HIGHWAY 101 ●AVENUE OF THE GIANTS
all the wacky trees, plus majestic forests galore, cafes, and lodgings
article and images by Carole Terwilliger Meyers
The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always . . . It’s not their stature nor the color that seems to shift and vary under your eyes; no, they are not like any other trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.
--John Steinbeck, 1962
Millions of years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, forests of gigantic redwoods were plentiful. After the Ice Age, the redwood--which has a life span of 400 to 800 years but sometimes lives beyond 2,000 years--survived only in a narrow 415-mile-long by 30-mile-wide strip along the northern coast of California from Big Sur to the Oregon border. Before the logging days on the north coast, it is estimated this area contained 2½ million acres of redwoods. Now only 100,000 acres of ancient old-growth redwoods remain--most preserved in the state and national park systems. Approximately half of these huge old trees are found in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
The spectacularly scenic drive along The Avenue of the Giants (State Route 254) officially begins at Phillipsville, though the scenery begins farther south around Leggett. Actually the old Highway 101, which was bypassed in 1960, this drive parallels the freeway and Eel River for 31 miles. It is a breathtaking route that winds through grove after grove of huge sequoia sempervirens redwoods. In fact, this route is home to 60 percent of the tallest trees in the world. It continues to Pepperwood, where it rejoins the busier “new” Highway 101.
Unusual and superlative sights along this unique stretch of road are numerous and consist mostly of odd trees repurposed as lures to tourist businesses. In spots, nature’s best and most majestic is juxtaposed with humankind’s most kitchy and trite. Fortunately, the number of shops displaying chainsaw-carved redwood souvenirs is few, with plenty of long stretches of uninterrupted tall trees in between.
Phillipsville is 78 miles north of Willits, and 214 miles north of San Francisco.
Most of these attractions are listed in the order you encounter them on Highway 101 and the Avenue of the Giants, driving from south to north. A few are off the main road. Most tie in with food service, souvenir shops, and restrooms, and most of the sights are free. Note that only the Redwood Coast has standing, living drive-thru trees; two are described below, and the other is farther north in Klamath.
Chandelier Tree in Drive-Thru Tree Park Off Hwy. 101, 67402 Drive-Thru Tree Rd., (707) 925-6363. Daily 8:30am-dusk. $5/car. Most average-size cars can squeeze through the hand-carved hole in this 315-foot-high, 21-foot-diameter, 2,400-year-old giant redwood. The tree got its name because it has gigantic branches around the trunk that curve out like a candelabra. You can drive through as many times as you like, and take as many pictures as you like. So bring a camera and maybe a picnic, too, because duck pond-side picnic tables, resident deer, and nature trails are also available in the surrounding 200-acre park.
The Peg House 69501 Hwy. 101, (707) 925-6444. Daily 7am-9pm. This small building is made entirely without nails; wood pegs were used instead. It now is a general store offering a little bit of everything. Fast food and snacks include a grass-fed beef or wild-salmon burger with sweet Mendocino mustard, barbequed oysters, a blackberry sundae, and a really good brownie. Beer is easily opened by a carved bear equipped with a bottle opener, and a recycled parachute and misters keep things cool in a large, partially covered outdoor beer garden seating area. Live entertainment is sometimes scheduled on summer weekends.
image courtesy of venue
Big Bend Lodge Off Hwy. 101, 63250 Big Bend Lodge Rd., (707) 925-2440; www.bigbendlodge.com. 9 cabins. Some fireplaces; all kitchens; no TVs. Pets ok in some units. This peaceful 1940s motor court is set in a remote canyon surrounded by tall bluffs and plentiful trees. Facilities include a communal fire pit, horseshoes, a tire swing, ping pong, a dirt basketball court, bikes, a hammock, and a volleyball court, and a private beach is just a short walk away.
World Famous Tree House On Hwy. 101, 5 mi. S of town, (707) 925-6406. Free. This 4,000-year-old still-living tree measures 250 feet high and 33 feet in diameter and has a 101-foot circumference at its base. With the addition of a door and some windows in its openings, When it burned out about 800 years ago, four openings were left in its base, a 50-foot-high cavity at the base of the tree was turned into a room that once held a gift shop. Unfortunately, it is now closed to the public, but you can look through the dirty windows covered with cobwebs. Believe it or not!, in 1933 this tree was made world-famous when it was featured by Robert Ripley as the tallest one-room house in the world.
Confusion Hill 75001 N. Hwy. 101, (707) 925-6456. Daily 9am-5pm, in summer 9am-6pm. House: $5, 4-12 $4. Train (summer only): $8.50, 4-12 $6.50. Pet area. In the Gravity House at this old-time attraction--it’s been here since 1949--water appears to defy gravity by running uphill. A miniature train takes passengers via switchbacks on a 30-minute ride to the crest of Smokestack Hill in the redwoods, where it passes through a burned-out redwood tree. The complex is also home to the world’s tallest free-standing redwood chainsaw carving, which stands 44 feet tall and was created over three months by one man using an already dead tree. The totem pole has three sets of two colorfully-attired bears standing atop each other’s shoulders. It can be confusing to find the entrance, which it turns out is next to an outdoor snack bar and conveniently inside a well-stocked gift shop where you can buy local redwood carvings and also tickets.
One Log House 705 N. Hwy. 101, (707) 247-3717. Daily 9am-5pm; mid-May-Sept 8am-7pm. $1, under 6 free. This tiny house measures 7-feet high by 32-feet long. In 1946 two men spent eight months carving it out of a single 40-ton, 2,100-year-old redwood log. It originally was pulled on a trailer to tour across the country, but its hefty size grounded it. It resided in the town of Leggett for 25 years, then moved here in 1999. If you go inside, you can view the furnished living, dining, and sleeping areas. A woman I encountered outside the attraction encouraged me to pay to go in, but I resisted. I think it is odd and wacky that this attraction isn’t free and did not feel like going through the hassle of entering the gift shop, paying my money for the key, going back out and looking at the house, then going back in the gift shop to return the key. A gift shop, snack bar that serves espresso drinks and smoothies, and a picnic area adjoin. At Thunderbird Mountain Trading Company, look for the largest collection of American Indian jewelry in Northern California plus free samples of Indian-style cold-smoked salmon and jerkeys galore—salmon, buffalo, elk, and plain old beef.
Grandfather Tree 779 N. Hwy. 101, (707) 247-3413. Free. This massive tall, tall tree is 1,800 years old, 265 feet tall, and 24 feet in diameter. It is particularly posh and has a massive trunk. I made a souvenir photo of grandfather Gene in front of the Grandfather Tree and texted it to our grandchildren. An adjacent gift shop stocks carved chairs and sprouting redwood burls that are a step above most in the area.
Richardson Grove State Park 1600 Hwy. 101, 7 mi. S of town, (707) 247-3318. $6/vehicle. One of California’s first redwood parks, this state park was established in 1922 with 120 acres. It has grown to 1,800 acres and holds the ninth-tallest coast redwood and a walk-through tree, both of which are easily accessible. A colony of insect-eating brown bats (Yuma myotis) literally hangs out in the “bat tree. You can hike 9 miles of trails. The gentle Grove Interpretive Trail, also known as the “race track,” leads past many unusual redwoods, including a chandelier tree with multiple trunks branching out. A visitor center, nature store, and campsites are available, and in summer campfire programs, Junior Ranger activities, and guided nature walks are offered plus you can wade in the South Fork of the Eel River.
Benbow Historic Inn Off Hwy. 101, 445 Lake Benbow Dr., (800) 355-3301, (707) 923-2124. 55 rooms; $129-$569+. Some TVs & wood-burning fireplaces. Afternoon tea at 3; restaurant; bar. Pool & hot tub nearby (May-Oct). Pets ok in some rooms. Opened in 1926, this magnificent English Tudor inn is on the National Register of Historic Places. Guest rooms are furnished with antiques and equipped with a basket of mystery novels and a carafe of sherry. Some have lake views and private patios. The inn was once quite popular with the Hollywood elite--think Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Joan Fontaine--and actor Charles Laughton found it quiet enough here to memorize his lines for Mutiny on the Bounty. A majestic communal lounge with fireplace and library invites socializing, and game tables are set with chessboards and jigsaw puzzles. This spot enjoys perfect summer temperatures. Outside pleasures that make the most of it include colorful English gardens with grassy expanses, a small private beach on the east branch of the Eel River, lawn games, and complimentary use of bicycles. A 9-hole golf course and heated swimming pool plus hot tub are within walking distance. Facilities there also include a playground, putting green, laundry room, and pet run. Complimentary tea and scones is served each afternoon at 3 p.m. during check-in. Special events are often scheduled, and holiday festivities occur throughout December.
The elegant restaurant is open daily for breakfast and dinner. It offers an expansive menu, with both simple dishes and more sophisticated fare. For summer dinner on the terrace, my husband and I dined on a colorful heirloom tomato and queso fresco salad, a baby surf and turf (a filet mignon medallion, smoked prawn, and lemon mashed potatoes), and pan-seared organic king salmon. We each ordered a white wine flight and enjoyed making tasting comparisons throughout our meal, and we ended with house-made chocolate truffles. Note that a special vegan menu is available. For brunch in the dining room the next morning, we each ordered our usual—me a classic eggs Benedict, and my husband a simple country breakfast with chicken-apple sausage. In fair weather, diners may sit outdoors on a large terrace overlooking the back lawn and river, and live entertainment is scheduled on most mid-week summer evenings. Additionally, a cozy taproom bar dispenses good cheer, and guests can order picnic lunches to go.
Julia Morgan's Historic Estate Off Hwy. 101, 255 Benbow Dam Rd., (415) 317-2034. Tours M-F, May-Sept Tu-Sat; by reservation. $20. No pets. The tour of this estate designed by architect Julia Morgan includes the main house and grounds, where you’ll see gigantic redwoods, an organic fruit orchard, vegetable gardens, English cutting and rose gardens, specimen trees, a koi pond, and flagstone paths that lead to serene hidden areas and an old-fashioned campfire picnic area. A gardener raises all plants and vegetables from seed. Special events, including vintner dinners and cooking classes, are held throughout the year.
Overnight accommodations are available in the Main House: $1,500 per night; Guest House: $500 per night; and Carriage House: $250 per night. A two-night minimum applies.
This is the official beginning of the Avenue of the Giants.
Chimney Tree 1111 Avenue of the Giants, (707) 923-2265. Free. Though gutted by fire in 1914, this 1,500-year-old, 78-foot-tall redwood tree is still growing. You can enter its hollowed-out interior, which now has a cement floor and a burn-hole window. Once upon a time, this “room” was a gift shop.
Riverwood Inn 2828 Avenue of the Giants, bar (707) 943-3333, rooms (707) 943-1766. 6 rooms; $80-$98/2. No TVs. Coffee & pastries for breakfast. Pets ok. Open since 1937, this historic roadhouse is cantilevered over the river and the last of its kind on the Avenue of the Giants. Facilities include the Roadhouse Grill restaurant overlooking the Eel River, a bar with dance floor and juke box, a game room with pool tables, and guest rooms downstairs. Live music is sometimes scheduled on the weekend. Good choices from the home-cooked Mexican menu include albondigas soup, a shrimp cocktail, the two-taco combo with carnitas, shrimp fajitas, spinach enchiladas, and beef Chile Colorado. Homemade corn tortillas, three different homemade salsas, and black beans come on the side.
Avenue Cafe 6743 Avenue of the Giants, (707) 943-9945. B-L-D daily. Everyone is welcome at this family restaurant. The menu offers American, Italian, and Mexican dishes plus wine and local microbrews on tap. The ABC omelette, French dip sandwich, pizza, and calzone are particularly good.
Miranda Gardens Resort 6766 Avenue of the Giants, (707) 943-3011. 16 units; rates not disclosed. Some kitchens & fireplaces. Heated pool (seasonal). Continental breakfast May-Oct. Pets ok. Lodging at this nicely maintained vintage motor court dating to 1929 is in a collection of cabins with private patios or decks, some of which face Humboldt Redwoods State Park. A children's playground and plenty of outdoor games--croquet, shuffleboard, horse shoes--are available out under the redwoods, and an evening campfire is scheduled nightly in summer.
Though they don’t advertise it, a walk-through tree stump is in front by their sign.
Located on the South Fork of the Eel River, Myers Flat was the last operating stage stop in the U.S.
Myers Country Inn 12913 Avenue of the Giants, (800) 500-6464, (707) 943-3259. 10 rooms; $200+/2. Full breakfast. No pets. Built in 1860, a stage stop in 1867, and restored in 1906, this historical landmark is now a B&B furnished with antiques. Public spaces feature an old-time wind-up Victrola and historical photos. Good swimming holes are nearby.
Riverbend Cellars 12990 Avenue of the Giants, (707) 943-9907. Daily 11am-5pm. Fee to taste. Named for the 280-degree bend in the Eel River that hugs its property, this winery has 30 acres of vineyards producing European-styled grapes. You’ll want to taste the smoky northern Rhône-style Syrah and hearty red-blend Myers Flat Firehouse Red "NV".
Shrine Drive-Thru Tree 13078 Avenue of the Giants, (707) 943-1658. $6. This 275-foot-tall, still-living coastal redwood tree has a circumference of approximately 64 feet. A natural fire cavity was widened to accommodate cars, providing you the opportunity to take an unusual picture. Unlike the Chandelier Tree, this one has a naturally shaped hole that looks like a tall, thin tent. Years ago I did this on a road trip with my mom and she still enjoys the memory. Originally it was owned by a member of the Shriners' fraternal organization, from which it derives its name; during that time all proceeds were donated to Shriner charitable activities. The site also has a drive-on log (this tree fell down and a ramp leads up onto it; you then must back off in reverse), a children’s walk-through stump, and two two-story kids’ tree playhouses carved from trunks, plus each car gets a free postcard in the gift shop.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park (707) 946-2409. Daily dawn-dusk. $6/vehicle. Visitor Center: 2 mi. S of town, next to Burlington Campground, (707) 946-2263; daily, 10am-4pm Nov-Mar, 9am-5pm Apr-Oct. No dogs on trails. Campsites available.
This 51,222-acre park straddles the two-lane road, and parts are so dense with trees that sunlight barely filters through.
Get oriented at the visitor center and tour its little museum. Because it is so big, it’s hard to miss the Travel Log mobile truck display that allows you to see inside through the open back door. Billed as the world’s first RV, it was handmade in 1927 by Charles Kellogg, who crafted it from a fallen chunk of an almost 5,000-year-old redwood log and then mounted it on a 1917 Nash Quad truck. He shined it up by rubbing 12 pounds of beeswax into the wood using just his bare hands—no rags! Kellogg lived in it while touring the country as a vaudeville-style performer doing birdsong imitations. He was quite an interesting man, having done 3000 performances and hiked the high Sierra with John Muir. Take time to study this exhibit and learn more about this remarkable man. Outside, all three species of redwood are planted for visual comparison—Giant Sequoia, Coast Redwood, Dawn Redwood--and a native garden area is interesting to stroll through. Go here for a map of trails. Several particularly noteworthy redwood groves in this park include:
●California Federation of Women’s Clubs Grove/Women's Federation Grove 3 mi. N of visitor center; watch for the low-placed sign; if you cross the bridge, you’ve gone too far. A narrow, paved half-mile road leads through the forest to a clearing with picnic tables. Though there are no trails, there is a Julia Morgan-designed, four-sided chimney hearthstone with four fireplaces that you can build a fire in, and a popular swimming hole in the Eel River is adjacent. Also, I’ve heard that some Star Wars III land rover scenes were filmed here.
●Founder’s Grove 4 mi. N of visitor center. This is the most-visited grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park and a truly an exceptional sight. An easy 1-mile double-loop trail includes viewing the impressive fallen Dyerville Giant, which was thought to be the tallest tree in the world until 1991 when it fell after being hit by another tree in a windstorm. It is now the world's longest fallen-down tree.
●Rockefeller Forest 5 mi. N of visitor center, off Avenue of Giants, accessed via Mattole Rd. at Dyerville, then 1.1-mi. W to loop trail. This 7,000-acre forest is the world's largest grove of old-growth virgin redwoods. The entire forest has never been cut, a rarity here. Also referred to as "the world's finest forest," it features hiking trails leading to the Flatiron Tree (shaped like an old-fashioned flat iron), the Giant Tree (which--based on a combination of height, circumference, and crown size--is considered the champion redwood by the American Forestry Association), and the 356-foot-high Tall Tree. In fact, 10 of the 16 tallest trees in the world stand in this single grove. The easy Rockefeller Loop Trail takes about 30 minutes. The forest is named for John D. Rockefeller who donated $2 million to save these redwoods. If you continue on Mattole Road, it leads to the Lost Coast.
●Children's Forest 6 mi. S of visitor center. $8/car. This 1,120-acre memorial to children, is located across the south fork of the Eel River. It is reached by a moderate 1.5-mile trail beginning at Williams Grove, which features picturesque picnic and swimming sites on the river.
Redcrest Resort 26459 Avenue of the Giants, (707) 722-4208. 10 cabins, 2-room house; $75-$165+/2. Kitchens. Hot tub. Pets ok. Long ago, the stage coach route from San Francisco to Eureka passed through this property. Old-fashioned one- and two-bedroom cabins have knotty-pine interiors, and amenities include barbecues, a campfire ring, and a playground. A trail leads to a private walk-thru tree.
Eternal Tree House 26510 Avenue of the Giants, (707) 722-4262. Free. Enter a 20-foot room inside a living redwood featuring windows and a cement floor. Carved in the base of the tree, you step down into it not up in it. A cafe and picnic area are adjacent. The restroom has an unusual view (scroll up).
Immortal Tree 28101 Avenue of the Giants, (707) 722-4396. Free. Located at the edge of a very large parking lot, this 950-year-old redwood has survived loggers, fire, flood, and a lightning strike that removed the tree’s top 45 feet. Originally scheduled to be chopped down in 1908, it was wounded by an undercut but then spared. It measures 258 feet tall and has a base diameter of 14 1/2 feet. Markers show the loggers' axe marks and the flood line.
Nearby, a naturally hollow redwood log with a 33-foot circumference dates from the late 1800s. You can climb inside, and it provides a popular photo op. A picnic area and gift shop adjoin
Carole Terwilliger Meyers blogs at Weekend Adventures Update.
copyright 2020 Carole Terwilliger Meyers