Nature is awesome. Let’s just put that out there. We live on an incredible planet that is full of wonder and beauty, with new things waiting to be discovered by intrepid travelers. Nothing is more emblematic of the remarkable world than trees. I’ve written before about the world’s largest trees, the giant sequoias of California, and I’ve written about the world’s oldest “forest,” Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. On my recent trip to California’s Northern Coast, I got to take in the world’s tallest trees, the giant coast redwoods of Redwood National Park.
While the giant sequoias may be larger by girth and mass, their close cousins, the coast redwoods, are taller. Still no slouch in the girth department – many have trunk diameters approaching thirty feet – it is their sheer height that awes visitors. In some parts of the ancient growth forest (forest pre-dating European arrival to the area by centuries), many of the trees exceed 350 feet. Neck strained to try to see the tops, it feels almost like walking through a downtown urban center where I crane my head to see the buildings all around. But these are trees!
Redwood National Park is unique, being a conglomerate of federal and California state parklands, with no clear boundaries between them. Ancient growth groves abound, and one has many options of where to choose to walk. On this trip, I chose Prairie Creek State Park, part of the California land that is administered by the National Park Service. This is the heart of the forest, with the majority of ancient trees crossing the 300 foot mark, and many over 350. It offers a feeling of insignificance to stand among such behemoths, and a sense of the briefness of human life to know that these trees were already giants when North American colonies were being founded by European powers. Much of the forests were cut down by lumber barons like Eureka’s William Carson, but this one survived and was protected. As I bask in the shade of thousand year old redwoods, I am grateful for that.
Established in 1968, Redwood National and State Parks protects nearly 140,000 acres of old growth and ancient growth redwood forest. The highlight is the giant coast redwood, about 45% of which exist only in this park from its earlier range of San Francisco all the way into Oregon. While historical specimens have exceeded 400 feet in height, the current tallest tree in the world is here in the park. Hyperion stands at 380.1 feet tall, and fortunately for its continued preservation is not easy to access, not being on a trail. (This also helped it to even avoid discovery until 2006.)
Coast redwoods are incredible. Evergreen, their needles reach up into the ever-present coastal fog, extracting moisture directly from it, thereby helping to get water more efficiently to the upper reaches of the magnificent trees, allowing for such enormous possible heights despite the inefficiency of transporting water up such a long trunk. The trees are also very durable, and are able to even survive fires inside of their trunks. Such miraculous survival has left many living specimens with beautiful hollows at lower levels, large enough alcoves to be used as small homes!
At Prairie Creek, your walk through the redwoods will begin at the visitors center, located between the groves of trees and Elk Prairie, a large meadow where elk are known to congregate. Parking at the visitors center itself is 30-minute, so you’ll need to find a spot down by the restrooms or campsites (the park actively tickets and tows cars left in the short-term spots). From here, a loop aptly named the Big Trees Loop takes you through the forest, up the Prairie Creek Trail and back via the Cathedral Tree Trail (or Foothill Trail for a shorter loop) with Prairie Creek gurgling between.
Big Trees Loop offers a ton of big trees, but the highlight is Big Tree. 1500 years old, 24 feet across, and just under 290 feet tall, Big Tree is short compared to many of the redwoods along the trail, but it comes with a nice deck for photos, a sign with its statistics, and a feeling of majesty that you don’t want to miss.
While the world will likely never return to one covered by awe-inspiring ancient growth forests, Redwood National and State Parks helps to protect one of the last remaining swaths of such beautiful nature, offering a glimpse of what the west coast might have been like before humanity laid waste to much of it. Walking among the world’s tallest trees is an experience not to be missed!
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