The coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) of California’s north coast include the tallest trees on Earth, with several examples of individual trees over 370 feet tall and provide amazing photographic and sometimes challenging photographic opportunities. This weekend I’ll be travelling to the California’s north coast (roughly betwen the towns of Trinidad, California and Crescent City, California) to visit the constellation of four parks (Redwood National Park, Prarie Creek Redwoods State Park, Del Norte State Park, and Jedediah Smith State Park) that to my mind represent some of the finest redwoods photography opportunities available. In this article, I hope to give you a taste of those incredible areas and add a few words about the opportunities and challenges they present.
Starting from the south, Redwood National Park is the most natural place to begin our virtual tour, the National Park Service maintains a visitor center there (actually just south of Orick, CA) and in Crescent City which can provide excellent information and maps of both this park and the three state parks as well. A trip along the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway (which runs through Redwood NP and Prairie Creek SP) makes an excellent first introduction to the redwood environment, as the road wanders through enormous columns of tree creating a vast virtual room, carpeted with fern and trillium. The strangely-named Cal-Barrel Road (a quick turn off the parkway) offers an excellent introductory location to start your explorations.
Here you will quickly discover three challenges in photographing redwood groves: scale, contrast, and the incredible sensitivity of ferns to even the slightest breeze. With respect to the contrast and wind your best bet will be to work on a cloudy (or foggy) windless morning. Contrast is a particular problem on sunny days, as the few bits of sunlight that get through into redwood groves are often many, many stops brighter than that most of the scene.
At Davidson Road near the south end of the park you’ll find the Roosevelt Elk Grove which (as the name suggests) often provides opportunities to (carefully!) photograph elk. From that first grove also consider the short walk to Trillium Falls which is a small, but elegant, waterfall which can be particularly beautiful near the very end of autumn (late October or early November). Davidson Road continues as an often-rutted dirt road out to Gold Bluffs Beach and runs along that beach for a few miles to the parking area for Fern Canyon. The bluffs warm nicely in sunset light (on the rare occasion the coast doesn’t fog in) and elk are often found along the road here, often much closer than you’ll find them over at the Elk Grove. The road ends at a parking area for a short, mile-long hike into Fern Canyon, where a small stream has carved a steep narrow canyon, 20′-30′ high in places, the canyon walls lined with fern. Expect to get your shoes wet here. Bring boots or Tevas, depending on the weather, as you’ll be making several stream crossings along the way.
At the north end of the Redwood NP, just south of the town of Klamath, don’t miss the opportunity to explore the park’s Coastal Drive, which follows the top of the ocean bluffs. While the steepness of the cliffs makes it difficult in most locations to get a wide scenic view here, there are often excellent detail opportunities, and the Face Rock Overlook just off the drive provides a stunning view south along the coast, again offering (weather permitting) excellent sunset potential.
While you could easily spend weeks exploring Redwood National Park and Prairie Creek just in the areas I’ve mentioned (and there’s more to see, for sure), in my upcoming second installment I’ll talk about my single favorite redwood park. I’ll also talk briefly about seasonality and other logistics.