The Incredible California Redwoods

In casual conversation, “awesome” means pretty darn good and perhaps even somewhat special, but most likely not particularly memorable. As in “I had an awesome lunch,” or “the concert was awesome.” So I won’t describe our visit to the California redwoods as awesome – it was awe-inspiring! As in magnificent and breathtaking.

Our trip through the redwoods began just outside of Crescent City in northern California and continued southward along the coast for another 60 miles or so. During that day and a half, we had an immersion experience with the tallest trees on earth – the Sequoia sempervirens, or the coast redwoods.

The Redwood Coast is comprised of three California state parks that date back to the 1920s plus Redwood National Park, established in 1968. Collectively, they form one contiguous ecosystem that supports old growth redwood forests. Since 1994, the parks have been managed jointly by the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the National Park Service, which is pretty cool. And unless overnight camping is involved, you can visit all four parks for free.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

There’s no need to worry about missing Jedediah Smith, because the main highway winds right through the park, framed by the enormous trees on both sides of the narrow road. The biggest headache for drivers is undoubtedly dealing with slow-going sightseers like us.

Since this was our first encounter with the giant trees, we decided to stretch our legs and explore.

We found a nice hiking trail – about two hours to make a big loop.

Redwood National Park – Coastal Section

After spending the night in Crescent City, we continued our journey the next morning through Del Norte Redwoods State Park, then to the coastal section of Redwood National Park. Our first stop at the Klamath River overlook offered a fantastic view of the coast, so we lingered for an hour or so, hiking down a short, but steep, trail to get a closer look.

Our second stop was a few miles away at the High Bluff overlook, which was part of an eight-mile scenic loop drive off the main route.

We stopped along the roadside at an early warning radar station that had monitored suspicious activity along the coast during World War II, one in a network of 65 such locations that stretched from Canada to Mexico. The Army cleverly disguised the facility to look like ordinary farm buildings, but in fact they housed electronic equipment, a diesel generator, and two 50-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox . . . Again

Back on the main highway, the next photo op was unexpected – giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox that suddenly appeared at a clearing in the forest. As you probably guessed, this commercial venture called Trees of Mystery isn’t part of the state/national park complex.

I couldn’t resist stopping for a quick photo (below on the left), because it’s our second encounter with Paul and Babe in the past three months! The first (photo on the right) is from Bemidji, Minnesota, where we gathered for a family reunion back in July.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

We veered off the highway onto the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway for a drive through Prairie Creek, including a stop at the Big Tree Wayside, where there’s a short loop trail for viewing . . . big trees.

Redwood National Park

The national park expanded the area of protection for the ancient redwoods, and in 1969 former first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, was the guest of honor at the dedication ceremony for the Lady Bird Johnson Grove located within the park. “For a half hour today, the redwoods replaced Vietnam, the moon and the bomb as the focus of that vast, powerful thing called The Presidency . . . .” (Don Carlton, reporter for The Times Standard, August 1969)

The photo below shows the dedication site as it looks today.

This peaceful place is one of 13 stops along a 1.4 mile interpretive trail that lies deep within the forest, and it was the final stop on our trip through redwood country. We purchased a guide at the trailhead that provided exactly two paragraphs of information about each stopping point on the trail. By the time we reached the end, it was amazing how much we had learned about the trees, the forests, and the redwood ecosystem. Nicely done, and well worth the $1 investment!

There’s no doubt in my mind that these incredible giants would be gone today without the interventions of the early 1900s by those who successfully fought for their protection in the face of fierce opposition. It’s a complicated story that continues to evolve, but the core issue remains – what’s the optimal balance between protecting the natural ecosystem vs. using the resources for commercial reasons?

This National Geographic article is somewhat dated but offers an in depth look at the history of forest management (or lack thereof) in California redwood country and the more recent evolution toward sustainable tree harvesting practices. It’s a lengthy, but worthwhile, read:

Our short time in the California redwoods made a lasting impact!

Categories: California
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