Giving its name to this glorious ribbon of road just four hours north of San Francisco, the redwood is a marvel to behold — the tallest of living things and a stately remnant from the age of dinosaurs. These ambassadors from another time grow only in a narrow coastal strip that extends northward to Oregon, overlooking steep ocean cliffs, marshy lagoons, and seaside villages replete with picturesque Victorian homes.
The town of Leggett, where the Pacific Coast Highway meets Rte. 101, provides an excellent introduction to the world of the old-growth redwoods. Drive-Thru Tree Park features the remarkable Chandelier Tree, a 315-foot giant with a tunnel carved through its massive trunk. Visitors can enjoy a picnic or hike the manicured trails that wind through portions of this 200-acre grove of awe-inspiring trees. In this unique world a misty silence holds sway and only occasional shafts of sunlight penetrate the broad canopy overhead.
2. Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area
Heading north from Leggett, Rte. 101 follows deep and winding canyons along the meandering south fork of the Eel River into the region known as the Redwood Empire. To the west lie the King Mountain Range and the “Lost Coast” of California, a virtually uninhabited wilderness where up to 80 inches of rain drench the highlands each year and beaches are strewn with numerous historic shipwrecks; to the east dense forests and lush meadowlands roll by mile after mile.
Parks abound along the route. The Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area, just two miles north of Leggett, occupies 1,000 acres of mostly second-growth redwoods, maples, oaks, and Douglas firs, and one spectacular redwood, named for Mayflower colonist Miles Standish. The Eel River, though, is the main attraction here, offering one of the best deep swimming holes in the valley, and excellent fishing for salmon and steelhead trout. In winter, runoff from the neighboring mountains transforms this placid river of clean emerald waters into a raging torrent.
3. Richardson Grove State Park
The redwoods are hard to miss at this 1,000-acre park — the highway passes right through the heart of an old-growth forest. For a closer look, investigate the 10 miles of inviting trails that loop through the cathedral-like groves and along the rocky banks of the Eel.
4. Avenue of the Giants
Past the little town of Garberville, this 33-mile stretch of road parallels and crisscrosses Rte. 101 as it passes through one of the state’s largest and most venerable redwood forests. A self-guiding auto tour (instructions are available at either the north or south ends of the scenic drive) suggests nine stops, but abundant turnouts offer the chance to pause and marvel unassisted at these giants. Reaching heights of 300 feet and more, many stand taller than the Statue of Liberty and have been growing since the days of ancient Rome.