Redwood National Park, California

John Vlahides goes tree hugging in the Redwood National Park on the far-north California coast

5 mins

The first time I saw a forest of giant redwoods, I couldn’t grasp what I was looking at. Sure, I’d seen small stands of them before, but only in touristy parks, like the famous Muir Woods, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Such parks are jammed with screaming kids and tour buses, and there’s nothing quite so distracting in nature as the sound (and stench) of a diesel engine. 

So this time I’d driven six hours north of San Francisco – past the end of Highway 1 – to Redwood National Park on the far-north California coast. As I pulled into the parking area of the Lady Bird Johnson Grove of big trees, I noticed that mine was the only car there. The wind was calm but the fog dense; so dense that I couldn’t see anything definite beyond the trailhead, only mist and shadowy shapes. I was initially disappointed: I’d come to experience the height of these magnificent trees, but the fog looked set to deny me the view. 

Then I looked down. A lush carpet of waist-high ferns and deep-green moss covered the ground, punctuated by splotches of purple irises and hot-pink rhododendrons. The fog  twirled in the branches of the trees, evanescing like ghosts on the breeze. Droplets of water plopped onto the forest floor, and I could hear the soft scampering of salamanders. The dynamic quiet overwhelmed me, like a drug kicking in.

Up ahead I spotted a looming blackness in the fog: an enormous tree. 

I climbed to the base of the giant, scampering up roots as wide as my thighs. Taking full advantage of my total solitude and privacy, I thrust my body against the tree. (I admit it: I’m a tree-hugger. But tell me, what better way is there to truly appreciate the size of an enormous tree?) My arms couldn’t even begin to stretch around the trunk. Measuring 18m – 18m! – in circumference, this was by far the largest tree I have ever seen, let alone touched. The cinnamon-coloured bark was deeply rutted, soft and hollow-feeling. Flecks of mulch stuck to my face as I stepped away, slightly dazed.

People who talk about their experiences among the redwoods inevitably use the word ‘cathedral’ in their descriptions. I’d heard it a zillion times and always appreciated the metaphor, but there, alone, standing among the tallest living things on the entire planet, the metaphor felt literal. What better place to contemplate one’s existence than in a primordial forest that predates even the birth of Christ?

Walking with giants

Sequoia sempervirens, the world’s tallest trees, grow nowhere else on earth but in a narrow strip along the north California coast, stretching from Santa Cruz to the Oregon border where their habitat abruptly ends. Their ecology is as complex as the equatorial rainforests; some animals spend their entire existence in the canopy of the trees, never once touching the ground. The world’s single-tallest tree, Hyperion, was only discovered in 2006 and measures a whopping 115m – more than 40 stories tall. 

Considering all this, you’d think that people would flock here in droves to see this place, especially since only 4% of the original 8,000 sq km old-growth forest remains. But this part of California is far, far away from the state’s major draws – Disneyland, Hearst Castle, Napa Valley, the Golden Gate Bridge. Only very determined travellers bother to make the long journey up here. 

Few tourists know what lies past the end of Hwy 1, beyond the Redwood Curtain. The polar opposite of southern California in every way, the north coast is a land of fog-shrouded rocky coves and densely wooded, steep hillsides that rise straight from the ocean. Settlements are few and far between. Nobody here wears a bikini, they wear buffalo-plaid flannel. Think Hitchcock, not Baywatch.

The big drive

The best spot to see the trees is at Redwood National Park, a patchwork of state and federal parks north of Eureka. But if you can’t commit to a seven-hour drive north of San Francisco, head four hours to the Avenue of the Giants, just north of Garberville, the region’s main town, which became famous in the 1970s for its marijuana farming.

One of California’s most stunning scenic drives, the Avenue of the Giants winds through Humboldt Redwoods State Park, which protects the world’s largest-remaining contiguous old-growth redwood forest. The two-lane, 51km road parallels Highway 101 and cuts smack bang through the towering trees as it twists and turns northward. The scale is confusing at first: next to the trees, vehicles look like a child’s Matchbox toys. 

Stop at the visitor centre south of Weott to gather your wits and gen-up on redwood ecology. For some insight into the timber wars, study the centre’s exhibits on the effects of logging on local watersheds and salmon populations – if you really want to know what’s going on in redwood country, ask the locals about salmon. (Also tune in to community-radio station KMUD FM 90.3 and 91.1.) 

Don’t leave the visitor centre without checking out the vintage 1917 ‘Travel Log’, a campervan carved out of a giant redwood trunk. 

As you drive north you’ll see dense thickets of blackberries growing like weeds on the side of the road. For a sweet treat between August and October, stop for homemade blackberry popsicles at Flood Plain Produce, a roadside fruit-and-veg stand at the avenue’s north end, in Pepperwood. Nobody mans the stand; instead you leave a dollar in an envelope on the counter. Welcome to the middle of nowhere. 

The Avenue terminates at Pepperwood, but keep going and you’ll soon reach the Victorian village of Ferndale. The entire town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and its architecture is splendid. Dairy farmers founded the little town in the late 19th century. As they grew rich, they built giant Victorian mansions dripping with ornate gingerbread detail and painted a rainbow of colours; locals dubbed them ‘butterfat palaces’. Today most of the mansions have become B&Bs, making this an ideal place for an overnight en route to, or from, the trees.

Snap pictures of the fancy-pants Gingerbread Mansion, an over-the-top 1898 Queen Anne-Eastlake home where you can sleep in Victorian splendour. But I prefer the simpler Old West-style Hotel Ivanhoe, where you can take your morning coffee to a second-floor porch and watch the townsfolk make their rounds.

Into the woods

North of Eureka, Redwood National Park is actually a series of state and federal parks with no main entrance booth, making the Thomas H Kuchel Visitor Centre an essential stopover for gathering maps and information on the condition of the trails. 

Most travellers don’t bother to ask about the Tall Trees Grove, but you should. Rangers issue 50 permits a day to visit the hidden wood where some of the park’s tallest trees are located, and en route there you’ll have vistas down onto the trees’ canopy. Allow four hours for the round-trip, which includes a 10km drive along a rutted-out dirt road to a steep 2km trail that drops 240m to the grove. If you’ve got time, tack on a hike of the 4.5km Emerald Ridge Trail, which crisscrosses Redwood Creek (wear appropriate footwear for fording the creek). 

Tip: For total solitude, diverge from the trail and head upstream to hidden swimming holes that only locals know, where you can shed your clothes and sunbathe in the buff. Pack a towel.

Similar to the Avenue of the Giants, but far less visited, the Newton B Drury Scenic Parkway runs parallel to Hwy 101 through the ancient forests of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Looking like a witch’s cottage in the woods, the Prairie Creek Visitors Centre stocks the best selection of books of all the park’s visitor centres. Right outside, herds of Roosevelt elk roam the grassy prairie – a magnificent sight. Ask rangers for directions to prehistoric-looking Fern Canyon, where lush ferns blanket 18m rock walls. Near the canyon, there’s terrific ocean-side camping at Gold Bluffs Beach. The best sites are hidden up the cliffs in the woods.

The Indians never slept in the redwood forests because they’re dark and damp, and they believed them to be inhabited by spirits. I couldn’t agree more. The cottage compounds along the Avenue of the Giants are deceptively cheerful, and some of the inns are decidedly creepy. (One innkeeper I met here told me, “I run a safe place. I don’t allow any gays, freaks or troublemakers.” Hardly sounds safe to me.) 

Better to stay at the Requa Inn, hands-down my favourite lodge anywhere along the redwood coast. Built in 1914, the former logging hotel sits perched on high bluffs where the Klamath River meets the rolling Pacific. For the best views of the misty river, book a room in front. Sit in the inn’s common area with a pair of binoculars and watch eagle and osprey dive for salmon right outside. After a simple dinner in the inn’s window-lined dining room, trade tales of the day’s adventures while playing backgammon by a roaring fire. Perfect.

It takes effort to visit the north coast. You’ll have to drive great distances, the food can be lousy, accommodation limited, and the weather chilly and damp, especially in mid-summer when fog billows in off the Pacific.

But the payoff is huge. As you wend your way southward toward the Golden Gate, you’ll not only have a renewed perspective on the earth itself, but you’ll have the smug certainty that you’ve just done something hardly anyone else in California has, including most locals. I can’t think of a better reason to cross the Atlantic.

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