The tallest trees on Earth inhabit a narrow band of the northern California coast, stretching roughly 450 miles from around San Francisco to the Oregon border. Those trees, coast redwoods, can grow as high as 380 feet, the size of a 27-storey building. They also have massive trunks, as large as 65 feet around at the base. And they can live for a mind-boggling 2,000 years (though they average about 500 to 700 years old).
Redwoods are well adapted for survival. Their foot-thick bark helps them withstand forest fires. They have no known fatal diseases or insect pests. If coast redwoods are left alone, only storms or old age can bring them down.
Redwood is also a superlative building material. The wood is light, straight-grained, and resistant to warping, insects, and water. As a result, the vast majority of California’s coast redwoods were logged between 1850 and 1950, helping to build San Francisco, Los Angeles, and many other cities and towns. As the giant trees disappeared, concerned naturalists joined forces with philanthropists and civic groups (including many women’s garden clubs) to raise money to buy parcels of old-growth redwood forest to protect them. Three of those parcels became state parks in the 1920s. And in the 1960s, a national park was created to connect and surround them, resulting in the jointly run Redwood National and State Parks.
To stand in a grove of old-growth coast redwoods is to feel very small and awed by nature. Most of the branches are far overhead, so the forest feels open and airy. Ferns, mosses, and redwood sorrel (whose leaves look like shamrocks) provide a green carpet. To me, the experience feels a bit like being in a cathedral, surrounded by giant pillars and forever craning my neck upward. The stillness and the filtered light feel cathedral-like too.
I hadn’t realized that California is home to two types of redwood trees. The coast redwoods that we saw are a different species than giant sequoias, which live farther inland, on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. (They’re preserved in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.) Giant sequoias tend to be shorter than coast redwoods but even bigger around.
Visitors to San Francisco can get a taste of coast redwoods at Muir Woods just north of the city. But to see redwoods on a truly grand scale, we drove about 200 miles north on Highway 101 to Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Its aptly named Avenue of the Giants is a scenic 31-mile stretch of road that winds among huge redwood and fir trees. There are lots of places where you can park and hike into groves of redwoods to experience having the forest all around you.
Another 85 miles north on Highway 101 brings you to Redwood National and State Parks. There, the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, named for the former First Lady who supported the creation of the national park, was one of our favorite spots. The 1.5-mile trail through the grove was the most crowded place we encountered among the redwoods, but the scenery was worth it. We found that at other trails, when we visited later in the day (around 5 or 6 p.m.), we often had beautiful groves virtually to ourselves.
The northern coast of California is a sparsely populated part of the state. The biggest town is Eureka, with a population of 27,000, and most towns are much smaller. We based ourselves between the Humboldt and Redwood parks in the cute little Victorian town of Ferndale, which is set among farm fields a few miles from the coast. We also liked the look of Trinidad, an even smaller town with lots of flowers and a tiny sheltered harbor.
Where Highway 101 hugged the coast, we saw some beautiful scenery: waves breaking below bluffs with windblown cypress trees, headlands shrouded in fog, tiny beaches. It whetted our appetite for the Oregon coast to come.