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.

Roadside America: Samoa Cookhouse, Eureka, California

There’s something about roadhouses that fascinates me. I don’t just mean dodgy watering holes of the kind Patrick Swayze kicked some butt in, but old school diners that cater to working folk. The food is often great, and there’s just something honest about them.

For over a decade, I’d longed to visit the famed Samoa Cookhouse just minutes from Eureka, California, after reading about it in a food magazine. Built in 1893, it’s at the crossroads of Northern California’s fishing and lumber industries, and the last surviving cookhouse in the West. It sounded like the kind of place I’d love, what with the communal dining hall seating and hearty, family-style prix fixe menus. There’s even a Logging Museum located at one end. The restaurant is still largely patronized by those in the industry, along with fisherman and other assorted blue-collar types.

This past July, my parents, brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew took a family vacation up to the Klamath River. We also spent a couple of days in Eureka, using it as a base to visit the nearby Redwoods National Park. When the inevitable “What’s for dinner?” question arose, my brother (whose teenaged nickname was “Garbage Disposal”), 16-year-old nephew, and I lobbied for Samoa Cookhouse. The rest of the family wasn’t so keen on this (cholesterol level issues/desire for a light meal/finicky 12-year-old niece who subsists on white foods).

It turned out that my brother, parents, and I had actually eaten at the Cookhouse when I was about 8. It’s strange that I can’t recall the visit, because most of my memories are centered on food, even at that time in my life when I, too, refused to eat anything but starchy carbs. This made me even more curious to see what I’d apparently blocked out.Even if you don’t enjoy stuffing yourself senseless, the Cookhouse is a historian’s dream. It’s as authentic a place as you can get, right down to the red-and-white checked plastic tablecloths (my brother and I were immediately reminded of the camp we both attended as kids), utilitarian, lumber camp-style of the dining hall and friendly service.

For $15.95, you’re offered the evening’s menu: soup, salad, homemade bread (hot, exceedingly wonderful, I dare you to not fill up on it), entree (in our case, pork chops and pot roast) potato, vegetable, dessert and coffee or tea. Lunch ($12.95) is along the same lines, while breakfast ($10.95), as you’d imagine, involves massive quantities of eggs, flapjacks, sausage, biscuits and gravy, and hash browns.

The food is a key part of the Cookhouse’s appeal – from our thick, nourishing, beef-barley soup to the sublime pot roast. It’s working man’s fare, done right. But it’s so much more than just a great meal (although the original Cookhouse menu items are today considered on-trend and command top dollar at the nation’s best restaurants: freshly churned butter from the Cookhouse dairy; homemade preserves, etc.).

The Cookhouse is also a vital piece of California history that’s often overlooked. The logging legacy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in large part helped the state prosper and brought many of the immigrants who helped establish Northern California’s “melting pot” culture. If nothing else, visit the museum, which contains an astounding array of photographs, relics, and some seriously badass cross-cut saws.

To get to Samoa Cookhouse, take the Highway 255/the Samoa Bridge over the bay from Eureka, and make a left. You’ll see the white dining hall perched on a hilltop. Open seven days a week.

[Flickr image via TrishaLyn]

Damnation Creek: Hiking Old-Growth To Ocean In Redwood National Park

There are few places on earth I love more than Redwoods National Park, located 325 miles north of San Francisco. Growing up, we used to drive up the coast every summer, and a few nights camping in the redwoods was always on the itinerary.

The Redwoods are actually several parks within the national and state system, all of which are managed cooperatively by the National Park Service and California Department of Parks and Recreation. Together, they comprise nearly half of the remaining old-growth redwood forest in the state.

Last month, while driving down the coast from Seattle to San Francisco, I decided I was long overdue to sleep amongst the world’s tallest trees. I booked a site at Mill Creek Campground in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, just south of the dreary fishing port of Crescent City.

When I camp, I want to stay in a place that smells of wood smoke, and has sites covered in moss and ferns. I desire a forest canopy overhead, ranger talks, trailheads and wildlife lurking in the undergrowth. I do not want to see functioning cellphones, tour bus-sized RVs or swimming pools. I may be in a campground instead of the backcountry, but I have my standards.

Mill Creek, as well as Jedidiah Smith Campground (located 10 miles east of Crescent City, in Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park), both meet my criteria. I’ve stayed at the Smith campground in the past, and at either place, I’d be perfectly content to sit on a stump all day, inhaling the scent of burning wood and watching the banana slugs go by.

That said, I camp so I can hike, which is why I was thrilled to discover one of the Redwood’s best trails – one of only a few with old-growth forest-to-beach access – just down the road from Mill Creek. Damnation Creek was originally used by the region’s Yurok Indians, who went to the beach to collect shellfish and seaweed.

The trail drops 1,100 feet in two miles, switchbacking through Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, ferns, and huckleberries. It’s a steep drop, but utterly breathtaking due to the cathedral-like shroud of ancient redwoods that tower over everything. Damnation Creek runs near the bottom of the trail, just before you emerge onto a bluff overlooking the sea stacks of the Pacific. If the tide is out, you can walk down to a patch of rocky beach overlooking Damnation Cove. Take a deep breath. Realize cellphones and civilization are overrated. Linger. It’s a steep hike back.

Getting there
Located eight miles south on Highway 101 from Crescent City; the Damnation Creek Trailhead and pullout is at mile marker 16, on your right. Don’t leave any valuables in your car.

[Photo credit: redwoods, Flickr user goingslo]

Google Street View Features California National Parks

Want to see Redwood National Park but don’t have the time or money to make the trip? How about Yosemite or Death Valley? Thanks to the graciously, life-improving, expanding Internet, you can now take a stroll through five California national parks right on Google Street View. The Official Google Blog outlines this new step. While seeing these monumental landscapes in person cannot be replicated online, there is something especially majestic about gazing through the Redwoods on your Street View. Perhaps you’ll like the view enough to make the actual trip one day.

Video: Albino Redwoods, a biological mystery

I recently spent 10 days exploring Northern California, magnetized by every patch of Redwood trees I saw. This wasn’t my first trip to the area and it won’t prove to be my last, either. There’s something especially magnificent about Redwood trees. The limits of their growth are widely still unknown, but at their recorded tallest height (379 feet), the Giant Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) family includes the tallest trees on Earth.

Although I’ve been home for a couple of days now from the trip, I’m still finding myself at the mercy of web searches related to these trees. An admittedly semi-mindless YouTube trolling session this evening brought me to this well-shot and knowledgeable video focusing on Albino Redwoods. These special trees baffle scientists. All I can think is… I wish I’d made a point to check out these ghost-like trees in person. If you’ll be in Redwood territory soon, take note.