What to do in and around California’s Tolowa Dunes State Park

Winter offers surprising outdoor activities, from horseback riding to exploring Indigenous culture.

Crescent Trail Rides takes horseback riders onto the beach at Tolowa Dunes State Park in Northern California.
Trot along the beach with Crescent Trail Rides.
Courtesy Visit Del Norte County

With more than 4,000 acres of coastal and forested dunes that bask in the wind and waves, Tolowa Dunes State Park has one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the state. “It’s one of the gems in the California State Park system,” says Erin Gates, manager of the Interpretation and Education Program for the park’s North Coast Redwoods District. Located in California’s far north, amid Sitka spruce groves and one of the largest coastal lagoons in the West, these ancient sand dunes are about 10 miles from Crescent City in Del Norte County. A place of profound significance to the Tolowa people, inhabitants of the Smith River coastal plain for millennia, the park welcomes visitors who seek quiet beach hikes, birding, horseback riding, and a deeper connection with the history of this serene place.

The Tolowa Coast—which is made up of forest, dunes, lakes, rivers, and their wetlands—plays a central role in history and the present day for the Indigenous Tolowa people. Once the seat of tribal culture, this homeland was the site of many injustices, including horrific massacres and displacement due to white settlement practices in the mid-19th century. Gates stresses that visitors should treat the area with respect, especially when walking through the historic Yontocket memorial site and still-active cemetery in the northern part of the park. 


The Tolowa dunes and Lake Earl Wildlife Area complex together comprise more than 11,000 acres of unique habitat. Among the park’s 500 plant species, several rare and endangered types thrive, and wildflowers abound in spring. In the marshes in and near Lake Earl and other bodies of water, millions of migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway stop and rest from September through March. The hundreds of species you might see include rare Canada Aleutian geese, brown pelicans, and all kinds of waterfowl in the wetlands, while bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and peregrine falcons soar overhead.

Among the network of trails crossing through various ecosystems in the park, Gates recommends two hikes that originate from the Pala Road parking lot in the north part of the park. A short trail crosses through the Yontocket Slough to the historic cemetery, where visitors can pay their respects to the original stewards of this land. A second hike, the East Pond Loop, proceeds from the cemetery via a sandy trail next to a meadow. After about a mile and a half through forested dunes and around a horse camp, hikers can choose to head farther along the Ridge Trail or onward to enjoy water views, wildlife, and excellent birding at a series of ponds and wetlands. 

From the Pala Road lot, you can also access the Smith River to the north and the Pacific to the west, where the California Coastal Trail stretches along the beach for many miles. Take care to consult a tide chart prior to setting out on the beach, as access may be limited when there are high tides.

Exploring the river in the rain in Jedediah Smith State Park in California
Walk along the Smith River in nearby Jedediah Smith State Park.
Ashley Hadzopoulos / Shutterstock

The southern part of the park offers a variety of distinct ecosystems, from impressive dunes to lakes and marshes, that provide pleasant year-round rambling as well. From the circular parking area at the end of Sand Hill Road, Gates suggests, take the Sweetwater Creek Trail for a 2.5-mile round-trip through grassy and forested dunes to the beach. On this trail you can also see restoration work being done by the Tolowa Dunes Stewards in partnership with the North Coast Redwoods District and Redwood Parks Conservancy. This group of dedicated volunteers removes European beach grass and other invasive plants, and provides educational programming such as native plant identification or salmon habitat walks.

To experience the dune trails, meadows, marshes, and long stretches of beach on the Tolowa Coast, mount a horse for a guided ride with Crescent Trail Rides, which operates year-round. The Smith River is renowned for salmon and steelhead fishing, and Lake Earl hosts a good population of cutthroat trout. The lake area is also known for waterfowl hunting from mid-October through January.

For vast ocean vistas beyond a protected marine reserve, head just south of the park to Point St. George Heritage Area. From the bluffs, on a clear day you can catch a glimpse of the reef and its historic lighthouse six miles offshore—take your binoculars for the best views and for spotting migrating gray whales. About 3 miles farther south lies Crescent City, the area’s largest town. Plan to spend some time exploring, dining, and shopping. Crescent Beach and Enderts Beach—a quick three-quarter-mile hike from the Crescent Beach overlook—are great places to beachcomb. For a bowl of Creole seafood stew, local microbrews, harbor views, and a sea lion chorus, head to Schmidt’s House of Jambalaya

To pick up a comprehensive brochure on the park and learn more tips, stop by a visitor center in either Crescent City or inland at Hiouchi, near 10,000-acre Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.