Camping in the redwoods is an incredibly tranquil experience. Heck, doing anything in the redwoods, including your taxes, is an incredibly tranquil experience. I tried to explain to my colleagues in Qatar -- folks from India, the Philippines, the UK and other places -- what the redwoods are like and how calming it is to be within their presence, but my words always failed to describe the experience properly.
Above: My weekend trip to the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington. I hoped to visit four of the 16 extreme geographic compass points in the contiguous U.S.: the westernmost (Cape Alava), northwesternmost (Cape Flattery), north-northwesternmost, and west-northwesternmost points. I also hoped to eat a lot of grilled bratwurst.
I got up this morning at the Burlington campground, ate a blueberry muffin for breakfast, and took a panorama photo of my campsite, trying the capture a bit of the magic of the redwoods for my website readers. But just as my words fail to describe the magic of the redwoods, I’m sure my photos will, as well. All I can say is: If you’ve never visited the Redwoods, do it. In all my travels around America and the world, I’ve never been in a place that is so -- what’s the word? -- calming? relaxing? awe-inspiring? (well, that’s two words). All I can say is that the redwoods country of northern California is one of the most special places I’ve ever been. Long may those proud giants live.
I stopped in at the Burlington Visitor Center later that morning, just a hundred yards from my campsite. This, the main Visitor Center of the sprawling Humboldt Redwoods State Park, literally hasn’t changed in the 35 years I’ve been coming here (and that’s a good thing) – same displays about the massive 1964 flood that devastated this area, same dioramas, perhaps even the same rangers. Then I reversed my tracks and headed north along the Avenue of the Giants parkway. Yes, I was heading south that day, but I never pass up a chance to drive on this meandering roadway, doing 30 mph while drifting lazily among the stately giants.
As I mentioned earlier, the 30-mile section called Avenue of the Giants used to be Highway 101 before 1960 when a Highway 101 bypass was constructed. Now it winds through the redwoods providing an unforgettable alternative travel experience for people who like to slowly poke along and meander through the towering trees. People like me. I pulled off and parked at a couple places on the Avenue of the Giants and walked among the redwood groves, trying to soak it all in, and I took a panorama picture of an area called the Founder’s Grove to give you an idea of what it’s like here.
But alas, the highway beckoned. So around 1 p.m. I pulled onto Highway 101 and hit the high gear – but not for long. North of Leggett I braked to a stop, seeing a long line of stopped cars on the highway in front of me. “Must be road construction,” I thought as I crept along at 2 mph. About an hour later, I – and everyone else – was still creeping, when I finally approached the construction site. CalTrans (the California Department of Transportation) was doing some road work on a short stretch of highway here, perhaps 200 yards long, and this being a weekend, they had erected a red-yellow-green traffic signal on both sides, allowing only one direction of traffic to flow through at a time, rather than have flaggers manage the traffic.
Above: The Avenue of the Giants is a former section of U.S. Highway 101 in California that meanders through the redwoods. It's an unforgettable experience. This is just a snippet, because the entire drive takes about 40 minutes. (0:47)
What they apparently didn’t think about is that this being Sunday, the vast majority of traffic here is heading south, back to the Bay Area, and very little traffic was heading north. When I finally drove through the construction zone, I saw a total of 4 cars in the northbound lane waiting their turn – while over 800 cars were waiting their turn in my (the southbound) direction. So the northbound folks had to wait for only three minutes to go through while the southbound folks, including me, had to wait for over an hour. I used to do some traffic engineering work in Oregon with the firm Parsons Brinckerhoff so I figured I should drop CalTrans a note giving them a few pointers about setting traffic signals. But at least the weather was nice…
The road forks when you get to Leggett. The vast majority of travelers stay on 101 and continue south towards San Francisco. But, being the Extreme Geographer, I decided to take the right fork, Highway 1, which runs along the coast. From my previous trips, I knew that driving Highway 1 was not for the faint of heart. For much of its journey, Highway 1 resembles an asphalt corkscrew and you constantly have to pull the steering wheel back and forth while making perhaps 30 mph tops. I knew what I was getting myself into, but I took Highway 1 nonetheless and for one reason: I wanted to visit the west-southwesternmost point of the contiguous United States, which was near the small coastal town of Point Arena, about three hours south of the fork. Yes, us extreme geographers are a strange breed.
Savoring the Redwoods
The West-Southwesternmost Point of the Lower 48 States
I twisted and turned for the next three hours as I headed down Highway 1 towards the town of Point Arena (not to be confused with the cape called Point Arena, which lies about three miles north of the town). As I watched the sun dip lower and lower, I figured I’d camp in a state park campground a half-hour north of Point Arena that was shown on my AAA map and then hike out to the west-southwesternmost point the next morning. About a week earlier, I'd made a reservation at a campground in Santa Rosa, figuring I'd be able to get there from Humboldt Redwoods in one easy day, but I was now realizing that was a pipe dream, so I decided to try this state park campground on the coast, instead. When I got to the campground, though, there was a big “Closed” sign. Apparently the campground hadn’t yet opened for the season, which put me in a vexing situation as I watched the sun drop lower on the horizon.
Every afternoon I create a plan for where I’ll camp that night, usually with at least a couple of alternatives in mind, but tonight -- other than the campground in Santa Rosa, which was still several hours away -- I had none. On the road, as well as in life, it’s always wise to have a backup plan. Well, there was a KOA (Kampground of America – a private campground) nearby, and so around 6 p.m. I drove in and inquired about rates. “It’s $39 a night,” the guy at the counter replied. All I could think of was, “Jeez, $39 to stay in some cruddy private campground.”
Sorry, but I have a real bias against private campgrounds. I’ve always shunned private campgrounds because, with their swimming pools and cable TV and everything else, they’re exactly what I’m trying to get away from when I go camping. Plus they don't offer any privacy, which I always crave when I camp. In fact, I’m proud to say that while I've camped for probably over a thousand nights in my life (that's like three years, dudes), never once have I camped in a private campground. But I was in a bind because the sun was sinking fast and I still had a long hike out of the WSW-most point ahead of me somewhere down Highway 1, and I didn’t have anywhere else to stay that night. So I sat there at my campsite mulling it over – and decided, “Hell no, I’m not staying here.” I dashed out of the KOA, got back on Highway 1 and continued the twisting drive south.
From the research I’d done a few weeks earlier, I knew that the west-southwesternmost point of the United States was near the town of Point Arena in the newly-created California Coastal National Monument. The area was managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the same agency that I’d spent six years working for in the Colorado Rockies during the summers of my college days. I figured there would be a sign for the trail, but I drove completely through the little coastal town of Point Arena and hadn’t seen any sign of either the National Monument or the trail, so I pulled off and checked my maps. The trailhead, according to my maps, was north of town, so I wheeled around and headed through town again, driving slowly while looking for something, anything, that resembled a trailhead. I spotted a pullout, pulled over, and sure enough, it was the trailhead. There were just a few tiny BLM signs, but I figured it was the path I’d been searching for.
I glanced up at the sky and figured I had only about an hour of light left and I knew it was a two-mile hike out of the point, so I hustled. There wasn’t anyone out here, which astounded me, because the trail was spectacular, heading through short grasses near the rocky coastal cliffs with a wonderful view of the town of Point Arena off in the distance.
Above: This unnamed point a few miles south of Point Arena on the northern California coast is the west-southwesternmost point in the Lower 48 states. The light was fading as I began my 2-mile hike out to this point so I had to scramble. (1:25)
I hiked for another 40 minutes and, now with the sun dipping close to the horizon, pulled out my GPS and my maps. Sure enough, this was it: the west-southwesternmost point. It was on a cliff about 30 feet above the crashing surf. I looked around and in the growing dusk, I could barely make out the Point Arena lighthouse a few miles to the north, but there was absolutely no one around for miles in any direction. It was a spectacular setting and I couldn’t believe that no one was out here enjoying the coastal scenery. After reaching the unnamed point, I took a few pictures, shot a panorama, and did a video clip documenting my visit, then quickly gathered up everything and hustled back to the truck. I had a long hike ahead of me and the light was fading fast. Along the way, I passed some beautiful coastal views and again was dumbfounded that no one else, on this late Sunday afternoon, was out here. But I was glad they weren’t.
It was a memorable experience, dashing out in the fading light to that nameless point. As I learned later, not only was it the west-southwestern most point of the United States but is was also the point on the American mainland that is closest to Hawaii. This new California Coastal National Monument was just stunning and, best of all, during my two hours there I didn’t encounter one other person. Had it not been for this trip and its “Geographic Extremes” theme, I probably would’ve never visited this gem, but I will definitely go back someday. This National Monument is an undiscovered jewel (though I'm sure it won't stay that way for long) and yet it’s less than 100 miles from San Francisco. It's mind-boggling.
As I got back in the truck, around 8 p.m., I was really glad I'd hiked out that evening rather than stay at the KOA and hike out the next morning, because I knew I had a long drive ahead of me the next day, all the way down to southern California. I pulled back onto Highway 1 and drove south through the idyllic town of Point Arena yet again, and continued south down the winding road. I drove for another hour, well past sunset, and pulled into a State Park campground near Gualala and mulled over my situation. I could either camp here and have a really long drive the next day, or I could continue onto the campground in Santa Rosa where I had a reservation that evening -- but that was about three hours away. I decided Option 2 was the winner, so I got back onto Highway 1 and spent two more hours on the ever-twisting Highway 1 in the darkness with my headlights dancing across the countless switchbacks with my arms getting weary from all the twisting and turning. But on the positive side, it was a good workout -- and much better than using dumbbells!
A week earlier, I’d made a camping reservation for that evening near Santa Rosa at a place called Spring Lake State Park, which I’d never been to. As I was driving on Highway 1, I knew I’d be getting there around midnight and sure enough, that's when I pulled in. I ate a quick dinner in the moonlight, being quiet so I wouldn't wake the other campers and got in my truck, then dozed off to sleep. It had been another long but eventful day, and I knew I had another busy day ahead of me tomorrow. No rest for the wicked, as they say -- or for extreme geographers!
Highway 1 and the West-Southwesternmost Point