motorist drives through the famous Chandelier Tree, a redwood
in Leggett, Calif., on March 31, 2014.
Calif. — It was the first full day of my redwood country
road trip, about 180 miles north of San Francisco. John
Stephenson was showing me his drive-through tree, a
315-foot beauty that’s the pride of Leggett.
storm had just roared through. Raindrops trickled from the
forest canopy, and tendrils of steam drifted up from the
rough bark of the pass-through trunk, where redwoods store
much of their moisture. I thought Stephenson was going to
remind me that the tree was called the Chandelier Tree, or
that it was 2,400 years old.
brother and I were conceived here," he said instead.
The family story, he continued, is that "my mom and
dad would park in there and make out."
next day, I was at the Shrine Tree, another drive-through
attraction about 40 miles north of Leggett. The manager,
J.D. Allmon, was standing by a tarp-covered lump.
he said. "You want to see something?"
he pulled back the tarp, revealing a 7-foot-long section
of redwood trunk, stripped, hollowed and planed to make a
long box with removable lid. It was a coffin, nearly done,
commissioned by a very sick friend.
been working on this thing for two years, and he ain’t
keeled over yet," Allmon said. "He paid for the
materials. I didn’t charge him. I wanted to do it."
old-growth coastal redwoods are the tallest trees on
Earth, and the old-timers thrive in the foggy, rainy
territory between Mendocino and the Oregon line. For many
locals, these trees don’t just dominate the landscape;
they connect with matters of life and death — even now,
years past the timber industry’s glory days.
you’re visiting, as Los Angeles Times photographer Mark
Boster and I were in early spring, you can’t count on
hearing true tree confessions from everybody. But if you
take a minute to step away from your car, you’ll feel
belittled in the best possible way.
started by driving 550 miles up U.S. 101, from Los Angeles
to Leggett, where Stephenson’s Chandelier Drive-Thru
Tree looms above Underwood Park. We spent two nights in
the stately old Benbow Inn in Garberville, which opened in
the 1920s just as the new highway was beginning to make
big-tree tourism accessible.
we continued into Humboldt and Del Norte counties,
beginning with the 32-mile Avenue of the Giants between
Garberville and Fortuna, where the old growth of Humboldt
Redwoods State Park alternates with roadside kitsch, and
coonskin caps can still be had for $8.99. We pulled out
our long lenses to snap elk near the old red schoolhouse
in Trinidad and headed into the park belt — a long,
noncontiguous series of public lands that begin above
Orick and stretch more than 70 miles north to Crescent
City, including Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast
Redwoods and Jedediah Smith Redwoods state parks, which
together make up about half of Redwood National and State
in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, we wondered whether
the tallest tree in the world was hiding in plain sight.
(It’s somewhere in the park, but rangers and serious
tree people don’t disclose these things.) And we may
have gasped a few times.
step into the forest and wade through ferns and
ground-hugging oxalis, dodge poison oak, glance at
moss-covered maples and Douglas firs. You run your hand
along the soft, damp redwood bark — redwoods are related
to sequoias but grow taller — you feel the soft floor of
fallen leaves and needles underfoot. You consider the
tonnage, the fires, the floods, the centuries towering
roamed there with Christine Driscoll and Ann Wallace of
Redwood Photo Tours (),
and I kept thinking about "The Wild Trees,"
Richard Preston’s riveting book about tree researcher
Stephen C. Sillett and the small band of compulsive
climbers, mappers and catalogers who have revolutionized
redwood research since the late 1980s.
calls these trees "the blue whales of the plant
could have been the dodo of the plant world. By the time
the Save-the-Redwoods League rose up in 1918 to protect
them, the timber industry had logged about 95 percent of
the region’s old-growth forest in less than a century.
By the 1940s, when Woody Guthrie gave the redwood forests
a starring role in his lyrics to "This Land Is Your
Land" — the trees were even more besieged, yet
there was still no national park for them.
we have Redwood National and State Parks, created in 1968,
which get about 400,000 visitors a year.
a few of them are poachers bearing chain saws. What the
poachers want are redwood burls, irregular growths that
protect a tree’s health, weigh hundreds of pounds and
fetch hefty prices. To get at them, poachers sneak in
overnight and sometimes fell entire trees.
Denny, supervisory park ranger for Redwood National and
State Parks, reported 18 poaching incidents last year and
43 since January 2011. On March 1, rangers closed the
Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway to traffic after dark.
Denny said, "folks who have grown up around these
(trees) see them differently than folks who didn’t."
Indeed, you hear all sorts of stories about what people do
when redwoods are at stake.
innkeeper Janet Wortman, whose Yurok ancestors have lived
along the Klamath River "since the beginning of
time," told me over dinner about how, long before
white people arrived, her tribe made houses with redwood
planks. Before felling a tree, she said, the men would
fast for days to show respect.
Hiney, a timber business veteran from Eureka, Calif., who
was sitting at the same table, weighed in with a story
about a father and three sons who risked their lives by
taking a boat out on the Klamath River during the flood of
‘64, which leveled downtown Klamath and most of Requa,
washed out the 101 bridge and flung countless trees into
the guys were on the river, Hiney told us, they spotted an
old-growth specimen amid the floating lumber, and one of
them jumped onto the tree to put a lumberjack’s
"choke" on it. Then they guided the long log
from the roaring river to a patch of riverbank. When the
log went to the mill, they got a big payday.
a flood!" Hiney said. "In a 14-foot aluminum
Unverified? Told by a man who has spent 40 years trading
tales with lumberjacks? Check, check, check.
that drama, I shouldn’t admit that my big tree moment
came in a calm, still patch of forest, but it did. At
Founders Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, you can
stroll from the parking lot to the 346-foot Founders Tree,
and from there it’s about half a mile to the Dyerville
Giant, a massive redwood that fell in March 1991 after a
month of hard rain.
tree was perhaps 2,000 years old when it came down, and
the grove has a graveyard hush. You can’t help but
imagine the morning when that giant collapsed — the
groaning wood, the churning earth, the whoosh, the
million-pound impact. Some people, the sign says, mistook
the sound for a train wreck.
pace the tree’s length, top to bottom, is a journey of
about 360 feet. And when you reach the crater where its
shallow roots once gripped the earth, you get a surprise:
Like many fallen redwoods, the Dyerville Giant has started
sending up a new trunk from the side of its old base.
new trunk is more than 10 feet tall now. So this tree’s
graveyard is also its nursery. And who knows? With 2,000
years and a bit of luck, the new giant might surpass the
BRIEF HISTORY OF CALIFORNIA’S REDWOODS
million years ago: As the Miocene Epoch advances, redwoods
grow across the Northern Hemisphere, leaving fossils from
California to Pennsylvania. Also Greenland, France and
Trapper and explorer Jedediah Smith leads a team through
land that will become Redwood National and State Parks. He’s
looking for a new route between the Pacific and the Rocky
Mountains. His trek inspired a 1906 Remington work
A timber boom occurs in the wake of the California Gold
Rush. By year-end, nine sawmills are operating in Eureka.
First effort to establish a Redwood National Park fails.
The coastal redwoods’ territory has shrunk to a strip
from Monterey County, Calif., to the Chetco River in
Oregon. Two other related species survive elsewhere: In
California’s Sierra Nevada, the giant sequoia, which is
bulkier and shorter than the coastal redwood, and central
China’s dawn redwood, which is shorter and thinner than
the other two.
Save-the-Redwoods League is founded. Over the next few
years, private donations fund acquisition of thousands of
acres in Northern California.
The new Redwood Highway boosts commerce, tourism and
growth. The Save-the-Redwoods lands become three state
parks: Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods
and Jedediah Smith Redwoods.
As World War II ends and a home-building boom begins,
demand for redwood lumber soars.
Road crews reroute U.S. 101 bypass, allowing a 32-mile
stretch of the old highway (north of Garberville and south
of Fortuna) to become a scenic highway known as Avenue of
Klamath River floods, causing extensive damage.
After decades of resistance by the timber industry and
years of campaigning by the National Geographic Society
and others, Congress creates Redwood National Park. Most
of its 58,000 acres, however, are within the three state
parks that were set aside decades before. Much of the
Redwood Creek watershed, where many of the biggest trees
grow, remains unprotected.
Congress expands the national park, adding more of the
Redwood Creek watershed.
The National Park Service and California Parks system
agree to jointly manage their parks.
Congress again expands Redwood National Park. The park now
contains 131,983 acres, of which 71,715 acres are strictly
federal and 60,268 acres are both state and federal
Researchers discover a 379-foot redwood — apparently the
world’s tallest tree — along with two others more than
370 feet, in a secret spot along Redwood Creek.
Rangers count 18 wood-poaching incidents, up from 17 in
2012 and eight in 2011.
"Redwood: The Story Behind the Scenery," by
Richard A. Rasp; California State Parks,