Searching For The World’s Biggest Trees In California’s Redwood Parks

When it comes to giant California redwoods, size matters. Or at least that was my premise when I committed to a long detour that would take me through the state and national Redwood parks of Northern California in early May. A friend had suggested that I could visit Muir Woods, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, to get my redwoods fix, but when I read that the biggest redwoods were up near the Oregon border, suddenly the moderately huge redwoods of Muir Woods simply wouldn’t do.
The desire to see the world’s biggest trees led me into a knee-deep thicket of ferns alongside the Smith River in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, my first stop on an early May redwood road trip with my wife and two little boys. I was looking for a tree called the Del Norte Titan, one of the world’s largest (by cubic feed of wood) at 74 feet in circumference, or the equivalent of 108 cans of coke, and a grove called the Grove of Titans, but I had just a vague set of instructions pulled off the Internet.

I had written in my notebook, “Grove of Titans – across from Stout Grove @ Smith River end of Mill Creek.” We had hiked through the Stout Grove trail and had veered off onto the Hiouchi Trail, but it seemed to peter out into a thicket of ferns. We could see the Smith River and we were at the creek but did we need to cross the river? And if so, where were the summer footbridges noted on the map (rocks?) that would enable us to get across?

Park officials and the handful of redwoods geeks who know the location of the Grove of Titans won’t divulge where it is, for fear that hordes of tourists would seek it out and ultimately damage the trees. After a few minutes of pointless bushwhacking and staring, mystified, at the photo of the trail map I had taken on my camera, I realized that I wasn’t going to find the Grove of Titans, at least not on this day.

We trekked back to the Stout Grove trail, passing wave after wave of colossal redwoods -mighty, seemingly indestructible trees that were as tall as a 30-story building and so thick that sumo wrestlers could stand next to them and appear svelte – and I lost interest in searching for the biggest trees. On a Thursday morning in May, we had the place almost all to ourselves, and the appeal of the place was in the silence and the way the giant, timeless redwoods made us feel small, almost insignificant. If you spend too much time obsessing over size, you run the risk of missing the forest for the trees.

Coastal redwoods grow only in a narrow, damp corridor, 40 miles wide and 450 miles long, in Northern California that stretches just over the border into Oregon. The trees once covered more than 2 million acres of Northern California but today, only about 4 percent of the trees remain, and the survivors are around thanks to the intervention of some committed naturalists who founded the Save the Redwoods League nearly a century ago.

After leaving Stout Grove, we drove west on Howland Hill Road, a narrow, shady path dominated by gigantic trees that loom ominously over the humble, potholed little passageway. As my wife drove, I read a fascinating piece in Orion Magazine about how Steve Sillett, a professor of redwood forest ecology at Humboldt State University, and his friend, Michael Taylor, discovered the Grove of Titans on May 11, 1998. (Particularly stout redwoods are referred to as “titans.”) The fact that they found the grove only after seven hours of intense bushwhacking that left them bloodied and nearly insane made me glad that I didn’t invest too much time in looking for them myself, but it also made me intensely curious about the beasts that lurk in the nether regions of the park, hidden from the public.

We were once again awestruck by the magnificent redwoods on the Cathedral Trees – Big Tree Loop at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, just south of Jedediah Smith. And by the time we took the steep drive up Bald Hills Drive to see Lady Bird Johnson Grove in the adjacent Redwood National Park, I had given up all hope of finding Hyperion, supposedly the world’s tallest tree at 379 feet and located somewhere in the untrammeled interior of the park.

If you consult Yahoo Answers, some yahoo has listed what he claims are the GPS coordinates of Hyperion, as though one could simply pull the car right up to the damn thing. Another so-called “Geography expert” claims, “The tree is well marked for tourists that go there.” If you believe that, check out, Mario Vaden’s roundup about Hyperion – which states that the “rare few” who have found this tree “all have one thing in common: some bleeding.”

The Lady Bird Johnson Grove, dedicated to President Lyndon Johnson’s wife, a redwood lover, by then Governor Ronald Reagan and President Richard Nixon in 1969, is a perfect introduction to the giant redwoods for those who are short on time. We arrived late in the afternoon and the trees were partially enshrouded in a dense fog that only added to the surreal beauty of the place.

It was perfectly quiet, with not another soul around, and we nearly broke our necks marveling at all the majestic trees. Weather changes quickly in these parts, and by the time we’d completed the 1.4-mile loop, rays of sunshine bathed clusters of the hulking trees in a golden light. As we walked to the parking lot, I whistled the Woody Guthrie tune that had been in my head all day.

From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

After a restful night in Arcata, an inviting little town with a distinctive central plaza, we were back on the Redwood Trail, heading south to Humboldt Redwoods State Park. I worried that hitting four parks might be redwood overkill, but as we set out on the first trail of our second day, the Greig French Bell Trail, I felt like I still hadn’t had my fill of redwoods. Each park has a different feel and the trails are all unique.

The Founders Grove Trail, our second stop of the day, is reason enough to visit Humboldt. Midway through the short, 1.3 mile loop, we stumbled across the Fallen Giants area, which is littered with titanic fallen trees, none bigger than the Dyerville Giant, once considered the world’s tallest tree at somewhere between 362-370 feet, or just taller than Niagara Falls.

The Dyerville Giant was hit by another tree, causing it to topple over on March 24, 1991. No one witnessed it crashing to the ground, but a neighbor who heard the sound from a mile away said it sounded like a train wreck. Walking alongside it, one can barely believe its immensity. It feels like it’s as long an aircraft carrier, and even on its side, it stands nearly 8 feet tall. The walk past the magnificent Fallen Giants felt like a stroll through hallowed ground; oddly enough it is somehow easier to digest the grandeur of these trees dead than alive, in the same way you can’t appreciate a great work of art until the artist is gone.

Somewhere in this vicinity, according to the trail’s interpretive guide, lives the world’s oldest redwood at over 2,200 years old. (The world’s oldest known tree, the Patriarch Tree, in the White Mountains of Eastern California is believed to be between 5,062-3 years old.) We were sharing our Friday morning with a living thing that was older than Jesus Christ and the fact that this grove of trees will hopefully still be around in another 2,000 years, speaks to the humble place we occupy, alive for just a brief spell in the scheme of the universe.

The 30-mile Avenue of the Giants is unquestionably scenic, but I preferred our four-mile detour onto Mattole Road, a narrow, bumpy road dominated by towering redwoods that led us to two more splendid hikes in the Rockefeller Grove and (not-so-cleverly-named) Big Tree areas. On a hike in the Big Tree area, I stopped to record the stats on a sign in front of the appropriately named Giant Tree. Height: 363 feet, circumference: 53.2 feet, average crown spread: 62 feet.

The Giant Tree seems thicker than the cast of a Sir-Mix-A-Lot video when you take the time to walk around it, but when you consider that the Del Norte Titan, for example, has a circumference of 74 feet, it’s clear that the big, easy-to-find trees in the parks are small potatoes compared to what’s lurking deep and hidden, far off the trails. (And the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park, though shorter at 275 feet, is even stouter at 78.5 feet circumference.) I’m still torn over whether I want to return to find the world’s biggest trees or if I want to keep them alive in my imagination, as mysterious, unapproachable giants that deserve to be left alone.

Great Short Hikes in the Redwood Parks

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

  • Stout Grove- .6 miles

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

  • Big Tree Loop- 3.2 miles

Redwood National Park

  • Lady Bird Johnson Grove- 1.4 miles

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

  • Big Tree Area- .6 miles
  • Rockefeller Loop- .7 miles
  • Founders Grove- 1.3 miles

IF YOU GO: I flew into and out of San Francisco, which is about 6 hours south of Arcata, the town we used as our base to explore the parks. If you are going to visit one park, I recommend Jedediah Smith or Humboldt, which I think are the two most scenic to explore, either on foot or on scenic roads like Howland Hill Road in Jedediah and Mattole in Humboldt.