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Pining for the redwoods while driving coastal California

California’s Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Andreas Hub/LAIF/Visit California

My husband and I cross San Francisco's iconic Golden Gate Bridge and head toward Mendocino County, our first stop on a five-day journey to the famous redwoods of Northern California. We pass glittering views of the Pacific and zigzag through sun-dappled oak woodlands as I poke my head out the open window and breathe in the heady aroma of fresh earth and pine needles.

It is a road trip I have wanted to take for decades, and one that comes with a renewed sense of urgency because the trees are at risk. While some of these giants have stood for of 3,000 years, they face an incredible test: the California drought.

In October, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency because of "the worst epidemic of tree mortality in its modern history." According to a report released last month by the Carnegie Institution for Science, 58 million trees, including redwoods, have shown signs of significant water loss since 2011. Coastal redwoods draw much of their moisture from fog, but even they are starting to exhibit signs of distress.

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In 100 years, "most of the big trees could be gone," Nathan Stephenson, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told The New York Times in 2014 – a sober reminder not to take anything for granted, and the reason we're finally in Northern California.

We drive past endless fields of cows and horses on Route 1, and stop for lunch in Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds. The clam chowder is delicious, even better because we're eating it on a picnic table overlooking Fisherman's Cove.

Our home for the night is Mar Vista Cottages near Anchor Bay in Gualala (pronounced Wa-LA-la), a 12-cottage complex where a sign welcomes you, "SLOW, CHICKENS AT PLAY." It's no joke; the henhouse has 130 chickens of all varieties. As Jamie parks, Lola, a friendly goat, trots over to check out the car. Our cottage has a cozy living room, well-stocked kitchen, a dining area and a bedroom with a window facing the beautiful forest.

A note tells us to leave a small wire basket outside the door if we want just-gathered eggs. There's a larger basket with a pair of scissors for picking vegetables and herbs from the organic garden.

Although our total mileage for the day has only been about 240 kilometres, we're too tired to walk down to the beach (across the street and down the path) or get back in the car to find a restaurant for dinner, so we hang out our egg basket, pick tomatoes, green peppers, scallions and herbs from the garden, and make a delicious omelette.

The next day, we head north on the coastal zigzagging roads called twisties, where the scenery constantly changes from golden fields of hay to forest groves or jagged cliffs. Growing near the sides of the road are pink belladonna lilies called naked ladies; in the spring, the plant has green leaves. The leaves drop off in summer and pink flowers appear on the naked stem.

Our new accommodation, and I mean brand-new, is the Inn at Newport Ranch just outside Fort Bragg, where we are the first overnight guests.

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The town of Newport sprung up around lumber. Chutes anchored at the top of the headlands transported logs down to ships. If you look over the edge of the cliff at the inn, you can still see the remnants of one of the old chutes.

In 1885, lumber operations were moved to Fort Bragg and Newport became a ghost town – that is, until 85-year-old Vermonter Will Jackson saw a newspaper ad for 839 oceanfront acres in Mendocino. He flew out, fell in love with the land, bought it, and now owns 2,000-plus acres. Jackson has built the most gorgeous inn I have ever seen. Everything is redwood: floors, tables, the bar, even the headboards. He has spared no expense.

We sit on the wraparound porch, then walk to the edge of the headlands to spot seals and whales in the ocean. Jackson takes Jamie and me on an ATV redwood safari up and down the hills of his property, through the redwood groves, to a quarry, and through a field where cows graze among wildflowers.

Dinner at the inn is fresh and delicious, and we would love to stay another day, but we have limited time and are anxious to get up to the Redlands.

Leggett has a famous drive-through 2,400-year-old redwood tree: 325 feet tall and 21 feet wide. Sure, it's touristy to drive through, but how can we not? We shoot photos and head to the Avenue of the Giants, a shady road with 51,222 acres of redwood groves. Pulling off the road and looking up at a canopy of these ancient trees is a meditative and humbling experience. The air is fresh, the smell is woodsy and it is absolutely silent except for the slight rustling of branches.

I love the redwoods, but I'm equally happy driving the coastline with kilometres and kilometres of headlands with vista turnouts to stop and admire unending Pacific Ocean views. Happily, we also have ocean views at our next hotel, the Heritage House Resort and Spa in Little River, where James Dean stayed while filming East of Eden. Our room has floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that open onto a terrace above a little cove. We sit and listen to the waves lapping gently against the rocks.

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The next day, we drive down the jaw-gapingly beautiful Route 128, which connects Mendocino Valley to wine country. One minute we're steering through twisties, the next among shady redwood groves, and then alongside Anderson Valley's verdant vineyards from Navarro to Boonville. While we like to consume wine, we don't like to stop and taste at every winery, and we don't have to because our final accommodation, the stunningly gorgeous Mediterranean compound The Madrones has four tasting rooms on the property.

This is the first time our accommodation is not ocean-facing, but it's still wonderful. We sit in the garden near the apple and pear trees watching the hummingbirds flit from flower to flower.

Designer Jim Roberts, who calls himself "the groundskeeper," created The Madrones 20 years ago as his home and office. Seven years ago, he built tasting rooms, added a restaurant and turned the space into an opulent nine-room retreat.

Dinner is outdoors at Table 128 at the Boonville Hotel, eight kilometres away. The delicious green bean salad with onions also features amazing goat cheese. The waitress, who says it's from a farm down the street, adds, "You can't throw a rock without hitting a goat or a sheep."

As we arrive back at our hotel and walk toward our room, I look up at the full moon and then, right below the moon, I see the Big Dipper – a perfect ending to our Northern California journey.

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If you go

Mar Vista Cottages: marvistamendocino.com, from $185 (all prices in U.S. dollars) a night (two-night minimum)

The Inn at Newport Ranch: theinnatnewportranch.com, from $250, including daily breakfast and evening appetizers and drinks

The Heritage House Resort and Spa: heritagehouse-resort.com, from $129 a night

The Madrones: themadrones.com; from $175

The writer travelled with assistance from Visit California. It did not review or approve this article.

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