[From Her] “Holy S#%*! Look at that tree!”
Whenever I start planning for the next vacation we’re going to take I always start dreaming of Europe. I have this desire to go somewhere old. Somewhere there are buildings, infrastructure, and ruins that were constructed by humans. Somewhere with serious history. We don’t really have anywhere with that kind of ancient history in the US. There are gravestones in New England that date back to the 1600s, but that’s hardly ancient. We could travel to Central and South America, but the bulk of that ancient history is across the pond. Eventually we’ll make our way to Europe, but for now we’re saving the expense and taking in all of the wonders in our own country.
When we settled on a trip to California this year, I just knew that I had to work in a stop in the redwoods. They’re certainly not man-made, but their history is humbling. Our first encounter with a redwood forest was in Samuel P. Taylor State Park near Point Reyes. We camped there briefly amidst trees so large they felt fake.
I was really hoping we would be able to make it all the way north to the Redwoods National Park, but unfortunately I had to tweak and trim the road trip a bit once we decided to stop in Santa Cruz and Big Sur. What we would soon discover is that the greatest gem of all was the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, which worked into our trip route well, being only a 2 1/2 hour drive from our previous stop of Mendocino.
So we left Mendocino and crept up the coast along CA Highway 1, taking in heart-stopping beautiful (and terrifying) views as the highway juts out over and through the cliffs. When Highway 1 pulled away from the coastline we both felt this twinge of sadness that our journey by the Pacific was coming to a close. We quickly entered a new, and still incredibly breathtaking, scenic drive through the mountains as we entered the thick forest. We passed through teeny mountain towns with populations of under 100 people, grateful that we had remembered to get gas before we started this leg of our journey. We stumbled upon a small cafe and an ice cream shop in the town of Miranda, just on the edge of the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We decided to abandon our planned lunch of peanut butter and jelly and take advantage of finding a restaurant before we ended up really off the grid for the next day or so.
After lunch, we began our drive along the Avenue of Giants. A road more aptly named, I’ve never encountered. This 31 mile stretch of road wound through the deep, dark forest, spotted with trees growing in size. We drove past tourist stands that must have inspired the opening scenes of “Harry and the Hendersons”, littered with Bigfoot souvenirs for sale. We drove past a sign to check out the “Immortal Tree”, a 950 year old tree that had survived logging, flooding, fire, a lightning strike - and yet it still survived. We decided to skip over the stop and avoid the tourist trap, but I was blown away at the concept of an almost 1000 year old tree.
We continued driving through the redwood forest and it was like we were on a different planet altogether. We couldn’t have been on Earth. If the trees were this size, what sorts of animals lived here? Were we going to come across dinosaurs? We arrived at the campground we’d be staying at for the night, and checked in. We learned that black bears were common in the area and we must take caution to lock up our food in their campsite bear-proof food safes. That fact made us take pause. All joking about dinosaurs and other fictional animals in this strange forest aside, we now had REAL animals to be concerned about - bears, coyotes, and mountain lions. And here we are lacing up our boots for a hike, because we needed to be out and amongst those trees.
I read through the state park’s brochure that we received when we checked in, and started mapping out the hiking trails we wanted to take. It was there that I learned just how much I had underestimated the size and age of these trees. While the California coastal redwoods aren’t the oldest trees on earth, they do grow the tallest, and their age has exceeded over 2200 years. 2200 YEARS! This is a living thing. Not fossilized, petrified forests - which I’ve seen and which are awesome. These are living trees that have been living and surviving for over 2000 years. My brain instantly started putting this in the context of history. I had accepted that these trees were older than America, as a nation, as they proceeded the Revolutionary War. But these are trees older than Christopher Columbus, older than the printing press, older than the Black Death, and the Monguls, and the Crusades! These are trees that have been growing since the times of Jesus Christ! I was absolutely floored, and concerns over wildlife or not, we WERE heading out to see the oldest and largest of the trees in this forest.
We went to the trails in the Rockefeller forest of the state park that contained 3 famous redwoods - Giant Tree, Tall Tree, and the Flat Iron Tree. The Flat Iron tree had fallen in he early 90s, but the size of its trunk really puts things in perspective. We didn’t actually find “Tall Tree”, but we did quickly locate “Giant Tree”. Giant Tree isn’t the largest redwood in the US, I’m not even sure if it’s even the tallest in it’s forest, but it is considered the largest by mass, when considering height, diameter and crown spread. It was truly incredible to walk up to it, touch it, and of course, give it a hug. This was one of those trees thought to be older than 2000 years.
After leaving Giant Tree, we hiked for a few miles amongst other giants, the only other people who seemed to be out on a cool Thursday afternoon in October. We certainly have never been so humbled, have never felt so small and insignificant during a walk in the woods.