A Day at Redwood National Park

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Redwood National Park is one of the more unusual national parks. It’s spread out all over the place, and includes “state” parks managed by the state of California. As the Redwood National Park website explains:

Most people know Redwood as home to the tallest trees on Earth. But the parks also protect vast prairies, oak woodlands, wild riverways, and nearly 40 miles of pristine coastline, all supporting a rich mosaic of wildlife diversity and cultural traditions. Together, the National Park Service and California State Parks manage these lands for the inspiration, enjoyment, and education of all people.


A map gives one an idea how spread out these collections of parks are:
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There is no fee for entering Redwood National Park. You may not even be aware you are in the park. There is a visitor center at the south end of the park, just south of Orick, a small, run-down hamlet. Highway 101 turns inland from the vistor center, passing by prairies and streams. Just north of Orick is Bald Hills Road, which will take you to the largest section of the park. Lady Bird Johnson Grove, the most beautiful grove of redwoods in the park, and Tall Trees Grove (which may—or may not—contain the world’s tallest tree) are the highlights of this section of the park. If you venture further north on Highway 101, you pass the appropriately named Elk Grove (a popular hangout for elk). Other highlights are Davison road, which leads to Fern Canyon, which is run by the state and costs $8.00 to access. Further north along Highway 101 is the turnoff to Prairie Creek State Park, one of the best concentrations of old growth redwoods north of Eureka. From this point, Redwood National Park hugs the coast, passing the scenic ridges that tower over the Klamath River’s entrance into the sea. Several state parks, including Del Norte Redwoods State Park and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, take up most of the land in this section of the park.

Early on a Saturday morning I ventured forth with my camera, tripod, and a bag full of lenses, hoping to get photograph redwoods. Summertime on the northcoast means overcast fog. This is not a good time of year for sunrises or sunsets. It’s usually either foggy or cloudless. When it’s foggy, it’s time to photograph trees. Redwood groves are impossible to photograph under sunlight, as the contrast is too great for any camera. But under fog, they can be magical places. Still tricky to photograph, because there’s so much detail and trees rarely arrange themselves into attractive patterns.

I headed out first for Lady Bird Johnson Grove; but it was sunny there, so I pushed toward Prairie Creek State Park. Here, I found some sections still covered by a thin white overcast. I got out my favorite lens for shooting redwoods, an old 20mm prime lens. Choosing the right focal length for shooting redwoods can be tricky. Ultra-wides can capture the entire tree, but you wind up with a huge amount of perspective distortion and the trees end up looking much smaller than they are. Longer focal lengths often can’t capture much of anything, as the forests can be pretty dense. 20mm (or 28mm on full-frame) can be a good focal length for capturing a lot of trees without making these behemoths look too small:

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I next ventured to the Del Norte Redwoods. At the Damnation Creek Trailhead, the fog was beginning to clear, meaning you had a mixture of sun and mist. The light can quite interesting under such circumstances, so I grabbed my camera and began exploring the redwoods along the trail. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of good vantage points along this particular trail. It’s steep, and the redwoods either tower above you on higher ground or rise below you on descending ground. Shooting redwoods on a rising hillside leads to perspective distortion problems when shooting with a 20mm lens:

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Fortunately, in Lightroom, this is easily fixed:

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Because of all the detail in this particular grove, I switched from my 20mm lens to a 24-90 zoom, and attempted a few tighter shots:

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After a lunch in Crescent City, I headed out for the least visited section of the park, the bald hills section south of Lady Bird Johnson and Tall Trees Grove. No old growth redwoods out here. Just prairies, barns, and scattered oak woodlands. Even on a summer weekend, you won’t run into many people in this section of the park. It was warm with cloudless skies when I drove out there on a Saturday afternoon. I decided to take a stab at Lyons Ranch, which I had never explored before:

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I ventured out in the burning sun and trudged along the trail to ranch. Turned out to be somewhat disappointing when I got there. Mainly just barn which would be difficult to photograph in the late afternoon sun:

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I perhaps could have found a better angle to photograph the barn, but I did not want to stomp around in the tick-infested grasses that surrounded the structure. To get a slightly different look, I tried an IR shot:

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It might be worth coming out here in the winter, when the ticks are in hibernation and the light is better.

The light continued to be pretty bad as I slowly made my way back to the trailhead, so I kept shooting with the infrared filter attached to my lens:

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I also tried a few narrow-depth-of-field shots without the IR filter, like this one:

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Photographing redwoods is tricky and the bald hills can be a tad boring. The best scenery in Redwood National Park is along the coast. But in the summer, with the fog and the overcast, the coast can be impossible to photograph to any advantage. Fall and winter is the best time to photograph the coastal sections of Redwood National Park. In the summer, head for the redwoods and the elk. The bald hills might be worth a brief look, but don’t expect to find anything spectacular.