Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Road Trip to the Redwoods

Trip date: September 2020

With the world battling a pandemic, and me missing the fuck out of travel, I had to get creative. A road trip is what I would do! By myself, in my BMW, staying at mainly motels to minimize having to be inside with people. This was last fall, well before vaccinations were available.

I was driving south from Seattle to Sebastopol, CA to meet up with my friend Aaron. Along the way I would spend two days amongst coast redwoods, the tallest trees in the world, and an area I hadn't been to since I was in high school. This was also the first road trip for the newest Bimmer. I was excited!

Day 1. Seattle to Roseburg, OR:  ~5 ½ hours 

The weather was warm and sunny, a perfect day to open the sunroof and crank the stereo. I stopped in Portland and met up with a good friend for lunch, we chose the Victoria Bar as they had a really great outdoor seating area. We hadn't seen each other in about a year and it was so nice but also frustrating not to be able to hug!

I checked in to the Best Western in Roseburg, unpacked my traveling container of Lysol wipes, and got to work disinfecting every surface. This was also before we learned that COVID is transferred only by air, but hey it's still good to have clean surfaces!

There was a little Thai spot in the next-door strip mall so I placed an order online and had pad thai for dinner as well as a martini from my travel bar set up.

My rate included breakfast and I was able to grab a patio table outside to have my scrambled eggs, bacon, and coffee the next morning. It was pretty good!

Day 2. Roseburg, OR to Fortuna, CA: ~5 hours

I continued on I5 South until Grant's Pass where I took the exit for Hwy 199. It was another gorgeous day and the scenery driving through southern Oregon was very pretty. I crossed into California, but not before stopping at the last Shell station, in a tiny town, for one last full service fill up. I love getting gas in Oregon!

There was an agricultural check at the border but they just waved me through. Immediately I was driving the small highway through forests of redwoods. My first stop was the Hiouchi Visitors Center where there was information on the trees, the forests, and the trails in the area. The rangers had a table set up outside so no need to be indoors. 

I learned that Howland Hill, a 6-mile dirt road that cuts right through the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, wasn't open all the way to Hwy 101/Crescent City. This was good to find out as it is an hour drive on a rough and twisty road, it would have sucked to get all the way to the end and then have to turn around and head back!

I drove a bit of the road, I was the only car out there and with the windows all rolled down it smelled just like Christmas! Then I backtracked and parked in the lot for the Stout Memorial Grove. This short trail, just a ½ mile, is a super easy walk thru an absolutely gorgeous grove of 300 foot tall redwoods. The 44-acre grove was donated in 1929 by the Stout family to the Save the Redwoods League. Trees in these old growth forests are 2000 years old!

US-199 turns into CA Hwy 101 at Crescent City and from there I had coastal views for pretty much the rest of the day.

When I was a kid we moved from Los Angeles to Spokane and my family drove up this same highway. We stopped at the Trees of Mystery which I thought was just about the coolest thing ever. The park has been open since 1946 and still draws in the crowds. I had no interest in visiting on this trip but I did pull into the parking lot to get a shot of logger Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe!

Afterwards I made a slight detour off of 101 onto Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway which took me into the heart of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. I parked along the road and followed the trail to Big Tree.
And indeed, this 1500 year old redwood, at 286 feet tall and 74 ½ feet in circumference, is a very big tree! There are a few sights that are set up permanently so that when you look through them you can see what the informative panels are describing. And if you've read the book The Understory (which I highly recommend) you will even be able to see an example of epiphytes, in this case ferns and huckleberries, growing high up on the redwood.

The Parkway turns back into 101 and just a bit further I entered Redwood National Park. I drove up Bald Hill Road and parked at the trailhead to Lady Bird Johnson Grove.
This is another very easy 1-mile walk around some truly gorgeous redwoods. I had a little picnic with me and found a bench to have my snack while sitting quietly with these amazing living things. And especially being in the midst of a pandemic, it felt so safe to be outside, no one else around, and taking big deep breaths of the oxygen they were creating. 

This grove was dedicated to Lady Bird Johnson, a known environmentalist, in August 1969 by President Richard Nixon. It's really an excellent stop. And I even saw a frog on the trail!

It had been a pretty long day so I was happy to arrive in Fortuna at the Best Western Country Inn.
As is unfortunately typical in late summer in California now, there were forest fires raging nearby. The smoke did provide a pretty sunset. But the next morning there was even ash on my car!

Based on the recommendation from the girls at the front desk, I ordered some take out from Eel River Brewing Co. which was very close by and pretty good.

Day 3. Fortuna, CA to Sebastopol, CA: ~3 ½ hours

I'd be meeting Aaron in Sonoma County later in the day, but I had a full roster of events before I got there so I was up and out early. Still on 101 South, I stopped in Scotia, known as one of the last "Company Towns" in America. The Pacific Lumber Company started operating in the area in the early 1880s and by 1929 there were 1000 residents in the town they owned.

After the company sold the town it went bankrupt in 2007. The town is now self-governing and has a population of about 850. I found it to be an interesting bit of Americana. 

By 9am I was at the north entrance to the Avenue of Giants. This 31-mile stretch of highway, which parallels the 101, has the largest remaining stand of virgin redwoods in the world! Starting my morning here was so amazing, the smell of the trees, the quiet, and the sunlight filtering through the massively tall trunks... amazing.

I stopped to pick up a paper brochure for my driving tour and continued on to the Founders Grove Trail. As I parked and started along the easy ½ mile loop, I realized I was the only one out there. This grove is amazing in its number of incredibly tall trees, some of the tallest left living!

Many of the trees in these forests have endured fires, but luckily their bark is so thick and acts as a fireproof shell. Some are basically hollow at the base but still continue to live and grow 300 feet up!

And of course not all of these redwoods survive. The Dyerville Giant fell in 1991, 362 feet of redwood (higher than Niagara Falls!), and when it hit the ground it caused a seismograph reading nearby. Although other trees have fallen on and around the Giant, you can still walk most of the massive length.

Redwood's roots only go down a few feet, but they spread out in order to stabilize their soaring heights. But in the case of the Dyerville Giant, another tree fell against it during a time when the ground was overly saturated by rain. This tree's massive weight eventually caused the Giant to fall, it's roots still dramatically on display.

As I was completing the loop, still the only one in the grove, I heard a branch snap and looked up in time to see a deer watching me. Mainly hidden by the beautiful ferns that grow everywhere, it looked like a toy standing between a fallen redwood a still growing one. It was pretty magical.

Next, I drove off the main avenue onto Lower Bull Creek Flats Road and parked at the Big Trees Trail day-use area. Here I followed the trail out to Tall Tree; no longer the tallest tree, but it was in 1957! It is still beautiful and a bit off the beaten path, so not a lot of visitors. Another trail that I was the lone person on.

I found the footbridge that crosses the creek, unfortunately a tree had come down right near it so there was a bit of a scramble to get across. From here I followed the trail to Giant Tree. Did you know that these trees "compete" in a National Point System for all around biggest tree? I did not.  

In 1991 this tree took the prize and still holds it. Points are calculated by trunk circumference, plus its height, plus ¼ of its average crown spread in feet. I'm not great at math but I can say that even trying to look up to the crown was a dizzying situation. Majestic. 

I re-joined the Avenue of Giants and continued on the absolutely gorgeous drive past walls of ancient redwoods. This is honestly one of the most spectacular highways I've been on, it's about 2 ½ hours without stops if you are planning a trip. I was very happy to have another hour drive of this scenery to my next destination.

I passed a handful of sleepy old-west looking towns before the Avenue turned back into the 101. My final stop of the day, and on this redwoods adventure, was the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree in Leggett, CA.

In 1937 the Underwood family had the tree carved out, but it is still very much alive. For $10 you drive thru the 315 feet tall and 2400 years old coast redwood. It was pretty fun, I may have done it twice!

I absolutely LOVED spending time amongst these incredible trees. The scent, the sounds, the way the light filters through, the color and design of the bark... all of it. A road trip through the redwoods is something I hope everyone gets to do one day! 

All photos of the redwoods here.

Also on this trip:


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