The official Redwood National and State Park brochure invites a question nobody there will answer.
The brochure’s first words describe redwoods as the “world’s tallest living tree — monarch of the (California) North Coast — living link to the Age of Dinosaurs.”
That’s cool. So which one is the tallest?
Ranger Mike Poole hears this question almost every day.
There is, reportedly, a nearly 380-foot tree (almost 2 1/2 times as tall as the Tacoma Dome) nicknamed Hyperion located somewhere in the park and it is believed to be the tallest tree in the world’s tallest forest.
But Poole won’t tell you where it is. Neither will park officials, scientists and others who know where it is.
The distinction has changed several times, but that’s not why they keep it quiet. The primary reason is to protect it and the terrain surrounding it.
“People want to go find it, and they trample through areas they shouldn’t,” Poole said. “You should see some of the damage. There are plenty of trees here that are impressive even if they aren’t the tallest.”
Not that you’d know.
Walking through a grove of these giants, you can’t see the top no matter how far back you tilt your head. Instead, you’re left admiring the colossal foundations that leave visitors slack-jawed and feeling small.
This is how I felt as my family headed into the woods with my in-laws during a recent road trip.
“You can lose perspective petty quickly in the redwoods,” Poole said. “They are amazing, so tall. But standing next to each other they don’t look as tall as they really are.”
Poole recommends taking a good look at the trees around your home before you go.
“If you have a 60- or 100-foot tree near you, that’s a tall tree,” Poole said. “But they probably don’t reach the lowest branches on the biggest redwoods.”
In the pursuit of perspective, we rolled into a resort in southern Oregon the day before our visit so we could spend a night in some normal size trees.
The Out ’n’ About treehouse resort or “Treesort,” just outside Siskiyou National Forest about 10 miles off U.S. Highway 199 near Cave Junction, Oregon, is a collection of treehouses built by owner Michael Garnier.
Suspension bridges more than 30 feet off the ground link the highest of the treehouses, none of which were big enough to accommodate our party of six.
We stayed in a lower (about 12 feet off the ground) abode that was easily the most luxurious treehouse we’d ever visited with its stained glass windows, kitchen, electricity and flushing toilet. It also had ideal sleeping arrangements: a loft for the kids, a separate room for my wife and me, and a futon for my mother-in-law.
It rained every second we were there, but that didn’t slow down the kids. My son and I hiked the trails in the woods behind the resort, and almost all of us played on the massive Tarzan-style swing. On drier days, the resort also offers horseback rides and zip-line tours.
The trees were large, strong and impressive enough to hold such structures. But they might as well have been saplings compared with what we were about to see less than an hour down the road.
Visiting Redwoods park can get confusing. It’s big, about 50 miles long, with many more stops than you can experience in a weekend or even a week.
But the most common confusion comes from the map. While the Redwoods are usually presented as one park, it’s actually four — three California state parks and one national park.
Which one is the Redwoods?
All of them.
“It gets really confusing,” Poole said. “So on the way in, your best bet is to stop at one of the visitor centers and have a chat with us.”
From the north, the Hiouchi Information Center is an ideal first stop from U.S. Highway 101. The center closes in the winter but the park headquarters visitor center in Crescent City, California, is open year-round.
Jedediah Smith, Del Norte and Prairie Creek Redwoods state parks and Redwood National Park have worked in unison for about 20 years, Poole said.
“Essentially we’re just one big, giant park,” Poole said.
FORGET THE HIGHWAY
Getting from north to the south in the Redwoods is quite easy thanks to U.S. 101.
“The problem is you’re going too fast to see anything,” Poole said, adding there also isn’t an abundance of roadside stops. “You might see little redwoods, but you won’t see a great one. If you aren’t in a mobile home, take the back roads.”
From the north, we took the first one we saw entering Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park on Howland Hill Road.
This is a good one, Poole said. It offers hikes of various distances as well as a winding drive past giant redwoods on a dirt road. Its western-most terminus is in Crescent City.
Take a 9.8-mile hike to Little Bald Hills and notice the dramatic change in the size of trees once you cross the coastal fault line. Take a 5.3-mile hike through old-growth redwoods on the Boy Scout Tree Trail. Or take a less than 1-mile trip through Stout Grove.
Arriving in the middle of an epic rain storm and lacking enough rain gear for everybody, we opted for the shorter loop.
I’d told the kids the redwoods were like a sea of umbrellas and that they’d hardly get wet. This wasn’t true, of course, and they knew it. We later learned it was the worst deluge in five years
The kids waited in the car with their grandparents as my wife and I hopped mud puddles and strolled through Stout Grove.
It wouldn’t be the last time the storm interfered with our plans.
That afternoon, as we zipped south on U.S. 101, we exited to take a slower but more enriching route on the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway.
“You shouldn’t have anybody take Highway 101 through this area unless they’re in a motor home,” Poole said.
The Drury parkway used to be the main highway and travels past huge trees and numerous trailheads and photo ops.
Or so I’m told. We were greeted by a flashing sign proclaiming the road was closed because of standing water, a rarity, according to the rangers. We settled for the express route on U.S. 101.
REMEMBER THE COAST
While the redwoods conjure pictures of soaring trees for most visitors, the Pacific Ocean also is an important part of this park.
“It’s the ocean that lets the redwoods live, so we want to protect that too,” Poole said. “It’s the ocean that keeps it cool and foggy. It keeps it from freezing in the winter.”
And, as we witnessed, it also makes sure the trees are well watered.
“This is a great place for a nice ocean experience, too,” Poole said.
He recommends taking Enderts Beach Road south of Crescent City if you aren’t driving a motor home or pulling a trailer. The road ends at the Crescent Beach Overlook.
You can sometimes see gray whales splashing in the ocean from here.
North of Klamath, California, a hike to the Klamath River Overlook in early spring usually offers the best chance to see whales.
Hiking opportunities abound on the coast. Damnation Creek Trail, between Crescent City and Klamath, descends about 1,100 feet in 2 miles.
It leads hikers through the mist and the redwoods to a small rocky beach where they’re left with a good view and a long climb back to their cars.
The Coastal Trail winds through the park offering opportunities for scenic short hikes or even overnight backpacking trips for those who secure a free backcountry permit.
If you’re like me, one of the images ingrained in your head regarding the redwoods is the drive-through tree.
There are, indeed, trees big enough to drive through. But the parks are in the business of protecting the trees, not drilling holes through them.
However, there is a drive-through tree on private property in Klamath and two others farther south in Myers Flat and Leggett.
When we arrived at the Klamath Tour-Thru Tree we paid the fee ($1 per person) to walk through. We were certain the tunnel couldn’t accommodate our large SUV.
But we were probably wrong. We were posing for pictures in the tree when a large white Chevrolet Tahoe pulled up. The driver said he visited when he was younger and wanted to show his daughters.
I paced off the hole, then his car and shared my thoughts, “If you fold in your rear-view mirrors it’s still going to be really close.”
He took a look at his car, then a look at the hole and said, “It’s OK. It’s a rental.”
He eked through with maybe enough spare room to fit the Crescent City phone book.
North of Klamath is another, impossible to miss, tourist trap: The Trees of Mystery.
A 49-foot Paul Bunyan and 35-foot Babe (his blue ox) stand watch out front. There’s no charge for a picture with the folk legends, but an entry fee ($15 for ages 13-59, $11 for 60 and older and $8 for 7-12) gives visitors access to a short trail and a scenic gondola ride through the forest.
ELK PRAIRIE, CALIFORNIA
When we pulled into Elk Prairie, it didn’t take long for it to live up to its name. As we stood in the parking lot preparing for a short hike, we spotted an elk in the distance.
Poole says Native Americans used to burn the prairie to keep the area open in order to lure elk. The park continues to burn the prairie in observance of this tradition, Poole said.
There are many scenic hikes in the southern part of the park, including the 1.4-mile path through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove near Orick, California. The often foggy grove is at higher elevation (1,200 feet) than most of the forest but is one of the more popular hikes in the park.
From there, the Bald Hills Road takes visitors southeast to more trails and large trees.
But, with daylight fading, we were pleased to hear from a ranger at the Prairie Creek Visitor Center that some of the most impressive trees were on a short path behind the building.
The question of which of these trees was biggest didn’t even cross our minds. They all reached higher than we could see.
“Everybody wants to see the oldest and the tallest,” Poole said. “But it they’re all amazing. I challenge people to find the smallest redwood.”