There are places that take a while to process.
The experience is almost transcendent, one can’t really put a finger on the emotions evoked. That was me, standing in the redwood forests.
Think of an old living creature. What comes to mind? A bowhead whale? A tortoise? Or maybe an unknown creature that’s too small to see? An average redwood tree is older than all these combined. Redwood trees are tall, dense, and so resilient that they can survive after a forest fire burns a hole through their trunk.
Sequoia sempervirens are evergreen trees that can live longer than 2,000 years. Some of the tallest living trees in the world are in this species as they can grow to 350 feet (196.7 meters) or more, with a base diameter of about 20 feet (6 meters). These trees are also among the oldest living things on Earth. The oldest known tree has been alive for more than 2,500 years. The redwoods are descendants of a group of conifers that flourished more than 144 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed. The bark is, in fact, reddish in color, and thick, sometimes up to 1 foot (30 cm). California’s coastal redwood habitat follows the fog and trees thrive at elevations below 2,000 feet (609.6 meters) with heavy winter rains and moderate year-round temperatures.
Redwood Forest is a community
Walking in the redwood forests, you’ll notice that the forests are a lot more than just tall redwood trees. It’s a complex community of living things interacting with their environment. Carpeting the coastal redwood forest floor are the delicate redwood sorrel with its pink and white flowers and purple stems, and the sala with its leathery green leaves and blackish-purple summer fruit, as well as a multitude of ferns. Sword fern and redwood sorrel are the most common members of redwoods’ understory, and are accompanied by rhododendron, trillium, huckleberry, salal, azalea, and other shrubs.
Redwood trees and Indigenous people
The Native people of the North Coast of California region, Tolowa, Yoruk, Hapa, Karuk, and many more, have made the redwood forests their home for thousands of years. Today, the descendants of these people continue to live on and off reservations in the redwood region. Traditional homes were usually made from fallen redwoods. They believed the redwood planks were the body of spirit beings who taught people the proper way of living. Unfortunately, the Native people were forced out of their homeland during the Gold Rush and the development of the logging industry.
Despite the gruesome history, the Native communities have persisted. The movement of the revitalization of culture encouraged the younger generations to learn the languages and customs. Some Native communities still live in the National and State park area today. While no one is living a strictly traditional lifestyle, most people live in an area between modern and traditional life evolving the Native customs.
Where can you see the redwood forests?
Redwood National and State Parks
The most well-known and best place to start is Redwood National and State Park (RNSP). The designation of this park is interesting. The RNSP is combining Redwood National Park, and California’s three State Parks (Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek Redwood State Park. The four parks protect 45% of all remaining coast redwood old-growth forests.
Tall Trees Grove
This four-mile (6.5km) hike is one of the most talked-about areas of the park. It has a total of 1,600 ft (487 m) elevation change and is moderately strenuous. The trail reaches the grove near the floodplain of Redwood Creek. This grove was once known for the tallest tree in the world until 1994 when its canopy died back. Now it’s the 34th tallest tree on earth (that’s still very tall).
Tall Trees Grove Loop Trail is a lovely hike to stand among some of the oldest beings in the world. When we stopped by the RNSP Visitor Center, a ranger told us that we were in ‘redwood time’, and that’s what you feel here. Most of the trees were several hundred years old or more. The canopy isn’t even visible. It feels damp, dim, and ancient. When the rays of the sun do break through the thick canopy and hit just the right spot, it is the most magical place on Earth.
You need to register to obtain a Tall Trees Grove permit 48-hours prior to your visit.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park & Avenue of Giants
Humboldt Redwoods State Park is recognized as a World Heritage Site for protecting redwoods, also known as living fossils. The park encompasses the largest remaining contiguous old-growth coastal redwoods in the world. They have never been logged. There are many highlights, including the Rockefeller Forest, Founders Grove, Dyerville Giant, beaches, hiking trails, and of course, the 32-mile long Avenue of Giants drive.
Other than the places previously mentioned, there are a few more places to see the redwoods. California is home to 31 redwood State and National parks. These are some of the best ones to check out:
- Redwoods National and State Parks
- Muir Woods National Monument
- Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
- Humboldt Redwoods State Park
- Big Basin Redwoods State Park
- Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve
- Hendy Woods State Park
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Are all redwoods protected?
The loss of redwoods is a devastating history that we can talk about in several blog posts, but this is the gist of it. Today, only five percent of the original two million acres of redwood forest remains. Logging and climate change have destroyed most redwood groves. The remaining old-growth forests are still being threatened by residential development, roads, natural fires, and climate change. The recurring wildfire in Northern California is a big threat.
Very little old-growth coastal redwood forest remains, and these patches stand in the middle of an extensively logged landscape. I was surprised to learn that only 22% of coastal redwood forests are protected against commercial logging and development. However, from the early days, many people believed that the huge old redwoods were more valuable alive than dead and should be held in perpetual trust. In 1918, Save the Redwoods League was formed to protect these natural wonders. Thanks to the League and its supporters, more than 200,000 acres of California’s redwood forests have been preserved for future generations.
May the Force be with the Redwood
If you thought the forests look familiar… you have a sharp eye. In fact, the Star Wars’ forest moon of Endor was filmed in a redwood grove. Fun fact; George Lucas got the idea for the name Ewok from one of the Native tribes that lived in the area, Miwok.
I spent about five days among the redwoods, traveling through the Redwood National and State Parks, Hendy Woods State Park, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and the Avenue of Giants. I walked through the old-growth forests and felt very small. I liked the feeling of being in a place where time almost stopped as if I was witnessing the cycle of the ecosystem. The redwood forests are more than trees. Every little creature here is in a symbiotic relationship. Fallen trees become the fertilizer for the next generation of trees and undergrowth on the forest floor. Banana slugs help decompose organic matter. A complex network of fungi and roots communicate with one another. The park ranger was right; we were on redwood time.
I couldn’t stop thinking about redwoods after I returned home. I researched, read books, and processed my photos to bring out the emotions I felt. If you’re looking for literature, I recommend these three books. I thoroughly enjoyed the featured stories about the redwoods (and other tall trees) in The Wild Trees, and was fascinated to learn about the whole new world of tree climbing!