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  • Donna

Trip Report: Redwoods State and National Parks

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

June 24 – July 3, 2017

“Ten more nights in the forest?” Wendy lamented as she looked at the white binder that holds our itinerary. We were sitting at the kitchen table toward the end of our stay at Manzanita Lake, a heavily wooded campground in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

“You getting tired of the forest?” I asked her.

“Little bit,” she answered, fully aware how lucky we are to have that particular problem.

“I think the redwoods are it for a while,” I responded, and the conversation redirected toward selecting the best route toward our first stop.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park June 24 – 28, 2017 Elk Prairie Campground, Site #12

Doing dishes at a water spigot while dry camping at Elk Prairie Campground in the Redwoods State and National Parks
Washing dishes at Elk Prairie Campground

We were back to real dry camping here, using our six-gallon jug to dispense water and doing dishes at a nearby water spigot. Our site was also very shaded, so we didn’t turn on any of the lights in the pod. Instead, we opted for an REI headlamp and battery-powered lantern.

At the start of our trip, Wendy and I had wondered if the 120W solar panels we purchased would be worth the $650 we’d spent. I had thought they’d power everything in our trailer, including the air conditioner, outlets, and microwave. When we learned that actually they only power the absolute necessities in addition to a few LED lights, we were disappointed. What’s the point, we wondered. But the point, as we’ve learned, is we’re dry camping enough that we need the panels to ensure those basics keep humming—that the refrigerator doesn’t turn off and the battery doesn’t drain beyond repair. We drag those panels from the Thule every time we camp somewhere without electricity, and are very happy to have them.

So our basic water and energy needs were met at this campground, and—as with all dry camping—we took a basic approach to our hygiene as well. I’d rather raid the kids’ baby wipes than step foot in a campground shower, so that’s what I usually do. My nails are consistently dirty, even though I routinely clean them with a nail brush, and my hair changes each day, styled by humidity, wind, and my pillow. But this was the first time I couldn’t remember when I last showered. Wendy and I thought back—yep, back before Lassen Volcanic National Park—back to Rancheria RV Park—more than a week ago. We resolved to shower the next time we had access to a dump station, regardless of how inconvenient it may be.

Site 12 at Elk Prairie Campground, Redwoods State and National Parks
Our site at Elk Prairie Campground

It was in this semi-squalid, unshaven state that we landed in one of the most social campgrounds we’ve encountered thus far. While walking Odie, we met Alyson and Jackie—a couple from San Francisco who camp at Elk Prairie each year. We talked about their lives and our plans, they wished us luck on our adventure, and we exchanged e-mail addresses. We also met Karen, an elderly woman with a golden retriever named Mike (who CeCe despised). The first time she tried to talk to me, I was watching both kids and realized I’d momentarily lost track of Darwin.

“I’m sorry,” I told Karen to explain my inability to converse. “I’m not sure where my toddler is.”

When she continued talking anyway, I literally turned and ran away from her, disappearing behind our trailer, where I found Darwin banging on a tent peg with a rubber mallet. Karen tried to connect several other times but Mike was usually with her and I couldn’t hear her over CeCe’s barking.

Our last evening at Elk Prairie, I was playing with Darwin and Emerson when a couple and their 13-year-old daughter commented on what a beautiful family we have. We chatted for a while and that night while we hosted them around a BYOC campfire, Susan and Cynthias told us about their food forest in Eugene, Oregon and their experience fostering more than 100 children. We exchanged contact information with them as well.

Despite all of these social interactions, we actually didn’t spend that much time at camp. We drove along an eight-mile unpaved road (with all the dogs in tow because Odie’d had the shits again), then took turns exploring Fern Canyon, a half-mile trail replete with streams and lush vegetation, culminating in a canyon whose walls are—you guessed it—lined with ferns. This was a really cool trail and would’ve been great to do with Wendy. But since someone had to stay in the car with the dogs, I did it first, happily balancing on logs to traverse little streams, then raved about it upon my return to the car. Wendy went next and raved about it as well, though her experience had been different from mine. She wasn’t sure where the trail ended, so had continued farther than I had, eventually “Ninja Warrioring” over a pile of logs taller than herself, aided by a family ensuring no one in its party fell in the water. It wasn’t until Wendy reached a point when she’d need the family to come back with her that she decided she’d gone far enough.

Fern Canyon Trail, Redwoods State and National Parks
Fern Canyon Trail

The next day, we drove to Lady Bird Johnson Grove, where we again took turns sitting in the parking lot. Odie has a tendency to eat things he shouldn’t and his stomach can’t handle it; he also has Addison’s, so can get anxious sometimes. So we have a routine: If Odie does #3, we switch his diet to white rice and never leave him alone until he does a normal poo. After the initial mishap, it can take him a couple of days to poo at all while his system returns to normal, so we end up going everywhere together until we’re provided with evidence that he’s back to normal. That’s why Wendy walked through the dense one-mile trail by herself, then I set off on my own after she returned.

We also took Odie to Trinidad, a cool little town with a pier. We sat out there for a few hours while I christened the crab pot we’ve been lugging along on this journey. I bought some frozen sardines from a nearby bait shop and did my best not to touch them as I loaded the pot and lowered it into the water. I continued my streak of not catching anything, but we still have fond memories of Trinidad, Alaska—as Wendy called it—where we sat bundled on the pier, eating battered fries and cod, before finally calling it a day.

Crabbing at the pier in Trinidad, CA
Crabbing at the pier in Trinidad, CA

Whenever we returned to camp, we scoured the prairie for elk. We saw them every day—usually females fairly far away from the road. But one day, after walking to the Visitor’s Center to buy a postcard for a friend, Wendy scampered under the R-dome and exclaimed “The boy elk are out! You have to go see them!” I grabbed my phone, hopped in the car, and within two minutes I was standing fewer than three yards away from a whole herd of male elk, their fuzzy antlers scraping the high grass as they grazed. It was awesome.

Male elk at the aptly-named Elk Prairie Campground in Redwoods State and National Parks
Male elk at the aptly-named Elk Prairie Campground

Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park June 28 – July 3, 2017 Mill Creek Campground, Site #124

While we had driven more than 200 miles to get to Elk Prairie Campground, the trip up to Del Norte was a mere 21 miles. But road construction along US-101 and a 2.5-mile steep descent into the campground made it about a 90-minute trip. We didn’t care though. Mill Creek has a dump station and that meant SHOWERS!

Site 124 at Mill Creek Campground, Redwoods State and National Parks
Our site at Mill Creek Campground

We passed through the campground to identify the location of our site, drove to the dump station, filled our fresh water tank, pulled into our site, then proceeded to use that tank of water solely for getting our family good and clean. It took a couple of hours, but we all smelled fresh, I literally felt lighter, and we practically sparkled in our completely clean outfits. Then we pulled out of our spot, drove to the dump station, got rid of all that dirty water, filled up with fresh water again, and then returned to our site and set up camp. As a side note, I backed in like a boss; that’s happened twice in a row now and I’m hoping it means I finally have the hang of this.

We like our Mill Creek spot, though it’s even more shaded than the last and I had to connect the trailer to the car for the first time and let the engine idle for about 10 minutes to ensure our trailer battery wouldn’t die. In good news, Odie’s bum is all better, so we’ve done lots of things here as a family.

The first day, we headed into Crescent City, where my saint-of-a-wife took the kids to the local laundromat while I tried my luck at crabbing again. It was there that I met Paulette and Lee, a couple from Jacksonville, Florida who are traveling in a fifth wheel and are scheduled to volunteer for the next five weeks at the nearby lighthouse, which is only accessible during low tide. Lee is retired from the Air Force and Paulette used to work at the daycare on base. When I mentioned my wife, Paulette asked in a deep southern drawl “So y'all lesbians then?” I answered affirmatively, and she responded “My granddaughter’s a lesbian.”

She went on to explain how she tells everyone people are born that way—not that there’s anything wrong with it—and that she had stopped going to church for a while because of what the minister was preaching. I asked her if it was hard, to stand up and say those things in the south, in her community, and she responded easily, with a wave of her hand, “Nah, I always say what I think. I don’t have a problem with that.”

I had a good time chatting with Paulette. When I mentioned that it was chilly out, she headed to her car and returned with a blanket and McCafe she’d purchased for a woman she’d met the day before who didn’t show up again. It was still warm and I drank it happily. She also tied a piece of fish to the bottom of my crab pot after I’d pulled it up empty a couple of times. “People were out here yesterday crabbing with chicken and they didn’t get anything,” she told me. “But we got these carcasses for free from the fish cleaning station over there.” When Wendy arrived, continuing her saintliness by bringing me a hot Dutch Bros coffee and sweet treat, Paulette told her exactly where to get the free fish, if we were so inclined.

Dungeness crabs caught in Crescent City, CA
I finally caught two Dungeness crabs!

We bid adieu to Paulette and Lee, and brought a little Maryland to the California coast when I steamed our two freshly-caught Dungeness crabs in Old Bay seasoning that night. Wendy had never picked crab before and I’m a lousy guide, having only done it a couple of times myself. When I opened the shell, it just looked like a gooey mess to me, so we “feasted” on the meat from the legs, supplemented by a grass-fed steak we’d purchased earlier in the day. Followed by some cereal a couple hours later because we were both starving. “The crab was delicious,” Wendy said, “but a lot of work for what you get.” Agreed.

I tried crabbing again yesterday, heeding Paulette’s advice and grabbing a couple of free fish carcasses. I was even lucky enough to meet a guy from Portland who didn’t mind tying them to my pot. I lowered it into the water and returned to the car for an afternoon of family time. We headed to Ocean World, which is essentially a dank little aquarium with a few things for the kids to touch and a five-minute sea lion show. But it only cost us $23 total, which was worth it to witness the kids’ amazement as a sea lion balanced a ball on her nose, sang, and flipped in mid-air. Then we indulged in fish ’n chips at a nearby restaurant before buying butter and cheese from a local dairy, stocking up on grocery staples at Safeway, then returning to the dock to retrieve my empty crab pot.

While the majority of our activity during this leg of the trip occurred in Crescent City, we did take one family hike. We drove along a scenic, narrow dirt road rife with whimsically-scattered potholes of varying depth through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park to visit Stout Grove. While we weren’t fans of the access road, the grove itself was beautiful. We walked with the kids along a half-mile trail amid old-growth redwoods, many of which had fallen and created excellent opportunities for the children to climb and jump. We’ve seen so many fallen redwoods and sequoias on this trip that when Darwin sees a tree—any tree—she often says “Oh no! Tree… fall. Tree… fall.” Sometimes she’s pointing at a tree that actually fell. Usually though, she’s merely offering us insight into the connections of her toddler brain, which has decided that all trees fall, someday.

But Darwin needn't concern herself with that, and Wendy can celebrate, because tomorrow we’ll be leaving the forest and heading a couple hundred miles north to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.

Read the next trip report: Oregon


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