Monday, July 11, 2011

Hug a Redwood

I’ve always been a tree hugger. As a kid, I loved to roam the New England woods behind my house and visit my tall, silent friends: maples with their hand-shaped leaves and the ability to deliver sweet sap in the spring, oaks that turned a fiery red in autumn like the quintessential Burning Bush, black birches whose twigs tasted like toothpaste and made my mouth feel fresh and clean. There were pines with soft needles and balsam firs that made nicely scented Christmas trees when snow blanketed the ground. But none of these excursions into the eastern forests of my youth prepared me for my first sight of a California redwood.

These majestic giants grow all over the coastal mountains near my home (there’s even one here in the city, towering over my neighbor’s backyard). Redwoods stand in groves with tall, straight trunks and dense canopies clustered at the top. Wandering among them is a truly mystical experience, and there is nothing quite as mesmerizing as sunlight filtering through the high branches, misty rays slanting to the ground.

Two hundred years ago, old-growth redwoods covered two million acres of California terrain. But logging and development decimated ninety percent of these trees. We have the park service to thank for preserving the remaining stands of redwoods in national, state, and regional parks; it’s now illegal to cut down a redwood on California’s public lands.

Although we talk about redwoods as though they were all one species, there are actually two kinds. Giant sequoias (Sequoia gigantea) are the most massive living things on earth. They grow mainly in the Sierra Nevada mountains on the eastern border of the state, and the really old ones can measure as much as 30 feet in diameter.

The coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempirvirens) are the variety that thrives in the cool, foggy climate that dominates my corner of the state. These trees grow all along the Pacific coast from Oregon down to central California. Although coastal redwoods can’t match their giant cousins in girth, they boast a different world record by being the tallest living things on earth (close to 400 feet, compared to 300 feet for the giant sequoia). All redwoods have a potential life span of 3,000 years. Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

Here are some of the best places to view California redwoods:

Yosemite National Park: One of the oldest wilderness parks in the United States, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, glaciers, and unique cliff formations (El Capitan and Half Dome). But Mariposa Grove at the southern end of the park has 500 mature giant sequoias.

General Sherman redwood
Sequoia National Park: Located south of Yosemite, this is the best place to see giant sequoias. Check out the Giant Forest, where you will find the world’s largest specimen, which goes by the name General Sherman. This part of the park also has easy hiking trails that wind through the redwoods for a better view.

To see some of the world’s tallest trees, you’ll have to head northwest to the Redwood National Park (which is also a World Heritage Site) in Humboldt County, near the Oregon border. The current record holder is a coastal redwood named Hyperion (379 feet tall), which unfortunately stands in an undisclosed location and is therefore not available for public viewing. During your visit to this park, you can also tour the Avenue of the Giants along Highway 101 and drive your car through a tunnel in a single redwood tree.

Muir Woods: This is my least favorite place to see redwoods, mainly because it is right across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and its proximity to the city means that the paths are often crowded. But if you're planning a trip to San Francisco and don’t have time for explorations farther afield, Muir Woods will satisfy your redwood fix very nicely.

Henry Cowell State Park
So where do I go when I get a yen for a relaxing stroll under the peaceful giants? Henry Cowell State Park, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains (near Felton). This park has hiking trails, a campground, and a picnic area, but I head straight for the 1-mile loop that passes beneath some of the prettiest redwoods anywhere in California. I like to set out early in the morning when the air is still crisp and the light muted. I’ll sit on a bench under the trees, close my eyes and empty my mind until my senses fill with the piney scent of the redwood needles, the light touch of a breeze on my cheek, and the soft sounds of small animals going about their daily routines.

Stop by some day and I’ll take you there.


  1. While it may be the busiest, Muir Woods was a great way to transition back from the nature of Mendocino to the city. Redwoods are spectacular.

  2. Rebecca, redwoods are indeed spectacular no matter where you find them. It's great you were able to find a piece of familiar nature after moving to the city. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I've never gotten to see the redwoods, but someday I'd like to. Where I live (western WI), there are so many trees and so much grass and water, I sometimes forget that not everyone gets that experience in life. I shouldn't take it for granted!

  4. The giant redwoods were the trees of my childhood! We camped in Sequoia National Park every summer for two weeks. When I was able to take my sons from Boston to Sequoia a few years ago (for my older son's 21st birthday), I teared up constantly showing them my old haunts. Truely mystical creatures.

  5. Erica, I hope you can make it out here someday and see the redwoods. They are truly amazing. We should never take our planet's natural wonders for granted. Easy to do when we see them every day.

    Edith, it must have been a wonderful trip to Sequoia with your sons. Had they seen redwoods before? It must have been fun for them to visit places their mom remembered from her childhood.

  6. I'm ready for another visit, your descriptions are so vivid I'm ready to get on the next plane west. We have the lush green hills of Vermont, but the redwoods are truly spectacular. Maybe we can plan a trip out there for next year.

  7. Come on out, Marna! We'll go exploring the redwoods. Maybe we can plan a trip up to the Redwood National Park.