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Majestic Heights

California’s Redwood Parks are home to some of the world’s tallest and oldest trees.


Tucked in the northwestern corner of California, the Redwood National and State Parks are home to some of the tallest trees on Earth as well as grassland prairies, wild rivers and nearly 64 kilometers of undeveloped coastline. The stately redwoods, reaching up to 115 meters—higher than the Statue of Liberty—and measuring up to eight meters in diameter, can be more than 2,000 years old. They have a powerful effect on visitors.

“I’ve seen people weep and I’ve seen people sing. Sometimes they are just speechless,” says Richard Stenger, a park ranger for 14 years, who is now media and marketing manager at the Humboldt County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s an overwhelming experience. These trees resemble the original forests of the planet. They date back to the dinosaurs, but they are little changed because they are so successful in their adaptations.”

Capturing the magnitude of the redwoods is difficult. However, according to National Public Radio, a professor at The Evergreen State College in Washington calculated that if a particularly massive specimen is sawed into boards one foot wide, 12 feet long and one inch thick, the resulting line of planks laid end to end would stretch more than 161 kilometers and could build 120 average-sized houses. Statistics aside, visitors really connect with the redwoods.

“I think, people make redwoods personal because of what they mean,” says Michael Glore, supervisory park ranger at the Redwood Parks. “We come to these places and we see these trees that have survived millennia of storms and fires, and they’re still standing. We can see their scars, and each one is a little different. They’re individuals, just like people, and when we see them and stand below them, I think, we’re tapping into something very deep in our existence as human beings. It can be life-changing.”

The four Redwood National and State Parks have a unique ecosystem that preserves a number of threatened animal species. Although the redwoods are the main attraction, visitors to the area will find themselves in a natural paradise with an unspoiled, rugged stretch of coastline so little visited that it’s sometimes called “The Lost Coast.” In addition to ranger-led tours and programs, visitors can enjoy fishing, kayaking, biking, rafting, backpacking, birding, beachcombing, camping and more. The surrounding area is dotted with picturesque arming towns and fishing villages, restaurants featuring locally-grown ingredients, charming hotels, bed-and-breakfast inns, wine and craft beer bars, and a variety of historical attractions.

Redwood Parks represent the victory of environmentalists over the timber industry, which values redwood for its beauty, resistance to rot and overall durability. Harvesting of the coastal redwoods, which began in the 1850’s, severely depleted the old-growth forests. In the 1920’s, California established three state parks—Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park—with land purchased by preservationists. In 1968, with almost 90 percent of the original redwoods already gone, the U.S. government established the Redwood National Park, which was later expanded. In 1994, the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation agreed to jointly manage the four parks. Today, the 133,000-acre Redwood Parks are a World Heritage Site and part of the California Coast Range Biosphere Reserve. These designations acknowledge that the parks’ natural resources are irreplaceable.

About a million people visit the Redwood Parks and the adjacent area every year, says Glore. Many people take the 50-kilometer, tree-lined drive known as the “Avenue of the Giants” and some even pay $8 toll fees to drive their cars through tunnels carved into huge redwoods on privately-owned land. Some of the parks’ tallest trees have names, like Lost Monarch, Hyperion and Iluvatar, but the park rangers generally do not divulge the exact locations of these old giants, preferring that they remain undisturbed.

Visitors who fly into San Francisco and drive north on scenic Highway 101 will usually reach the Redwood Parks in a little over four hours, but there are also flights to closer regional airports. The area is rainy and cool throughout the year, with mid-autumn offering the most sunshine. Lodging choices include campgrounds, cabins that sleep six for about $200 a night, small bed-and-breakfast inns, national motel chains and old hotels dating to the 1800’s. Four days would be enough for visitors to see most of the area’s attractions, with a car recommended, as there is little public transportation.

 

Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.