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California's Coastal Redwoods

Looking to recapture the magic of a summer road trip? A journey into California's redwood country reveals amazing truths about the towering trees and might even make you feel 10 again.

Giant Paul Bunyan with blue ox Babe at Trees of Mystery, Klamath, Calif.
Photo credit
Photo: Londie G. Padelsky
Photo caption
“I got you, Babe,” the giant seems to say at Trees of Mystery, an old-time attraction in Klamath.

Driving in the dark, north from San Francisco, I’m bound for the redwood country between Eureka, Calif., and the Oregon border. It’s 4 a.m., and the landscape has transformed into a fog-strewn temporary wilderness. It feels a little like Brigadoon, in that movie on television long ago, the one about the misty Scottish town that lives on forever. Which is what the coastal redwoods do when you let them. Sequoia sempervirens. Always living.

My family did road trips just like this when I was a kid. I’d face backward with my little brother in the backseat of the family station wagon, my nose stuck in a comic book. "Look up, kids," my mother would say. "This is interesting." Mom would be proud now, because I’m about to do some major looking up. The tallest redwoods top 360 feet—more than twice as statuesque as the Statue of Liberty. Of the area’s original old-growth forests (redwood ecosystems dominated by trees that predate European influence), only about 5 percent, or a little more than 100,000 acres, remains unlogged. Roughly 80 percent of these groves are protected, mostly within the skein of state and national parkland where I’m headed. Together, Redwood National Park and three state parks—Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek—constitute a World Heritage Site with 200 miles of trails, five visitor centers, and hundreds of thousands of redwoods.

During my visit, I want to walk in untrammeled forest just as old John Muir did—except that he camped outside and I’ll stay in a bed-and-breakfast. I want to see the Trees of Mystery, an old-time tourist trap, and steer my car into a drive-through redwood, carved decades before it became poor form to harass a tree. I want it all to feel the way it did back in 1965, when I was 10 years old, car trips took forever, there was no such thing as tacky, and—best of all— 3 billion fewer people inhabited the planet. I hate crowds.

Which is partly why this trip appeals. When Redwood National Park was created in 1968 and then expanded in ’78, billions of board feet of prime timber fell off the market. The lumber companies protested that the region’s economy would take a swan dive. But the consulting firm Arthur D. Little countered with the reassuring prediction that tourists would bring money to the region. By 1983, the firm estimated, more than 1.5 million people would arrive each year.

They haven’t shown up—at least not in those numbers. In 2010, the four redwood parks together hosted 681,696 visitors (compared to Yosemite with more than 4 million or even Sequoia and Kings Canyon, which together attracted 1.6 million people). Visitation to the redwoods has stagnated over the past few years, a terrible disappointment to the region. But part of me can’t help thinking, no crowds.

There are lots of theories about why so few tourists have come. Some people, including President Ronald Reagan, have said that when you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all. There’s also the drive. The best groves are five or six hours from San Francisco and three or four hours from Ashland, Ore. Then there’s the shortage of tourist-oriented luxuries. Although the supply of motels and campgrounds is ample, to this day there’s a shocking paucity of cell towers and places to get a cappuccino.

"It’s not an amenity-rich area," admits Kate Anderton, executive director of the Save-the-Redwoods League, and naturally I think: perfect.

Traveling north on Highway 101, I reach my drive-through tree about 7:30 a.m. in the tiny town of Leggett. I put $5 in an honor-system box and steer down a dirt road to a redwood with, sure enough, a garage door–shaped opening. A scarily small opening. The right side of my rental car scrapes the inside of the redwood. "Sorry," I say to the tree, and skip the gift shop, which probably isn’t open yet anyway. Back on 101, I feel let down. It turns out there are several drive-through trees, and they all seem a little sad—tamed wildness, like the bears on leashes you used to see in tourist traps.

Not long after, I exit onto the Avenue of the Giants, an alternative route that parallels 101. Here are real big trees. Giants with terrific posture crowd the road as if they’ve come to gawk at the cars. But I don’t see much traffic until 10:30 a.m., as I approach Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park 50 miles north of Eureka. Cars line the entrance road, and visitors are rubbernecking at Roosevelt elk. The candelabra-headed creatures graze calmly in front of a phalanx of cameras.

This is a great drive-in country we live in, where even wildlife comes to your car, but after six hours behind the wheel I’m ready to stretch my legs. I buy a hiking map at the visitor center and walk to the West Ridge Trail. It ascends steeply and in an hour or so I arrive at a bench with a small plaque that says forever. Taking my lunch out of my pack, I sit back and let the trees entertain me.

Of course, when you see one redwood, you haven’t actually seen them all. Some look sinewy, like the ropy-blue wrists of an old man. Some trunks are a tan-pink color, some gray. Some have 20-foot-tall caves called "goosepens" that have rotted into the wood or been burned out by fires.

You have to see the redwoods to appreciate their extreme stats. These goliaths grow from seeds weighing 1/7,500 of an ounce, and one tree can produce as many as 5 million seeds—a profligate waste from my unscientific point of view, because most redwoods grow from shoots that form around the base of an already established tree.

And get this: Redwoods also sprout other trees. The redwood’s needlelike leaves pile up on its larger branches and rot into first-rate soil—a second forest floor. One California bay tree in Redwood National Park grows out of a redwood’s knothole some 320 feet from the ground. That is, it starts 320 feet from the ground. Way up there in the canopy, thriving in all that tree-borne soil, is a whole other arboreal world with more than 13 species of plants, a tree-dwelling seabird, a salamander that rarely touches the ground, and the sort of creatures you would expect to find several hundred feet lower—earthworms, snails, and more than 300 species of fungi.

From my vantage point below, the trunks rising to obscure heights seem more architecture than plant, forming a vast yet welcoming room. Some of the trees act companionable themselves, with conjoined bases that make it look as if they’re holding hands. And their old age, in a world that has changed so much, is a comfort, too. They appear ancient enough to be immortal, and by human standards they might as well be.

It’s 4:45 p.m. when I get to the town of Klamath and the Historic Requa Inn, a white boxy building that caters to hikers on a budget. "Yeah," nods Dave Gross, who owned the inn with his wife during my visit, "people often are disappointed when they get here. Until they come inside." (The Gross family sold the inn to Rewsti and Geneva Wiki in 2010.) The charming, antique-filled interior frames terrific views of the Klamath River. Rooms start at $99 in the off-season and include an enormous breakfast.

They offer dinner, too, and I ask how early they serve it. Dave gazes at his reservation book. "I can squeeze you in at 6:45," he says. To someone who’s risen before 4 a.m., that’s pretty late. I go up to my room and gaze out the window at ducks paddling on the glinting river. Dave says that in late August the salmon start their run and sea lions line the banks barking like the Furies.

When I come down to dinner, only two other tables are taken. No one follows me. Dave squeezed me in at 6:45, apparently, because that’s the only time they were serving it. Still, my salmon and very decent house cabernet are worth the wait.

The next day I consider my options. There’s lots to do, even if you don’t hunt, fish, or hike. You can take a jet boat tour up the river, watch the shivering, wet suit–clad surfers at Crescent City, comb the local beaches for shells and stones, or drive back south to explore the lush wonders of Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The Elk Valley Indian tribe plans to build a hotel, casino, and convention center on the outskirts of Crescent City, and there’s talk of expanding the nearby airport; for a small fortune you can already fly here direct from San Francisco. They say the amenities are coming.

On 101 just south of Crescent City, I see a trail marker and hit the brakes. DAMNATION CREEK, the sign says. This is more my style. As I descend, the sound of traffic on 101 fades, gradually supplanted by the rush of the waves and then, toward the bottom, the splashing creek. The payoff is at the end: a stony pocket beach with tide pools full of sea stars and anemones. I sit and take in the hot sun, the cool breeze, the slow inhale-exhale of the surf, the redwoods a thousand feet above: I, a middle-aged 10-year-old tourist, have this little place all to myself. It’s hard to leave, but I must. I’m hungry.

The little rental car that I’m driving, a Kia Termite or something like that, seems to flinch as it squeezes in among the steroidal trucks in the parking lot of Klamath’s Steelhead Lodge, described on its menu as a "Restaurant/Bar/RV Park/Motel." I order Flintstone-style racks of pork ribs and resist the urge to eat them crouching in a corner. At the table nearest mine, several couples drink fishbowl-size margaritas and swap childhood memories of shooting ground squirrels. ("You needed tweezers to pick up what was left of the critter—gimme another margarita, will you, sweetheart?")

To some, including me, this qualifies as a delightful meal. I like this piece of country. It’s the genuine article. On the other hand, the freshest produce in the local grocery stores is bait. I can understand why a more squeamish tourist might hightail it to the Napa Valley.

The next morning I pull into a parking lot dominated by a statue of Paul Bunyan with his blue ox, Babe, and buy an entrance ticket for the Trees of Mystery. I walk through a hollowed-out redwood and pass the Family Tree (a cluster of trunks), Cathedral Tree (redwoods forming a semicircle), and the Upside-Down Tree (not really) before coming to the Sky Trail, an aerial tram. I get a gondola to myself, and it lifts me above the redwoods, offering a view of the sparkling sea. The parking lot is about one-eighth full when I walk back to my car.

"Leaving so soon?"
I whirl around. The Paul Bunyan statue is speaking to me in a voice exactly like George C. Scott’s. Bunyan’s shift must start around 10 a.m. "Uh, yeah," I say.
"OK, then, you take care now." His—its—eye winks.

On the way south, I goof around in Old Town Eureka, buying a chocolate banana slug at a candy store before forcing myself back into the car for the return haul to the city. Again I opt for the slight detour along the Avenue of the Giants, stopping to take a dip in the Eel River and to eat some locally grown berries.

In three days I’ve taken a vacation from adulthood, revisiting a time when the world was still tall and awesome and uncrowded. As I finally approach San Francisco’s Golden Gate at 7 p.m., the fog closes in. I can’t see anything in the rearview mirror. Maybe it was Brigadoon.

This article was first published in May 2006 and updated in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.