Sandy, windswept edge between forest and ocean
HIGHLIGHTS: Humboldt Lagoons State Park lies on the sandy, windswept edge of ocean and forest. Formed by the clash of two tectonic plates, it’s part of the largest lagoon system in the United States. Ranger Maurice Morningstar calls it “a string of pearls that lets you look back in time and see a process that continues today.” Part of a string of lagoons between Eureka, California, and the Oregon border, Humboldt Lagoons State Park includes Big Lagoon Beach, Dry Lagoon (which is actually a marsh) and portions of Stone Lagoon. The park includes dunes, forests, prairies and coastal scrub. It’s on a major bird migration route. You also may see whales, elk, trout and salmon.
ACTIVITIES: Boating, fishing, camping, beachcombing, hiking, hunting for agates (semi-precious gemstones), picnicking, swimming in the lagoons, watching birds, whales and other wildlife.
Humboldt’s three wet lagoons are great places to fish or watch wildlife from a boat. A 5-mile-per-hour speed limit for motorboats benefits wildlife, sailors and paddlers. You can launch at:
- Big Lagoon (9 miles to circumnavigate; has the strongest winds; launch at Big Lagoon County Park at mile marker 108.3 on Highway 101 ($2); beach side is good for picnicking, whale watching, and agate hunting.)
- Stone Lagoon (4.5 miles to circumnavigate; six-site boat-in and hike-in campground at Ryan’s Cove where you can get out and explore the forest trails; launch from Stone Lagoon Visitor Center at mile marker 115.3 on Highway 101 or at the end of a short dirt road at mile marker 117.38; shorebirds, river otters, Roosevelt elk.)
- Freshwater Lagoon (3 miles to circumnavigate; launch just south of Orick at mile marker 118.5; close to the highway, so it has fewer mammals than Stone Lagoon, but lots of fish, shorebirds and raptors; the most protected from strong north winds.)
On the ocean side of Humboldt Lagoons, swimming, surfing, and kayaking are not recommended. Big swells, strong currents, and waves that slam onto steep beaches make it too dangerous. Use caution on the lagoon side, too. Check weather conditions, watch out for afternoon winds, and stay out of strong currents near the mouth of any ocean breaches in the lagoons. If the fog comes in, you may need a compass to find your way back to the launch.
Just for Kids: As you explore Humboldt Lagoons, you and your kids can work your way through the Adventure Guide (external link) together. Download the guide or call 916-653-8959 to order a copy.
VISITOR CENTER: Up until 1979, what is now the Stone Lagoon Visitor Center was a Highway 101 motel-restaurant called the Little Red Hen. Stone Lagoon Visitor Center has more information on the park’s natural and cultural history, and on weekend boating options. Sit on a sofa beside a big picture window to take it all in. The center is open when staffing permits.
CAMPGROUNDS: Stone Lagoon has six year-round hike-in and boat-in campsites at Ryan’s Cove. A fire ring and table are provided, but you must haul your own water. Call the visitor center or go to Kayak Zak’s (external link) to learn about wind patterns and currents. Pay camping fees at the “iron ranger” money-depository post near the visitor-center parking lot. RV access is in the day-use areas only.
TRAILS: The California Coastal Trail runs through Humboldt Lagoons State Park. A good starting point is the Redwood National and State Parks information center in Orick (just north of Humboldt Lagoons). From there, it’s 5.8 miles past Freshwater and Stone lagoons to Dry Lagoon day-use area. It’s another 6.4 miles past Big Lagoon to Patrick’s Point State Park.
- Dry Lagoon Beach (2 miles round trip, or less): To explore the quiet beach beside Dry Lagoon, park at the day-use area just east of Highway 101. Hike north near the water’s edge toward the base of the triangle-shaped promontory Sharp Point. The bird-watching should be great. On the way back, meander slightly inland, where you’ll see a variety of hardy dune plants, including sand verbena, morning glory, beach strawberry and (non-edible) beach carrot.
- Stone Lagoon Coastal Trail (2 miles round trip): To hike the sand spit on the west side of Stone Lagoon, park at the day-use area north of Stone Lagoon. From there, head south on the California Coast Trail for one mile, until it starts heading uphill. The ocean sometimes washes out this trail in the rainy season, so call ahead to ask if the trail is passable: Humboldt Lagoons State Park, 707-677-3570 (Patrick’s Point kiosk, staffed seasonally); or Redwood Information Center, 707-465-7765.
- Stagecoach Hill/Azalea Nature Trail (0.5-mile loop): A springtime treat, Azalea Nature Trail lies just east of Highway 101, between Big Lagoon and Stone Lagoon. Take the Kane Road exit east. When the road forks in about half a mile, veer left onto a well-graded dirt road. In another half mile or so, you’ll see a state park sign on the right and parking for a few cars on the left. The trail starts in a Sitka spruce forest and leads to a sunny slope overlooking the ocean that’s covered with 10-foot-tall azaleas. In May and June it’s solid pink, white and red. The trail is flat and a bit overgrown. But who can complain about an abundance of blossoms?
- Dry Lagoon to Ryan’s Cove and back (4.5 miles round-trip): Drive to the Dry Lagoon day-use area just off Highway 101. Heading north on a flat portion of the California Coastal Trail, you’ll pass by sand verbena, beach strawberries and (inedible) beach carrots. Later, ascending the hill west of Stone Lagoon, you may temporarily lose sight of your hiking partners amid enormous cow parsnip and bracken. In spring, look for sun-loving wildflowers here, including red columbine, purple self heal, and dark blue lupine. Farther up and into the forest, you’ll pass stands of alder and Sitka spruce with lush greenery underneath, including thimbleberries, salmonberries, huckleberries, and blackberries. After you’ve gone about 2.2 miles from the start, turn right off the main trail to descend to Ryan’s Cove and the park’s boat-in campground at Stone Lagoon. Where a creek crosses the trail, look for the generous leaves and huge yellow flowers of skunk cabbage. Return the way you came. The views of Dry Lagoon and its scenic beach are even better on the way back.
- Big Lagoon Beach (3.5 miles one way): Big Lagoon Beach Trail spans the 3.5 miles of sandy shoreline between Big Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean. Start at Dry Lagoon day-use area. For a longer hike, continue south to Patrick’s Point State Park.
- Gold Beach to Patrick’s Point (30 to 35 miles, 7 days, 6 nights, guided by Coastwalk): Once a year, the nonprofit Coastwalk leads the Humboldt Redwoods Classic, a leisurely trek that starts at Gold Bluffs Beach in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, traverses Humboldt Lagoons State Park, and triumphantly ends up at Patrick’s Point State Park a week later. You do the walking and Coastwalk provides volunteer guides, gear-hauling, campsites, and meals cooked by local volunteers. Maximum group size is 20. For more information, go to the Coastwalk website (external link).
- Big Lagoon Beach to Patrick’s Point (8.5 miles round-trip): Just off Highway 101, drive 1 mile to the Dry Lagoon day-use area. If conditions are right, a scenic 8.5-mile hike to Patrick’s Point State Park and back is possible. From the parking lot, walk three-quarters of a mile southward to Big Lagoon. Then walk along the crest of the barrier beach—but be careful. At high tide, ocean waves can breach the spit in the rainy season. Call ahead to Patrick’s Point State Park (kiosk, staffed seasonally) or Redwoods Information Center, 707-465-7765, to make sure the route is passable.
- Orick to Patrick’s Point (12.2 miles one way): Park at Redwoods Information Center near Orick. From here walk south on the California Coastal Trail past Freshwater Lagoon, Stone Lagoon, Dry Lagoon, and Big Lagoon, Agate Beach, and into the center of Patrick’s Point State Park. The route generally follows flat sandy ridges beside the ocean. In the middle section, however, it heads up and down 320 feet in elevation on the south side of Stone Lagoon. It heads up another 180 feet near Patrick’s Point. In the rainy season, surf can wash out the trail, and this route should never be attempted at extremely high tides. Call ahead to make sure the route will be passable. Patrick’s Point State Park (kiosk, staffed seasonally), 707-677-3570; or Redwood Information Center, 707-465-7765. For a two-day trip, make arrangements to spend the night at Stone Lagoon’s boat- and hike-in campground.
MUST-SEE UNIQUE FEATURE OR SEASONAL HIGHLIGHT: In the spring, azaleas light up forested areas, along with calypso orchids and blue pimpernel. Possible wildlife sightings include ducks, raptors, shorebirds and songbirds, as well as whales, harbor porpoises, harbor seals, and California and Steller sea lions.
HIDDEN GEM: If you’re lucky, you’ll find a herd of Roosevelt elk grazing at the south end of Stone Lagoon.
FEATURES ACCESSIBLE TO PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES: Parking, restrooms at Stone Lagoon Visitor Center and Dry Lagoon.
DOGS: On leash in developed areas. Not permitted past Stone Lagoon parking lot.
ENTRANCE FEE: None.
- Go to the Humboldt Lagoons State Park website (external link), call (707) 488-2169, or write to Stone Lagoon Visitor Center, 15336 Highway 101 North, Trinidad, California 95570.
- Stone Lagoon Visitor Center is a cozy place to relax and learn about Humboldt Lagoons State Park. It’s just west of Highway 101 at mile marker 115.3. It’s open when staffing allows, usually on weekends 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- The Humboldt Lagoons State Park brochure contains valuable information about the park’s cultural and natural history, as well as travel tips.
- More information is available on the websites of the Redwood Parks Association (external link) and Coastwalk (external link), which offers multi-day guided hikes through Humboldt Lagoons and other coastal parks in California.
- If you have an hour, stop at the Stone Lagoon Visitor Center. Sit in a cozy “living room” space and read about the cultural and natural history of the North Coast. Watch the park video. Picnic on the deck overlooking the lagoon.
- If you have half a day, drive to Dry Lagoon day-use area. Hike north on the California Coastal Trail to Ryan’s Cove and back. Along the way you’ll see dunes, crashing waves, berry bushes, wildflowers, and the lush forest beside Stone Lagoon.
- If you have a full day, rent boats at Stone Lagoon Visitor Center and paddle around the lagoon. Fish, watch for migrating birds, and spot elk, bear, or river otters along the shore. Lunch at a picnic table at Ryan’s Cove, and paddle back. If you have more time, camp at Ryan’s Cove and head up to Sharp Point for the sunset.
California’s Redwood Coast website (external site) offers resources to help plan your trip to Humboldt County.
STOP: Christine also suggests Trinidad Bay (external link) as the place to stay.
FAVORITE HIKE: The three mile Coastal Trail.
FAVORITE PARK ATTRACTION: At Humboldt Lagoons one can enjoy beachcombing, bird-watching, whale watching and agate hunting at Agate Beach.
Tell us your favorite stops, hikes, places to eat, and more when visiting this park!
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