Explore Nature’s Wonders: An Epic Road Trip From Redwood National Park to San Francisco

A happy couple sits atop a vehicle, admiring tall Redwood trees on a road trip from Redwood National Park to San Francisco.

Have you ever wondered, “Is Redwood National Park worth visiting?” While our answer to that is a resounding “Yes,” we’d be remiss to leave it at just that. Instead, we recommend making a road trip out of it. The drive from Redwood National Park to San Francisco exposes you to such diverse and memorable landscapes and sites all along the way; you simply can’t leave them unexplored.

On the San Francisco end, you can tap into the city’s electric energy for an urban buzz. Then, between SF and Redwood National Park, you’ll experience a variety of charming coastal towns, agricultural regions and NorCal’s wine country. These sites will set the ideal slow and reflective mood for immersing yourself in your final destination — Redwood National Park.

Home to some of the oldest and largest trees in the world, Redwood National Park will leave you feeling inspired, humbled and (likely) motivated to get involved in conservation efforts. In this blog, we’ll go over the best routes to Redwood National Park from San Francisco, what to pack, where to stay and — most importantly — 14 enticing stops along the way.

When to Drive from San Francisco to Redwood National Park

The best time to drive from Redwood National Park to San Francisco (or vice versa) will depend heavily on what you hope to experience.

  • Weather. June to September is the most popular time to make this trip. The weather will be warm and dry, so rain will unlikely interfere with your plans. However, fall can be a fun time to visit because the trees begin to shed their leaves, which take on beautiful hues of orange and red. Just be prepared for some wet weather if you do visit in the fall.
  • Wildlife. If you’re interested in bird watching or checking out wildflowers, spring is a lovely time to visit. Looking for a little more National Geographic-style action? Visit in the fall, when you can catch the salmon run and the bears that it attracts (Just keep your distance!).
  • Outdoor Activities. Looking to get active? There are tons of ways to experience the Redwood National Forest on land or in the water. During certain months (weather and water levels allowing), park rangers lead kayak tours down the Smith River. There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails to explore that will take you through various landscapes, including prairies, redwood forests and beaches.
  • Crowds. If you’re hoping to skip the crowds, avoid the park during the summer months. April through June are some of the quietest times to visit. School is still in session so you won’t face the summer break families. Plus, the park is vibrant and lush from the spring rains for an added bonus.

Where to Stay on Your SF to Redwoods Road Trip

With accommodations ranging from rugged campgrounds to boutique hotels, you choose your own adventure when it comes to lodging.

  • Camping. If it’s an intimate experience in nature you’re after, camping is the best way to go. There are several campgrounds where you can set up a tent inside and near the Redwood National Forest.
  • Lodges/cabins. Looking for a sturdier roof over your head and access to a real toilet? You can reserve cabins and lodges inside and on the outskirts of the park. These still offer a rustic feel while providing a few creature comforts for those uninterested in roughing it.
  • Hotels/motels. While there are no hotels inside the park, the nearby cities and towns, such as Eureka, Hiouchi and Crescent City, have plenty. Staying in one of the neighboring towns will also give you access to restaurants, shopping and services.
  • Vacation rentals. If you’re traveling with a group, consider booking a vacation rental. The park’s surrounding cities have tons of options that suit a range of budgets and group sizes. Staying in a rental also provides your party with a kitchen to make big meals after a long day of hiking, as well as communal areas to relax and reminisce on your epic experiences.

What to Pack for Exploring the Redwoods

Packing the right essentials will make for a smoother, more enjoyable road trip. Some stretches of our suggested routes won’t have many stop-offs, and the Redwoods National Park won’t have services, so it’s important to hit the road with everything you need.

  • Backpack. Find a durable backpack with chest and waist straps. If you have long days of hiking ahead of you, these make it easy to balance heavy loads while leaving your hands free to snap pictures and explore.
  • Outerwear/layers. If you plan on spending full days in the park, you’ll be exposed to several temperature changes. Wear layers so you can add or remove clothing items as the weather changes.
  • Rain gear. Be sure to bring a water and windproof jacket for the colder seasons to stay dry without having to lug an umbrella. Make sure your hiking boots are waterproof, too.
  • Emergency aid kit. Once you’re deep in the park, you could be a long hike away from services and might find that you have no cell reception. So, packing an emergency aid kit is essential. It should have medical items such as bandages, an antiseptic, medical gauze and anti-allergens. It should also contain survival gear like a headlamp, a knife or multitool, extra food, extra water and navigational tools like a satellite GPS or compass.
  • Paper maps. Speaking of navigational tools and lack of cell service, don’t head off on your road trip without maps for backup. A CA state map can give you an overview of your route and its surrounding sites, and a highway map of the US can help you find your way back to the appropriate road if you take the wrong exit in a cell service dead zone. Our Road Atlas and National Parks guide also has essential visitor information and helpful tips for Redwood National Park as well as all the other 62 national parks.
  • Road trip essentials. You’ll be spending plenty of time in the car so make sure you have the items you need to stay comfortable and entertained. Pack plenty of snacks, water, tissues, phone chargers, pre-downloaded audiobooks/podcasts and sunglasses.
  • Binoculars. Every year, thousands of adventurers happily travel the San Francisco to Redwood National Park distanceto go bird watching. If you’re hoping to spot rare wildlife, bring your binoculars so you can view animals from a safe distance.
  • Sunscreen. The sun’s rays can still burn you on overcast days, so be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen. You’ll want it in the park and for all of the appealing beaches and wineries you pull over to along the way.
  • Snacks/water. Planning on hiking all day? You’ll need to keep your strength up and stay hydrated. Pack plenty of non-perishable, nutrient-dense snacks like nuts, protein bars, beef jerky and dried fruits. Be sure to pack plenty of water, too.
  • Camera. If you’re hoping to put your phone away to avoid distractions, consider bringing a digital, lightweight camera or snagging a Polaroid for some fun, retro-style images.

Plan Your Drive: San Francisco to Redwood National Park and Back

There are two primary ways to get from San Francisco to Redwood National Forest. One is more efficient than the other, so ask yourself if you want to prioritize the destination or the journey. We recommend taking the scenic route on the way there and the efficient route on the way back (since you’ll likely be worn out from hiking the redwoods).

The Scenic Route

The scenic route will take you up CA-1, which hugs the coastline almost the entire way to the forest. It will take you through the coastal towns of Northern California, so if you want views of the ocean, we suggest this route. It takes a total of about 8.5 hours. However, to really immerse yourself in the charming areas you’ll see along the way, we recommend dedicating three or four days to just the drive from San Francisco to Redwood National Park. Then, be sure to spend a few days at the park itself.

The Efficient Route

The efficient route will put you on Highway 101 most of the way. It takes about 5.5 hours, so you’ll shave off roughly three hours of drive time compared to the scenic route. You’ll go through parts of Mendocino National Forest, the Santa Rosa wine region and the edge of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. While there are some charming spots along this route, you can likely cover the best ones in a day or two.

San Francisco to Redwoods Itinerary: 14 Places to Stop for an Epic Road Trip

There are many unforgettable places to stop off on your trip from Redwood National Park to San Francisco. To make it easy on you, we’ve rounded up a list that offers a little bit of everything: adventure, relaxation, delicious food and photo ops.

1. Kick Things Off Your Way in San Francisco

Get in the right headspace for your trip from San Francisco to Redwoods National Park. The drive is long, so kicking things off with energizing activities in San Francisco can get you excited about your final destination.

What better way to start your journey to one national park than in another? While you’re in SF, be sure to visit The Presidio, a national park that’s a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It has beautiful trails, incredible lookout points for viewing the Golden Gate Bridge and food trucks serving up delicious, diverse items you can enjoy in the picnic areas.

Craving some beach time? Head down to Baker Beach, a sandy stretch of shorelines beneath the Presidio cliffs that offers views of the Golden Gate Bridge. You can load up a picnic basket with treats you find at the Ferry Building’s famous Saturday Farmers Market, where you’ll see local chefs and foodies picking out quality ingredients for their culinary creations.

Want to support some of the many artists who gravitate to the City by the Bay? Head over to the Mission District, an outdoor art gallery featuring an eclectic mixture of mediums and striking murals for a final urban outing before hitting the road.

2. Scale Chimney Rock Amidst Crashing Waves to Point Reyes Lighthouse in Marin

Just two hours north of San Francisco in Marin County is Point Reyes National Seashore, a nature preserve with dozens of trails, all affording views of the beautiful Drakes Beach. You might even spot some sea lions sunning in the sand. Chimney Rock is a notable formation that protects the bay from incoming winds and waves. Hikes here are accompanied by the dramatic crashing of waves and an invigorating sea breeze, making it a perfect early stop on your outdoor adventure.

3. Enjoy Whale Watching and Fresh Seafood in Bodega Bay

Drive an hour north of Marin County, and you’ll reach Bodega Bay, one of the best spots to watch the winter gray whale north-to-south migration. Bodega Headis a popular place to set up with folding chairs and binoculars to watch these marine beauties pass by. After you’ve worked up an appetite from whale watching, venture back onto the CA-1, and you’ll find a dozen or so seafood restaurants with views of the water. Enjoy ingredients fresh from the bay — that’s some serious farm-to-table (well, ocean-to-table) dining.

4. Bask in 47 Acres of Plants at Mendocino Coast Botanic Gardens

Take in the beauty of native plants at Mendocino Coast Botanic Gardens. This non-profit botanical garden is dedicated to preserving and showcasing species of plants native to Northern California. On their website, you can see what’s currently in bloom, as well as discover upcoming special events such as yoga and art classes in the gardens.

5. Admire the Sparkling Nature of Glass Beach in Fort Bragg

Just under three hours north of Bodega Bay is Fort Bragg, home to the iconic and unique Glass Beach. The beach was named after the colorful glass stones that have accumulated there, which resulted from years of glass trash being dumped in the ocean. Over time, the surf polished the glass into rounded stones that visitors can collect and put in decorative jars. While the stones are striking at first glance, they’re also a testament to how we’ve mistreated the ocean. Take home a few stones as a reminder to treat our planet better.

6. Drive Through the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park

If you choose to take the 101, you can access a scenic stretch of this route by going through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. It runs just about parallel to the 101, so you’ll stay on track, but instead of driving down a straight freeway, you’ll make your way through gently winding roads that pass through enormous redwood trees. When we say “through,” we mean literally — some trees have split at the base and the road goes through what was once the tree's root area.

7. Take In Breathtaking, Undeveloped Views of the Lost Coast

Want to fully unplug and disconnect from reality for a while? Then, make your way over to the Lost Coast, a mostly undeveloped coastline that runs through parts of Humboldt and Mendocino Counties. There are plenty of areas to explore on the Lost Coast. If you want to remain car-bound, cruise down Mattole Road or, as locals call it, “The Wildcat.” The Wildcat is a 28-mile stretch of road that winds through forests and tiny towns before ending at Cape Mendocino for cliffside ocean views.

If you want to hop out and walk, visit Centerville Beach, a hard-to-get-to but worth-the-trip beach that’s great for bird-watching, off-leash dog fun and picnics. You’ll certainly want paper road maps for these excursions because cell service can be spotty. The nearby Village of Ferndale — a magical village known for its impeccably preserved 1800s Victorian architecture — is the perfect gentle place to reintroduce yourself to modern civilization after getting happily lost in the Lost Coast.

8. Redwood National and State Parks

And just like that, you’ve come to the end of your San Francisco to Redwoods National Park drive. That means it’s time to load up your backpack, lace up those hiking boots and hit the trails! With so many popular paths to explore, knowing which way to go can be overwhelming at first. So, we’ve listed some of the most memorable trips you can take, both on foot and in your car, through the redwoods.

9. Hike Fern Canyon Loop Trail

If you’re looking to cool down during the summer months, the Fern Canyon Loop should be on your list of trails to check out. You’ll spend most of this hike walking through a creek on your way to a mini, fern-strewn canyon. Fallen trees and cobble-sized stones add to the charm and magic of the hike.

10. Discover the Trees of Mystery

Find enchantment amongst the Trees of Mystery, located in the very heart of Redwood National Park. This portion of the park is named for the uniquely-formed trees that twist and turn in bizarre and mesmerizing ways. You can explore them either on the ground or in the sky. Use the Canopy Trail to walk amongst the higher portions of the trees on elevated bridges or take the gondola to fly above them for a bird’s eye view.

11. Take Shelter at Picturesque Campgrounds

After a long day of hiking amongst the redwoods, you may be ready to kick back around a campfire, share stories and possibly tend to some hard-earned blisters. Here are some terrific campgrounds where you can do that.

  • Jedediah Smith Campground. This attractive campground sits amongst a redwood grove on the banks of the Smith River. If you happen to have any energy left, you can swim and fish here. Cabins are available for rent. There are also tent and RV sites.
  • Mill Creek Campground. This massive campground is within the Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, a 33,000-acre park that extends from the Pacific Ocean through redwood forests. It has 145 campsites, each with picnic tables, food lockers and fire rings.
  • Gold Bluffs Beach Campground. Soak up some extra beach time at Gold Bluffs. This campsite sits along the Golden Beach dunes in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, just six miles off of the 101. It has tent and RV sites, but there are size limits for RVs so call in advance to cover your bases. Note: trailers are not allowed.

12. Explore Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

Access sea, sand and old-growth redwoods at Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. It has a mixture of hiking trails, some following the eight miles of wild coastline with others running alongside creeks. So, you have the option to dip in and out of the forest, depending on the landscape you want to experience.

13. Relax in Wine Country on Your Return Trip

No matter which route you take on your return trip, you can easily access one of NorCal’s two famous wine countries: Sonoma County and Napa County. If you’re taking the CA-1 back, Sonoma County is just a short detour inland. If you’re taking the 101 home, hop off and head inland to Napa Valley.

Naturally, there are hundreds of stunning wineries to visit in either county. But if you want to keep the outdoorsy experiences going, we recommend heading to Spring Lake Regional Park in Sonoma County. It’s a 350-acre park with a swimming lagoon, lake and woodlands, making it the perfect place to uncork one of the bottles you picked up at the local wineries for a sunset picnic.

If you choose Napa Valley, make your way down to the Napa Riverfront Promenade. This charming area is home to shops, restaurants and galleries right on the Napa River. It’s also the site of dozens of restored Victorian houses built in the mid to late 1800s, giving it an added dose of historic charm.

14. Round Out Your Trip With Handcrafted Beer from Ukiah Brewing Company in Mendocino County

If you plan to stop in Mendocino County on your return trip from Redwoods National Park to San Francisco, don’t skip Ukiah Brewing Company. Situated in downtown Ukiah, the largest city in Mendocino County, this upbeat and friendly brewery serves all-natural, handcrafted beers alongside tasty dishes sourced from local ingredients. You can even find games and live music from local and traveling musicians — it’s safe to say you’ve earned some easy entertainment after all your exploring!

Important Things to Note on Your San Francisco to Redwoods Road Trip

Throughout your journey, there are a few items to note that require extra attention and preparation.

  • Paying tolls. You’ll face a handful of toll roads along your journey. Unless you have a local FastPass, you’ll likely need to pay cash, or if you don’t have cash, log onto a website to pay via card later.
  • Park entrance fees. Some parks charge entrance fees, while others charge parking fees. The fees can also vary per season, so be sure to check each park in advance.
  • Carsickness preparation. The roads that go through national parks and some parts of the CA-1 are famously windy. So plan accordingly if someone in your party is prone to car sickness.
  • Road conditions. During the wet and winter months, parts of the parks might be closed due to fallen trees or mudslides. Check the parks’ websites to make sure they’re safe to visit.
  • Leave No Trace. Try to leave the parks and coasts better than you found them. You’ll enjoy exploring clean, undisturbed destinations, so give that experience to those who come after you and clean up after yourself.
  • Fuel and supplies. There are rarely gas stations in national parks, and given the sheer size of some, you can easily go through a gas tank exploring certain locations. Be sure to fill up on gas whenever you get the chance.

Let Rand McNally Publishing Guide the Way On Your Next Road Trip

This trip from Redwood National Park to San Francisco will give you a newfound appreciation for the incredible beauty these forests and old-growth trees offer. It also doesn’t hurt that there are so many diverse destinations to check out along the way. We’re confident that when people ask you about your trip, you won’t be able to stop gushing about your experience.

We hope our recommendations help scratch your itch to explore the NorCal coastline and national forests. But we also believe the best adventures include some unexpected magic. So, to do your own deep dive, grab our CA state map or our Road Atlas and National Park Guide and discover lesser-known gems along the way.

Nature travel can allow you to disconnect and reflect, so put the phone away from time to time and let our detailed paper road maps guide your way. Great for planning trips, seeing the big picture, the Rand McNally Road Atlas and National Park Guide is the key to discovering those hidden gems that make your trip truly memorable.

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Author: Rand McNally Publishing Team
Date:Jul 10th 2024
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