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Walking Among California's Colossal Redwoods
By Charles Shugart, Jr.
From one seed the size of a tomato seed:
Height: more than 350 feet.
Diameter at base: 20 feet.
Lifespan: 2,000 years.
That’s the California coastal redwood (Sequoia Sempervirens).
These giants can be found south of San Francisco and in a few pockets north of the bay area. However, I think of them as starting farther north—beyond Leggett—where California’s super scenic coastal Highway 1 joins U.S. 101. From there to the Oregon border you will find fair-sized groves of the biggest redwoods.
Alas, since logging of the great trees began in the 19th century, about 95 percent of the redwoods have fallen to ax, misery whip and chainsaw. Those that have been spared, however, are worth whatever it takes to see them.
Driving north of Leggett is the Richardson Grove, which is worthy of an overnight northern
stop, a picnic, or at least a quick walk around.
Beyond Richardson Grove, turn off 101 and drive along the Avenue of the Giants. This is the old highway, and there are numerous places to park off the road and gaze up at the redwoods. Walk among them whenever you feel the urge. If you plan on taking only one walk among the redwoods while driving the Avenue of the Giants, make it the short and level path through Founder’s Grove. The grove is about halfway along the Avenue. If possible, walk it alone, or at least with people who agree to be silent for half an hour. You’ll see standing—and fallen—redwoods, and the multitude of smaller plants that fill spaces between the giants. Depending upon the time of year, you might encounter fog, cloudiness or clear skies. Even on a sunny day, though, little direct light penetrates through a redwood canopy. You may discover wildflowers in the few places where a fallen tree has opened a hole in the forest roof. Spring brings rhododendrons and azaleas, both of which are among the loveliest of flowers. Ferns, mosses and lichens abound. Walk slowly. Breathe deeply. Ahhh.
Leaving the Avenue of the Giants heading north, Highway 101 continues beyond Eureka to Redwood National Park, which incorporates federal and state lands under the protective umbrella of the National Park Service. For those travelers with enough time and a real desire to explore, two or three days in the region might do it. Start at the Park Service Visitor Center just south of Orick. Get a national park map, ask questions of the staff, and then go exploring.
There are several interesting roads nearby. One of the best is about a mile north of the town of Orick; it’s the turnoff to Lady Bird Johnson Grove. The drive is steep, winding and narrow. If you’re towing a trailer with a pickup, or driving anything bigger than a short motorhome, you should not attempt it because there is no place where you can swing wide enough to turn around in one fell swoop. After taking the splendid one-mile walk through the grove, continue driving east on Bald Hills Road. It soon takes you to a part of
that few visitors see: the hilly ranchland between the coast and the interior valleys. Go as far as you want, then return to the 101.
Back on the main highway, drive north a few more miles to Prairie Creek and the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. Take the turnoff, which merges with the 101 freeway in a few miles. The Parkway is actually old Highway 101 and wanders through more groves of redwoods, offering many good places to pull off the road and go walking.
Photo tip while in the redwoods: It’s very difficult squeezing a 300-foot tall tree into just one photograph, even using a wide-angle lens and shooting vertically. And, if you do squeeze it in, the final picture will not really show the tree’s height. You need a size reference. If you’re going to include a road at the bottom of your photograph, include a car also. But don’t wait until the car is close to you. That will make it appear too big in relation to the trees. Do the same thing with people. Put them next to the redwood, not halfway between you and the tree. People
appear tiny by comparison (they are), so try to make them stand out in some way. For example, if they wear bright colors and stand to the side of a redwood, they will be more visible than if they wear brown clothes and stand in front of the trees.
As with all photography of beautiful places, take more than the normal number of pictures, make different exposures of the same scene, and generally take measures to ensure you will return home with at least some photos that remind you of the character of the place.
Along the Drury Scenic Alternate Road, you are in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The big trees are as magnificent as anywhere else on the Redwood Highway. And, you probably will find Roosevelt elk somewhere in the area. There are three special places to look for them:
1. Davison Road, just off 101 about 150 feet. The road is a couple of miles south of the Drury Scenic Highway turnoff. It crosses a meadow that has proven to be a good feeding and resting area for elk. Signs are posted to keep people from bothering the animals, so they tend to pay us little attention. As with any wildlife viewing, you might have to return to the good spots several times to have worthwhile animal spotting.
2. If you’re not towing at the time (and not driving a big motorhome), you can continue up and down the rough, narrow and steep Davison Road to Gold Bluffs Beach. There is camping and hiking, and it’s another place where you might see elk herds.
3. Another good place to spot elk is in Prairie Creek Meadows itself. There’s a state park campground along the edge of the meadow, and the elk don’t respond to people with either fear or concern—as long as visitors don’t try to get close enough to fill the camera frame while using a wide-angle lens. If you want to photograph them, do it right. Get a 300 or 400mm lens, put it on a sturdy tripod, and spend some time working for good pictures. Otherwise, forget the photos, grab your 8x binoculars (you do carry binoculars, don’t you?) and enjoy watching wildlife.
Continuing north along 101, you go through additional groves of redwoods, but few are as spectacular as those already mentioned. Two groves to consider, though, are the Del Norte Coast Redwoods and Jedediah Smith Redwoods—which is near the Oregon border. Both groves make for outstanding sightseeing.
The temptation for many travelers is to stay on the fast road (U.S. Highway 101) and look at the tops of the trees. That’s a mistake. Instead, drive the scenic alternate routes, which wander at the bases of the trees. Take your time. Stop. Get out of your vehicle. Gaze up at these magnificent giants. They’re the tallest trees in the world; they
worth a look.
Of special note to RVers:
Northern California’s coastal redwoods present something of a challenge for RVers because the trees are strung out over 100+ miles, and are found in relatively small groves. That said, there are ways of dealing with the problem. Probably the best is to pick a couple of centrally-located places where you can camp, disconnect and do some quality sightseeing without a whole lot of unnecessary driving. I recommend Benbow Valley in the southern section of the redwoods—two miles south of Garberville. There is a resort RV park, and a state park campground (30’ limit for the RV). Benbow is near the Avenue of the Giants and affords easy access by car or pickup to several fascinating redwood groves, including Richardson, Founder’s and Rockefeller. As a counterpoint to all the beautiful nature, a side trip north and west to the Victorian town of Ferndale is worth a couple of hours. Stroll along the historic main street in downtown, enjoying the architecture, and maybe taking a look into some of the shops. You never know when or where you’ll find your next treasure.
In the northern section of the redwoods you can make Crescent City a base for two or three days. There are interesting coastal areas to explore, as well as redwood forests.
Also in the northern half of the redwoods is Elk Prairie State Campground—a few miles north of the town of Orick and along the Drury Scenic Parkway. This is my favorite place to camp among the redwoods, because of the close proximity to many places of interest, including the Lady Bird Johnson Grove. Trouble is, the campground has a limit of 27 feet for RVs. Even if you choose not to camp at Elk Prairie, take the Drury Scenic Parkway because it goes through some of the best redwoods, whereas that section of 101 is a bypass.
To summarize: driving through the redwoods is always a magnificent experience.
Taking extra time to see them up close and personal is even better.
to stay at on your next visit.