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California has a well-deserved reputation as a great destination for family-friendly road trips. Sunny skies dominate year-round; the state boasts everything from beaches and mountains to amusement parks and national parks. Families just need to plot the course that suits them best.
San Francisco to San Diego is arguably the most popular family-friendly road trip route in California, but for those willing to wander a bit farther north, one-of-a-kind outdoor adventures await in Humboldt County.
If you’ve never heard much about Humboldt County, you’re not alone. This little-talked-about stretch of Northern California is roughly a four-hour drive north of San Francisco, and just 50 miles from the Oregon border. The largest surviving stands of coastal redwoods — the tallest living things in the world — tower into the sky here.
There are both national and state parks in Humboldt County. It can be hard to keep track of which is which, but truthfully, it doesn’t really matter. In these parts, giant trees are found at just about every turn.
This scenic drive through the redwoods will get all ages excited about what’s in store. Avenue of the Giants runs parallel to Highway 101. Plan on stopping at the Southern Entrance (located on the right, immediately after pulling off the highway) to hop out of the car and grab a tour map from the heavy metal box that sits next to a sign with a snapshot of the entire drive. (No need for the entire family to get out.) You can view the map online, but it’s worth picking up the paper version for the included descriptions of each stop. Once you have it in hand, get going.
Less than 3 miles down the road, Franklin K. Lane Grove, often referred to as simply F.K. Lane, is where everyone gets out to stretch their legs and be wowed. Though you could probably walk the easy loop trail in about 15 minutes, plan on at least a half hour. You’ll want to take pictures.
When it’s time to move on, the Avenue of the Giants Auto Tour has eight recommended stops.
Located just off Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, Big Tree Wayside offers sizable rewards with little work. The walk to Big Tree—towering more than 300 feet overhead—takes just a few minutes from the parking lot. Part of the 160-acre Russ Memorial Grove, it offers a few short, family-friendly walks found in the area surrounding the Big Tree.
A fun footbridge leads the way from the parking lot to the Lady Bird Johnson Grove trailhead. The scenic 1.5-mile loop offers huge trees, lush ferns and an opportunity to sneak in a little history when you reach the park’s dedication sight.
This family-friendly hike through old-growth redwoods comes with a bonus waterfall. Trillium Falls is just half a mile from the trailhead. Families can hike to the falls and back, or take on the entire 2.5-mile loop.
The star of the show in Humboldt County may be the trees, but it’s next to impossible for my family to drive by a beach without stopping to put our toes in the sand. You’ll pass Gold Bluffs Beach on the way to Fern Canyon. Save a little time before or after your visit to Fern Canyon to walk on this wide stretch of sand.
There’s a reason director Steven Spielberg chose Fern Canyon to shoot a scene from The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The walls of the narrow canyon are covered with lush ferns, fed by what seems like a constant stream of trickling of water.
Wear waterproof shoes or just be prepared to get your feet wet on this hike. There isn’t a set trail; you’ll hop from one side of the creek to the other, numerous times, in an attempt to find the driest spot to walk.
If your kids are early risers, use it to your advantage and start your day with an early morning hike at Fern Canyon. It’s even more magical when you only have to share it with a few others. You can hike Fern Canyon out and back, or turn it into a .7-mile loop hike by climbing stairs at the end of the canyon.
TIP: Think about printing a copy of the California State Parks Junior Ranger Adventure Guide before you hit the road. Kids can put it to good use in any California state park. There are fun activities that families can take part in during and after a road trip.
Within an hour or so of Eureka, the county’s largest city (population less than 30,000), there are three living trees that you can drive a car through. They’re all privately owned and charge a fee for the opportunity. If that’s high on your family’s wish list, a smaller car is best for the job. My family enjoyed the extra space our borrowed Toyota Sequoia TRD Pro provided for our road trip, but that ruled out any drive-through trees. Even if your car doesn’t fit, you can still take pictures.
Family-friendly accommodations can be tricky to find in Humboldt County. Eureka and nearby McKinleyville both offer recognizable names like Holiday Inn Express & Suites and Best Western. Chain hotels offer a certain peace of mind and, in many cases, standard amenities. I enjoy booking small, family-run properties, but didn’t find any that fit my family’s needs for this trip. (You won’t find any luxury hotel brands in the area.)
In regard to restaurants, Eureka has the most casual dining options, making it easy to grab takeout and head back to the room after a long day on the road.
Editor’s Note: Dana’s road trip through Humboldt County was sponsored by Toyota. As always, our thoughts and opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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