When dinosaurs roamed the earth during the Jurassic Period 150 million years ago, a group of conifers thrived in forests covering what is today Europe, Asia and North America. As the climate became cooler and drier, these conifers were restricted to just three geographic regions and the three redwood species we know today evolved from the Jurassic forebears. Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum), which I covered in a previous post, grow in a few groves interspersed on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range – they are the world’s most massive trees. Coast Redwoods (Sequoia semervirens) grow in a narrow strip along the coast of northern California and southern Oregon – they are the world’s tallest living thing. A third species, Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) was thought to be extinct until 1944 when living trees were found in the Sichuan-Hubei region of China. The name “redwood” refers to the color of the bark and heartwood, where the red color is caused by the high tannin content in the tree. Tannins, which are famous for their bitter contribution to the flavors of tea and red wine, also impart insect- and fungus-resistance to the redwood trees.

The three extant redwood species grow in a row outside the Humbolt Redwoods State Park Visitor Center. The Coast Redwood (planted 1988) is on the right, Giant Sequoia (planted 1986) in the middle and Dawn Redwood (1988) on the left.  The Dawn Redwood is only a few inches in diameter and about 20 feet tall. It is the deciduous redwood species and was without leaves at the time of this picture. The Sequoia and Coast Redwood are both about 18 inches in diameter and of similar height, maybe 30 feet tall., with the Coast Redwood just a touch shorter. The Coast Redwood tapers faster than that Sequoia from the ground to the crown. The top of the Coast Redwood is  a flimsy twig while the crown of the Sequoia is full and bushy. The lower branches on the Sequoia have lost their leaves, but the Redwood has lower foliage.

The three extant redwood species grow in a row outside the Humbolt Redwoods State Park Visitor Center. The Coast Redwood (planted 1988) is on the right, Giant Sequoia (planted 1986) in the middle and Dawn Redwood (1988) is the skinny one on the left. The Dawn Redwood is only a few inches in diameter and about 20 feet tall. It is deciduous and was without leaves at the time of this picture. The Sequoia and Coast Redwood are both about 18 inches in diameter and of similar height, maybe 30 feet tall, with the Coast Redwood just a touch shorter. The Coast Redwood tapers faster than that Sequoia from the ground to the crown; the top of the Coast Redwood is a flimsy twig while the crown of the Sequoia is full and bushy. The lower branches on the Sequoia have lost their leaves, but the Redwood has lower foliage, which differs from the upper foliage, as described below.

California’s Coast Redwoods and Giant Sequoias are very different trees, but they do have a lot of commonalities. Coast Redwood bark is fibrous and furry (like a coconut is furry), while Sequoia bark is more like a sponge, but both provide excellent fire protection due to their structure and lack of resin. Trees of each species can live a very long time, Coast Redwoods more than 2000 years and Sequoias over 3000. Both are huge trees, Coast Redwoods can reach 379 feet tall, 26 feet in diameter and Sequoias 314 feet tall, 30 feet in diameter. These massive trees of both species are supported by shallow, widely spread roots that can intertwine with neighboring roots for extra strength and nutrient sharing. The huge trees sprout from tiny seeds released by small cones: Coast Redwood cones are the size of an olive, with seeds that look similar to tomato seeds. Giant Sequoia cones are a little larger, the size of a chicken egg, with seeds like rolled oats.

A timeline of human history is displayed on the rings of a section of redwood at the Humbolt Redwoods State Park Visitor Center.

A timeline of human history is displayed on the rings of a section of redwood at the Humbolt Redwoods State Park Visitor Center.

A close up of the center of the redwood ring timeline. This tree started growing sometime before the year 1000 and died in the late 1900s.

A close-up of the center of the redwood ring timeline. This tree started growing sometime before the year 1000 and died in the late 1900s.

In addition to reproducing by seed, Coast Redwoods can also reproduce via sprouts. Roots of a tree downed by natural causes or logging can continue living and sprout new trees. Often these sprouts form a circle around where the parent tree was, a circle referred to as a “fairy ring”. Sprouts can also form from special nodules near the base of a tree called burls. These sprouts are genetic clones of the parent tree, so genetically redwoods can live even more thousands of years than their 2000 year maximum lifespan. Reproduction by sprouting is very unusual for conifers; Coast Redwoods are possibly the only conifer species that reproduces this way.

 Burls grow when the tree experiences some kind of stress. Some burls are large and furled into interesting shapes.

Burls grow when the tree experiences some kind of stress. Some burls are large and furled into interesting shapes.

Root collar burls can sprout new trees, but burls are not limited to growing low on the tree. These burls may have grown to balance a leaning tree.

Root collar burls can sprout new trees, but burls are not limited to growing low on the tree. These burls may have grown as a buttress to balance a leaning tree.

Coast Redwoods require abundant moisture to survive. Summers on the West Coast are dry and warm, so there is not enough rainfall to sustain these thirsty trees, but when the warm inland air hits the ocean it fills the air with moisture in the form of fog. The Coast Redwood has specially designed leaves on the lower branches, wide and flat needles that condense the fog to form its own rain. Leaves on the upper branches are rounder to protect from evaporation in the sunny canopy. This coastal fog meets about one-third of the redwood’s water needs, so the range of the trees is limited to a 5-15 mile strip along the coast from Big Sur to southern Oregon.

Looking up into the redwood canopy to the top of some of the world’s tallest trees.

Looking up into the redwood canopy to the top of some of the world’s tallest trees.

Coast redwoods have existed along California’s north coast for about 20 million years. Prior to European settlement, an estimated 2,000,000 acres (3,125 square miles) old-growth redwood forest lined the coast. Heavy logging reduced the forests by 94%, leaving a meager 118,000 acres (184 square miles) of isolated groves and forest fragments remaining today. Eighty percent of these remaining ancient trees are protected in parks and reserves, thanks largely to a group of concerned citizens who founded the Save-the-Redwoods League in 1918. By 1923 the League and the State of California had acquired thousands of acres of remaining old-growth stands for protection. Even these redwoods protected from logging may not survive human’s impact; increasing average temperatures are reducing the coastal fog that the trees require.

Old-growth redwoods with two human visitors near the center for scale. Picture taken in the Rockefeller Forest in Humbolt Redwoods State Park.

Old-growth redwoods with two human visitors near the center for scale. Picture taken in the Rockefeller Forest in Humbolt Redwoods State Park.

Protecting old-growth forests is not just about preserving trees that have lived thousands of years. Old-growth forests provide a vast array of different habitats for plants and wildlife. The characteristics of an old-growth forest are: 1) Trees of all ages, from new growth to hundreds of years old; 2) Multi-leveled canopy; 3) Snags, which can stand for centuries; and 4) Downed trees. Each one of these characteristics describes a unique habitat. Plants and animals that live in the canopy are not found lower down in the forest, snags provide homes for several birds and mammals, and the downed trees are an important source of nutrients for new plant growth. When these ancient forests are cut down, the diversity of life they support may never return.

An impassioned plea for continued support of the California State Park system on the park map really resonates with me: “Without the foresight of dedicated people in past generations, invaluable natural areas like this would not exist today. Conversely, only if our generation is willing to continue to preserve and protect our parklands and other natural and cultural heritage sites will places like this exist for our grandchildren and future generations.” This is the challenge with protecting the environment – to protect requires constant vigilance, but once lost it can never be regained.

Plant life abounds on this downed log.

Plant life abounds on this downed log.

This Western Hemlock sprouted on the top of a fallen redwood and sent its roots around the log to the ground, inspiring the moniker “Octopus Tree”.

If you look closely you can see that this Western Hemlock sprouted on the top of a fallen redwood and sent its roots around the log to the ground, inspiring the moniker “Octopus Tree”.

The largest remaining stands of ancient coast redwoods are in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Redwood National and State Parks, and Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Many more state parks feature small fragments of ancient groves. We visited the first two on the list above as well as Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park near Santa Cruz and Samuel P. Taylor State Park north of San Francisco.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Redwoods are resistant to fire, but not immune to it. Fire damage frequently causes hollows in mature trees that do not kill the tree. Early settlers called these hollows “goose pens” because they housed geese, chickens and other livestock in the hollows. One such tree in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is named the Fremont Tree after General John Fremont who allegedly spent the night in the hollow. It certainly would make a great shelter. The hollow is 10 feet in diameter and about 30 feet tall in the middle. A four-inch deep puddle made entering it on a raining day a bit of a wet-foot proposition, but there was still plenty of dry ground inside the tree to lie down.

Entrance to a “Goose Pen” hollow in a Redwood tree (not the Fremont Tree, but similar).

Entrance to a “Goose Pen” hollow in a Redwood tree (not the Fremont Tree, but similar).

Humbolt Redwoods State Park

If you want to see coast redwoods, Humbolt Redwoods State Park is the place to visit. The heart of the park is one of the largest remaining stands of old-growth redwood forest, 10,000 acres of forest along Bull Creek. This land, the Rockefeller Forest, was purchased by the Save-the-Redwoods League with a $2 million donation by J.D. Rockefeller. In 1955 and 1964 huge floods washed thousands of tons of gravel and debris down logged slopes into the river, threatening the redwood forest and the spawning grounds of Chinook and Coho salmon, steelhead and lamprey fishes. After the floods, the park acquired all the land in the Bull Creek Watershed to restore the logged hillsides and expanded to 53,000 acres.

Old-growth is separated from second-growth in the park by a section of the 32-mile Avenue of the Giants scenic drive. This picturesque road runs parallel to Highway 1, and offers informational stops along with the ancient beauty. It also makes a lovely bike ride. One of the informational stops is at the State Park Visitor Center, a veritable museum of forest and local history.

In 1917 an activist, Charles Kellog, created an early version of an RV from a redwood log to raise awareness of the majesty of the redwoods and the need to protect them. This is a small model of Kellog’s “Travel-Log”.

In 1917 an activist, Charles Kellog, created an early version of an RV from a redwood log to raise awareness of the majesty of the redwoods and the need to protect them. This is a small model of Kellog’s “Travel-Log”.

The actual restored Travel Log!

The actual restored Travel-Log, a one-log mobile cabin!

A bear drives the Travel Log.

A bear drives the Travel-Log.

Looking into the “Travel-Log” from the rear. To the left in the foreground is a wash basin, to the right a dresser and in the back you can see the bed.

Looking into the actual Travel-Log from the rear. To the left in the foreground is a washbasin, to the right a dresser and in the back you can see the edge of the bed.

Hiking trails abound throughout the park, ranging from short interpretive trails to long trails through the wilderness with backcountry campgrounds. Walking through the old growth groves, I can’t help but think of fairy tales. Lands of old growth forest, coated in green mosses and ferns shaded by grand ancient trees gave rise to the magical creatures of legend. Forests like these are home to Hansel & Gretel’s witch, Snow White’s dwarfs, werewolves and fairies. Burrows deep into the soil may lead to a rabbit’s chamber, or to Wonderland. These forests team with silent, elusive life, and the energy of the diverse but hidden life forms creates a magical feeling, a sense that anything can happen.

A hollow log, or an entrance to a fairy wonderland?

A hollow log, or an entrance to a fairy wonderland?

What secrets do those ferns hide?

What secrets do those ferns hide?

A deer looks at me after I interrupted its foraging.

A deer looks at me after I interrupted its foraging.

Contrary to what you might guess, the greatest accumulation of biomass every recorded on earth is not in a tropical rainforest dense with growth, but it is in Humbolt Redwoods State Park. An acre of old-growth redwood forest weighed in at 1800 tons biomass per acre, 7 times the density of biomass in a tropical forest!

The base of a large redwood with my backpack for scale. With this mass of wood towering well over 300 feet, no wonder the biomass density is so great!

The base of a large redwood with my backpack for scale. With this mass of wood towering well over 300 feet, no wonder the biomass density is so great!

The Rockefeller Loop trail is a 1/2 mile walk under these ancient giants. Interestingly, only redwoods grow here. They so dominate that no other trees stands a chance at surviving. Only when an ancient falls and opens a hole in the canopy can other tree species take root and grow, and then the interloper tree’s days are numbered. The baby redwoods will some day overtake it, shading them out again.

A fallen log makes for a nice resting spot, and leaves a hole in the canopy so another tree species may have a chance to take root.

A fallen log makes for a nice resting spot, and leaves a hole in the canopy so another tree species may have a chance to take root.

I had hoped to cross Bull Creek on the “Seasonal Bridge” and walk the trail instead of the road. The map shows these seasonal bridges, but I did not know what it meant until I came upon this sight near the banks. So much for my plan to cross the creek! Road-walking it is.

I had hoped to cross Bull Creek on the “Seasonal Bridge” and walk the trail instead of the road. The map shows these seasonal bridges, but I did not know what it meant until I came upon this dissapointing sight near the banks. So much for my plan to cross the creek! Back to the road…

Redwood National and State Parks

Our final stop in the redwoods range was at Redwood National and State Parks. Redwood National Park is not a usual National Park. It does not have an entrance gate or charge a fee. It was created rather late, in 1968. State Parks already protected tracts of redwoods near the new national park which lies along Highway 101. In 1994, the National Park Service and California State Parks agreed to co-manage four parks: Del Norte Coast, Prairie Creek and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Parks as well as the Redwood National Park. These four parks together protect 45% of the remaining old-growth redwood forests. Additionally, these parks contain pristine coastline, vast prairies, oak woodlands and wild river ways. For backpacking under or learning about redwoods, I think that Humbolt Redwoods State Park is a better choice, but Redwood National and State Parks offers a more diverse experience and great wildlife viewing.

A bull elk in the aptly named Elk Meadow of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Roosevelt Elk are a conservation success story. Herds are thriving today, though this species once teetered on the brink of extinction.

A bull elk in the aptly named Elk Meadow of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Roosevelt Elk are a conservation success story. Herds are thriving today, though this species once teetered on the brink of extinction.

We came to this park with the intention of backpacking under the redwoods. As it turns out, most of the old-growth forests are closed to camping and the sites where camping is permissible were inaccessible due to high water in Redwood Creek. Not to be deterred, we took a short hike down to the creek to camp for a couple nights on the sandbar.

Backpacking in Redwood National Park

Day 1: The hike down to the creek was an easy 1.5 miles. After setting up camp we planned to walk along the creek to the Tall Trees Grove, but the current was too fast to cross back and forth the requisite six times. Instead we walked the alternate route, back up to the trailhead and down the Tall Trees Trail.

At the Tall Trees Grove we checked out the stream crossing we would have had to traverse to camp on the other side of the creek. It was probably passable, but it was wide and at least thigh deep, so it would have been a cold and risky crossing. Permits are issued for specific campsites, so we had to make the decision about where to camp before even seeing the stream and had chosen not to attempt it based on the high water warming. Because of the limited accessibility, we had company camping on the sandbar aside the creek. Thankfully we were there mid-week, so it didn’t get too crowded, only three other pairs of campers over the two nights.

The short hike was lovely, with lots of beautiful rhododendrons in bloom and several small creatures: banana slugs, a snake, tiny frogs and toads.

John poses in a log that was tunneled to make the trail passable.

John poses in a log that was tunneled to make the trail passable.

Our campsite on the Redwood Creek sandbar.

Our campsite on the Redwood Creek sandbar.

Portrait of small banana slug on moss.

Portrait of small banana slug on moss.

Day 2: John stayed at camp where he caught frogs, skipped rocks and read while I went for a solo hike. I took the Dolason Prairie trail through the old-growth forest to the logged portion where a prairie now covers the hills. Wild flowers were in full bloom and bees were busy collecting their nectar. A snake sat in the grass at the side of the trail, eying me suspiciously as I first took pictures of it before gathering up the courage to step past it (it probably wasn’t poisonous, but it is natural to be wary). Two hawks circled above the valley, looking for prey below. When I returned to camp I joined John at trying to skip rocks (well, I tried, he succeeded) and search for frogs. I even caught a small toad or two! At night in the tent we tried to see the creatures rustling around the tent. We caught one in the light of our headlamps: a fist-sized toad! It was very cute, in the slow and stocky way that toads are cute.

 Snake in the grass beside the trail. After a stand-off I finally managed to step around him.

Snake in the grass beside the trail. After a stand-off I finally managed to step around him.

Tiny slug on a rock.

Tiny slug on a rock.

Day 3: We rose early but took our time at camp in the morning, skipping a last few rocks and looking for more frogs and toads. I ALMOST caught a frog, but didn’t close my hands in time and it slipped out between my thumb and hand. We hiked out the short trail and were back at the van by 10:00 am. We drove back to Elk Meadow where we managed to sneak into the campground for a quick shower before heading north, leaving the redwoods and California behind.

The ancient, majestic redwood trees inspire reverence in visitors to these old-growth forests (for example, see this lovely video homage). The longevity of the trees and the fate of the forests due to human hands are simultaneous reminders of the resiliency and the fragility of ecosystems. I recommend a visit to one of the remaining groves. Take some time to absorb the silence, to think and reflect about life, survival, destruction, and protection.

May 7 – 13, 2014

2 Thoughts on “Ancient Trees

  1. Eddie Cheaz on October 15, 2014 at 8:41 am said:

    Hi Heidi! Thanks for writing this great article! Wish there were more old growth forests. Are the forests growing and spreading since they are protected?

    I was hoping to pick your brain a bit. A friend of mine is looking to buy a small box and convert it into living space so she can travel the country but i strongly advised her to get a small RV. The problem she can’t get over is how conspicuous RVs are. Have you seen any RVs that are small, affordable and a solid color?

    • Thanks for reading, Eddie!

      There are second-growth forests that are now in protected parklands, such as the hillsides above the Rockefeller forest in Humbolt Redwoods State Park and most of Redwoods National Park. And there are more old-growth forests still under threat of logging.

      Class B RVs or Campervans (Great West Vans, Roadtrek, Pleasure Way, Sportsmobile, Airstream even has a Class B model now) are less conspicuous than the large ones, but they are pretty expensive. John got a great deal on our Great West Van because he was vigilant about searching eBay, knew exactly what he was looking for and jumped when he saw a posting within a day’s drive. If your friend wants something stealthy and she has the time, space, skills and tools to do a custom conversion, then that’s a great way to go. John wanted to go that route, but living in Manhattan he didn’t exactly have a garage to work in, and once he met me he had to set his sights on something a little larger. The “To Simplify” link at the right is for a blog that describes a custom build and modification of a VW van, it might be helpful to take a look at what he did and the challenges he encountered.

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation