By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
Among the first substantial efforts to save redwoods in California was the creation of the Avenue of the Giants, a roadway adjacent to Highway 101 with many cathedral-like groves of trees. Avenue of the Giants begins six miles north of Garberville. Nearby, the main entity involved in cutting the trees, Pacific Lumber, founded the company town of Scotia, whose streets can be toured.
The Historic Story
The historic and ongoing struggle to save redwood trees is one of the major stories in Northern California.
Redwoods flourish both north and south of San Francisco, but most of the groves worthy of the name Redwood Country are north. Redwoods grow in a narrow band of land, proximate to the coast, in a 400-mile strip from southern Oregon to Big Sur. About 3 percent of the original primeval forest of old-growth redwoods remains. Roughly half of that land is now in public hands and will never be cut.
The first reports of European contact with redwoods are found in the diary of Crespi, a priest-botanist in the Portola expedition of 1769. The trees were unknown, of course, to Europeans. The first American to observe and comment on redwoods was the intrepid explorer, Jedediah Smith, who saw the trees in 1822. He is now honored in Redwood Country with a river and a redwoods state park named after him.
Native Californians and the Redwoods
The Native Californians were well aware of the redwoods, but they did not consider their environment a hospitable habitat. For instance, redwoods cast such shade that forage foods do not flourish under them. In addition, redwood bark does not burn well and the logs were too massive for the Native Californians to cut into firewood. Only the Yuroks along the north coast split redwood planks to build their shelters and hollowed out redwood logs for canoes.
The redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) are magnificent and are the tallest trees on earth. Among the tallest examples are three trees at 367 feet in Redwood National and State Parks, near Orick.
Redwood Country’s main trees begin along Highway 101 north of Leggett at the Richardson Grove State Park.
A few miles farther north, you enter a 31-mile stretch appropriately called The Avenue of the Giants. This extended landscape consists of 70 memorial groves and is part of 51,222-acre Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Along the Avenue of the Giants
Follow the side road at Phillipsville along Highway 101. Several turnoff areas invite you to pause and walk through the groves. Be sure to see all the groves on both sides of Highway 101 from Phillipsville to Redcrest.
Founder’s Grove is one of the better stops, with trees about 2,500 years old. The Founder’s Tree stands 346.1 feet high. The Dyerville Giant, which used to be the tallest tree, at 370 feet tall, can be seen in this grove. The Dyerville Giant, measuring 17 feet across in diameter, fell in 1991.
The drive along the Rockefeller Grove on Bull Creek Flats Road is a poignant example of the need to protect whole watersheds to save prize redwoods. Clear-cut slopes upstream from the prize Rockefeller trees exposed ground that washed into the creek in 1955 and 1964, subsequently undermining some of the giant trees. Silting of streams also damaged the salmon-spawning habitat. This peril would later instigate further protective measures to the north in Redwood National and State Parks.
The Humboldt Redwoods Interpretive Center (707/946-2263) at the Burlington Campground is open year-round to dispense park information, maps, and books.
Scotia, The Company Town
Besides the trees themselves, of course, there are the companies dedicated to cutting the trees down because consumers demand the product.
The town of Scotia was once the home of the largest single mill for cutting redwoods in California. The company town had been built by the Pacific Lumber Company for its employees. Unfortunately, part of the town burned in a 1992 fire, and the company was taken over by Maxxam, Inc. (of Texas). The charming 19th-century town, however, is still open for the public to visit.
At a park in the center of Scotia you can see a cross-section of a redwood tree 1,285 years old. The tree yielded 69,000 board feet of lumber. Children can scramble over an old logging locomotive on display at the park. Redwoods have a capacity to inspire wonder because of their height, beauty, and age. Even a tree seemingly 1,285 years old may in fact be countless eons older. Most redwoods sprout clonally from the roots of their parent tree rather than from seeds. This same tree may have perpetuated itself in this fashion for thousands upon thousands of years.
At shops throughout Redwood Country you can often see burls for sale. Burls are masses of tree tissue that form around a bud. They are attractive ornamentally and, if put in water, will sprout as a miniature tree. The shoots will grow for years, living off the nourishment stored in the burl.
The famous redwoods are not difficult to locate. Simply head north from San Francisco along Highway 101. In about four hours you reach the first stately forests, at small Richardson Grove State Park. The first substantial groves are at Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Avenue of the Giants is just north of Humboldt. Scotia is on the west side of Highway 101.
Be Sure to See
As you drive north, stop in Humboldt Redwoods State Park at the Visitor Center to orient yourself. Once you start in the Avenue of the Giants, many of the groves are impressive, such as the Founder’s Grove, already mentioned.
At Scotia, be sure to spend some time enjoying the small town, where everything is made of redwood.
Best Time of Year
Any time of the year is good for exploring Redwood Country. Winters tend to be chilly and wet, the environment that makes the redwood trees thrive. Summers can be foggy. But in whatever natural mood the trees are presented to you, they are inspiring. Spring and autumn are ideal times to travel here.
The Benbow Historic Inn is one of more charming place to stay on this trip. This Tudor-style structure has 59 lodging rooms. The Benbow Inn is at 445 Lake Benbow Dr., Garberville, CA 95542; 707/398-2594; www.benbowinn.com.
The Benbow Inn’s Dining Room features small plates and entrees. Try the pan-roasted king salmon or grilled ribeye.
For Further Information
The large Humboldt Redwoods State Park has an informative website www.humboldtredwoods.org.
The main area tourism information source is the Eureka-Humboldt Visitors Bureau (322 First Street; 800/346-3482; https://www.visitredwoods.com