Across California to the Redwoods


A fallen redwood. Backpack for scale.

So far, I’d only seen the dry northeastern part of California. Now, I headed west toward the famous Redwoods.

Leaving Lassen in the early afternoon, I was curious about a sign I’d seen on the highway on the way there, advertising ‘Subway Cave.’ This was in a national forest and I pulled into an empty parking lot to check it out. It was a self-guided tour and I was happy to check out another cave (also another lava tube, actually) after my recent explorations at Lava Beds NM.

Guess why it’s called Subway Cave?

A few things were different about this cave. Lava Beds’ caves had a typical height of just 5-6 feet and were in a relatively well-traversed area. This cave was enormous, and in what seemed the middle of nowhere. There were plaques along the route (a half mile loop). Reaching the mouth of the cave, the plaque said “Subway Cave was first discovered by Europeans in year X. It was known to Native Americans before that, but they didn’t use it. They believed the cave was occupied by an evil creature best described as an ape-man.” Not what you want to read before heading alone into a cave! Not to mention, I’d been reading Michael Crichton’s Congo, a book where evil apes attack people.

The other eerie thing about this cave was that it was so broad in parts – maybe 40 feet across and 20-30 feet high – that even my powerful headlamp would not always illuminate the walls. Thus, I felt a bit more vulnerable. You wouldn’t think it would be this way, that narrower spaces would be worse, but although those could induce claustrophobia they limit the possibilities that surround you in the darkness!

After Subway Cave (no ape-men sighted) I crossed through Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. This was your normal backwoods highway, with lots of twists and turns. There must have been forest fires nearby, and I passed through the dreary town of Weaverville, isolated in the mountains, at 5pm. The sky was orange and sooty; the sun a sick red color. I felt like I’d arrived in Mordor (or Beijing). Perhaps the people in this town live in an eternal twilight, never seeing the bright light of day.

It quickly became a race against the setting sun, as the roads here could only be covered at 30-40 miles per hour and I fell behind schedule. I lost the race, but at least got to see bats swooping over my windshield, illuminated against the last purple backdrop before night.

My destination was a Walmart in Eureka, 30 miles south of Redwoods. When I arrived and opened the door, I was struck by the sweet, pleasant smell of wood chips – the smell of forest fires. Unfortunately, this was a Walmart in a mall (a Mallmart), and was patrolled by mall security. I was woken up in the middle of the night by rapping on the window. When I opened the door, I feared the worst (police?). It was a mall cop, and he politely directed me to the ‘sleeping area’ of the mall – there were some tractor-trailers pulled up there.

A typical redwood grove.

Redwood National Park is an unusual setup, and it was especially difficult for me to come to grips with it beforehand. It’s actually a conglomeration of a single National Park and multiple California State Parks, administered semi-independently. The State Parks are nestled within the National Park so it’s quite confusing. When I arrived at the campground (a state park) it was nearly full, only 3 spots remaining. This in spite of the $35/night fees, the highest I’d yet seen! I paid for two nights, but found the price ridiculous. I guess people will pay it, though (just like I did), and I can’t begrudge the state its income.

This was a sort of pond in the river. It was good to take a quick bath.

In the morning I quickly arrived at Redwoods, found a suitable hike, and set out. This was an 18 mile out-and-back hike to ‘Tall Trees’ grove. Tall Trees had been governed by permits, no more than 50 people per day allowed in, and then the gravel road leading to it was shut down. The long hike was the only remaining option. It mostly traced the route of Redwoods Creek, a shallow stream with broad gravel banks. There were a few bridges that apparently are removed seasonally (there is heavy flooding in the winter).

I took a dip in the water, happy to scrub off a few days worth of cave-grime and sweat.

A typical part of the trail. Some bridges were missing planks (or they were rotten).

There are two exceptionally large trees on the west coast: Redwoods and Sequoia. (There’s a variety of slightly smaller, though still gigantic trees, like Spruce and Douglas Fir). Sequoias are the biggest trees – apparently a measure of volume – while Redwoods are the tallest. Some Redwoods can reach 380 feet. That’s almost 400 feet!

Looking up: tough to visualize how big the tree is.

It’s very difficult to get a sense of Redwoods’ height. To start with, they’re enclosed in a forest, so long-distance views are rare. They’re also not much bigger at the base than some of the Spruce I’d seen. Finally, the first layer of branches tends to obscure the rest of the tree. So, although the trees are indisputably tall, it’s not quite as awesome as you’d expect. Still, you get glimpses of trees, here and there, that seem like something from another reality.

A burl/root bundle

For me, even better than the pure height of the trees was the forest they grew in. To start with, Redwoods may reproduce with pinecones, but they also have burls, large chunks of wood near their base that can form another tree. So many of the trees split apart at the trunk; sometimes an original tree can fall and cause a perfect ring of clone trees to form around its base. This leads to Redwood groves. There’s also an ecosystem around the trees: lots of ferns, some taller than me and most reaching my chest. It feels primeval, standing in the forest dwarfed by ferns; the Redwoods stretching upwards elegantly. Many of the trees are hollow or heavily charred at the base, but still living. Thus you can stand inside a living tree.

Steller’s Jay. Fearless and with saurian mannerisms.

The next day I’d planned on doing some more hiking, but it all finally caught up to me. I’d been hiking for about a week straight, averaging roughly 15 miles per day, and it was time for a break. I started out and turned around after 2 miles, grabbed some snacks and settled in to read for the afternoon. The campground, at least, was nice, surrounded by redwoods and with a little brook right next to my site. So my stay at Redwood was less eventful than I’d expected, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Of all the parks I’ve visited, I feel I only scratched the surface of things to do at Redwoods – there are many groves, seashores, canyons, and other sites that i didn’t get a chance to see.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *