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.)
The more recent phase in the historic saga of saving redwoods in Northern California involved the setting aside of whole watersheds. Unless the entire watershed could be protected from the silt of clear-cut slopes above it, the vulnerable shallow-rooted giants could easily be toppled.
Creating Redwood National and State Parks, preserving the tallest of the tall trees, was a milestone in California’s awakening environmental awareness.
The Historic Story
UNESCO deemed Redwood National and State Parks a World Heritage site in 1982, recognizing that redwoods are a phenomenon of worldwide interest. These monarchs of the mist have been flourishing for around 20 million years. They are found in a long, thin band along the West Coast, from southwest Curry County in Oregon to south Monterey County, about 10 miles north of Hearst Castle, in California.
One of the first Americans to observe 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 state redwood park named after him.
Above Eureka Highway 101 swings close to the coast and passes through several redwood parks, such as Prairie Creek, Del Norte, and Jedediah Smith. These parks flourish in a foggy, rainy environment that is conducive to optimal redwood growth.
In 1968 these state parks (some of which were set aside in the 1920s) and federal lands became Redwood National and State Parks, an unusual shared name designation. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park attracts with its Fern Canyon and herds of Roosevelt elk. You may see as many as 30 wild elk at Prairie Creek, part of the 1,500-strong herd in the region. Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park offers gorgeous showings of rhododendrons and azaleas. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, with its wild Smith River, allures with its trout, salmon, and steelhead runs.
The Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center at Orick is worth a stop to orient yourself. The center persches right on the coast. There are four other visitor centers, with the official headquarters for the parks in Crescent City to the north.
One of the most enjoyable walks in the Orick region is a loop trail through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove. The walk displays the range of vegetation, including 12 kinds of ferns, which grow in the redwood environment.
Wander through the string of units that form the parks to make your own private assessment of the historic commitment to save redwoods
The Tallest Trees
To get close to some of the tallest trees, visit Tall Trees Grove. Here the trees are not just tall but incredibly immense. One redwood towers as high as 379 feet—taller than a 35-story building. To visit this special place, you must obtain a free permit at the Kuchel Visitor Center and then drive about 45 minutes to the Tall Trees trailhead, but it’s worth the trouble.
Along Highway 101 there are roadside attractions that screaming kids in the back of the car will never let you get past, such as the Tour Thru Tree at the Highway 169, Klamath Glen exit. Another attraction, also near Klamath, is Trees of Mystery. This attraction at first appears to be largely a tourist memento store, but be sure to see their End of the Trail Museum, with its elaborate Native American basketry and costume collection. Besides the Native American artifacts, such as a Crow elk-tooth-adorned dress, you’ll see a distinguished collection of Edward Curtis photos.
However, there are also quieter wonders, such as Patrick’s Point State Park, six miles north of Trinidad, which show part of the historic record. At Patrick’s Point there is a re-created Sumeg village with traditional Yurok family houses, a sweathouse, and a redwood canoe. Patrick’s Point boasts handsome stands of spruce and hemlock, plus some 350 varieties of mushrooms.
The redwood forests exhibit a cathedral hush. So dense and dimly lit is this reverential area. The tree understory, vegetation at the edges of the redwoods, shows oxalis flowers. The groves exude a calm and eternal aura, a sharp contrast to the frenetic and ephemeral acts of daily human life. You may find tears coming to your eyes and experience a certain relaxing release, as you commune with the arboreal giants all around you.
Redwood National and State Parks is strung along Highway 101 north of Eureka. Various state parks are part of the national park, a designation that is unusual in park relationships.
Be Sure to See
Stop first to orient yourself at the visitor center at Orick. If you are equal to the hike, walk in to see some of the tall trees. For an easier and engaging walk in the redwood environment, meander the Lady Bird Johnson Trail.
Best Time of Year
Unless you are a storm-watching enthusiast who likes to celebrate the winter rainstorms, other times of the year will be more congenial in Redwood National Park. Late spring and autumn can be a delight, as can summer. Note that summer can be foggy in the morning.
In Orick, Elk Meadow Cabins offers seven units equipped with kitchens in the heart of the redwood forest (866/733-9637; https://elkmeadowcabins.com).
For dining options in Trinidad, Larrupin Café at 1658 Patrick’s Point Drive (707/677-0230; www.thelarrupin.com) offers items such as fresh grilled snapper or spare ribs for dinner. The Lighthouse Grill, at 355 Main Street, serves up burgers and fish and chips (707/677-0077; http://trinidadlighthousegrill.com).
For Further Information
Contact Redwood National and State Parks, 1111 2nd Street, Crescent City, CA 95531; 707/464-6101; www.nps.gov/redw. The Visitor Center is clearly marked as an exit point in Orick, north of Eureka.
The main area tourism information source is the Eureka-Humboldt Visitors Bureau (322 First Street; 800/346-3482; https://www.visitredwoods.com).