I went to see the world's tallest trees in California's Redwood National Park. Here are 7 things that surprised me.

·5 min read
On the left, a Subaru driving through a tree trunk. On the right, a view of the tall redwoods in Redwoods national forest.
The Redwood National and State Parks are located in Northern California.Abby Armato; William Sheahan
  • I'm a Midwesterner who visited California's Redwood National and State Parks for the first time.

  • The parks were pretty accessible by car since US Highway 101 runs through them.

  • Coast redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, and they are mind-blowing in person.

Visiting the Redwood National and State Parks has been a longtime goal of mine.

The writer posing in front of a giant redwood tree in Redwoods National Park
Coast redwoods are formally known as Sequoia sempervirens.William Sheahan

One of only 24 UNESCO-designated world-heritage sites in the US, California's Redwood National and State Parks are full of coast redwoods, the tallest trees on the planet that are the last of a 160-million-year-old species.

The area is so scenic that it's served as the real-life backdrop for several film franchises, such as "Star Wars" and "Jurassic Park."

Ever since I was a kid in the suburbs of flat Illinois, I was entranced by images of the coastal red forests with towering trees.

I recently visited as an adult, and the stunning park did not disappoint.

What many people colloquially call Redwood National Park is actually comprised of three state parks.

The writer taking pictures in the middle of a trail in Redwood National Park
The coast redwoods are not confined to one park or forest.William Sheahan

I didn't originally know that the site's full name is Redwood National and State Parks, a collection of three state parks along Northern California's coastline on the ancestral homelands of the Yurok Tribe and the Tolowa Dee-ni' Nation.

There are other state parks that neighbor the borders but aren't officially in them. With their own incredible flora and fauna, they feature classic attractions I'd been told to visit, such as Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

I gave up trying to keep track of boundaries and lost myself in the beauty of the surrounding forests.

The depths of the parks were shockingly accessible by car.

A picture taken from the car of a paved road with huge redwood trees on either side
Some roads were paved while others weren't.Abby Armato

The immersive drive to and through the state parks was magical.

US Highway 101 runs through the parks, connecting the many campsites and trailheads. The towering trees closely hugged the edges of the road.

Off of the highway, huge tree trunks cut into the unpaved service roads and made the way even narrower. We were so close that I could touch their ancient bark from the car window.

Avenue of the Giants felt like a happy medium between the busy highway and the bumpy service roads. Driving down the paved route felt like traveling through a lush tunnel with walls of red bark and a sun-dappled, green roof.

The size of the coast redwoods blew my mind.

The writer in a pink jacket posing next to a huge tree trunk in Redwoods National Park
I didn't expect the ancient trees to be this large.Abby Armato

With names like Big Tree Wayside and Grove of the Titans dotting the park map, I had some pretty high expectations for the height of these coast redwoods — yet their actual size still baffled me.

The average redwood we photographed could only be captured in a vertical panoramic, and I could literally walk through a hollowed, fallen trunk on the trail.

We even drove my Subaru Outback through one standing redwood that straddled the road with a hole in its trunk.

They were also right next to each other, and being surrounded by hundreds of these massive mammoths left me in total awe.

But there are other amazing trees in the park, too.

A view of the height of the redwood trees and other flora with the sun peeking through
I also saw huge Douglas firs and red cedars.Abby Armato

Ever since seeing a travel poster that exclusively featured the iconic coast redwoods when I was younger, I'd assumed they were the only tree in the park. That was false advertising.

Although the coast redwoods are the most unique tree to the area, there were a plethora of other species nestled among them. This varied and complex ecosystem was even more beautiful to experience.

I saw giant Douglas firs with rough bark like dragon scales, thick western red cedars that rivaled the ruddy color of the redwoods, and madrone trees that looked like they were painted.

I encountered a real-life banana slug.

The writer lying on the ground to look at a banana slug in Redwoods National Park
I never thought I'd see a banana slug in the wild.William Sheahan

I had only heard of banana slugs in reference to the UC Santa Cruz mascot, so I never thought I'd encounter one in the wild, despite the signage throughout the park that referenced them.

So when I looked down and saw a small yellow slime lumbering down the path, I did a double-take and whisper-shouted to my hiking partner to stop.

The slug and I made "eye" contact, their antennaed eyes swiveling up to meet my human ones, and my heart swelled with love.

Excited to meet another — and anxious not to accidentally step on one — I spent a lot of my trip staring down at the path, intently looking for banana slugs.

There are poisonous plants along the trails.

A trail in redwoods national park with lots of poisonous hemlock on it
I later noticed a lot of poison hemlock along the trail.Abby Armato

The first evening, one of my traveling companions thought he found a wild carrot plant. Using our favorite plant-identifier apps, we discovered it was poison hemlock just as he started chewing the leaves.

He immediately spat the plant out and rinsed his mouth in the river, but we were all a little on edge.

The rangers at our campsite recommended calling poison control, who gave my traveling companion a hard time but ultimately said he was going to be fine.

This was a fair mistake — wild carrot plants are delicious and visually similar — but I was surprised by how much poison hemlock I later noticed growing along the trails.

The ground-bound flora in Fern Canyon is equally as magical as the towering trees.

A picture of Fern Canyon with bright green moss, a creek, and fallen wood
Fern Canyon is a stunning, mossy ravine.Abby Armato

Fern Canyon is full of stunning sites, so much so it was the backdrop of "The Lost World: Jurassic Park."

I followed a creek upstream to the gully, using a smattering of rocks and mossy logs as a dry path. My hiking boots were soaking wet from a failed jump, but I couldn't be grumpy once I turned into the ravine.

Hundreds of emerald-green ferns covered the walls, arching like leafy waterfalls and absorbing every sound except for the rushing creek and trickling water between their roots.

Clambering over fallen mossy trees, I was completely enveloped in the beauty of the park.

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