Bike Rides & Hikes

They’re the world’s tallest living things, and they’re all ours

Rushing waters, giant trees provide plenty of reward along Redwood Creek

Sacramento Bee reporter Brad Branan earlier in May 2016 kayaked along Redwood Creek and explored the Redwood Creek Trail in Redwood National Forest on California's north coast, in the process coming in contact with some of nature's most dramatic,
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Sacramento Bee reporter Brad Branan earlier in May 2016 kayaked along Redwood Creek and explored the Redwood Creek Trail in Redwood National Forest on California's north coast, in the process coming in contact with some of nature's most dramatic,

A remarkable tree stands about 2 miles from the start of the Redwood Creek Trail. Redwoods are known for their height, but what makes this one worth noticing is the base, which was hollowed out by fire.

I walk through a door-size hole in the tree and enter a space about 50 feet high and 15 feet wide, illuminated by light from a few large holes. Despite the obvious fire damage, the wood inside looks healthy, with no black charring, a result of the tree’s ability to heal itself. I walk outside and see the trunk extend far into the sky, with a crown full of green needles.

The tree is a testament to the strength of coast redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, not only Earth’s tallest trees, but its tallest living things. A great way to learn about these giant wonders and the national park created to protect them is to take a weekend backpack trip on the Redwood Creek Trail, an in-and-out hike of 16 miles in northwest California’s Redwood National Park. Earlier this year, I hiked the trail to its end, camped and visited the remarkable Tall Trees Grove, before rafting the creek back to my car.

The trees are “the last representatives of a heroic race, the last true sequoias, a living link to the age of dinosaurs,” François Leydet wrote in “The Last Redwoods and the Parklands of Redwood Creek,” a 1969 book published by the Sierra Club in its push to expand the park’s boundaries.

Redwoods can live 2,000 years, with fire being a major threat, said Leonel Arguello, who as the park’s chief of vegetation management is responsible for maintaining the trees. The trees have adapted to fire by using a chemical called tannin to heal themselves and prevent entry of pathogens that might otherwise kill them, he said. The tannin also gives the trees their distinctive color.

Logging has been the biggest threat to redwoods. Before commercial logging started in the 1850s, about 2 million acres of coastal redwoods stretched from Big Sur to southern Oregon, according to the Save the Redwoods League. Five percent of those old-growth trees now remain, and the highest concentration is in the northwest corner of California. The region’s fog, rain and mild temperatures help the trees thrive.

In 1968, Redwood National Park was created in combination with two state parks, Prairie Creek and Jedediah Smith. Because of the cost of the land and opposition from the timber industry, the original park excluded what is now Redwood Creek Trail, according to the Sierra Club book. It took 10 years before Congress expanded the park to include that section of the creek, and the area was logged in the intervening years, Arguello said. The creek, however, still has a number of redwoods over 300 feet tall, he said.

To me, walking beneath the redwoods is like being transported to childhood, because they’re so much bigger than the trees I usually see. The experience also instills an emotion associated with childhood: awe.

The hike on Redwood Creek Trail is moderately strenuous as you go up and down ridges alongside the creek. The sound of running water provides a pleasant backdrop and a nice antidote to the slightly unnerving sound of redwoods creaking as they rub against one another in the wind. The creaking sound invites speculation of a redwood falling down on you.

Taking plenty of time to soak up the surroundings, I finish the 8-mile trail by late afternoon, and set up my tent at 44 Camp, one of eight backcountry campsites at Redwood National and its associated state parks. It is one of two campgrounds on the Redwood Creek Trail; backpackers can also camp on the creek’s gravel beds.

The next day I visit the Tall Trees Grove, so named because a 1963 National Geographic expedition revealed it was the location of the world’s tallest tree, 368 feet.

I had visited the Tall Trees Grove four years earlier, driving to a parking lot 2 miles away and hiking to the grove from the opposite direction of my recent trip.

I was looking forward to visiting the grove without having to go through the pass-protected gate I used on my first visit. Visitors have to get a pass code to get through the gate, which allows the park to prevent overcrowding at the grove’s parking lot, Arguello said.

Unfortunately, the gate also makes the grove seem like a museum, instead of part of the natural earth. That isn’t a complaint against controlling access to the trees, however. The regulation against camping in the Tall Trees Grove makes a lot of sense. I was stunned when I crossed Redwood Creek and found two young men with camping gear spread out in the grove. It was like I found two kids camping in a museum! They said they had not seen the signs prohibiting camping in the grove.

They also said they were looking for Hyperion, a 379-foot tree that is now considered the world’s tallest. Arguello and other park officials will not specify its location, except to say it is in the park. The mapping app I use on my phone had the tree located just north of the Tall Trees Grove. I have since seen a map online placing Hyperion just south of the grove.

Hoping to throw the two men off their reckless search, I pointed to thick brush on a steep hill and said the tree was behind a half-mile of similar terrain. They consulted with each other for a few minutes and said they were not going to try.

Arguello said people searching for Hyperion have damaged forest because there is no trail leading to it. He added that searchers are also missing the point, as Hyperion is a relatively skinny redwood and viewers can’t see the top, anyway.

Standing in Tall Trees Grove, you can’t see the tops of any of those giants. Spend enough time trying to photograph redwoods in their entirety and you will fully appreciate how big they are. The picture can’t be taken. What you can see is one of the most remarkable collections of redwoods.

“It’s not about one tree,” Arguello said. “It’s about this beautiful living grove that is being conserved.”

He said the title of “world’s tallest tree” consistently changes, as new discoveries are made. The Libby Tree, the one sighted by a National Geographic explorer, lost its status years ago, and then lost the top of its trunk to a storm.

The National Geographic naturalist who found the tree said he didn’t see it until he was in the creek valley, and could see how it stood above its neighbors. I understood what he meant after I inflated my raft and started paddling down Redwood Creek. From that distance, I could see the tops of the tallest redwoods and fully appreciate these wonderful creatures.

Redwood Creek Trail

What: The Redwood Creek Trail is a 16-mile in-and-out hike. The hike from the trailhead to its terminus at the Tall Trees Grove is 8 miles. Please note that two bridges used to cross the creek are up only in summer. Take caution in crossing the creek if the bridges are not up. It was up to my thighs when I crossed in early May.

Where: The trailhead is east of the town of Orick. Take Highway 101 north to the town and turn right at Bald Hills Road, and the sign for the trailhead will be on your right in less than a mile.

Why: The trail winds past redwoods, the tallest trees in the world, as well as a beautiful creek and moss, ferns and other fauna you’d expect in such a wet climate. The trail ends at the Tall Trees Grove, one of the best known redwood groves.

How: Hiking part of the trail would make a great day trip. If you want to backpack and camp near the trail, you must get a free permit from one of the visitor centers at Redwood National Park. They can only be obtained in person. The center in Orick on Highway 101 is a good place to get a permit.