If there’s one thing I’ve gotten really good at since becoming a mom, it’s planning ahead. This is a tricky skill when you have young kids because — let’s be honest – half of the things you plan never come to fruition, so you must approach every itinerary with a healthy dose on non-attachment. But if you are interested in camping, making reservations in advance is basically a non-negotiable. I mean, who wants to go on a wild goose chase for a campsite with a screaming baby in the back seat? Not me.
So, when the rainy season hits here in the Great Northwest, I start thinking about next summer. Every August, the Menauls – Sarah, Travis, and wee Levi – take a week-long camping vacation to a new National Park. If you’ve ever travelled to a popular National Park, you know that a) all the campsites are full b) all the parking spots are full c) solitude is not a thing and d) it’s totally, absolutely worth it anyway.
This past summer, we travelled to California’s Redwoods National & State Parks. I would recommend this trip to anyone and everyone, but if you have a toddler, it is an especially magical place. Known for its groves of towering trees, beautiful sand beaches, and rugged coastline, the park is what I came to think of as nature’s best playgrounds. If you need a dose of inspiration and want to get started planning for next summer now, here is what we did:
Get your bearings
Check out the park web site (https://www.nps.gov/redw/planyourvisit/publications.htm) and get a sense of the scope of the park system, which is massive. There are actually 5 state parks and 1 national park that are collectively known as “The Redwoods.” We drove down from Seattle, so we decided to limit our trip to the northern parks, along Highway 101 north of Arcata. There are 3 major campgrounds that accept reservations in the north, and each has its own personality, and tons of outdoors activities: Jedediah Smith in the north, Prairie Creek in the middle, and Patrick’s Point to the south.
Select your campsite
You’ll want to visit Jed Smith, Prairie Creek, and Patrick’s Point at some point in your trip because they’re all incredible. But while we loved the trees in Jed Smith the most, and the tide pools in Patrick’s Point were a blast, Prairie Creek contains the quintessential Redwoods campground. The single most glorious tree we saw during our stay was within the campground itself, just a short walk from the Visitor’s Center. Thinking about Prairie Creek while I write this and it’s pouring down rain here in Seattle. . . Cue tears. I can’t wait to go back.
Make an itinerary
There are so many trails and groves to choose from, and if you have a toddler, they may not have energy to do everything you want to do. Duh. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Hmm. Anyway, we tried to do one substantial hike every day (4-8 miles), and spent a lot of time climbing trees. A trail that might look like a quick jaunt on the map will be so incredibly compelling to a toddler (they’ll want to climb on everything!), that it will take hours. On one occasion, we departed for a 5-mile hike at 11 and were worried about making it back before dark. Assume that every stop you make will be the best thing you and your kid has ever seen. In general, less is more when it comes to covering ground in this park.
Before we left, I consulted my trail guidebook and map, and asked around for recommendations. Here is what we did, and I wouldn’t change a thing. (Well, maybe one thing. See Day 5 below.)
Day 1: Stout Grove Loop.
This .6-mile trail in the Jedediah Smith area was the perfect introduction to the park. Don’t be discouraged by the packed parking lot. Embrace the crowds. People are here for a reason. There was no parking when we got there so we parked along the road. We spent two hours in the grove because we couldn’t stop taking pictures. Every time we turned around there was a tree more breathtaking than the last one we had been ogling. After the hike, we headed to Prairie Creek, where we set up camp, and then hiked the.3-mile Revelation Trail (short-but-jaw-dropping), which is wheelchair accessible and starts right in the campground. (Pro tip: Almost every site at Prairie Creek was as gorgeous as any we’d ever seen, anywhere. But, after 5 evenings of touring the grounds while Levi learned to ride his balance bike, we decided that the very best were at the Northern end of the campground, sites 21-26.)
Day 2: Fern Canyon.
Everyone said that this was a non-negotiable, and everyone was right. Scenes from Jurassic Park were filmed here, and local legend has it that the film crew arrived with 23 pterodactyls and left with only 21. You choose whether or not to share this info with your little ones. You can approach Fern Canyon as a short look-see, and spend the rest of day at the beach adjacent to the trailhead. Or, you can have faith that your toddler will tolerate the 7.5-mile Irvine & Miner’s Loop, which begins with the incredible canyon and ends at the beach. Make sure you leave a couple of cold beers and snacks in your car as a reward for completing (or not – practice nonattachment) what is arguably the most iconic hike in the park.
Day 3: The Rim Trail at Patrick’s Point State Park.
After buying an unreasonable number of souvenirs at the Kuchel Visitor’s Center (the biggest in the park), we headed down south for the day. (The Patrick’s Point brochure warns about high tide, tsunami hazard, heavy surf, steep cliffs, and falling limbs. If that isn’t enticing, I don’t know what is.) Although the Rim Trail itself offers zero solitude – the trail hugs the campground and main road through the park – the many side trails shoot you out toward the water, where people thin out and the sites are sublime. At the south end of the trail is Palmer’s Point; if you time it right and arrive at low tide (again, non-attachment is key here), this spot is a great way to introduce your little one to starfish. Remember to pack a pair of boots! After our hike, we headed to the town of Trinidad for pizza and beers on the beach. (Are you sensing a theme here? This was our anniversary, and our little crew knows how to party.)
Day 4: Big Tree Wayside and Cathedral Trees Trail.
This excursion took us forever. We wanted to see these 2 popular attractions, so we designed a 5.5-mile loop hike combining the Big Tree Wayside, Cathedral Trees, and the Rhododendron Trail. (Pro tip: many of the park’s trails close intermittently throughout the summer due to mud and other weather-related conditions, so check in with a ranger at a Visitor’s Center before you commit to a longer hike.) The day was long not because it was challenging, but because it was so much fun. Levi could not get enough of climbing around. But after taking 2 hours to cover 1 mile, we persuaded him to ride in the backpack so we could make it back to camp in time to cook dinner. Like the Fern Canyon hike, you could shorten this excursion by starting out at the Big Tree Wayside, checking out some of the massive trees along the Cathedral Trail, and then calling it a day. Travis and I tend to go big, and Levi tends to be amenable, so we go for longer miles when we can.
Day 5: Lady Bird Johnson Grove.
This was the one day we might have done differently if we knew what we know now. Road biking, at least with a toddler, is not really a thing in the Redwoods. Some roads are marked as biker friendly, but they mean mountain bikes, and we didn’t really do our homework. We ended up biking the road to the grove, which was a big mistake. It is a busy, windy, incredibly steep two-lane logging road, with no shoulder. The loggers were not amused with us, and they let us know. We managed to make it the 2.5 miles unscathed, although I walked my bike up 99% of the way. The beautiful grove, however, was even sweeter after the trek up.
Day 6: Boy Scout Tree.
We hit up this 5.5-mile hike in the Jed Smith area on our way back up north. (Side note – we also stopped at the Tour-Through Tree, just off of the highway in Klamath. This five-dollar tourist trap is totally worth the money and the time. Levi learned how to use the word “cool” appropriately while our Highlander was making its way through this enormous Redwood.) I remember The Boy Scout Tree hike as breathtaking and bittersweet, as it was our last day in the park. The trail is a pilgrimage to a massive giant sequoia that resembles the Boy Scout salute. Even then, on our 6th day in the park, after having seen hundreds of incredible trees, this one was especially impressive.
It’s a testament to the magic of the park that the scenery continued to take our breath away day after day. The trees, some of them rivaling the largest in the world, have a spiritual quality that is hard to convey in words. Even pictures don’t do them justice. The only way to understand is by hitting the road and seeing for yourself. I guarantee you will not be disappointed!
With or without a toddler, I recommend the following approach to planning a National Park vacation:
- Decide your travel dates and work your way backwards 6 months. This is the date you can make a camping reservation. Mark your calendar so you don’t forget! (This goes for State Parks too — I tried to make reservations for Labor Day weekend on March 8th this year – 5 months and 24 days in advance, and there were only a handful of state parks here in Washington that still had available campsites! We love us some camping here in the PNW, but sheesh!)
- Until then, research parks you might want to visit. Think about your family’s personality and what would make a good fit. The first big National Park trip we planned with Levi was Lassen, because he was “portable.” We knew we could cover longer stretches, so we wanted to capitalize on his tiny size and agreeable attitude toward, well, everything. So we chose somewhere we wanted to go, not something necessarily interesting to a sentient little kid. Year 2 we decided on Crater Lake, which was. . . awkward. The park was actually on fire during our stay there, so we couldn’t even see the lake through the smoke during the afternoons, and we camped in a massive pile of dust. The Redwoods, for his first trip as a toddler, was absolutely perfect. See above.
- Once you’ve made your decision, order a National Geographic map (https://shop.nationalgeographic.com/collections/maps-and-globes) and an area hiking book (I like Falcon Guides — http://falcon.com/ — if there is one available for your park.) Start getting excited.
- When you’re exactly 6 months out, make your reservations. And then. . . wait.