well worth a stop - there is a nature
trail with narrated exhibits explaining such tree formations as the
Cathedral, the Octopus Tree, the Upside Down Tree, and the fun Tall
Tales Trail. The highlight of the Trees of Mystery, though, is
the gondola ride called "Sky Trail", which rises up through the
Redwoods to a viewpoint. Not for those afraid of heights, but
for the rest of us, it's a unique attraction and worth a look.
The highway launches
upward again into Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, which offers
smaller versions of the redwoods you'll find in the Prairie Creek and
Humboldt Redwoods State Parks to the south, but also offers a few
coastal panoramas along the way to Crescent City - make sure to stop
and take photos along this stretch when you see a Vista Point.
US-101 drops down now into Crescent City, where the headquarters for
Redwood National Park are located. The only attraction in
Crescent City is Ocean World, a small aquarium that offers a tidepool
petting zoo, a sea lion show, a small aquarium containing a number of
sharks, bat rays, sturgeon, ling cod, dungeness crab, and other local
fish, and has an activity where you can actually pet a shark.
There is a guided tour through the attraction and the cost is
reasonable at xx. The attraction is set up for families with
kids, and the kids seemed to all have a great time. Crescent
City also has an operational lighthouse, and several decent hotels,
the best of which is the oceanside Hampton Inn. Don't look for
gourmet cuisine here, though.
At Crescent City, the
Redwood Highway departs the California Coast and highway US-101 and
travels along US-199 toward Grants Pass, Oregon. The California
section of Highway 199 is very beautiful, snaking along the top of the
Smith River Canyon, with the white water river rushing below.
The roadway is cut into the cliffs and at times gets pretty narrow.
The redwoods and other large conifers line the highway, while
deciduous trees line the river, a lovely contrast. Make sure to
fuel up in Crescent City before heading up here though - there's not
much of anything until you cross the border.
As you cross the
Oregon Border, the forest suddenly changes to a more arid,
mountain climate, and the roadway straightens out. The first
sizeable town you'll come to is Cave Junction, home to the
Great Cats World Park, and also the turnoff to the Oregon Caves.
The roadway then turns more mountainous again as you enter the
Siskiyous Mountain Range and make your way toward Grants Pass,
the biggest town since San Rafael, and the terminus of the Redwood
Highway Scenic Drive. From here, you can head up or down
Interstate 5 or head out to the Oregon Coast.
The Redwood Highway -
xx Miles (xx km) From San Francisco, CA to Grants Pass, OR.