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)

 

Ode to Road Trips Past: 36 Hours in San Francisco & Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Trail

Locals might poke fun at the stereotypical Hawaii tourist fantasy of grass skirts, coconut bras, and hula-dancing maidens bearing flower lei at luaus, but really, we’re no different when it comes to the Mainland. The truth is Hawaii folk harbor some pretty quirky fantasies about the Lower 48, too. We obsess over IKEA and Trader Joe’s and how many jars of cookie butter we can smuggle home in our suitcases. We yearn for snow days and wood-burning fireplaces. Fantasize about RVs and cross-country road trips. Also, squirrels and raccoons are the most amazing wildlife ever–and no, I’m not even close to kidding.

When I was a kid, there was this commercial that aired between Underdog and the Flintstones. It featured Kalani, a local boy whose family owned property in Montana. Kalani had his very own babbling brook to splash in and an endless backyard of pine forest for horseback riding. He urged Hawaii kids to sell their parents on the merits of beautiful Ponderosa Pines. Come visit me, Kalani, and we can go to Yellowstone anytime we want! I begged my parents daily to move to Ponderosa Pines. Sure, I was only five, but I knew what I wanted, and what I wanted was that. I was sold on the dream.

Fast forward a few decades, and after one fun/exhausting/expensive-as-heck trip to SeaWorld, Universal Studios, Legoland, and Disneyland in 2011 (don’t get me wrong; I love all things Disney!), I recalled those childhood fantasies of RVs, road trips, and Ponderosa Pines. Thus was born the annual family road trip and the dream to see our nation’s parks. To be sure, our road trips looked a lot different in 2013. There were afternoon naps and potty breaks for our preschooler. Motel beds. Restaurant meals twice a day. Hikes were under 2 miles, and parks were sprinkled in almost as an afterthought between museum visits and city activities. Given the chance to go back though, I wouldn’t change a thing. These baby-steps laid the foundation for our appreciation of the size and grandeur of our nation, and perhaps more significantly, the kids’ love for our National Parks and the outdoors.

Road Trip 2013 began with a 5.5 hour flight to Oakland, CA . Flying with an antsy four-year-old was…well, challenging, but we touched down intact just after 11 pm. It was no less challenging to convince said four-year-old that what his little body perceived as 8 pm Hawaii time was in fact very, very late in California time. Between our excitement and the time change, no one slept much, but the troops rallied to hit the ground running early the next morning. Our first stop: San Francisco!

Day 1:

Part of my road trip/Ponderosa Pines fueled fantasies included hanging off a cable car Doris Day-style, so we parked at the Embarcadero and hurried to the cable car turnaround on Powell and Market. There was already quite a line brewing at 7:30 am, but in no time at all, we boarded a Powell and Hyde car and were off to the races–and I mean that literally, because man, those cable cars move fast! The scaredy cat in me reconsidered the hanging from the rails/certain death plan and settled for outward facing seats instead.

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Bright and early at the cable car turnaround on Powell and Market

Our next stop was Fisherman’s Wharf for a Golden Gate Bay Cruise. Prior to our trip, I’d found a 50% off Groupon for Red and White Fleet tours and purchased 10 am tickets to circle Alcatraz Island and sail under the world-famous bridge. Given another chance, we’d probably tack on a day tour of Alcatraz as well, but we loved our boat ride nonetheless. Free audio tours sharpened our bearings and helped us pinpoint historic San Francisco landmarks. Being on the water turned out to be a fun way to experience San Francisco with young kids.

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Tickets for our GG Bay Cruise
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Red and White Fleet cruise; with a Groupon, the cost was very reasonable
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Time sure flies…I can’t believe they were ever that little!
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We had perfect weather!
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Sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge
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Circling Alcatraz; next time, we’ll be sure to book a day tour here

Once back at the wharf, we set about to the important business of filling our bellies. And to those of us with Lower 48 fantasies, nothing says San Francisco like Boudin sourdough bread bowls brimming with steaming clam chowder. To this day, I’m unconvinced there’s anything more satisfying than tearing into piping hot sourdough to sop up ladlefuls of creamy clam chowder.

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Fisherman’s Wharf, 2013
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I still can’t believe we ordered 4 of these! Honestly, 2 would’ve been more than plenty
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There’s nothing for it but to pick it up and eat the whole thing!

Our post-lunch walk along Fisherman’s Wharf from Pier 39 to the Exploratorium measured in at a mile, but with a preschooler in tow, that mile felt more like five. Poor guy; with little sleep, a new time zone, and no nap on the horizon, a mile was a lot to ask. We arrived at the Exploratorium on foot in just over an hour–a little worse for wear but without any major meltdowns.

The Exploratorium offers interactive exhibits and multiple explorations in science, art, and human perception. It’s an eclectic mix, falling somewhere between art gallery and science museum with a dash of Brain Games to boot. All I know is we could’ve easily spent the entire day here once we got to playing. The kids loved the interactive physics games and especially enjoyed the Out Quiet Yourself exhibit, a scientific and meditative exercise in walking as quietly as possible across a gravel path against a sound meter.

After five hours at the Exploratorium, we shifted into low gear (literally) to drive down Lombard Street, aka the Crookedest Street in the World. Just as we hit the top of Lombard, though, I glanced back to find all three kids fast asleep. The hubby and I enjoyed the twisty descent alone, letting the kids catch a few well-earned Zs.

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The kids might’ve fallen asleep, but the hubby and I enjoyed Lombard Street

Even though I’m fairly sure we consumed our body weight in sourdough and clam chowder earlier that morning, we still managed to put away a golden batch of fish and chips at The Codmother Fish and Chips, an authentic joint run by a lovely British woman with a penchant for deep-fried and delicious. It’s been years since I’ve visited the UK, but this stuff was at least as good as real-deal London fare minus the newspaper cone. We wholeheartedly recommend it!

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The Codmother, located just off of Fisherman’s Wharf
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I couldn’t resist posting this one: proof positive that I might’ve packed our itinerary a little too full 😀

Not quite ready to head back to Oakland just yet, we splurged on dinner at Alioto’s on Fisherman’s Wharf. Critic reviews may be mixed, but for us, Alioto’s was the perfect mix of charming ambiance, sunset views, and iconic location. And what’s more iconically Fisherman’s Wharf than steaming bowls of spicy, brothy crab cioppino? Watching the sun sink below the horizon, we savored our seafood, thankful for the experience. A short trek over the Bay Bridge took us back to Days Inn, Oakland for the night.

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Crab cioppino and sunset at Alioto’s–delicious end to a great first day

Day 2:

Complete with an historic carousel and sand slides for cardboard racing, Koret Children’s Quarter in Golden Gate Park turned out to be an unexpected trip highlight for us! To this day, the kids reminisce about the cardboard slides and intricate rope towers they monkeyed around on. Our resident birder (aka the oldest) spotted his first hummingbird, and we loved the novelty of finding Queen Wilhelmina’s Tulip Garden and neighboring Bison Paddock smack-dab in the middle of the city. If these features sound completely incongruous, it’s because they are–with good reason: Golden Gate Park is HUGE. We’re talking multiple museums, windmills, and bison paddock huge. So when we decided to visit onsite California Academy of Sciences for our youngest, whose only road trip request was to see dinosaur fossils, we figured it might take as long as 15-20 minutes to circle the block. Did I mention it was Free Museum Admission Sunday?

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Koret Children’s Quarter, Golden Gate Park
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Hangin’ around
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They slid here for hours; people often leave their cardboard slides for others to enjoy
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Historic carousel in the children’s quarter
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Tulip Garden, Golden Gate Park

I hear you laughing at our delusion.

After two hours navigating gridlock and the assembled hordes, we finally managed to park and snake our way into the 5-city-block-long line. No exaggeration, we couldn’t even see the museum from where we stood! Still, the line moved quickly, and we were grateful to gain (free!) entrance within an hour. Sadly, a docent informed us that the Academy’s paleontology collection had moved and that their only remaining fossil was the T-Rex displayed in the lobby. Lucky for us, long-term focus was not our 4-year-old’s strong suit, and he was soon enamored of the earthquake simulator and indoor rainforest. We would’ve loved to spend more time at CAS, but it was 2 pm, and we had a 3 hour drive to Fort Bragg ahead of us.

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Free Admission Sunday was wonderful, but if you’re pressed for time, it’d be better to visit on a regular day to minimize crowds/traffic
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Thank goodness they had a T Rex–made this little guy so happy!
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Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge; bidding goodbye to SF

We nixed Point Reyes National Seashore from the itinerary for lack of time (though we will be stopping here to backpack this summer!), tracing Highway 1 to the exclusive coastal city of Mendocino instead. It’s not difficult to understand Mendocino’s appeal: here, wind-ravaged cliffs fall precipitously to the tempestuous Pacific; inland, bucolic hills roll gently toward redwood havens. It’s the kind of drop-dead gorgeous that beckons you like Siren song. It’s no wonder we couldn’t resist succumbing to an off-itinerary hike to Point Cabrillo Lighthouse in pursuit of the bewitching Golden Hour.

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Point Cabrillo Light Station
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Fort Bragg coast, Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Trail
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The light was so beautiful at that hour
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The fact that there was no one on the trail made it all the more special

There are few things in life I consider magical, but this Point Cabrillo Lighthouse hike made me believe: golden light low on the horizon, crashing waves against lonely, jagged cliffs, a sweet doe that appeared out of the brush to hold our gaze a long moment. With the lighthouse keeper’s lamp aglow in the distance and wildflowers amid tall grasses as far as the eye could see, it was almost as if we’d stepped into a scene from a Thomas Kinkade painting. The dirt was soft, the hiking was easy, and though we never found the actual trail to the lighthouse, we weren’t lost. We were exactly where I’d always hoped we’d be–out there, chasing the dream. img_20130622_231234img_20130602_192346img_20130602_192414

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The deer stepped out of the brush right after this shot was taken