Mountain ranges cloaked in Douglas firs line a long, undulating road—California’s famous 101 Freeway—giving a glimpse at what’s to come. I’m never less than amazed each time I bear witness to the unparalleled natural landscapes here, and this time, on the 200 or so miles driving from San Francisco to the ancient forests of Redwood National Park in the most northern reaches of California, I’m smitten again.
When you hear of the United States’ glorious National Parks, California is the place that started it all. Ever since President Abraham Lincoln signed the unprecedented Yosemite Grant to set aside the first ever parkland for preservation and public use, “Giant sequoia and coast redwood have been iconic forests connected directly to the conservation movement and the culture of the American landscape,” says Sam Hodder, CEO of the Save the Redwoods League. Almost as old as the National Parks Service itself, Save the Redwoods was established in 1918 to, as their name suggests, protect coast redwood forests.
In one of the oldest ecosystems on the planet—about 20 million years old—these giants once covered most of the California coast. They spread across 2.2 million acres—until 1848, when the discovery of gold in the west changed everything. Following the fever of the 1848 California Gold Rush, much of the coastal forests began to disappear in 1851 when logging began. With the population swelling in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1,000 that year to 25,000 the next—and 265,000 by 1870—cities had to be developed in order to accommodate the boom.
To build homes and other structures, there was no better construction material than redwoods. Starting from seeds the size of a tomato seed, a mature redwood tree can grow to 500 tons, 370 feet tall, with a 20-foot diameter at the base. Its bark can get up to 12 inches thick—this all-American tree is among the most robust specimens of timber in the world.
Due to the federal government’s desire to accelerate settlement in California, loggers were able to capitalize; the Timber and Stone Act of 1878 made land available to them for a cheap price of $2.50 an acre, according to Hodder, and thus the redwood forest was privately “owned” for the first time in history. Within a few generations, the mighty redwoods were whittled down to today’s 120,000 acres of old growth forest.
“Giant sequoia and coast redwood have been iconic forests connected directly to the conservation movement and the culture of the American landscape.” —Sam Hodder, Save the Redwoods League
Once I veer off of exit 645 from the 101 Freeway onto Avenue of the Giants, I’m in the presence of real behemoths. Cruising into the shade of the thick forest canopy, it feels like another world—one enveloped in a bewitching kind of darkness. The road twists and turns, and it’s nearly impossible to avert my eyes from the towering trees. About four hours north of San Francisco, Humboldt Redwoods State Park gives the first up close and personal encounter of the coast redwoods.
At the visitors center in an area called Burlington—about 17 winding miles from the southern entrance to Avenue of the Giants, on the right—I pick up some maps and get a look at a trunk of a tree that had fallen in 2006. According to its rings, it had been alive since before the Vikings first landed in North America in 1000 A.D. and lived to see the California State Park system established in 1928 and beyond.
Humboldt County residents are known to keep a close connection with the outdoors—how could they not, with these exquisite forests in their backyard? Stephen Sillett, a scientist and professor of the Department of Forestry and Wildland Resources at Humboldt State University has been a leader in the preservation of the redwoods—one of the only people allowed to climb these grandfather trees, and a pioneer in exploring the complex ecosystems high up in their crowns.
I head north on Avenue of the Giants and a left on Mattole Road takes me down a narrow paved path through Rockefeller Forest. Driving barely faster than strolling on foot, I marvel at moss hanging from dwarfish-by-comparison Douglas firs, and beams of sunlight penetrating the tree canopy just right, in that picture-perfect way seen on postcards.
A few miles down I discover a hiking trail. It’s not hard to find the landmark Giant Tree, only a few meters walking, and marked with a sign. The ground is soggy underfoot—a nice feeling beneath my boots. A fellow-hiker—one of only three that I encounter on the trail on this placid day—presumes that a massive tree on the ground must have been relatively freshly fallen, since it hadn’t yet started to decay. (What a deafening sound that must have made.) Its long trunk lay horizontally on the earth with its intricate root system exposed.
But when redwoods fall, they become nurseries for the growth of new trees—so one’s death is not so tragic, but a natural, highly sustainable cycle. Even thousand-year-old trees with trunks hollowed out by fire can continue to thrive indefinitely. Redwoods are among the most adaptable living creatures on the planet. I spot another fallen trunk that appears to have grafted itself onto another living tree—a process that a ranger would later confirm to me is one of their many survival tactics.
Heading back on the road from where I came, I hit Bull Creek and Dyerville Flat Forest for a short loop hike, only encountering one other hiker this time. He’s silent with awestruck eyes never once straying from his focal point at the top of a particularly gargantuan tree. It’s a captivating place, for sure—as mythical and mystical of a forest as you’d find in fiction, or the most exotic corners of the world in real life.
In 1917, scientists John C. Merriam, Madison Grant, and Henry Fairfield Osborn took the same route through Humboldt on Highway 101—newly constructed at that time—and stood here among the redwoods. On discovering a logged-over forest, they decided to establish the Save the Redwoods League. As Hodder explains, these men were motivated by a philosophy that a walk in these woods could hold important psychological, emotional, and spiritual value for all humans, far beyond economic gain. Their efforts to bring attention to the devastation of these forests would inevitably turn the redwoods into an emblem of conservation throughout the American landscape.
These sentiments were validated in the summer of 1926, when the League’s secretary, Newton B. Drury, invited John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his family on a picnic in this very forest. The sight of the redwoods was enough to inspire Rockefeller to present the League with a million-dollar donation. A grant of the same amount by the State of California and another million-dollar donation by Rockefeller in 1929 meant that 9,335 acres of Dyerville Flats could be purchased in 1931 from private landowners to become public land. Eventually renamed after its first benefactor, today Rockefeller Forest, at 10,000 acres, is the largest old growth redwood forest in the world.
Want to be a champion of the redwoods or nature in general? Well, the easiest—and most fun!—way is to become a regular explorer of national parks. Engage in nature and you’ll cultivate an appreciation for it that will inevitably make you a proud steward of the planet. And if you can and want to, you can always donate to or become a member of the Save the Redwoods League, or make a contribution to the National Parks Service.
Back on 101 North en route to Eureka. Halfway between Humboldt Redwoods and Redwood National Park, this quiet coastal town makes a fine home base for exploration of coast redwoods. A little downtown area has all the conveniences for a road trip—restaurants, bars, pharmacies, spas, and more—but it’s a far cry from any city life you’d find several hours south in the Bay Area. Deep in the heart of northern California, Eureka, as well as its neighboring towns within a few hundred miles radius, is pretty isolated.
The beauty of this far-removed locale: it makes a pretty idyllic getaway. Away from the downtown area, off of a dirt road with no street lights, I settle in for the night in a rustic and cozy guest cabin. In the pitch black darkness, stone steps lead to a sliding glass door—unlocked, because the owner of the property deems the neighborhood extremely safe. Tomorrow, I’ll come face to face with even more giants.
Forty-five minutes north on 101, I cross a few barrier islands and reach the Redwood National Park visitors center, teetering right on the edge of the Pacific. Inside, it’s a modern space where you can purchase a piece of the coast redwoods to bring home: Young trees barely larger than twigs are for sale for replanting wherever you please. However, they have only been known to grow to their true size here on the north and central coasts, making them little more than indoor plants akin to bonsai anywhere else. Still, the idea of taking one home is positively charming.
Established in 1968 and expanded in 1978, Redwood National Park encompasses 131,983 acres—half of which overlaps with Prairie Creek, Del Norte, and Jedediah Smith State Parks. All were established as buffers between the National Park and logging on private lands in order to protect the trees’ natural coastal range. After 1.5 million acres of ancient redwood forests had been decimated, this National Park has worked to protect 40,000 of the 120,000 acres of old growth forests that remain in California.
Ranger Carey Wells takes me up a winding road 1,200 feet above sea level to Lady Bird Johnson Grove—dedicated to the First Lady of President Lyndon B. Johnson by President Richard Nixon in 1969, for her love of the American wilderness and her commitment to its conservation. In his dedication speech, Nixon proclaimed that Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson had “done more in the field of beautification than any First Lady in history.” This particular grove is a shining example of the love the U.S. gives to its national parks. A handsome bridge constructed entirely of salvaged redwood takes hikers into this pristine prehistoric forest.
Part of the conservation efforts of the Save the Redwoods League has been to cultivate second growth forests to complement old growth ones like this one. But the trees themselves are biologically equipped with ways to ensure their survival. Ranger Carey reveals where certain trees have cloned themselves—a process called reiteration. When pieces of redwoods break off, they shoot out new trunks which fuse onto and continue to grow out of the trees’ larger limbs—making the forest canopy an entire ecosystem of living wood that stores water, accumulates and develops soils, and provides habitat for a range of mammals, birds, amphibians, and insects. Big bumps, known as burls, that look like deformities growing out of the trunks also provide the trees with plenty of reproductive potential. Instead of relying on seeds to drop to the forest floor and grow where there is minimal light, new trees can grow out of the burls, which have been able to absorb nutrients and water from the parent plant.
On the way to Prairie Creek State Park, north on the 101, we spot a herd of elk grazing in Elk Meadow. Once we hit the ground on Prairie Creek Trail, we cross the creek where salmon and steelhead trout will soon be swimming through the winter and into early spring. This trail is highly recommended by Ranger Carey, and rightfully so—it’s as fairytale-like as forests get. It’s home to iluvatar trees, including the one made famous on an iconic cover of National Geographic.
Iluvatars are known for their astronomical number of reiterations, as well as the fact that they’re the tallest and biggest coast redwoods in existence. While it’s a common question for tourists to inquire where and how to find the ultimate iluvatar—one family flags down Ranger Carey to ask that precisely—rangers remain hush-hush on exact coordinates in order to protect the integrity of all the trees from potential vandalism. Once you see an iluvatar, though, it’s hard to miss. But while I walk through the woods marveling at their stature and their amazing reiterations, the mossy big leaf maple trees aren’t too shabby either. Ranger Carey pulls a leaf from a bay tree, tears it open and prompts me to take a whiff. It’s so fragrant that I’m reminded of the sheer force of nature—how even the most gigantic trees on the planet can seem humble among the abundance of life in a forest, down to the tiniest leaves.
The Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, which runs all the way through Prairie Creek State Park, is closed due to ice on the roads, but I continue north on the 101 to see what else I can discover. Left on Klamath Beach Road, I circle along a coastal drive, stopping at breathtaking bluff overlooks to see the Pacific Ocean below and coast redwoods, basking in the brilliance of a cloudless sky, in the distance. On a lesser day the forest may be enveloped in a layer of mist, although that would probably be no less striking.
Heading back down south to Eureka, I pull over at a random beach covered in driftwood. At sunset, the ocean is wild, and the redwoods look on, quietly, majestically, just as they have for 20 million years—and hopefully will for at least 20 million more.
A version of this was published in Conde Nast Traveler China’s March 2016 issue, in honor of the U.S. National Parks Service’s upcoming centennial.