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I love trees. To me, they are wise, old friends who stand tall, shading the ground below and digging their roots deep to get a firm grasp on the earth. Watching leaves age from tiny buds in the spring to vibrantly-colored widespread hands in the fall always leaves me in awe.

My parents are of the wanderlust sort, and many years ago when they were in their twenties, they spent a lot of time out west. Of the many photographs from their adventures, one that always stuck with me was a picture of my dad leaning up against a massive tree. A tree so massive, in fact, that my parents would have had to hold hands with at least ten other people if they wanted to give it a big hug. “That’s a redwood, Carrie,” my dad told me.

Unfortunately, the picture has since been lost, thanks to glue that just doesn’t want to hold to thirty-year-old photo albums. ┬áMy memory, however, is still pretty spot-on and I never forgot that image.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I, too, am of the wanderlust sort, and when I decided to make my first trip west, the one and only place I knew I would be stopping was the redwood forest.

I woke up on the 28th of August in Lassen Volcanic National Park with my heart set on camping in the redwoods that night.  Because of my curiosity, I meandered my way to the coast on Highway 299, stopping in Shasta, then hitting the 101 north of Eureka in McKinleyville, where I touched the Pacific Ocean for the first time in my life.

I never stopped to think that it was the beginning of Labor Day Weekend. When I finally reached the redwoods, all the campgrounds were full. Huge bummer! I headed back to a campground I spotted on Highway 101 called the Big Lagoon.

No surprise, the Big Lagoon Campground is next to a big lagoon, and some pretty cool trees that look like this –>

I hate to admit it, but I can’t remember how much I paid for the site… but it was pretty cheap. No fancy amenities here, just the port-o-jon special, but camping isn’t about fancy bathrooms. I liked that it was small–just a few sites plopped right next to water. I fell asleep listening to the waves of the Pacific.

I woke up early, broke camp, and headed directly to the redwoods. When I arrived at the first campground at 10am, the sign said it was already full. I chose not to believe it, and drove the eight mile drive down Beach Road to Gold Bluffs Beach Campground. As luck would have it, the sign hadn’t been changed from the night before. There were a few spots left, and I was able to secure a nice little piece of heaven.

As it turns out, this wasn’t the first time they didn’t change the signs. Frequent Gold Bluffs campers do what they call the “Gold Bluff Shuffle,” in which those who didn’t get the beach spot the night before move in before new campers learn about this secret gem of a campground. Most spots are secured by 11am. I showed up in the middle of it all, and found myself a site across the little camp-street from the beach. Not too shabby. At $35 a night, Gold Bluffs Beach was on the pricier side, but offered nice. new showers and bathrooms to help get rid of that four-day camping stank.

The best part of this campground, the part that makes it the number one campground in the US for me, is the location. This pleasant little park sits right between the ocean and acres of redwood groves. I found my trees!

After setting up camp, I hoisted my pack and set off to hike the jungles. The Miner’s Ridge Trail, which I followed from Gold Bluffs, led me along Squashan Creek. Right off the bat, I stepped into forest.

There really is nothing quite so surprisingly-intimidating as the redwoods. Mountains, yes. Oceans, of course. Trees? I didn’t know trees could hold that kind of court. I was amazed and taken aback. Massive giants touching the sky.

The Murrelet State Wilderness offers a plethora of hiking trails, ranging from the easy, short treks enjoyed by younger families to the more strenuous, lengthy trails for the avid hiker. I fell somewhere in between, having just half a day left, at a six-mile circle. I followed the Miner’s Ridge Trail deep into the forest to the Clintonia Trail, then wove my way to the James Irvine Trail.

Because I had the expert advice of my campground host, I had thrown my water shoes in my backpack. By the time I reached Fern Canyon, I knew why. When following the James Irvine Trail to the Pacific, a hiker has two choices: the dry route or the wet route. By following the remainder of the James Irvine Trail, one can dryly make it to the ocean, no questions asked. By dropping down into Fern Canyon, which is what I chose to do, there is no way to keep one’s feet out of the water.

The scenery was definitely worth the damp trek, which, thanks to a hot day and heavy hike, felt pretty refreshing. While walking through a 3-5 inch fast-paced stream, I was surrounded by moss-covered walls reaching nearly 50 feet high. Regrettably, it was at this time my camera died, and I only have a few shots of Fern Canyon, but hopefully, you get the idea.

The end of Fern Canyon opened up to the beach, following the stream to the ocean about a mile north of Gold Bluffs Beach. I stripped off my shoes and followed the shore back to my site. I could not have asked for a more perfect Thursday afternoon!

One more special note for anyone wanting to visit Redwood National and State Parks: make sure to stop to see the Big Tree. This humungous beast is 68 feet in circumference and over 1,500 years old. I stopped and had someone take a pic of me. Like father, like daughter.

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  • Greg Heil

    California is home to other massive trees too, such as sequoias and eucalyptus trees. Also, north in Oregon (and maybe the northern stretches of California… I haven’t been there yet) there are the massive douglas fir trees.

    If you’re into big trees, the west coast is the place to be!!

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