The trees in California that people call "redwoods" are actually two distinct species, both of them best described in superlatives like tallest, biggest, most massive, or magnificent.
Sometimes called simply the "big trees," giant sequoias (sequoiadendron giganteum) grow only in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains near the state's eastern border. The most massive living things, they can reach 280 feet tall and 23 feet across. The largest of them rise a little more than 300 feet tall and spread almost 30 feet across. The oldest ones have been around more than 3,000 years.
Coastal redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) are the tallest living things on our planet, growing 300 to 350 feet tall and 16 to 18 feet across, with record specimens soaring to 360 feet. That's as tall as a 36-story building. You can find them in redwood forests near the California coast from the northern border down to Big Sur.
Redwood forests are so plentiful in California that you'll find almost a dozen parks with "redwood" in their name, along with a national park and quite a few regional ones. Any of them will give you a glimpse of the magnificent trees and the forests they grow in, but the redwood forests listed below are some of the best places to see them.
Best Places to See California's Redwood Forests
If you want to get the most from your redwood experience, try reading a little bit about the redwood forest before you visit so you can better appreciate it. This list is in order from north to south.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park: Located between Crescent City and Eureka, this redwood forest park is also home to a herd of Roosevelt Elk.
Redwood National Park: Several redwood forest parks in one, it preserves almost half of the remaining old-growth redwood forests.
Muir Woods National Monument: Just 12 miles north of San Francisco, Muir Woods is an easily accessible redwood forest with well-groomed trails most anyone can manage.
Yosemite National Park: The Mariposa Grove is Yosemite's largest redwood forest, home to specimens of giant sequoias. It's 4 hours' drive east of San Francisco.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park: In the mountains south of San Francisco, it's less crowded than Muir and has tent cabins where you could spend the night in the middle of the redwood forest.
Petrified Redwood Forest: Nature turned this redwood forest to stone. It's located just west of Calistoga at the north end of Napa Valley.
Sequoia National Park: This is the place to go if your goal is to see the very biggest giant sequoia trees.
There are also quite a few drive-through redwood trees and tunnel trees in California if you like that kind of thing.
If you like these trees, you may also like the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest off Highway 395 in eastern California, where the oldest specimens have been around for about 5,000 years.
Preserving the Redwood Forests
If you're interested in supporting the preservation of California's redwood forests, check out Save the Redwoods Fund and the Sempervirens Fund.
Drive-Through Redwoods, Tunnel Logs and Scenic Drives
In times past, people often created a tourist attraction by cutting a hole right through the middle of a huge redwood tree. Travelers enjoyed the idea that a tree could be so big that you could drive through it.
A few of those relics of yesteryear still survive:
Chandelier Drive-Through Tree in Leggett is a privately-owned attraction that charges an admission fee. Most visitors who give into the cheesy urge to drive through a tree say this one is the best in Northern California.
Shrine Drive-Thru Tree south of Humboldt Redwoods State Park near Myers Flat charges a small fee to drive through. This one is a naturally split tree, not one that was carved out for vehicles. The park also features a Step-Thru Stump and the fallen Drive-On Tree with a partially paved ramp you can drive up.