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Road Trip: The Redwood Highway

On the northern stretch of U.S. Route 101 you can drive through a tree, soak in hot springs, and see the world's seventh-tallest tree.

Montgomery Woods State Reserve along California's Redwood Highway, image
Photo credit
Photo: Peter Buranzon
Photo caption
Never-logged groves enliven California's Redwood Highway.

In 1912, it took at least two days and a ferry ride to drive from San Francisco to the giant redwoods of northern Mendocino County, traversing some 160 miles of deeply rutted switchbacks and radiator-busting hills. Today, thanks to the Redwood Highway—the northern stretch of U.S. Route 101, which turns 101 this year—in four hours you can get to a tree big enough to drive through. But slow down. Now, as then, the road to (and through) some of the world’s tallest trees is best experienced as a pilgrimage with adventure-worthy way stations. Here are a few of the new and old-time treasures worth pausing for. (All are in area code 707.)

  • Solar Living Center Born in the 1970s as a supply shop for back-to-the-landers, this sprawling collective, on the east side of Highway 101 in Hopland, has become mainstream green—while still a source of solar power equipment, advice, and inspiration. Visiting kids love the playground’s solar-powered water feature and carousel—where else can they ride a spawning salmon? The hay bale–insulated homes, demonstration gardens, and informational displays impress even non-hippie grown-ups. Shop for 300-count organic cotton sheets, solar-powered coolers, and camping ovens among hundreds of eco-themed books, games, and unusual gifts. 13771 S. Hwy. 101, Hopland, 472-2450,
  • Grace Hudson Museum Head into downtown Ukiah, near the intersection of South State Street and Clay to explore the bohemian family life of successful 19th-century artist Grace Hudson and her physician-anthropologist husband, John. Today the engaging museum’s collection of intricate Pomo baskets is prized at least as highly as Grace’s paintings of her Pomo neighbors. 431 S. Main St., Ukiah, 467-2836,
  • Montgomery Woods State Reserve From the Hudson museum in Ukiah, continue north on State Street to Orr Springs Road, then turn left. The world’s seventh-tallest tree is said to live among these never-logged redwoods, 15 curvy miles northwest of downtown. A few miles of well-tended, fern-fringed trail loop through a boneyard of ancient, hollowed-out redwoods ringed by a cathedral of offspring 300 feet tall. New facilities including picnic tables, parking, and a bathroom were just completed in fall 2010. 937-5804,
  • Hot springs On the road back to 101 from Montgomery Woods you’ll pass on the right Orr Hot Springs, a rustic, clothing-optional resort with shade gardens, a communal kitchen and camping area, and a couple of private cottages and yurts, along with the soaking tubs. 13201 Orr Springs Rd., Ukiah, 462-6277. Call for prices. History buffs and those who like their public soaks swimsuit-mandatory may prefer Vichy Springs Resort, a 5-minute drive into the eastern hills from downtown Ukiah along Vichy Springs Road. It has updated rooms and cottages along a creek, plus a pool big enough to swim laps. The main draw: naturally carbonated hot springs and soaking tubs. Nineteenth-century notables including Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and Jack London enjoyed soaking here, too. Rooms from $105 for AAA members (ask for the February special). 2605 Vichy Springs Rd., Ukiah, 462-9515,
  • Ridgewood Ranch: Home of Seabiscuit Christ’s Church of the Golden Rule now owns this oak-shaded ranch south of Willits, where legendary 1930s thoroughbred Seabiscuit trained and is buried. Two Saturday mornings a month, from June through October, horseracing fans can visit his restored stud barn and training grounds and meet a few of Seabiscuit’s descendants in a docent-led tour; free guided nature walks are offered in spring. Call or check the Web site for dates and to make reservations. 459-5992,
  • Mendocino County Museum/Roots of Motive Power In downtown Willits, turn east off 101 onto Commercial Street. Exhibits include treasure from a 19th-century sailing ship wrecked off the Mendocino coast, a re-created local diner from the 1930s, and a hippie van from the ’70s complete with velvet-draped bed, Turkish rugs, and a stuffed boar’s head. The attached steam/diesel machine museum and library offer tours of mighty locomotives and logging equipment. 400 E. Commercial St.,  Willits, 459-2736, and
  • Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree Willits calls itself the “Gateway to the Redwoods,” but Leggett, 45 miles up the Redwood Highway, may hold a firmer claim. In the 1930s, one Leggett resident and his friends chiseled a hole in a 315-foot redwood that’s big enough (just barely) to drive through in a Ford Escape. Stock up on redwood tchotchkes in the gift shop—pen sets, yo-yos, music boxes, earrings, and so on—or buy a living redwood seedling. 67402 Drive Thru Tree Rd., Leggett, 925-6363,
  • The Peg House Whether you turn for home here or head north into the really big woods, this general store and café, built in the 1960s with hand-hewn beams and without nails, is the place to stop for espresso, grilled tri-tip sandwiches, maté tea, and fresh-baked “mookies” (muffin-cookies). Across the road from Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area in Leggett. 925-6444.

This article was first published in February 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.