National Park Number: 5 of 59
It's been a few weeks now since we visited Redwood, and David and I still can't get over it, at all. This park has everything going for it: beaches, wildlife, history, jurassic landscapes, and ancient groves of giant trees. It's accessible (right off the 101) and has a good mix of activities, from backcountry hiking to short loop trails. Everywhere we went, we kept saying to each other, "This is the most beautiful place I've ever been."
But it's not only the landscape and range of activities that had us gobsmacked by Redwood; what has stuck with us is what we learned about the establishment of this park, and what its history highlights about public lands issues for the past hundred plus years.
But first, logistics! Redwood is really a collection of state parks and a national park, managed jointly by the California Parks and Rec. Department and the NPS (and a dang fine example of federal and state powers working together, in our humble opinions.) In our five days at the park, we explored Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, along with the unassociated but very nearby Humboldt Lagoons State Park.
After our drive from Lassen Volcanic across the Trinity Scenic Byway, we landed at Clam Beach, where we played in the sand all morning before making our way up to Dry Lagoon. The beach here is surrounded on all sides by ocean, cliffs, forest, and marsh, and the road that leads into it is obscured by trees—the effect is one of total isolation, and it is beautiful. When we arrived, a herd of elk was grazing on the beach—a rare event, we found out later, and an epic backdrop for some good old bus tacos.
We started the next morning at the Kuchel Visitor Center, where we got tips on hikes and nabbed a permit for the Tall Trees Grove in the national park. To protect this section of the park, where some of the world's tallest trees are located, the park service only gives out 50 permits a day. We weren't sure how competitive we needed to be in this situation: if it was a NYC, sleep on the sidewalk in front of the visitor center thing or a more laidback affair. Because we've never been true New Yorkers anyway, we opted for queuing up 15 minutes or so before the center opened and we were second in line to grab a permit (though we were there on a weekday in the off-season and there was a healthy line of permit-seekers behind us by the time we went in, so be prepared if you're visiting during a busier time.)
Permit in hand, we headed to Lady Bird Johnson Grove, where we joined a ranger-guided walk around the 1.5-mile trail. Ranger programs are, for us, one of the highlights of park visits, and our ranger for this walk was particularly top-notch.
From this excellent ranger, we learned all sorts of wonderful redwood-y facts, like that most of the trees’ roots are only 12 feet deep, but extend out 100 feet in every direction and lace together with the roots of other trees in order to support themselves. Redwood seeds are the size of tomato seeds and germinate slowly, and they’re extremely sensitive to growing conditions. The trees grow only in one region in the world, from central California to southern Oregon, and rely on the coastal fog for moisture—they drink about 500 gallons of water a day. Redwood is incredibly durable because it produces no resin or pitch and is high in tannin, making it resistant to fire, insects, and fungi. San Francisco’s building code used to require that redwood be used in all foundations of new construction. And—maybe the coolest fact—redwoods are environmental heroes, capturing more carbon dioxide emissions than any other tree on Earth.
After the tour, we ended up talking to the ranger for almost another hour, picking his brain about the famously controversial founding of the park.
The struggle to save the redwood forests is a prime example of the complexity of conservation. On the one hand, we have an incredible temperate rain forest, home to hundreds of wildlife species and the tallest trees in the world, some of them thousands of years old. On the other hand, we have local communities that rely on logging, and a wider public that relies on lumber and pays well for redwood, especially old-growth wood, because of its excellent building properties. Both sides, in the fight to preserve either an ancient landscape or a way of life, commit atrocities: acts of protest or carelessness that kill those on the other side of the issue. And, perhaps, both sides are poorly understood by the other. It's easy, for example, to demonize the logging industry, but logging companies in Northern California were also victims of a lumber boom; the Pacific Lumber Company engaged in sustainable logging practices until a hostile takeover by Maxxam of Texas, which replaced Pacific's practices with clearcutting, gutted the loggers' pension funds, and finally left the company bankrupt. They also left a fraction of the old-growth forest intact.
Because of these kinds of poor logging practices, Redwood is one of the most compromised and expensive parks in the NPS system. In an attempt to return the land to something closer to its native state, the park removed logging infrastructure, hiring the same construction companies that built roads along these hills to cover the roads up and reestablish the former topography. The system here is fragile, and conserving it requires an attempt to turn back the clock on development.
We drove along Bald Hills Road through the park, up to the overlook, and down to the trailhead for Tall Trees Grove.
The walk down into the grove is fairly steep and everywhere the scale is staggering.
After descending into the grove, the trail follows a loop around some of the finest examples of old-growth forest in the world.
Also in the valley, next to the grove, is a creek where the intrepid can backcountry camp on the sand banks. We just played around for a while, throwing rocks into the river and examining the local fauna, like a dragonfly and a dead snake.
Graham learned from a ranger that if you kiss a banana slug, your face will turn numb for several minutes. He is now obsessed with this fact and I'm afraid one of these days he's going to test it out for himself.
The next morning as we left the park, we were searching for groceries and stumbled on some awesome history in Orick. While logging is no longer a major industry in this area, tourism hasn't taken over to fill in the gap for the local economy. The town of Orick, located in a prime spot just outside of Redwood National Park, is largely undeveloped, a relic of the 20th-century logging boom when the town had hotels, restaurants, and seven gas stations. Now the sites of those gas stations are abandoned, uninteresting to buyers because their histories necessitate an environmental assessment before any building can take place.
Inside the Shoreline Market, local Betty Meyer keeps logging history alive by collecting photos, articles and other relics of Orick's heyday. The most fascinating story is of the Talk to America convoy, a group of about 500 locals who drove logging trucks across the country to Washington D.C., carved redwood peanut in tow, to protest the loss of timber jobs they feared conservation would bring. President Jimmy Carter was unswayed from his environmental views by the peanut.
One of our favorite parts of the Redwoods area was Gold Bluffs Beach in Prairie Creek State Park. You can access the beach via a 6-mile hike or a fairly gnarly road. Once there, you're in what I'm convinced is one of the most beautiful spots in America. Pristine and isolated, this place is not-to-be-missed for sure.
At the far end of Gold Bluffs Beach is the entrance to Fern Canyon, where a stream wanders through the narrow gap and the walls are entirely covered with ferns and mosses.
As we drove up the 101 one night, we were looking into the most beautiful sunset; we turned a corner and were hit with a view of the colors over the water and outcroppings of rock. Some of the most beautiful minutes of my life.
Our last stop was at Jedediah Smith State Park, which has the densest population of redwoods of all the parks. The main road through the park is Howland Hill Road, a stunning drive that takes you right through the heart of the forest. It’s not recommended for RVs or trailers—we’d agree that the road can be pretty rough at times. Our bus isn’t too long, so we didn’t have trouble with the tight corners, but it did feel a bit like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. If you’re driving a bigger rig, be cautious here! But the drive is stunning—definitely check it out if you can.
Stout Grove is an easy 0.6 mile loop through one of the first protected stands of redwoods. Lack of understory growth (due to flooding from the nearby river) and a flat trail make this the perfect place to experience the full scale of these giants, top to bottom. We also ran into a couple from my hometown here with whom I share a last name. I will never cease to be delighted by coincidences like this.
Running through Jed Smith is the Smith River, the only wild, undammed river left in the state of California. The water here perfectly clear and we hear it gets warm enough in the summer for a swim—heaven, I tell you. Heaven.
Our time at Redwoods inspired us to dive deeper into the complicated history of the national parks system. Conservation is a complex goal and nowhere is that complexity better displayed than here, the site of national agitation for a hundred years. We’re left with a lot of questions: how much wilderness is enough? Is there a way to make public lands preservation a win for everyone? How can we, conservationists at heart, appeal to and better understand local communities who resist federal designation and protection? Will there ever be a time of balance, where our most special places are preserved, our industries practice sustainably, and our people are willing to lay aside economic ambition and bring only humility and wonder to the wilderness?