Fire a bit of Zach Urness into the blender. Throw in a dollop of Richard Preston. Juice it a bit and inject it into an obsessive hiker and what do you get? A pilgrimage to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park near Crescent City to see big redwood trees … the Grove of Titans.
There’s more to the back story (see How Did We Get Here below), but when you are telling a hiking tale … you need to get on the trails as quickly as possible. Particularly since this was one of the high points of my hiking life.
The big trees
Toward the end of a six-hour drive from my home to Crescent City, U.S. Highway 199 slices through the northern fringe of Jed Smith. And after motoring through hundreds of miles of forest on Interstate 5 and 199, you IMMEDIATELY know you are in a different type of forest. While passing through just that isolated corner of the park I saw redwood trees taller than any trees I have seen in Oregon. It was astonishing -- and emotional -- at the same time. If there are trees this large next to the highway, what would I see once I got onto the trails?
I was about to find out. At 3:30 p.m. I arrived at the trailhead for the Boy Scout Tree Trail via Howland Hill Road (for more on this scenic wonder see Howland Hill section below). The parking turnouts were fairly full, a bit surprising to me since it was a Wednesday afternoon and we hadn’t even hit June yet. At the trailhead was an enormous redwood, at least 8 to 10 feet in diameter. I strapped on my gear, took my trusty “cougar thwacker” walking stick in hand and headed up the trail amid partly cloudy skies with temps in the mid-60s, though it was much cooler under the canopy.
The trail is a 5.6-mile round trip if you go all the way to Fern Falls, about 4.5 miles if you turn back at the Boy Scout tree, one of the few giant redwoods that is on the map (see section on Trees of Mystery below). My goal was the scout tree, although my goal was to see big trees. Period.
And they were all around me, in stunning shapes and sizes, so many enormous redwoods that it was stupefying. I felt like crying. I felt like patting all of the trees. I took way too many pictures. I no doubt talked to myself.
Trees up ridge lines looking like sentinels. Trees straddling the trail … guiding you through. Trees with ferns growing on them. And clam-like appendages. Trees festooned with what looked like giant warts. Trees pockmarked with splotches reminiscent of exit wounds or acne. Trees that had been scorched by lightning strikes. Trees shedding droplets of lichen toward the duff at the forest floor as they swayed minimally in the relatively calm air. Trees firing straight up into the air like Saturn 5 rockets. Crooked trees. Blowdowns with root balls 15 feet high. Twin-trunked trees. Trees with bark that curved into the base like symmetrical notebook doodling or the elevation lines on a relief map. Bark that ran straight up and down with military precision. More photos. I was shooting up into the canopies, a challenge given the light differences between the sky and the forest floor. I kept seeing giant pencils with perms. I was having the time of my life. I was in that hiking zone where around every corner was something astonishing. And just when you thought that the trees could not get bigger … they got bigger. I saw a pair which shared a base. I named them the Twin Towers after Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson of the Houston Rockets. More NBA trees emerged. Thin ones reminded me of Nate Thurmond and Manute Bol.
A fat one? That’s Shaq! And then an even bigger one … It’s Yao F---ing Ming!!!! I was giddy.
The trail had a few muddy spots – the park is monsooned with 100 inches of rain per year – and I kept turning my ankles on the roots that honeycombed the path. But it didn’t matter. I was hittin’ the note. I was in the zone. I was having one of the best days of my life.
Then, about 2.25 miles into the jaunt I took a short side path to the Boy Scout Tree. Holy cow! What a beast! Try 23-feet in width and more than 230 feet in height. I balanced the walking stick against it, backed up and backed up and backed up (the bare ground I was backpedaling through made it clear others had done the same thing) – making sure I could get the base in the frame -- and shot a photo, which immediately became the signature shot of the trip.
The big trees … day 2
The next morning at 7:45 a.m. amid light sprinkles and signs that it had showered overnight I arrived at the trailhead where the Mill Creek Trail hits Howland Hill Road. Yes, that is awfully early to start a hike, but I had a schedule to keep and did not mind that I was the lone hiker on the trail. About 0.8 miles up the trail, which continues to the campground and the Stout Grove area, lies the Grove of Titans that Urness and Preston had written about and that parks officials are trying to protect. I had a map showing the trees’ approximate locations, but I had no intention of tramping through the brush to get up close and personal. I was looking more for a mood. Signs at the trailhead warned hikers to stay on the official trails and I saw smaller signs at a couple of junctures admonishing folks to stay off the scramble paths that headed deeper into the grove. I wasn’t going off the trail, regardless of the fact that no one was looking (well, yes, I have heard that there are hidden cameras … but that had no impact on my approach either).
I’m pretty sure that I saw Chesty Puller, which has distinctive “extra growth” on its trunk. And I saw trees more dazzling than the ones on the Boy Scout Tree Trail. One tree off to my right might have been the Del Norte Titan. A massive trunk that shot straight up, never seeming to get narrower. Great tree no matter what. At another juncture a massive tree was based right next to a fallen redwood that stretched along the forest floor like a series of freight cars. And the path angled between the boxcars and below the base of the gigantic tree in a kind of tunnel that winded down toward Mill Creek and into a thicket of shoulder-high growth as the trail narrowed to shoulder width. The moisture on the ferns and brush from the rains left my hiking shorts and overshirt drenched. Still no one else on the trail. The rain had moistened the path, everything smelled fresh and my footfalls made no sound. It was a glorious, transcendent wilderness experience.
How did we get here?
First, I read Urness’ February article on the Grove of Titans in the Statesman Journal (google it, it’s easy to find). Urness, one of the best hiking/outdoor writers in the Pacific Northwest, told the story of this amazing group of redwoods that are among the biggest ever found. And they weren’t discovered until 1998. How bizarre is that? In this modern, GPSed-out, satellite-camera-ed world in which we keep being told that there are no new frontiers … someone found one.
Urness agonized over whether to write the piece because as word has leaked out about the Grove of Titans, hikers and tree climbers have flocked to the area and because, counterintuitively, these 300-foot-plus giants have shallow root systems that spread around the base. Which means too much traffic can damage the trees.
Which Urness didn’t want. So he wrote about the trees partly as a plea to raise money for a raised boardwalk that could allow more visitors … without damaging the trees (I sent the Redwood Park Conservancy $50 -- I’m just a poor, corrupt journalist after all – and spent $50-plus at the conservancy-run visitor center store).
Urness’ story notes a book called “The Wild Trees” by Preston, which tells the story of some botanists, naturalists, and … let’s be honest … a few people who are just out there (but in an obsessively positive way) who found the trees, climbed them, studied them … and essentially fell in love with them (more on Preston’s book below).
Climbing is part of the equation because you can’t study the canopy of a 350-foot redwood tree from a trail. You HAVE to be up there. Which is another mind-blowing piece of this story. No one knew what was in the canopy of redwood trees. Scientists have gone 30,000 feet down in the Pacific Ocean. Mountaineers have been to the top of Mount Everest. People know more about what is on the surface of the moon than in the canopies of redwoods. And it’s an amazing place. Redwoods grow extra trunks, absorb water and soil in a way that allows huckleberries, ferns and OTHER TREES to grow in the canopy. There are lichens and mosses up there that are found nowhere else. Owls and squirrels just ignore the humans that rope their way above 300 feet. Why? Well, scientists think that the wildlife figures if the humans made it up that high they probably belong there. There are caves inside redwood trees and the Illuvatar tree in Prairie Creek Redwoods Park, about an hour south of Jed Smith, has more than 100 trunks.
Is definitely worth reading. I’ve read it twice since February. A mixture of science and adventure, it informs huge chunks of what I have written here. If it delves too much into tree climbing and not enough into tree science and tree preservation (see The Future below), well, it’s Preston’s book, not mine. It’s a must read for those who want to find out more about these trees.
Howland Hill Road
This 10-mile stretch of paved and unpaved road between the southwest end of Jed Smith Park near Crescent City and the northeast end near Hiouchi is one of the most amazing stretches of road I have ever traveled. At times your fender is within inches of a massive tree. About 3 or so miles of its length are paved, with a 7-mile middle section that is not. They should keep it that way. Yes, you need to be careful in certain sections, maneuvering around potholes and puddles, but if my mainstream sedan could make it yours can, too.
And, particularly for those who don’t have the mobility to hike, it’s a great way to see the park and its trees. Yes, it’s a bit of a challenge for the driver to see the trees while dodging the ruts, and the best way to experience the road is by poking your head up through a sun roof. There are plenty of small turnouts allowing cars to pass or for you to get out and take a photo or smell the moss.
One of my favorite moments on Howland Hill was passing a lone hiker doing some sort of yoga moves on the gravel stretch just before it returns to pavement near Hiouchi. Then I passed a cluster of little houses. She WALKED into the park!!! Get me my realtor. I’m moving. Immediately. Aiiieeee!
Trees of Mystery
Halfway through Preston’s book I was prepared to come down to the redwoods for a week. Or a month. But then I recognized that his maps for all of the groves that have been discovered recently were … incomplete. He listed the trees/groves and noted in which of the six or so state/national parks they were located. But he stopped there. It’s counterintuitive – there is that word again – but in the end I think it makes sense. If we have any chance at all to preserve these trees we have to be careful. Which means, again counterintuitively, that hundreds of people tromp on Everest every spring while only a few people know where Illuvatar is. I’d rather retain the mystery and save the trees.
Save the trees. Hmm. Exactly how are state and national parks officials taking care of this aspect? I need to find out. But I have lots of questions. How much of the money spent on these parks goes to research? How are parks officials using the research? How can parks officials effectively manage their most valuable assets when scientists still are learning about how these trees grow and thrive and influence the surrounding landscape? What is the long-term management plan for making sure that 2,000- and 3,000-year-old trees survive so that future generations can appreciate them.
And gawk at them in wonder as I was able to do for two days a couple of weeks ago.