The most impressive natural sight in the greater Pacific Northwest is not a mountain peak with its winter cap of snow, nor a rocky beach enduring the crash of surf, nor a volcanic lake, nor a rushing river, nor a painted desert scape.
Don’t get me wrong. I love them all. But first, give me trees. Specifically, give me the giant redwoods of the northwest California coast. The 20 tallest trees in the world, according to those who calculate such things, are redwoods in Humboldt County, California. This year, I am celebrating the agencies that assure their continued existence.
Exactly 100 years ago, the Save the Redwoods League became the first preservationist group to signal an alarm that the world’s tallest trees were in danger. And 50 years ago, Redwood National Park was established to assure their continued protection.
In the late 19th century, before there was any conservation movement in the American West, redwoods were gold. The board feet of lumber in a single tree could build multiple homes. Many of the beautiful Victorians of San Francisco were built of redwood, delivered by rail to small coastal ports and shipped to the city. As late as the 1970s, devastatingly efficient logging methods led to clear-cutting of forests, reducing the size of redwood forests from about 2 million acres to a mere 118,000 acres.
Since the Save the Redwoods League was created in 1918, the preservationist movement has collected 20,000 members from all over the world. Through public donations and matching government funds, the League has purchased 181,000 acres of redwood groves, many of which it has subsequently donated to the national park. Donors are honored through the Memorial Grove Program, which places their names on more than 950 brown-and-gold signs along roadways and trails.
Extending down the Pacific rim for 52 miles from just south of the Oregon border, Redwood National Park was established in 1968. Ten years later, it was expanded to encompass three 1920s-era California state parks (Prairie Creek, Del Norte Coast and Jedediah Smith).
Together, the parks protect nearly half of all remaining old-growth redwood forests. They are now jointly administered as the Redwood National and State Parks. It is one of the few places on the planet designated both a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
Two great hikes
There is no better way to appreciate the redwoods than to plunge one’s self into a forest. While auto drives are great — and there are several, including the Drury Parkway, which almost guarantees sightings of impressive herds of Roosevelt elk in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and the Avenue of the Giants, south of Eureka in Humboldt Redwoods State Park — a short hike is far more immersive.
Two of my favorite hikes are through the Stout Memorial Grove, in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and at the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, within the national park near Orick.
The Stout Grove is a couple of miles off Highway 199 near Hiouchi, on the south bank of the Smith River near the unpaved (but all-season) Howland Hill Road. It is a rare cathedral-like sanctuary where the modern world seems a thousand years and a million miles away.
The nature trail at the Lady Bird Johnson Grove is only slightly more out of the way, its trailhead fewer than 3 miles up the Bald Hill Road off Highway 101 north of Orick. A plaque in a secluded clearing commemorates the place where, in August 1969, three American presidents (Nixon, Johnson and Reagan) stood with the First Lady to dedicate the national park.
The majesty of these colossal trees cannot be understated. Germinated about the time Jesus walked the plains of distant Palestine, they have been buffeted by centuries of rain and wind, fire and vermin. They have sheltered centuries of Native American tribes and, in the past 200 years, witnessed the proliferation of Western civilization.
Yet they persist, rising high above every other living thing. Coast redwoods grow to more than 350 feet, higher than a 30-story building. Even so, their range is as restricted as their life is long. Prolific over much of the Northern Hemisphere at the time of the dinosaurs, redwoods today are found only on the western slopes of the Coast Ranges, in a 450-mile-long strip from the southwestern Oregon border to the Monterey Peninsula.
I feel awed and insignificant when I wander among the ancient giants. In Stout Grove, although the loop trail is a mere half-mile around, I circled it three times, so impressed was I. The spring of the sod beneath my feet, the sunlight peeking through the green boughs, the titter of songbirds from a thicket of rhododendron bushes, made the short hike a multisensory experience.
Where trees had fallen and were cut through to clear the path, their cross-sections were as wide as I am tall. Some trees harbored small caves, probably a home to some creature, beneath their roots. Others, shrouded by sword ferns as high as my waist, leaned into one another in a manner that evoked visions of an otherworldly wonderland.
Life beneath the canopy
The mile-long Johnson Grove trail is no less stunning, and a remarkable place to perceive the canopy layers of a temperate old-growth woodland. The forest floor is cloaked with ferns and shrubs, including salal and rhododendrons, that provide shelter for seasonal wildflowers, mushrooms and other foliage.
It also nurtures tiny redwood seedlings. It’s hard to imagine that these great trees spring from seeds the size of tomato seeds, carried by the thousands in cones no bigger than large olives.
The trees grow tall before they grow wide. Drawn to sunlight that filters through the canopy, a tree will reach 30 feet in its first 20 years, and with sufficient rainfall will climb above 250 feet by the time it’s 200.
Then its energy turns to its core. Redwoods once as spindly as oversized pencils expand to more than five feet diameter by age 400, as much as 15 feet by age 700. Their cousins in the Sierra Nevada foothills, giant sequoias, can be broader (up to 40 feet) and older (as many as 3,200 years). But they rarely exceed 300 feet in height. The tallest known redwood is 380 feet.
You may be too busy looking up at the trees to notice it, but wildlife abounds in these forests, which redwoods share with Douglas fir and western hemlock. Besides elk, there are black-tailed deer, black bears, cougars and a variety of smaller woodland creatures such as raccoons, foxes, bobcats and squirrels (including flying squirrels). And the redwood region is central to the legend of Bigfoot.
It’s highly unlikely you’ll see a marbled murrelet, but they live here, too. This rare, robin-sized seabird nests on large limbs high up on old-growth conifers in select forests, including Lady Bird Johnson Grove.