by Gary Crabbe
Impressive. Awesome. Majestic. Huge. And last but not least, big; really, really big. These are some of the adjectives normally used to describe the magnificent redwood trees and forests that populate California’s North Coast. It strikes me that these are often the same adjectives someone might use to describe a place like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.
But unlike the steep granite walls of Yosemite, or the carved cliffs of the Grand Canyon, a walk through an old-growth forest filled with these mighty trees seems to evoke an almost mystical feeling not usually felt at other geographically-centric location. I think the reason for this is that the forest and these massive 200+ foot-tall trees are alive, which creates an almost tangible sensation of reverence lingering in the air, as if you are walking through a grand living cathedral.
I have a special and personal affinity for the North Coast Redwood Forest. My wife and I both attended Humboldt State University, located in the heart of the Redwood Country. There was a community redwood forest located immediately behind the campus, and it was a perfect escape from the scholastic stress of mid-terms and finals. On several occasions, we would head into the forest in the middle of the night with no lights. We would allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness, merrily sensing the quiet presence of these mystical giants as they towered at the edge of our peripheral vision.
The Redwood Forests that run throughout the length of the Northern California coast are all popular tourist destinations. But for most photographers, one area has become the mecca for those seeking their own special images of these trees and forest environs. Redwood National Park and the several adjoining state parks near the town of Crescent City offer that one extra magical ingredient that photographers are often so keen to add to their images. That special ingredient is the delicate pink bloom of the wild rhododendron. For some deep-seeded reason, there is a special connection and contrast that is drawn when photographers are able to successfully marry the short lived fragile flowers set against these huge 500+ year-old redwoods, also known by the scientific name, Sequoia Sempervirens. It’s this contrast that touches us on a psycho-spiritual level. Looking at the transient nature of these flowers in bloom and the ever-present, enduring, larger than life trees mirrors our own brief existence when set against the time line of these gigantic organisms and the universe at large.
Another environmental ingredient that adds to this hallowed setting is the ephemeral presence of coastal fog. I mention in my workshops and lectures about how much I love the fog because it shrinks your world, making everything much more intimate. Add that to an already intimate forest setting, and it makes a recipe for photographic success.
There are three primary locations that photographers will want to visit to get the wild rhododendron blooms, and there is only one prime window of time annually for when you’ll want to plan your trip. Otherwise, the redwood forests are a wonderful year-round location.
Let’s address the seasonal issue first. The rhododendron bloom typically happens between the last two weeks of May, and the first two weeks of June. Seasonal variations may push the season two or three weeks in either direction. In my years of travels to the North Coast, this is always a huge crapshoot. First off, don’t necessarily trust information given to you by park personnel over the phone. I hate to say it, but even if there was very few blooms left, they’d be likely to tell you “It’s great, come on up”. Weather also plays a huge role. The delicate blossoms which tend to peak for only a few weeks are highly susceptible to damage and rot caused by wind or the frequent seasonal rain storms that sweep through the region. In fact, one ill-timed storm can easily cause an entire forest full of pink blooms to drop en masse to the forest floor.
There are three prime locations that blend redwoods, fog, and rhododendrons, and where you’ll want to target your photographic efforts. The best known is the joint area of Redwood National Park and the Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. The most popular area is right along a seven-mile stretch of Highway 101, from approximately five miles south of Crescent City southward to just a few miles before False Klamath Cove. There are several popular trails with one of the best being the Old Coast Highway road; now overgrown that parallels the main highway along the west side of highway 101.
Also close to Crescent City, along Highway 199 is the Jedidiah Smith Redwood State Park. There are some really nice groves along the highway, but for the best experience, you need to get off the main road. One popular trail is the Simpson Road trail. Another great destination is the Stout Memorial Grove off the Howland Hill road. And, if you don’t mind traveling on an unpaved surface, you can follow Howland Hill Road in a loop from Highway 199 back to Crescent City.
Traveling south from Crescent City along Highway 101 you should also check out Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. While it doesn’t have the wild rhododendrons the other parks have, it does have its own resident herd of Roosevelt Elk, often found at a place remarkably called Elk Prairie, or in a field next to the intersection of Highway 101 and Davidson road, which heads west towards Golds Bluff Beach.
The next great stop on the Redwood tour, and the most southern grove known for its rhododendron bloom is the Lady Bird Johnson Redwood Grove, which is also part of Redwood National Park. Reach this popular 2-mile loop trail by turning east off Highway 101 just north of the small town of Orick, on to Bald Hills road. You can’t miss the large trailhead parking lot.
If you get completely forested out, there are a few other great shooting locations within easy reach for sunrise or sunset shots. Starting in the north, Crescent City has a bunch of fishing boats that populate the harbor downtown. There’s also Battery Point Lighthouse, one of the oldest in California. Just south of town is Enderts Beach, which you can follow toward the Enderts Beach overlook.
Another great scenic vista over the ocean can be had at the Klamath River overlook which sits high above the mouth of the Klamath River, and it a great spot to watch the seasonal migration of the California Gray Whale. Lastly, consider taking the dirt road all the way to the end of Golds Bluff Beach where you’ll find the trail into Fern Canyon. It’s a lovely walk down a stream bed lined with steep walls covered in flowering ferns.
But no matter what time of year, a trip into California’s Redwood Country promises to be a rewarding experience. To make the best of it photographically, shoot in the forest when there is soft, even light. On bright sunny days, shoot very early or late to avoid the splotchy mix of sunlight and deep shade that can easily ruin a good forest scene. Be sure to use a tripod because the forests are dark and exposure times are longer. If you’re shooting right after a rainstorm you can use a polarizer to lessen the reflection of water on plant leaves.
You’ll find that many shots are taken with a wide-angle lens to emphasize the height of the trees. A good tip is to try and avoid including any large bright patches of sky in your photos.
The bright area will automatically steal attention away from the darker details of the forest scene. Also consider a telephoto lens to compress the scene, making the background and foreground appear closer together, or to focus on smaller more intimate details you’ll find in the forest.
Enjoy your adventures, and while you’re there, this would be a great time to give a 1,000 year-old tree a nice, big hug!
Best time to shoot: Year-round; but Mid-May through Mid-June is ideal if you want to also get the pink blossoms of the wild rhododendron. Shoot early, late, or under overcast skies to avoid high contrast scenes.
Park Rules and Regulations to be aware of: None for individual photographers, other than applicable rules for State and National Parks. Permits and additional requirements may be required if you are leading group tours, workshops, or other activities like a commercial photo shoot involving models, props, lighting, access to off-limit locations, or other activities which might require ranger supervision. Check with the specific parks for more details.
Cell & Wifi reception: Cell phones should work in most places, but due to the rugged terrain, there may be locations where coverage is spotty. Generally, anywhere along Highway 101 you should be fine. Free wifi is difficult to find in the area, but in Crescent City try the Del Norte County Library if you need a computer, or log on with your own laptop at several coffee shops in town including Rayjen Coffee Café at 530 L Street. & Coffee Corner at 101 & 5th Street. Further south, try the Pem-Mey store/gas station in Klamath.
Places to Stay: Lots of area campgrounds at the State & National Parks. Crescent City also has a good number of hotels in town. See the web sites listed below for additional information.
Will you need a car: Yes. If you need to rent one, the only local option is at the Crescent City Airport, Hertz Local Edition (707) 464-5750 or Two Guys on 101 North (707) 464-7453. However, Crescent City is not the major fly-in airport. For that, and better car rentals, fly into the Arcata Airport (ACV) and rent a car there or in downtown Eureka.
NPS Website for Redwood National & State Parks:
California State Parks web site:
2009 Redwood National & State Park Visitor Guide (pdf)
Tourism & Info for Del Norte County & Crescent City:
Are the rhododendrons blooming? Sign up at the CalPhoto Yahoo group at:
Gary Crabbe: Currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, Gary began taking pictures while in college. After graduation, a twist of fate led Gary to the studio of World-Famous photographer Galen Rowell, where Gary managed the Stock Department of Mountain Light Photography for nine years. Known for his industry expertise and unwavering professionalism, Gary worked with many of the world’s best-known advertising agencies, magazines, and publishers.
His client and publication credits currently includes the National Geographic Society, New York Times, Forbes Magazine, TIME, Victoria’s Secret, The North Face, Sunset, L.L. Bean, Subaru, and The Nature Conservancy. His images are sold worlkdwide through a number of notable stock agencies. He has four published coffee-table format books to his credit, including The California Coast (2001) that won “Book-of-the-Year 2002″ by the California Outdoor Travel Writers Association. Other titles include Our San Francisco (2003), Yosemite & The Eastern Sierra (2004) and Backroads of the California Wine Country, (2006). His fifth book, Backroads of the California Coast, was just published in Summer 2009. He has just started work on his sixth book, California: Yesterday & Today.
His fine art photographic prints and murals are included in both private and corporate collections. Gary has also conducted highly praised slide shows and workshops for groups like R.E.I., The Sierra Club, The Photographic Society of America, local camera clubs, and at Mountain Light. In addition to his Stock, Assignment, and Fine Art Photography, Gary offers a variety of other services, including Consulting, Photo-Editing, Photo Workshops, and Writing.
To see more of Gary’s work, visit his web site at http://www.enlightphoto.com
Note: This post originally appeared in a 2008 issue of Currents, the journal of the North American Nature Photographers Association. If you are not a member, consider joining the best organization for nature photographer advocacy and learning. www.nanpa.org
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