The rural county is notable for forests containing giant Coast Redwoods, with some attaining heights over 350 feet (110 m). This northernmost county on the California coast also has scores of unique plants and flowers, dozens of species of coastal birds and fish, rocky primitive beaches and sea stacks, pristine rivers, and historic lighthouses. Del Norte is also known among Bigfoot enthusiasts as the location of the famous Patterson–Gimlin film, as well as being the location of some of the forest scenes used in Return of the Jedi.
The area that is now known as Del Norte was and still is inhabited by the Yurok (Klamath River Indians) and Tolowa Nations of indigenous peoples. The first European American to explore this land was pioneer Jedediah Smith in the mid-19th century. He was the first European American to reach the area overland on foot in a time before the European Americans knew anything about such a distant territory. For him it was literally "Land's End" — where the American continent ended at the Pacific Ocean. In 1855 Congress authorized the building of a lighthouse at "the battery point" (a high tide island on the coast of Crescent City) which is still functioning as a historical landmark.
Del Norte County was established in 1857, from part of the territory of Klamath County following the great California Gold Rush. Klamath County itself ceased to exist in 1874.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 1,230 square miles (3,200 km2), of which 1,006 square miles (2,610 km2) is land and 223 square miles (580 km2) (18%) is water.
The mountainous terrain associated with the Coastal Range and the Klamath Mountains dominates Del Norte County's geography. Elevation ranges from sea level to over 6,400 feet. Although much of the county is made up of steep terrain, there are small patches of flat terrain along the coast and in isolated mountain valleys. There are 37 miles of coastline in the county, forming a coastal zone that covers approximately 51,000 acres (80 square miles). A broad coastal plain can be found in the northwest portion of the county with the western edge of the Klamath Mountains as its easterly boundary. Rising abruptly from the coastal plain, the Klamath Mountains extend north into Oregon and are situated between the Cascade Range to the east and the Coast Range to the north.
There is a diversity of flora and fauna within Del Norte County. Vegetative plant associations feature several forest types including mixed oak forest. The California endemic Blue oak, Quercus douglasii is at the northernmost part of its range in Del Norte County. The Black Oak and Douglas-fir are also found in Del Norte County.
There were 9,170 households out of which 33.5% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 50.0% were married couples living together, 13.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 31.4% were non-families. 25.3% of all households were made up of individuals and 10.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.58 and the average family size was 3.08.
The age distribution was 25.1% under the age of 18, 8.0% from 18 to 24, 32.2% from 25 to 44, 22.3% from 45 to 64, and 12.5% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females there were 123.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 130.3 males.
The median income for a household in the county was $29,642, and the median income for a family was $36,056. Males had a median income of $40,072 versus $22,212 for females. The per capita income for the county was $14,573. About 16.4% of families and 20.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 26.7% of those under age 18 and 8.2% of those age 65 or over.
Del Norte County has one of just five combined county office of education-unified school district learning educational agencies (LEA) in the state of California, with one elected Board of Trustees that serves both agencies, and one superintendent overseeing both the County Office of Education, and the Unified School District.
The Del Norte County Unified School District provides public education to the children of Del Norte County through the twelfth grade. The only high school in Del Norte County is Del Norte High School, whose school mascot is the Warrior. There are also five K-5 elementary schools (Bess Maxwell, Joe Hamilton, Margaret Keating, Mary Peacock, Pine Grove), three K-8 elementary schools (Mountain, Redwood, Smith River), and one middle school (Crescent Elk).
The County Office of Education provides special education services to the county, as well as alternative learning options that includes Community Day and juvenile detention. Alternative educational facilities are Del Norte Community Day, Elk Creek detention center, and Sunset Continuation High School.
The county has almost an even split in Democratic and Republican voter registration. As of May 2008, approximately 67% of eligible voters are registered to vote in Del Norte County, with approximately 38% registered as Democrats and approximately 38% registered as Republicans, with the State of California reporting 32 more Republicans than Democrats on April 7, 2010. Third party affiliation accounts for approximately 6% of all registered voters in the county.
The Crescent City Harbor serves as a commercial fishing port for salmon, shrimp, tuna, cod, and dungeness crab commercial fishing boats. Nearly 50% of all dungeness crab served in California restaurants is off-loaded in this harbor. The harbor is also home to multiple fishing and non-fishing related businesses and harbor governmental offices. The harbor also has several pleasure boat docks.
Crescent City is the county seat of and only incorporated city in Del Norte County. Its population count includes the inmates of Pelican Bay State Prison located ten miles north of the city.