So now that I've done it, I've got some good tips.
FIRST THING'S FIRST. I SWEAR TO GOD, IF YOU CARVE YOUR NAME INTO ONE OF THESE TREES, I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN MYSELF.
That being said--
I landed in Arcata airport, where I rented a car from Hertz right in the airport. They're open pretty late and also rent to people as young as 20, so it's pretty damn convenient.
From there, things get cool.
If you're impatient and want to see giant trees NOW, like I did, drive south to Humboldt Redwoods State Park. It's only 50 miles down Highway 101, and if you follow the signs for the Avenue of the Giants, you'll be seeing massive trees in less than an hour from leaving the airport. The Avenue of the Giants is pretty long, and it's not one straight road-- it takes a turn in at least one place.
I followed it as far as the famous Drive Thru Tree, although that particular tourist attraction is pretty damn lame. Turns out it's privately owned by a business who charges you something like $6 to drive through the tree, and there was literally a line of cars in front of me, like at a fast food drive-through. I turned around and left. Drive Thru Tree is a waste of time, in my books.
If you head back north on the 101 (catching spectacular ocean views all the while...one of the best driving highways in the United States, no doubt), from the airport it's about 75 miles to Crescent City, which sits on the coast beside the premier Redwood destination, Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park, as well as three other parks: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Redwood National Park, and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park.
Crescent City is definitely the place to stay the night if you didn't come for camping. Find a motel or hotel or whatever.
If you're there for camping, Jedediah Smith has a ton of campsites. I think it costs a little money ($10?) and I'm pretty sure you're supposed to make a reservation, or at least it's a very good idea. The whole place was full when I went on a Saturday in the summer.
SPEAKING OF WHICH, when to go. I went during the summer, in full heat of July, and the parks were cool and not muggy. They were amazing. Go in the summer.
Here's the park's brochure (with a map), which includes contact information.
Now on to the good stuff.
So, given a full day to spend anywhere, my vote is to spend it in Jedediah Smith like I did. You will not be disappointed. Everything you're coming for, you'll find here.
What I did is head up the 101 from Crescent City to where it splits off on 199, which brings you straight into the park.
If you're going camping, you'll see a clear sign on the right for the Jedediah Smith Campgrounds. The entire park is very well marked with signs; you won't have any trouble finding things. From the campgrounds you can cross the Smith River on a really charming footbridge to find yourself at the park's central trail crossroads and starting point.
If you're not camping, keep going up 199 until you see South Fork Road on your right. Follow that across two bridges and keep right onto Douglas Park Drive, then onto Howland Hill Road. This will bring you directly to parking for Stout Grove, and for the park's central trail crossroads and starting point.
NOW FOR THE HIKING.
- Bring bug spray.
- Make sure all party members can identify poison oak. It might be wise to wear long pants. In my experience, the most poison oak was near the Stout Grove parking area, where it is abundant. I saw almost none along the trails I walked, but I'm sure it's here and there.
Stout Grove, which (for those coming from the campground) is across Mill Creek and up a little staircase, is really gorgeous and worth seeing. Full of massive trees. It's the first thing you'll see if you start from the Stout Grove parking area.
I then spent my day hiking down Mill Creek Trail (map), which is the crucial thing here. If you want to go hiking in the Redwood forests, I can't imagine a more perfect and beautiful trail. Everything you're dreaming of is on this trail, which follows the picturesque and crystal clear Mill Creek down through the park.
I had done some research on the biggest trees and wanted to see the Grove of Titans, which by many accounts is extremely challenging to find, involving arduous hiking across difficult terrain.
I can now tell you this is not true.
I'm not going to tell you where it is, but I'll tell you that two hours of research and reading via Google was more than enough for me to pinpoint the grove's location almost exactly without ever having been there, and walk directly to it. To be honest I'm more impressed by people who don't find it than people who do. If you keep your eyes open, it's hard to miss, and believe me, it's worth seeing. As you go along, if you're looking for it, you'll keep saying "This tree looks bigger than the others--- is this the Grove of Titans???" but you won't be sure. Trust me, if and when you find the Grove of Titans, you will know it beyond the shadow of a doubt. Absolute awe will settle over you.
Having given you more than enough information to find it, please allow me to make a request of you. If you do find it, call the park at the number on the brochure linked above, and ask them to do the following:
Please place a wooden walkway in the Grove of the Titans which allows visitors to safely walk through without damaging the roots of the trees. More and more people are going to find and visit this place, and you can't hide it (which is what they're trying to do). You can only make it safer to visit. Please mark it clearly and ask visitors not to leave the wooden walkway while in the Grove.
The reason for this is that hundreds or thousands of visitors per year passing through does damage the trees' roots. Believe it or not, though you can't see the damage, it is being done. These trees, the oldest, are between 1,500 and 3,000 years old. If they die, it'll be over a thousand years before the others reach the same size, if indeed they don't get somehow destroyed first. Please help to preserve this incredible place! Just call both numbers until you get a person, and tell them how strongly you feel about it! It's just a minute of your time, but it might make the difference between your grandchildren being able to see this place or having to read about it as it once was.
So that's that. Moving on, outside Jedediah Smith State Park, there are three other parks, as mentioned way above. Prairie Creek State Park has another grove of famous giant trees called Atlas Grove, whose location is also secret. I didn't have time to go looking for that one, but I have absolutely zero doubt that it's no harder to find with the internet than the Grove of the Titans was.
Record holders aside, Prairie Creek is another gorgeous park, apparently full of elk. The key feature here for me is the Gold Bluffs Beach Campground, no reservation required, where you can camp out on the beach among elk. Do yourself a favor and heed the signs and don't approach the elk. They're cool to look at but they like their personal space.
Get to the beach early to secure a campsite. I don't know how early, but I got there at 9pm on a Saturday night and everything was taken. I'd suggest 5 to be safe, but who knows.
Prairie Creek also has a beautiful spot called Fern Canyon. Google it. Quite pretty.
There's still Redwood National Park and Del Norte State Park, which I
didn't hike in but which you'll drive through on your way up to
Crescent City. I'm sure they're great, too. Visit them all if you
have time and a strong desire to do so! But if you only have time for
one, make it Jedediah Smith.
The famous General Sherman tree is not located in Northern
California, as it is not a Coastal Redwood but rather a Giant Sequoia
(they're very close relatives). That tree can be found in Sequoia
National Park, which is closer to Southern California, quite a few
hundred miles away.
There are bears in all the parks, but they're really a non-existent threat (no incidents in recent history) so long as you don't do something stupid like leave a ham out beside your tent while you sleep. There are also mountain lions, but again the chance of seeing one is supposedly lower than the odds of being struck by lightning, so don't get your hopes up. But I did hear about a ranger's dog getting attacked. Maybe leave Rex at home for this one?
I have a retrospective feeling that I could have flown
directly into Crescent City instead of Arcata, which is worth looking
into, but honestly unless there's some clear advantage in doing so, I
would stick with Arcata. For car rentals it doesn't get more
convenient than this, and the 75 mile drive up the coast is so
beautiful that it adds to your trip rather than detracting.
I don't bike, so I can't give you any tips there. I did pass one biker who seemed to be having the time of his life. I can imagine it's a somewhat challenging trail to bike, but what do I know.
Enjoy your trip! Comment with any additional questions.