Travel Far, Eat Local
Camping in Redwoods National Forest: Everything You Need to Know
Updated: Sep 15, 2022
Yup, the trees are yuge
Big Tree, Small Car
Driving into Redwoods National Forest over Fourth of July weekend without having reserved a campsite, I did not have high hopes of obtaining a reasonable place to rest my head for the night within the boundaries of the park. I had been driving for several hours, having left Coos Bay, Oregon early in the morning in some ridiculous attempt to find a campsite "on a whim" in literally one of the most busiest national parks in the USA on the busiest camping weekend of the year. During COVID. Sounds reasonable, right? I thought so, which I how I found myself driving down a long, winding road in Jedidiah Smith State Park, my short neck craned in all possible directions and degrees as I attempted to look straight up (while driving) at the enormous trees on either side of my very tiny car.
I left Seattle several days prior, with a final destination of San Francisco. This road trip was taking place over a period of two weeks, and I made several stops along the way, including Portland, southern Oregon, and now Redwoods National Park in Northern California.
Now, fortunately for me, I pulled into the main campsite and (to my incredible surprise considering every campsite was reserved online just the night before), ONE campsite was left. One. In the ENTIRE park, there was one spot. "Would you like to see the site first?", the nice park ranger asked. "Ummm... nope. I'll take it!" $35 later and I had a bonefied place to sleep for the night.
So, I want to write this blog to explain a little bit about how camping works in Redwoods, what exactly encompasses Redwoods National Park (it's actually four different parks), and how to reserve a campsite so you can avoid the same nail-biting anxiety I had the entire drive to the park.
What exactly is Redwoods National Forest/Park? So, it includes the following four parks: Jedidiah Smith (where I stayed); Del Norte Coast; Prairie Creek; and Redwood National Park. The main reason I stayed at Jedidiah Smith is because it is the only one of the parks where you can actually pitch a tent directly beneath towering coastal redwood trees. Like, there was a 300-foot redwood 50 feet from my tent. No joke. The other parks offer an abundance of camping options, but they're removed from the actual redwood groves.
With the exception of very few sites, all camping in the four parks above is reservation-only, and is at designated campsites. Basically, you're car camping. Each site in Jedidiah Smith has a fire ring, table/benches, built-in steel bear locker, and tent site. You can park your car directly at your campsite, which is super convenient. They even had some guy drive around at night selling firewood; it was great! I love a good hike and backcountry camping, but it was actually really nice and very relaxing to just pull in and set up camp quickly. This way, you can spend most of your day exploring the many, many miles of hiking trails throughout the park. Also good to know, there is a Wal-Mart probably 5-ish miles from the park, for all of your last-minute camping needs (or in my case, ALL of my camping needs).
There are also several bath houses on the camping grounds, with showers, toilets, and sinks. I didn't use them myself, other than the toilets, so I can't comment too much on their quality or hot water availability. However, I did see many people using the showers there, so I imagine they are just fine.
The other option, which is what I did, is to just show up at the park and obtain a campsite when you get there. Although they mention it's reservation-only online, they're going to sell you a campsite ($35 per night in summer 2020) if there are spots unreserved. When you enter Jedidiah Smith, you'll descend down the very long and winding Route 199 through massive redwood groves until you come across the main campsite on your right (just enter into Google maps, it'll make it much easier). You have to stop at the ranger station before entering, and they can tell you which spots are available, if any. I imagine that if you get there early, especially during a non-busy time or weekday, you will not have a problem obtaining a site. If, like me, you go in the afternoon on July 3, it might be more challenging, but even then I was able to secure a campsite, albeit the last one in the entire park.
Hiking in Jedidiah Smith is abundant, as you can imagine. There are innumerable trails to choose from, and I personally hiked the Boy Scout Tree Trail. It's a 3-mile out-and-back hike through towering coast redwood groves all around you. It's stunning, and it's easily accessible from any part of the park. You get to the trailhead by driving a narrow, winding dirt road through redwood groves with some giants to view along the way.
I hope that gives you some insight about what to expect when getting started with booking your camping trip to Redwoods National Forest! It's a spectacular way to get outdoors and see some unbelievable forests that are found in this one location on planet earth. And even better, it's an amazing way to travel and see a beautiful part of our country while also maintaining social distance: you can interact with any as many or as few people as you wish. The campsites are very spaced out, and you won't need to worry about being too close to fellow campers. I cannot recommend this park enough! It was the highlight of my road trip along the Pacific Coast.