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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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