“No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”
– John Steinbeck
Redwood National Park was undoubtedly the most highly anticipated stop on our Pacific Northwest road trip. I couldn’t wait to be surrounded by a forest of ancient trees, and to look for vibrant ochre sea stars along a rocky coast. Vince and I arrived from the south around midday on a Thursday, and after our usual stop at the entrance sign and the visitor center, drove directly to the Lady Bird Johnson Grove in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
Lady Bird Johnson Grove was a popular spot, even on a weekday, so it took a bit of waiting for us to get into the parking lot. This was totally worth it though, because after crossing a footbridge over the road, we were transported into a forest where it felt like time had been standing still for a thousand years.
Incomprehensible is the first word that comes to mind when I remember standing on the soft forest floor and craning my neck upward, trying in vain to determine where the redwoods ended and the sky began. I was grateful that the trail was wide and flat because there was no chance to look down at my feet as we slowly meandered through the forest, gazing towards the treetops in awe. The redwoods towered taller than even the buttressed giants of the Amazon Rainforest, which until that moment had been the tallest trees I’d ever seen.
All along the trail were hollowed out trees that seemingly impossibly, were still alive and thriving despite being charred from past forest fires. We ducked in and out of their empty trunks, feeling a bit like we were exploring caves. All the while, we couldn’t escape the ever-present need to look up. Soft ferns covered the forest floor in a lush blanket, but still I kept looking up as though I had no choice in the matter.
The Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail is a 1.4 mile flat, easy walk, but we took it so slowly that we were in danger of not finishing our itinerary for the day. When we finally finished up the short loop, we got back in our car and followed road signs until we reached Elk Meadow, where we were immediately halted by the sight of a Roosevelt’s Elk crossing the road.
We pulled over and began to see more cows and calves, obscured by tall grasses, but still very close to the side of the road. I felt a bit like I was back on safari as I poked my zoom lens out of our car’s window to capture some photos. The cows were making loud bugling sounds, which was exciting for me because it was my first time ever hearing so much as a peep out of an elk. Unfortunately, some people approached the animals on foot to try to get pictures (not advisable) and scared them deeper into the meadow and out of sight.
With the elk sighting cut abruptly short, we moved on to the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway where we made another quick stop to see Big Tree. As its name would imply, it turned out to be a very big tree with a trunk that was probably twice as thick as any single tree we’d seen up to that point.
While many of the trees we’d seen so far seemed bigger because they had multiple trunks splitting off from one base, Big Tree was undoubtedly the winner amongst redwoods with one trunk.
The 0.1 mile hike to Big Tree didn’t take us long to complete, and soon we were back on the road, which was itself an absolutely amazing sight. Giants trunks flew past our windows as we drove towards our next, significantly more kitschy, destination.
Massive statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the big blue ox heralded us into the packed parking lot of Trees of Mystery, the self-proclaimed “premier nature attraction on California’s North Coast.” It’s safe to say that we normally don’t find ourselves at roadside attractions like this, but it had that distinctly American hokiness that I sometimes find irresistible. There was only about an hour left until the park closed, so we got right in line for tickets and once inside, went directly to the canopy walk which was made up of eight suspension bridges about 100 feet up in the trees.
We climbed a spiral staircase up to the first platform, and then took the bouncy bridges through the canopy, this time looking down as much as we were up.
The canopy walk had been the primary reason we’d come to Trees of Mystery, but it didn’t actually take us very long to complete, which left us with the better part of an hour to poke around the rest of the park. We took a ride on the SkyTrail, a gondola that brought us to a hilltop where we could just barely see the Pacific Ocean peaking out from behind the trees. Then we descended through a forest filled with wood carvings of Paul Bunyan. There were rock-shaped speakers hidden along the trail, playing different stories about Paul and other legends as we walked along. The trails led back to the gift shop and a museum that housed an extensive collection of Native American artifacts.
By the time we emerged from the museum, we were ready to eat dinner. We were in the town of Klamath where the dining options are scant. Crescent City was just a little farther north, but a landslide had taken out part of the highway about a month before our trip, which meant the road was only open intermittently each day. This left us with the option to eat across the street from Trees of Mystery at the Forest Cafe, or backtrack south a ways to the Redwood Casino. We opted for the cafe, which was even kitschier than Trees of Mystery. It was decorated with fake plants and stuffed animals hanging from the ceiling, and there was a whole section of the dining room that was painted to look like it was underwater in a lake. The food was good though, especially their homemade blackberry cobbler.
The cafe also had wifi. We had no service in Redwood so I used the opportunity to locate the nearby Tour Thru Tree, and discover that it only cost $5 to visit. After dinner, we went directly to the Tour Thru Tree, dropped $5 in the unmanned box at the entrance, and drove up to find a massive redwood with a hole just big enough for a car to fit through carved out of its trunk.
Vince was nervous about scratching the rental car, so we pulled the mirrors in before driving through the tree. And then driving through the tree again. And then driving through the tree yet again.
I have this really old memory of some of my cousins bringing photos of their recent trip to California to a family reunion. Amongst the pictures, were some of them driving their car through a tree. I remember thinking that must be the absolute coolest thing you could possibly do. As an adult, I must admit that I have done much cooler things than this, but I like to think that my young self would be happy to know that she would someday get to drive through a tree.
I couldn’t stop grinning as we drove through the tree, or as we retreated to the mini cabin we’d rented in Klamath. Our first day in Redwood had been as silly as it was awe-inspiring, and I couldn’t wait to see what the next morning would bring.