1. Profile photo of Tom Wagner

    The under-utilized state campgrounds of Coastal Northern California offer much to both the casual camper (you know the type; he may camp in a tent—a very large tent with air mattresses and a port-a-potty—but will have a coffee maker, a three-burner camp stove, at least two lanterns, a top quality boom-box playing Swing music and sturdy tables and chairs for everyone; or he’ll be in a fully-equipped motor home… and it may be me) and the adventure seeker alike (this being the guy who reserves room in or on his vehicle for bicycles, kayaks, boogie-boards and zip-line equipment, forgoing the above-mentioned comforts; I hate these guys).


    Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park                                                                  Located within an easy drive of Crescent City (the last stop along the California coast before reaching Oregon), Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is where Lucas chose to shoot the scenes for the forest moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi. He did this because of the incredible lushness of the location… and then he brought in more ferns because, apparently, millions weren’t enough for him. Home to the Smith River, which winds a serpentine path through the heart of the park, Jed Smith is mostly unspoiled wilderness, though while on Highway 199 you will likely have several logging trucks scare the bejesus out of you. This is a great place to lounge under the cool redwoods beside the river and maybe toss out a line and—if you’re lucky—hook a trout or two (or a salmon if they happen to be spawning, but this far inland they probably won’t be edible). Type A personality types can find low-key adventure mountain biking, kayaking or canoeing on the river or hiking the many overhung trails. If you’re adventurous enough to go for a swim in the river, be sure you have a defibrillator handy; that water is cold!


    Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park                                                                Thrill seekers can avoid this place, unless they happen to love salmon fishing and don’t mind crowds. But most folks who visit Del Norte SP stay in Mill Creek Campground, right beside the Klamath River for one reason only: it’s close to the mouth of the river and you can walk to the fishing grounds. This place fills up during spawns, because the salmon charge up the river in droves. It would be a great place to fish if several hundred other people weren’t there, all jockeying for the best spots in a confined area that is the legal fishing grounds. It can get ugly, so take your brass knuckles along.


    Redwood State and National Park                                                                        This was my favorite place when I lived in Humboldt. Of all the national parks I have visited, this is by far the least crowded (of the “desirable” parks, I should add, as some—like Joshua Tree and Channel Islands—have little to offer those who are looking for shady places to pitch their tents). There are only two campgrounds, and both are small—and one is not easy to get to. Elk Prairie Campground is right off Hwy 101 and easy to reach, but the few spaces fill up fast in the summer. Out in the prairie, you are likely to see one or more herds of majestic Roosevelt elk most days, nibbling on the tall, brown grass. Beware while driving on the highways, as the elk make formidable roadblocks that will destroy your car, even if you drive a Hummer.


    Gold Bluffs Beach is the other campground, over the mountain and—obviously—on the coast. If you don’t mind camping in sand, this is a nice place to camp, too, but you’ll have to traipse over a mountain and drive along an unpaved road through two shallow creeks to get there. While camping on the wind-swept beach, you are likely to encounter more elk. These huge animals can be very dangerous in autumn when they are rutting (gorings are not uncommon), but keep your distance all year, because as wild animals their behavior is unpredictable.


    A short walk from the campground lies Fern Canyon, which lives up to its name and is one of the most beautiful places in all of California (which is why Spielberg chose to film a couple scenes from Jurassic Park II there). This shallow, fern-packed canyon is only a little over a mile long and is an easy hike for anyone; but bring a spare pair of shoes. When spawning season comes around (there are two: one for salmon and one for steelhead trout), the temporary bridges spanning the creek winding through the canyon are removed. The water is very shallow, but it’s impossible to not get wet if you go up the canyon more than a couple dozen feet.


    Patrick’s Point State Park                                                                                    This is one of California’s smaller state parks, with three decent-sized campgrounds. Most spaces are fairly exposed, but a few have overhanging trees. Here you will camp atop a shelf of rock jutting out into the Pacific, offering excellent views of the rocky coast and abundant wildlife, including whales when they are migrating.


    A fairly steep but reasonably short trail leads down to Agate Beach, where you can find… I’ll give you one guess. Surfers swear that this is one of the best places to hit the waves on the West Coast. The waves may not be huge, but they have good form and are consistent—and they break to both sides of the point.


    Within the park you will find a recreation of a Yurok Indian village that is fun for kids to explore. This should occupy them for no more than an hour, so have another diversion ready and at hand.


    As the park is only about 5 miles north of Trinidad, it’s hardly a wilderness area, but the coast is spectacular (I used to live across the street from the park, so I should know). Trinidad is a quaint little fishing village with considerable character where you can buy fresh-caught Dungeness crabs for ridiculously low prices at Katy’s Smokehouse.


    Situated between the town and the park is Larrupin Cafe, a 5-star eatery that is tasteful without pretension, where you can have a superb meal for less than a ridiculous price and where you can be as casual as you like while dining amidst several pieces of local art. Try the filo chicken; you will not be disappointed.

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