With the coast redwoods of Muir Woods and Mt. Tamalpais just minutes from our doorstep, I approached a trip to Humboldt Redwoods State Park with the wariness of an apartment-hunter in San Francisco: I wanted to believe the hype but sadly, size was usually exaggerated.
But we were on a quest for an elusive giant, so packed up the car and headed north to the largest remaining old-growth redwood forest in the world. After a pit stop in Willits – home of the Skunk Train, final resting place of Seabiscuit and site of a 1879 triple Masonic lynching (yup, really) – we set up camp in the Burlington Campground along the 32-mile Avenue of Giants.
Burlington is a grove of old-growth and second growth redwoods. From the 1850s, European settlers began cutting down redwoods for farms and pastures. Fortunately in 1918, the forward-thinking Save the Redwoods League was formed to save these ancient marvels.
Redwoods have been around for 250 million years, but only three species remain today.
Fangorn Forest meets Jurassic Park meets Endor
We took a quick recce hike along the Gould Grove Nature Loop (0.6 miles) right next to the Visitor Center.
Steinback once said, “No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe.” I dismissed such pessimism with the arogance of an iPhone user with a Panorama camera feature.
Of course, Steinback was right. The majesty inspired by these towering giants (and yes, they are much taller here!) coupled with the lush undergrowth of ferns, trillium, irises, redwood sorrel (which reportedly tastes like a juicy Granny Smith) and wild roses was like a entering an ancient, magical realm that the camera failed to capture.
A triceratops would be quite at home here, lumbering down the trail, munching on sword ferns.
Or an Ewok jumping out from behind a tree to poke me with a spear.
Or bumping into Legolas and agreeing with him that yes, this forest is old. Very old.
Next, we wandered down Fleishmann Grove Trail (1.6 miles) along the Eel River. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the iconic “bear fishing for salmon” seen in travelogues, but they must still be in hibernation. Nevertheless, we had fun skipping stones on the river.
The Quest for Stratosphere Giant
The next day, we woke up to the pitter-patter of raindrops on our tent. Undaunted, we set off to seek the tallest tree in the park, Stratosphere Giant.
At 372 feet, this big guy used to hold the title of world’s tallest tree until Helios was discovered in Redwood National Park in 2006. To avoid damage by tourism, the Park Services does not disclose its location to the public. But in this age of Google searches, it’s a pretty badly-kept secret.
After a quick bite to eat at the Avenue Cafe in Miranda, we began our quest fueled by pizza and hope.
Due to a fortress of huge, fallen trees surrounding Stratosphere Giant in three directions, the easiest path to it is rather circuitous, and involved a compass, counting paces, passing under a fallen tree, going through a cut log and venturing off-trail.
Taking care to tread lightly to avoid harming any ferns, shrubs or ground cover along the way, we were initially unsure how we’d know it if/when we came upon it. After all, it was a giant in a forest of giants.
But then we saw it. Rising up from a carpet of sword ferns and redwood sorrel…
Wonder. Awe. Amazement. Words fail to describe the feeling you get standing next to a behemoth that was a sapling during the fall of the Roman Empire.
And just as we were about to leave, a gentle rain descended upon us, like Mother Nature anointing us with her blessing. Surreal.
The Pinnacle of Life
We broke camp the next day, still giddy from our encounter with Stratosphere Giant. We stopped in Westport, Mendocino County, for a picnic lunch and to explore some promising-looking tide pools.
We found a rich eco-system of mussels, sea urchins, anemones and crabs among the shallow rocky pools.
And a colorful display of wildflowers in bloom on the short trail leading up to the overlook.
Not to mention a tiny vole, who rather than scamper off when we approached, stood its ground in the middle of the trail, got up on its hind legs, bared its little teeth and hissed menacingly. You go, little dude. Consider us schooled.
What a trip.
We laughed in the rain under one of the tallest ancient redwoods in the world, mourned the loss of old growth trees, and marveled at the foresight of those who banded together to save these wondrous giants for generations to come.
We sat by the edge of the Pacific Ocean and found life thriving among salty, shallow pools left by crashing waves.
We met a tiny vole with the heart of a giant.
It was amazing.