There is a short stretch of road weaving through Humboldt Redwoods State Park in northern California called Avenue of the Giants. Here you can experience the largest contiguous old-growth redwood forest in the world.
It is on this 31-mile (51 km) section, State Route 254, where time stands still. Humans and their twenty-first century vehicles are dwarfed by 300-foot trees. And cell phones and voices are silenced by the towering behemoths that speak volumes…without words.
Located near Garberville, California, it is approximately 200 miles (320 km) north of San Francisco, easily accessed via Highway 101.
Found only in coastal California and the southern Oregon coast, the old-growth redwood forests thrive in a temperate coniferous ecoregion.
As the tallest and one of the most massive tree species on Earth, Sequoia sempervirons live an average of 800 to 1,500 years; some have been documented at 2,000 years old. (The Coastal redwood, discussed here, is a different species than the Sierra redwood, Sequoia giganteum.)
Coastal redwoods are reliant on the moisture of the fog, usually growing a mile or two from the Pacific Ocean, and never more than 50 miles from it.
The strip of today’s existing old-growth redwoods extends north along the coast from the Big Sur area south of San Francisco to the southwestern corner of Oregon.
As recent as 1850 there were two million acres (8,100 km2) of redwood trees on California’s coast. Then with the discovery of gold came a burgeoning population, building needs, and unrestricted redwood logging.
Today there are 110,000 acres of remaining old-growth redwood forests.
Fortunately conservationists began efforts in the 1920s to protect this unique and ancient tree. More information: Save the Redwoods League.
Avenue of the Giants parallels the main highway, and offers a serene drive for people of all ages. In addition to cruising past the tall trees, there are many interesting massive redwoods that have toppled or succumbed to lightning. Giant rootballs as big as a car, mossy old limbs, trees hollowed out by natural decay over the centuries.
Many times I have witnessed a person going right up to a redwood and instinctively embracing it, leaning their whole body against it. I’ve done it plenty of times.
There are some old trees you can drive through and other touristy attractions (see the end), but my favorite activity is hiking the forest. The presence of these trees and their long-lived existence remind me of the perspective of life, its cycles, and all of Earth’s creatures.
There is something inherently relaxed and slow about the old redwoods.
With the canopy hundreds of feet in the air, the understory is quiet, accompanied by occasional thrushes or songbirds hopping on the ground…nothing as frenetic as, say, a tropical rainforest.
Even the ground is soft and hushed. Each step you take on the reddish-orange duff is cushioned by decades of fallen needles.
Ferns and shamrock-shaped sorrel comprise the understory, and in summer there are occasional native rhododendrons.
Great website with more information about hiking California’s old-growth redwoods: redwoodhikes.com.
There is a renewal that we find when we visit the redwoods, as if we are being embraced by hundred-year-old ancestors sharing the wisdom of the centuries.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.
For one dollar you can visit this one-log redwood house in Garberville; created in 1946 from a 2,100-year-old tree that fell from natural causes.