Highway 101 that runs along the Pacific coastline of the United States is renown for it’s dramatic beauty and the region around Arcata, California is no exception. As many of the areas further inland have incredibly hot summer days, we appreciate the option of having a much cooler day trip escape option. Where the inland city of Redding has summer temperatures hovering in the 100’s Fahrenheit(40’s Celsius), a straight drive out Highway 299 to the coast and the temperature is a very mild 65F (18C). Cue road trips with friends.
Pack some snacks and a picnic lunch for later. Thankfully, getting to this gorgeous part of Northern California is fairly straightforward. From Redding/Interstate 5 it is a 3 1/2 hour drive down Highway 299 west through the stunning Trinity Alps all the way to the coast and then take Highway 101 north to get to my favorite places which I will detail below. Alternatively you can just take Highway 101 north 270 miles from San Francisco or South 100 miles from Oregon and reach these destinations.
Trinidad Beach Picnic:
First stop on our trip North from Arcata, Trinidad Beach! Jump off Highway 101 on the exit for Trinidad, follow the road under the overpass, and drive all the way through the small town and down to the right where the road ends in a free parking lot for the beach. There is also a very picturesque marina area off to the left as you’re driving down through the town, so you will be able to see a bunch of boats moored out in the water. This beach is the perfect spot to eat a picnic and enjoy the white sand surrounded by dramatic rocks and cliffs. When the tide is lower we have found many brightly colored starfish and anemone clinging to the rugged outcroppings. This is a beautiful spot to enjoy in the sunshine, but when the coastal fog is in, there is an added element of magic and mystery.
Big Tree, Redwoods, and Newton B. Drury Scenic Byway:
Head farther north on Highway 101 about thirty minutes and you will reach Newton B Drury scenic byway exit. A few miles down the road you will see a sign on the right for the parking lot for Big Tree, this is a must see attraction! The short path to the base of this giant is easily accessible by stroller/wheelchairs as well. There are great historical facts and other information about the tree and the history of the forest on park service signs along the path. These stunningly massive trees inspire a huge sense of awe and wonder. There are many paths branching off into the woods in all directions and you can easily spend hours exploring this area if you would like. After you’re finished, you can absolutely follow this byway all the way to the end where it loops back up with the highway, it is an incredible drive through old growth redwoods forest. I typically head back to the highway the same way we came since it is marginally quicker.
As you continue driving North on Hwy 101 keep your eyes peeled on the sides of the road for herds of elk! These Roosevelt elk are absolutely massive and many of them have a huge rack of antlers to boast about as well. There are a several elk herds who are not remotely shy, which means they can often be found by curious tourists. They are definitely worth pulling over on the side of the road to snap a few pictures if you catch a glimpse of them.
I’ve saved the best for last. Beautiful 50 foot cliffs totally covered in lush ferns and tiny waterfalls. This is one of the most magical places on the planet and it also doesn’t seem to be well known. If you fancy a longer, 5 mile long, hike you can start from a trailhead at Prairie Creek State Park(on Newton B Drury Road, close to Big Tree). Alternatively, and my preferred route, you can walk the easy 1 mile loop from Gold Bluffs Beach. To get to Gold Bluffs, watch for a brown sign on Highway 101, just a little ways past Orick. The sign will clearly say Gold Bluffs/Fern Canyon, and it will point you to turn on a road towards the west(on the left side of highway 101 when you are heading North). Shortly after leaving the highway, this road turns into a roughly 7 mile long, pothole filled, dirt road which winds down through the redwoods towards the coastline. Once you’ve exited the woods you follow the road to the very end, and you get to drive through two different streams which makes most people feel a bit like Indiana Jones. This is the only destination on my day trip list that is a part of a State Park so there is an $8 entrance fee required per vehicle when you’ve arrived at the coastal section of the road. The good news is once you have paid for entrance to a California state park you can enter as many state parks that day as you like, so you may want to cash in on accessing a few in one day. Gold Bluffs Beach is also an epic spot to camp a few nights right next to the ocean! When we went camping there it was only first come-first serve, no reservations available, so you might want to arrive early in the day if that’s your plan. Once you’ve parked at the very end of the road it’s a beautiful short trail to get to the entrance of the canyon. Then the trail meanders up through the bottom of the canyon and you get to enjoy the magical of being surrounded by beauty. Just be aware that you will be walking up the middle of the creek bed, there are a few boards and logs for crossing back and forth across the stream but if there has been significant rain before your trip be prepared to get wet feet. 100% worth it in my opinion. Also a few scenes from one of the Jurassic Park movies were filmed with this backdrop, pretty cool.
Sunset, Dinner, and the Stars:
You can stay at Gold Bluffs beach to watch the dramatic sunset over the Pacific, or pull over at any number of scenic viewpoints on the way back South. My friends and I normally grab pizza in Arcata at Round Table Pizza before starting our night drive back to Redding. Bonus tip, pull off at one of the rest areas/overlooks and lay down for a few minutes of stargazing. There is no light pollution on the road through the mountains and the Milky Way can be clearly seen along with dozens of shooting stars. The perfect end to a really good day!