Redwood Road Trip
time honored American tradition, kicking off the summer each year with a long weekend at the Memorial Day break. Millions take to the roads and, in spite of the recession and hard economic times, I
was one of them, pointing the car north with a companion for a long road trip to the great national and state parks of California. The news was entirely gloomy in the weeks preceding the trip. The stock
market had been on a volatile series of peaks and dips, with the general trend down after a long 30 day correction. The worries over sovereign debt, continuing bank bailouts, investor fears, and a still
sluggish economy plagued the airwaves. Behind this was the month long seepage of oil in the Gulf that was slowly creating a death zone in the heart of one of the world's great fisheries. And even
though a long road trip was, in many ways, a great part of the reason BP was drilling in deep water for oil and gas, it was nonetheless time to forget the bad news and head for the trees and clear blue
skies of Northern California. There is simply no other way to get there except by car. One must journey in service to the soul at times, even if it does take gasoline to get from one place to another in
California is blessed to have the largest and oldest remaining groves of redwoods and giant Sequoia trees on earth. Last year we saw the Calaveras Big Trees Park off Hwy 4 in the
High Sierras, and also visited the famous Mariposa Grove of Yosemite. This year we set our sights north to the great redwood parks along Hwy 101. Our first destination was the Avenue Of The Giants, which
is a scenic byway just north of Garberville, CA and extends for about 30 miles. In the space of a few days I would place my hand on some of the oldest and largest living things on earth, or, for that
matter, in the known universe. I would stand beneath the enormous root system of the fallen Dyerville Giant, then visit the magnificent “Champion Tree” in Rockefeller Forest of the Humboldt
Redwood Park, officially the tallest tree on earth. After that we would hike in the marvelous groves of Prairie Creek Redwoods National Park, visiting the Ladybird Johnson Grove and Elk Grove there
near the small hamlet of Orick.
Our first stop, however, was a visit to “Confusion Hill,” on Hwy 101 just south of Garberville as it climbs up into the redwoods. This was one of
several novelty spots, like the “One Tree House” and the “Trees of Mystery” that hold forth between the ubiquitous stands of burlwood gift items and places purporting to reveal
the truth of the legend of Bigfoot. Confusion Hill started off with an imposing sign near another marker that pointed you in every direction possible, including the fabled Timbuck-tu, which was
8040 miles away. The place was just a cleverly designed wood shed on a steeply inclined slope. The placement of floor, wall and ceiling conspired to confound the eye and make you think golf balls
were rolling uphill, and water was flowing up hill as well. But some of the optical illusions were quite convincing, making short people appear tall when viewed from one end of an apparently level segment of ground. Frankly, the only thing that was confusing here was trying to figure out why I paid $10 to spend 10 minutes in the shed. Yet it is one of those “must see at least once” roadside stops. Chances are I will never see it again, and never want to.
After this visit we took the scenic byway that winds along the Eel River and 101—the famous “Avenue of the Giants,” and soon entered long stretches of road beneath the towering redwoods. The enormous scale of these trees is difficult to describe in words. A single redwood would tower 200 feet above the Niagara Falls! At their base these trees measure over twenty feet in width, some with a circumference exceeding 50 feet. There, in the hushed silence of the woods, we joined a few other wandering souls who were craning their necks to try and take in the soaring crowns of the trees silhouetted against the clear blue skies. We were communing with the oldest life forms on earth, some trees being over 2000 years old. One fallen log had been marked to illustrate the great longevity of these massive trees. It counted the tree rings and showed key events in “recent” human history, like the signing of the Magna Carta, the discovery of America by Columbus, Drake's landing on the Pacific coast. I have oft mused on the brief life span of a fly compared to my own hoped for 80+ years. But my life was like that fly compared to these trees. It was a humbling experience.
The main grove to visit on the Avenue is the “Founder's Grove,” where the largest tree stands 346 feet tall with a 40 foot circumference. The grove also features the great fallen Dyerville Giant, which came crashing down in 1991. It was born a thousand years before Columbus discovered the new land, and now lies in silent repose on the forest floor, its root system looming above visitors in the hushed silence of the forest. It was my second visit to the fallen giant, which had held the title of “Champion” since 1966. It once stood 370 feet tall, until lightning trimmed 8 feet from its crown, a warning shot that its life of over two thousand years was soon to end. When it fell, the locals claimed the crash was heard a half mile away. And, as if to spite the gods, it took another thousand year old redwood down with it, cutting that tree's life span in half in one thunderous crash.
I climbed on the Dyerville Giant the year it first fell, but since then the tree has begun the long process of returning its life energy to the forest as a “nurse log.” It was damp with recent rains, and covered with lichens, mosses, sword ferns and ivy. At places, other seedlings had already taken root on its massive bark surface, and they reached up jubilantly toward the sun, new life springing from old as the eternal cycle of life and death continued.
Just north of this spot, in the Rockefeller Forest along Bull Creek of the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, the new undisputed and officially crowned “Champion Tree” is now 363 feet tall, or the height of a 30 story building, with a 52 foot circumference...and it weighs over a million pounds. It is simply named “Giant Tree.” Enough said. When I placed my hand on the champion I thought how it had stood there in this spot for over 1600 years, unconcerned, a quiet bridge between the earth and the sky, unaware of its new-found glory after the fall of the Dyerville Giant, unaware even of its own existence. In fact, very little around me knew it was there. Each tree was unaware of any other, with no eyes to see the forest or sky, no mind to muse about the long vigil it kept on this hallowed place. I was one of the bright windows of self consciousness in the woods that day. The rest was just blissfully unaware, random life, a divine expression of form, but with no thought or contemplation. That task fell to me and my companion. We were that part of the universe that knew it was there.
After hiking for over an hour we returned to the road, jumping on Hwy 101 north to call it a day and lodge in the small inland town of Fortuna. Arriving after 6pm, we found the whole downtown region “closed” for the day, and only stayed to snap a few photos of wall murals. But close by our hotel we were pleased to find a brew pub that featured organic beers made from the pristine waters of the Eel River. The feast of nachos, fajitas and beer was quite satisfying! (And we even brought home a six pack of “Organic California Blonde,” one of the best beers I have tasted in a great many years.)
The next day would hold some unexpected surprises as we took the short 15 minute drive up to Eureka. Larger than Fortuna, this town seemed to have much more life and charm to it, in spite of its roots as an old coastal harbor and logging town. It has a quaint old town region, and an new boardwalk on the coast that was drawing a lot of attention due to a host of passing contraptions vying in a local race. Dubbed the “Kinetic Race,” the locals had donned costumes and built large pedal-powered floats and bicycle contraptions to compete in a three day race. One was made entirely of foil cake pans and designed in the shape of an enormous silver lobster! After hunting these down as they passed through old town, we walked on the boardwalk and then decided to head north for the
last of the redwoods on our scheduled tour.
We quickly reached the small hamlet of Orick and entered Prairie Creek National Park. Our first stop was the Lady Bird Johnson Grove after climbing a
steep grade along the Bald Hills Road, a misnamed byway as the growth here was extremely dense after a robust spring season. Accessed by crossing a long shaded bridge (right), we took the hour long
circuit walk through the grove, snapping photos all along the way. After descending, we turned right on 101 again and continued north. The road soon wound through the big trees in a scenic byway similar
to the Avenue of the Giants further south, which took us into the Elk Grove region of the National Redwood Park. Here we stopped to make two forays into the woods to see some of the larger specimens, one
simply dubbed “Big Tree.” This park had a quiet beauty about it, with less undergrowth on the forest floor and a surprising number of little “vignettes” to delight the
By now we were over 450 miles from home, so we thought it best to begin heading south about 1:30 pm on Sunday. We had a long drive before we could reach our planned stop
for the evening on the Pacific coast, but as we backtracked we stopped at Trinidad Beach, a place we had bypassed on the northern loop of our journey so as to have something more to see on the way south.
This was a lovely little bay and beach town, with an old wooden pier and a series of dramatic rocks along the coast, scenic views we were quite accustomed to, as we live on the Monterey Peninsula.
We peeked into a little place called “Katy's Smoke House” and bought a nice hunk of fresh smoked salmon that became our lunch / road snack in the next hour. We also caught the tail end of
the Memorial Day celebration here, with bagpipers playing “Amazing Grace” near the small lighthouse. It was all well worth the
After Trinidad, with time slipping away, we pushed south in earnest now, back down 101 to the beginning of Highway 1, the famous “Pacific Coast Highway.” I had never driven this
northern segment of that road, and found it a beautifully scenic mountain ride as it wound through the coast range to the coast. We were a bit disappointed with the coastal area north of Ft. Bragg, and
thought that we would probably not visit this area again. It was not until we pushed far south to Gualala, our destination for the evening, that we thought the coastal region here was worth the trip.
Highlights of this road were the Mendocino area just south of Ft. Bragg, the Salt Point area, and a little town called Manchester, which had a cultivated beauty about it. We arrived at our inn
after hours, fishing the room key from a convenient mailbox near the lobby, as the locals had retired for the night.
It was after 8pm and, after getting settled into our lovely mint green
room at Breaker’s Inn (complete with a four poster bed of light oak, and a deck with ocean view,) we set out for food, choosing the nearest restaurant that looked palatable, a place called
“Cove Azul.” Unfortunately, this was the second most expensive meal on our trip, but clearly the worst food we had. The wine and salad were acceptable, but the entrees of fried seafood were appalling, accompanied by fries that were so drenched in oil that I refused to eat a single one. To add insult to injury, the chef got one of our orders wrong. We quickly decided that the case of the blues we got from the Blue Cove would never be repeated. Travelers beware! “Cove Azul” is a second rate restaurant posing as a high class establishment with ocean views, but even these were marred by thick, ugly cables and wires just outside the window where we were seated, in one of the best tables in the house.
Our stay in Gualala was balanced, however, by the lovely room we had at the Breaker's Inn, the best of our trip, and modestly priced as well. Breaker's Inn offered a fireplace to add ambiance in the evening, and a wholesome continental breakfast the following morning, with muffins, fresh fruit, eggs, yogurt, and cereal. I would definitely return to Breakers Inn—that is if I could find any reason to ever want to visit Gualala again. The coast here had its own quiet beauty, but we were hard to impress, and not even the more sedate and cypress studded region of “Sea Ranch” further south could begin to compare with our own back yard where we have what we now know to be the most beautiful stretch of Pacific coast in the state. Back home, the ice plants along the coast of Pacific Grove were still blooming, seals were pupping in the sandy inlets, surf was breaking on the wave sculpted rocks, geese are nesting in grassy hollows and, well, Gualala and Sea Ranch just did not compare, let alone the fact that we have Point Lobos and Big Sur a 20 to 30 minute drive away! After seeing all this northern coastal region, down through Fort Ross and Bodega Bay, we were convinced we lived in a paradise back home in Monterey. The “Lost Coast” of the north is certainly a special place, but it needs time to explore, and it will delight the intrepid visitor who wants to drive to find it, but for accessible beauty that is truly awesome,
come to Monterey Bay, Carmel, Pt. Lobos and Big Sur. Enough said.
On Memorial Day we continued south on Hwy 1 to Pt. Reyes National Park where we took another couple of hours to tour the visitor
center and drive out to the Lamensur Beach. Again, the beach was nothing special, far inferior to our own beaches at Asilomar, Spanish Bay, or even the Del Monte beach of Monterey or the dunes of
Seaside. So, with hunger as our guide, we decided to just head home after crossing the Golden Gate for a nice meal near Chinatown. The drive down past Stinson and Muir Beach was nice, but when Hwy
1 winds up through the coastal hills to the bridge it is very challenging driving. At one point we encountered two buses in the oncoming lane along this narrow winding road, just around a hairpin turn
with traffic jammed as cars slowed to allow the big vehicles room to make the turn. Needless to say, one cannot see much on a road like this, being forced to focus on the driving at all times. But
we stopped to take a few shots of the bay as we approached, which is always a great photo opportunity.
We had covered over 1000 miles in three days, and tiring as a long trip like this might be it
still left me refreshed of spirit and with a camera full of amazing photos which I am happy to share here. We enjoyed it so much that we were immediately thinking of what we might do on our next long