Walking Among Giants: Redwood National Park & Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

Every morning in the second grade, our class would belt out “This Land is Your Land” while our teacher held up photos of Redwood National Park and diagrams of the Gulf Stream current to illustrate the patriotic tune’s famous verse. Seeing California’s redwoods has topped my bucket list ever since. To a second grader stuck on a tropical island, nothing seemed more mythical than millennial giants towering over coastal cliffs. The reality three decades later, though? Even better.

After leaving Point Cabrillo Lighthouse (click here for San Francisco/Point Cabrillo Lighthouse trail), we checked into Seabird Lodge in nearby Fort Bragg. It was one of the nicest motels we’ve ever stayed at, probably due in no small part to its proximity to exclusive Mendocino. ‘Posh motel’ might sound like an oxymoron, but with full amenities, spacious rooms, and upscale decor, Seabird Lodge felt more like a coastal bed and breakfast escape than a motel. Given the chance, we’d gladly stay here again.

At the front desk’s recommendation, we dined at D’Aurelios, a gem of an Italian eatery hidden in an unassuming strip mall. This humble diner was true Guy Fieri material: impeccable service, reasonable prices, and outstanding food made this one of our best road trip finds ever! It was hands down the best pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life. Pizza sauce wasn’t something I’d ever given much thought to before tasting D’Aurelios garlicky, addictive, and downright crave-worthy sauce. This stuff was ambrosia!

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D’Aurelios makes THE most amazing pizza! Their “side salads” were gargantuan and delicious, too.

After some much needed rest, we ventured north toward Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile stretch of old Highway 101 encompassing Humboldt Redwood State Park and purported to contain the most scenic display of redwoods in the area. It did not disappoint.

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I couldn’t get enough of that soft light filtering through the trees
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A true towering giant
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The kids took to calling the soft beams ‘God light,’ which seemed very fitting
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Well, hello, little banana slug

Avenue of the Giants redefines the term ‘enchanting.’ Here, sky surrenders to colossal trees and Lilliputian cars wind through shaded bends. You stretch your neck to pinpoint where canopy ends and sky begins, but it’s folly; even from the forest floor, it’s clear the redwoods climb forever and then some. The forest is all dappled light and prehistoric ferns and majestic giants, but it’s a fragile magic. Too often, we found ourselves seeking ever taller trees instead of appreciating the splendor of the forest. One of the best decisions we made was to pull over and wander on foot for a mile or so. If ever we believed that any of the trees were anything less than tall, all we had to do was lay on the ground and look up for a minute to realize the futility of comparing height when you’re talking redwoods. Walking among gentle giants, enveloped in the kind of deep silence that speaks to the passing of millennia, we loved the peace and serenity afforded here.

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Redwoods may not boast the same breadth and girth as sequoias, but their trunks are still massive!
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Hubby posing for scale, Avenue of the Giants
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Playing by the creek, surrounded by redwoods
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She loved standing in her own custom redwood spotlight

From Avenue of the Giants, it was another hour and a half to Redwood National Park. With a stop to admire Gold Bluffs Beach and check on trail conditions at Kuchel Visitor Center, we got down to business hiking Fern Canyon Loop trail. Fern Canyon is a 1-mile loop through a verdant gully painted in ferns. I’d read that this hike was a must-do (it is!) but failed to note how much of the hike was through a creek, so we got wetter than expected. I’d highly recommend Tevas and towels for this one. The kids enjoyed scrambling over logs, crossing swampy boardwalks, and wading through calf-deep water (thigh deep for our preschooler!): Mom and Dad loved the otherworldly ambiance created by the spectacular 30-foot canyon walls of ferns. The trickling of the creek and the dank, lush gully combined to make this hike a family favorite.

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Entrance to Fern Canyon Loop
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Lots of fun creek crossings
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The kids loved clambering over the wet logs and boardwalks
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Fern Canyon, Redwood National Park

We circled back to Prairie Creek, hoping to catch a glimpse of Redwood’s famed Roosevelt elk. Aptly enough, we found a herd taking respite in the shade at none other than Elk Prairie itself. The was the kids’ first wildlife sighting, and they couldn’t have been more thrilled! We pulled over and watched the family of elk for quite a while before continuing on.

From Elk Prairie, it was back to Prairie Creek Visitor Center to walk 0.3-mile Circle Trail. Realizing we were pressed for time, we nixed 1-mile Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail from our itinerary in favor of Circle Trail. This easy, level trail was perfect for our 4-year-old, who’d had his fill of driving and hiking by late afternoon. Even he couldn’t begrudge the chance to see Big Tree, a 1,500-year-old colossus and true superlative in a park full of biggests and tallests. Having the trail to ourselves was a treat; in fact, we’d barely passed another soul all day. Redwood might be packed to capacity during the summer, but we were fortunate to visit during the first week of June when many schools were still in session.

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Big Tree: 1,500 years old!!
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Big Tree stands a whopping 304 feet tall

We ended our time in Redwood National Park driving 9-mile Coastal Drive Loop. With narrow, unpaved roads and blind curves skirting precipitous cliffs, this 1-hour drive is not for the faint of heart, but the payoff in panoramic views of the Pacific is unsurpassed. I love Hawaii and our beautiful ocean views, but there’s something about the California coast that speaks to me. It’s a quintessential mix of rugged beauty and slate-blue water just shy of inviting; blue skies tempered by fog echo the mild but untamed sentiment of the coast.

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Stopping to stretch our legs on Coastal Drive
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Coastal Drive, Redwood National Park
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The views were worth those scary hairpin turns
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View of the California coast from Coastal Drive (please forgive the poor photo quality; these were taken on an old phone)

By sunset, we were more than ready for dinner at Good Harvest Cafe, a Crescent City eatery with an emphasis on local, organic cuisine. Dinner was pretty good, though I’ve read rave reviews about Good Harvest Cafe’s brunch fare–worth a try if you’re in the area. We settled in for the night at Front Street Inn with an ocean view of Battery Point Lighthouse to lull us to sleep.

The next morning, we awoke early to cross the California border into Oregon. We traveled the coast for 3 hours, admiring lonely sea stacks and pelicans before arriving at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Encompassing more than 40 miles of sand dunes in Reedsport, OR, Oregon Dunes NRA represents the largest stretch of coastal sand dunes in North America. The tallest specimens reach 500-feet high, providing recreational opportunities galore, including dune buggying, canoeing, hiking, and camping. We enjoyed a picnic lunch high atop a covered bluff before venturing down to the sand. Sand and surf may define our summers, but we’d never seen anything like this before! The dunes are marked by undulating sand ripples, paralleled endlessly across miles of coast. There is a hypnotic quality to the unbroken ripples that initially made us reluctant to mar the sand with footprints, but it wasn’t long before we were running and sliding down the dunes, getting the cardio workout of our lives. What comes down must first go up, and climbing up those steep dunes was tougher than we expected! We would have loved to spend all day here, but we had another 100 miles to cover before our final stop for the night: Newport, OR.

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This was the kids’ first time crossing a state line; OR marked their first state outside of CA and HI.
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Like sands through the hourglass…Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
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Loved the ripple pattern–so striking over miles of dunes
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Life-size sandbox
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That dark speck at the top is the oldest. Sliding downhill didn’t work out so well, but running downhill was lots of fun

With a quick bird-watching stop at atmospheric Heceta Head Lighthouse, we arrived at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport a little after 3 pm. Normally, I’d hesitate to pay for admission knowing we only had a few hours left to closing, but we had a 60% off Groupon that sweetened the deal. The adorable sea otter exhibit was a big hit with the kids, as were the walk-through shark tunnel, aviary, and interactive kids’ exhibit.

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Birdwatching at Heceta Head Lighthouse; seeing pelicans up-close was a thrill!
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Rugged beauty, Heceta Head Lighthouse
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Quintessential PNW mystique
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Oregon coastline, near OR Sea Lion Caves, Florence
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Oregon Coast Aquarium, Newport, OR

We chowed down on clam chowder and seafood at Newport Chowder Bowl, followed by a chilly evening on the beach. Like many quaint summer towns along the Oregon coast, Newport exudes a laid-back, boardwalk charm that we’d love to explore more fully someday. In hindsight, it might have been wiser to explore the coast over 2 weeks instead of cramming it into 5 days, but I’m grateful to have gotten a taste of the coast. Even as I plan Road Trip 2017, this is an issue I continue to struggle with: is it better to see someplace for a little while than never to visit it at all? And what if doing so comes at the expense of more fully enjoying a single destination? This area is very gray to me, so please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts. There’s no denying we were National Park Road Trip rookies in 2013, making classic rookie mistakes: too much time driving, too little time experiencing, and way too much rushing around. No regrets, though; without that experience, we wouldn’t have had a baseline to know what worked and didn’t work for us. Best of all, 2013 was a pivotal year for falling in love with National Parks and road trips–and that’s something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

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Newport Chowder Bowl–their namesake chowder was so creamy and delicious
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Can you tell we were a little cold? 😀
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Father and son bonding time, Oregon Coast (Newport)

 

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17 thoughts on “Walking Among Giants: Redwood National Park & Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area”

  1. I’m a crammer–count me in for driving a few hours out of the way to see another attraction on the way to the main attraction. My family winces when I say, “You know, we could visit X, and then drop down to see Y, and make a big loop back by Z.” In my book a short visit is better than no visit at all, because at least you know where you want to return to spend more time. Or you can mark something off the list as “Been there, done that, no need to return.” National Parks are always on my “Spend More Time” list.

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    1. Thanks for weighing in, JD. This resonates with me on so many levels, especially the part about your family wincing, lol! I can definitely relate. I like what you said about short visits helping you know where you want to return to. So many amazing places to see and so little time to see them all. Like I tell my kids–sleeping is for after vacation, right? They’re not too fond of that one. 😀

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  2. So much good info! We have yet to visit that area and we were just doing some research about that northwestern corner of CA the other day! What timing, I will definitely be bookmarking this post, thank you! We may have to visit the pizza place in Fort Bragg sooner though 🙂 What an awesome trip with redwoods, sand dunes, the coast, fern canyon, great places to stay and good food – my goodness! No wonder you guys fell in love with NPs and road trips after that!! Now I’m even more excited to plan a trip up there and follow your lead! Whether you try to cram it all in or try to fully enjoy the place, in my opinion it’s about the experiences and memories you create. With the smiles on everyone’s faces, your trip was sure a success!

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    1. Thanks so much for your sweet comment. 🙂 How awesome that you guys are planning a trip up north! It looked like there were so many beautiful places to camp; can’t wait to read how it goes! My daughter was looking through these pics and said, “I miss those motel and restaurant trips. Those were the good ol’ days.” Not so fond of the backpacking, that one, lol. I love what you said about it being about the experiences and memories you create. So true! Either approach can backfire if everyone’s unhappy (definitely been there). You’re right–those feel-good memories are the best guide!

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  3. Looks like you discovered that the weather on the Oregon Coast is pretty much cold year round. It was nostalgic to see that you guys were at about the same spot we had our sandwich lunch on the beach below the Heceta Head Lighthouse. Regarding the trip planning, we weren’t a crammer. We enjoy a slower pace and to get to know that places better even if it’s not an efficient use of the time. Any styles of travel is good. It depends on your purpose of the trip IMHO. Nice post.

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    1. Thanks, Keng! We were totally underprepared for the cold and wind (so much wind!), but we loved the coast. How fun that you guys picnicked at Heceta Head, too. I love the way you guys take the time to really get to know places–I have a lot to learn from you in that department. I like what you said about how the purpose of the trip dictates the style of travel. So true! Cramming is in my blood, but I’m trying to be better about downtime and being present.

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  4. We lived in a parallel universe: I remember singing that song (the Canadian version) in grade school…from Bonavista to Vancouver Island! It’s going to be in my head all day. We have yet to get to the Redwoods. Wow, they are even bigger than the huge Douglas fir we have up here. We loved coastal Oregon. The combo of dunes and wild ocean is one of my favourites. We did an awesome dunes hike on the John Dellenbeck trail near Reedsport. Lovely way to start my morning…thanks!

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    1. I didn’t realize there was a Canadian version of the song; yes, parallel universes, indeed! I hesitated to post this Redwoods trip as it was more of a drive-through than anything else, but it certainly whet our appetite for more. Camping at Gold Bluffs Beach is high on the list for sure. I’ve only read about the John Dellenback trail, but it sounds (and looks) amazing! Would love to read more about your experience sometime for a future trip.

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  5. Really enjoyed seeing your photos and reading about the Pacific Coast. The redwoods are something I’ve dreamed about visiting for a long time, and I had no idea there were so many cool things to see and do along the coast in Oregon.

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    1. Thanks so much, Niko! So many great stops along the coast–we’d love to explore more someday. I know you’ll get to the redwoods soon…you travel to so many amazing, exotic locations; I learn so much from your posts and always come away with new bucket list items!

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