In a bad economy, families that want to get away from the city for a while have an affordable option: camping. Of course, the inexperienced camper has to spend many hundreds of dollars on buying the proper gear and equipment (tents, sleeping bags, ice chest, tarps, lanterns, propane stove… just for starters), so let’s assume that I’m talking to people like me: those who have gone camping all their lives and love it. Even experienced campers often head to the same familiar places, however—and some of the more popular places can get so crowded they look like I-5 during rush hour, only with trees. To really get away from it all may require a considerable drive, but it’ll be worth it.
California has more national parks than any of the other "Lower 48" states, seven in all, and a few see a superfluity of visitors, especially during the summer. Nearly everyone crowds into Yosemite; those that don't fit settle for Sequoia/King's Canyon or, if ambitious enough and willing to drive an extra five or six hours, Lassen. At last count, that leaves four lesser-visited National Parks in the state. Now, although each was designated a National Park for very good reason and possess marvels well worth seeing for those hardy enough, let's eliminate three of these one by one.
Death Valley National Park
If you're visiting California in the summertime, an excursion to Death Valley could be the last trip of your life if you aren't careful. Every year, a number of tourists who underestimate the heat (as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit) die from exposure.
Joshua Tree National Park
While not as hot as Death Valley, Joshua Tree is still in the Mojave Desert. In the summer, it is often well over a hundred in the shade. Don't get me wrong: it's paradise for those whose idea of fun is spending all day staring at scraggly, stubby, sharp-leafed trees. At least there are numerous and sometimes interesting boulders to break up the monotony. Ooo... ugly trees and rocks!
Channel Islands National Park
Forget the trees, for you won't find many here. The Channel Islands represents what California's coast was like before the arrival of the Europeans; in other words, chaparral, chaparral and more chaparral. Most of the more interesting sights are hidden under the Pacific and to get to the park one must take a boat. So, if you're prone to seasickness and don't scuba dive or snorkel, you're pretty much out of luck.
Redwood National Park
Having lived in Humboldt County for ten years—and a mere stone's throw away from the park—I know that the campgrounds rarely fill up for long. Taking that into consideration, along with the fact that the only two campgrounds are quite small and the park is remote enough to present a daunting drive for most, Redwood National Park likely sees fewer campers than any of the other national parks with the possible exception of Channel Islands. This is not to say that no one goes there, however. While living in Humboldt, I visited the park more than occasionally, usually with friends and often ran into other friends or acquaintances while there. During each of these visits, I saw other visitors, but far fewer than you might expect.
On a map, Redwood National Park appears quite small; compared to Yosemite or Sequoia/King's Canyon, it is. However, most of Redwood National Park is accessible only on either foot or horseback. Fortunately, its most impressive sights are reached easily by car.
Elk Prairie This is where you are likely to stay if you choose to camp in the park. Upon first glance, it looks unremarkable: just a large meadow along both sides of the highway; but look closer and you are likely to spot many majestic Roosevelt elk wandering the periphery of the prairie, nibbling on the grasses, or sometimes laying mostly hidden amongst the golden blades. For those camping in Elk Prairie, count on having the animals walk through your campground; and if you have any common sense at all, you will stand clear. While elk are docile much of the year, they become very aggressive during rutting season in the fall. These seemingly gentle animals have been known to use their massive antlers to gore humans that get too close at the wrong time, and if that isn't enough to ruin a vacation, I don't know what is. One other bit of advice I'd give is to use caution while driving through the park, especially at dawn or in the evening. The elk tend to loiter in the middle of the windy, blind-curve-riddled highway. If you run into one, it will do considerably more than spoil your paint job.
Gold Bluff Beach Over the mountains west of Elk Prairie, this is the only other campground in Redwood National Park. After driving over the hills on a poorly maintained road windier than a sidewinder's trail, you continue north along a rutted and pothole-riddled dirt road that takes you through two small creeks. The creeks flow all year, but are usually very low and easy to traverse in any car. The campground is a couple miles down this road to the left; once there, you are apt to spot even more elk, which seem drawn by the sparse grasses growing up through the sand. The campsites are on the sand as well, so I would not make this my primary camping destination (anyone familiar with camping in sand will understand what I mean; for those of you who aren't, just imagine contending with sand in everything, all the time). As far as I'm concerned, beaches are all pretty much the same: an expanse of bothersome sand. However, one cannot visit the next destination without first passing Gold Bluff Beach.
Fern Canyon Fern Canyon lies at the end of the potholed and rutted dirt road. Just north of the parking area, tiny Gold Creek trickles from the end of this defile. Follow it east into a narrow canyon whose walls are adorned with several varieties of fern. The ferns grow so thickly that only in a few areas can you see the actual dirt wall of the ravine. Gold Creek meanders throughout the length of the canyon, watering the many brilliant green shrubs and trees, mosses and lichens. If the place looks familiar to you, it's probably because you have seen Jurassic Park II, which was filmed largely in Fern Canyon and Patrick's Point State Park north of Trinidad. During my many visits to Fern Canyon, I never saw any stegosaurus poo or any other dinosaur dung, so Spielberg must have cleaned up after his production crew effectively. Most of the year, small footbridges are laid over Gold Creek in strategic locations, allowing dry passage. However, these bridges are removed during the spring and autumn fish runs (allowing steelhead trout and salmon to spawn upstream), so I recommend leaving an extra pair of shoes and socks in your car for after your hike, for it's not uncommon to conclude a walk through the canyon with soaked feet.
Lady Bird Johnson Grove
Lady Bird Johnson Grove is the last of the "must see" spots in Redwood National Park easily accessible by car. To visit the grove, you must first exit the park to the south on Hwy 101, which in that area consists of only two lanes, and turn left onto Bald Hills Road (a road that, coincidentally—or not—also lives up to its name). About a third of the way up the mountain, you'll pass beneath an appropriately fashioned redwood footbridge spanning the road; just after this, to the right, lies a parking lot. Park, then walk across the bridge arching above the road into a primeval forest of towering and ancient redwoods, ringed by wild rhododendrons, azaleas, sword ferns and Oregon oaks. The trail is less than two miles long, I believe, but it is quite level and an easy hike for most people; it is also well enough maintained for wheelchair use, at least in most areas (while hiking at the grove, I've had a number of folks in wheelchairs pass me, which gives you an idea of how enthusiastically I hike). Besides the occasional airplane passing overhead—a thing that can't be avoided anywhere in California—the only sounds you will hear are the eerie trills of unseen birds echoing through the massive trunks, lending a prehistoric air to the place. If you are lucky enough to visit the grove on a foggy afternoon, you may see a spectacular sight as the reddening rays of the lowering sun slant through the boles and boughs and make the fog appear to glow. I have only seen this phenomenon once in many visits, but it was a spectacle I can never forget. Unfortunately for you, I didn't have a camera with me.