Walking the Wild Trees Pt. 5: Avenue of the Giants, Dyersville Giant, Humboldt Redwoods Pk.
Tuesday, October 11
Rio Dell, CA
Here’s a link to a photo page of our day in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, including some that show just how eye-droppingly huge the Dyersville Giant is.
We had breakfast at Tonetta’s Coffee and Bakery, along the main street of Rio Dell and, as far as we can see, the only restaurant in town except for a pizza joint across the street. But it’s a nice little place. Billie gets a croissant breakfast sandwich while I opt for the biscuits and gravy. There is so much gravy, I can’t see the biscuits. Nice little spot in an old building downtown, and it has a drive-in coffee window on the east side. A few jokes shared with locals hanging out drinking coffee.
As we got out on 101 toward Humboldt Redwoods State Park, we began to really notice the difference between the forests we have been going through so far and this, the first of three old-growth redwood forests we will be visiting. The first thing I notice as we exit 101 and drive into the Avenue of the Giants was the darkness – you could only see a short ways into the forest. Some of the trees are only a foot off the road. Shafts of light break through sometimes to the forest floor.
Just outside the park, we stop at a place outside Pepperwood that advertises a “room inside a live redwood.” It’s behind the business, a souvenir shop, and is a small room that, indeed, is inside a live redwood tree. That’s all I’m going to say. There are a few sculpted pieces of redwood, and some redwood timber stacked close by, and we’re off in a few minutes into the park itself.
The Avenue of the Giants begins about five miles south of Rio Dell on Highway 101. Humboldt Redwoods State Park is the largest safe area for redwoods in the state, 53,00 acres of old-growth redwood forest, the third largest state park in California. More than 100 of the 137 trees over 350 feet tall are here, including the Stratosphere Giant, at 370.5 feet the tallest known living redwood until three taller ones were found in Redwood National Park, including Hyperion at just more than 379 feet.
The locations of these trees are a highly kept secret, and scientists who study these trees want to keep it that way. At first I didn’t like that attitude, but I understand their concerns that amateur climbers would seek them out and, if not kill themselves, endanger the trees themselves.
It is, as advertised, an avenue of giants, redwoods lining the road and as far as you can see into the forest on either side. We had read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that talked about an albino tree, a redwood Christmas tree, in a grove off the avenue. We followed the directions in the article and wound up in the right grove. But after walking around the parking lot area for ten minutes trying to recreate the writer’s instructions, we gave up for the time being on the albino tree.
Our first real, jaw-dropping stop was at the Founder’s Grove, home to the Founder’s Tree.
The Founder’s Tree is just a short walk from the parking lot, and then you follow a half mile loop trail out to the Dyerville Giant. Founder’s Tree is indeed, at 346 feet, still a giant. The height to the lowest branch is 190 feet. We walk around it, take some photos and head off counterclockwise, spending about an hour taking in the enormity of this redwood grove.
If there is a religion in nature, this is its cathedral. In 1917, after viewing this and some other like groves, the Save-the-Redwoods League was formed in 1921 to preserve these primeval forests, and this was one of the first. Today, 51,00 acres are preserved here of the 189.000 acres protected in California in a large number of state forests.
There are places, Katmai, McNeil River, Denali, McCarthy in Alaska, Yellowstone, Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef among them, where you understand immediately why they have been set aside. But we have never been in anything like this, an ancient forest. No trees in here have met the sawblade. These trees fall when they’re ready. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see many of those collapsed trees, some whose trunks fade into the darkness and flora. Some trees have come to rest in the crooks of other, still standing trees. Others have been hit and tumbled and are strewn haphazardly, like giant building blocks cast aside.
We found one tree that had been burned almost completely at the bottom – we could walk through it and stand inside it — but it still grew just fine above twenty feet. Fire can take a redwood, but the redwood can come back, too. Redwoods send down thousands of pine cones containing millions of seeds, but only a few of those find the right conditions for growth. Since none have been cut, we don’t really know how old many of them are.
As we walk farther along, the trail loops around a series of fallen giants until it finally reaches an especially huge uprooted tree. There is no identifying marker, but we know it’s the Dyerville Giant, which until 1991, was indeed the Giant of this grove. But it fell in that year, after at least one of these other redwoods hit it on the way down to its demise. The Giant was more than 370 feet tall. Now it lies horizontal. It will take hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, to eventually fade back to nothing, all the while providing nourishment for hundreds of species on the floor.
I literally gasp at its immensity. You can walk along the Giant to the top, 275 feet from the base. The rest of it broke up and is scattered somewhere around here. Some of the top branches are almost mulch already, just twenty years later. The major sections might take hundreds, thousands of years to pass away.
After that opening gambit, we get back on the Avenue before stopping at the park’s headquarters, where I quiz a volunteer at the desk about wildlife (yes, there are plenty of critters but mostly in the western part of the park away from the roads, including bears and mountain lions), and he gives me specific directions for the albino tree. In front of the headquarters is Weather Rock. It’s never wrong! Everybody should have one.
Farther down the Avenue, we pay seven dollars to enter a little locally owned “park” that lets you drive through the Shrine Tree. Poor thing is being held up by wires today. But a particularly American kind of place. Corny but fun, and we got a good picture of the two of us at the Keebler mansion.
Later, after an outdoor lunch at the Avenue Café in Miranda, we took a good walk on a trail off a side road off the Avenue that took us past the Tall Tree. It was measured in the 1950s and was an early candidate for the tallest tree in the world, but has been taken over many times as taller ones were found. But it was a very large tree in a quiet, secluded grove on a trail that winds along some unnamed creekbed. Nobody out there with us but those old trees. It was in this area that Telperion, another giant that figures in one chapter of The Wild Trees, fell in the 1990s.
And we followed the guy’s instructions to the albino tree (stop at the white line, walk down a path toward a creek and across to the other side and look back across the creek). It was kind of interesting but not much to look at it. The albino, which doesn’t produce its own chlorophyll, instead gets its nourishment from the redwood it’s latched to – kind of a vampire of the redwood — and it isn’t very impressive. This one would make a mediocre Christmas tree.
After leftover dinner from Hunan Village last night, we drove up to Ferndale again. But first we drove west on Centerville Road for Mendocino Point, advertised as the westernmost point in the United States. We didn’t make that, but we did stop at Centerville beach just as the sun set. Our first look at “the vast Pacific” was memorable.
The beach was fronted by those concrete things they use to keep terrorists from running car-bombs into government buildings today. Vans and RVs are parked along the edge. We pull in and walked to a place where we could walk around the concrete pads and onto the beach. Neither of us was sure we weren’t looking at land, but soon we realized that what we thought might be little walls actually were big waves crashing in. Loud, strong, relentless waves.
Billie says: “Is it the vast pacific?” an old Jeff Bridges joke between us. But indeed it is. The waves hit, spread and scatter, coming closer to our feet with every crash. I look around, and there’s the full moon rising behind us, the sky in the west pink and blue and foggy at sunset. And what is that with its head down in the grass on the bluffs just below the moon? Cow. From a Buttercup mansion. And these waves crashing in, coming ever closer. The phlegm of an angry ocean. Mesmerizing. And a little unnerving, too.
And then, in full moon fever, we drove back and literally bellied up the bar at the Palace Saloon, which reminded us both of Nebraska taverns back in the 1970s in Seward (Heumann’s, where I worked for a couple of years during college) and Lincoln (Casey’s, a legendary place that Billie frequented around the same time). I managed to get a little buzz from a couple of gin and tonics before our ride back to Rio Dell with the full weight of the moon hanging over us. Oh, yeah.