Driving the Northern CA Coast

The Humboldt Redwoods State Park isn’t nearly as remote as Jedediah Smith. It’s easily accessed by Hwy 101, which runs smack down the middle of it and hundreds of cars a day take the scenic drive down the “Avenue of the Giants.”

I had forgotten to take melatonin that night and slept horribly. Regardless, I roused myself out of my bad mood and out of my sleepless bed at 6 am to ride my road bike and hunt for good picture opportunities in the quiet dawn. I didn’t end up with any stellar photos, but the hour long ride did manage to squelch my grumpiness.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

To tell you the truth, we were all a little sick of big trees. We were ready to move on. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity of being there, we made quick laps through the Rockefellor Loop Trail and the Founder’s Grove, which were both flat, short and scenic laps of less than a mile with some really big gorgeous old growth trees. Some of the standouts of this forest, in particular, were the massive downed trees that have been sliced open so that you can walk through the cross sections.

R, exploring Founder’s Grove, Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

Some of the living trees here, because of the foot traffic, have walkways built around them, which I found an interesting solution to the issue of human interest.

Super creative name you guys! The “Giant Tree,” Humboldt Redwoods State Park

After our rapid hikes through the trees, we were anxious to head south to the coast. We had a mission for our afternoon and next day and it included: Mendocino coast, Boonville and lots of breweries!

We stopped briefly outside of Mendocino to wine taste at Pacific Star Winery. Pros about Pacific Star: gorgeous views and a lovely picnic area. Cons about Pacific Star: terrible wine, $5 tasting fee that isn’t waved with the purchase of a bottle. I highly recommend that you go picnic on Pacific Star Winery’s lawn with wine from a different vineyard.

Taking in the view at Pacific Star Winery.

After quickly setting up camp at the gorgeous and highly recommended Russian Gulch Campground (another one of the list of best campgrounds in CA), we headed back north into Fort Bragg for some early dinner and beer tasting at North Coast Brewing Co. Their food was some of the best I’ve had in a brewery. Garlic waffle fries? Yes, please.

Beer Sampler at North Coast Brewery

That night we played on the beach in Russian Gulch, drank wine, had an extremely long game of corn hole, and all ate far too many s’mores. It was our last night before we returned home and we wanted to savoir the outdoors (not that we didn’t have an amazing day planned already for the route home).

Russian Gulch State Park

The Hunt for Iluvitar

Because Jedediah Smith was so popular, we were only able to make camping reservations for two weeknights there. We decided that we would break up our drives by meandering down the northern CA coast and stopping in the Humboldt Redwoods as well. On our way out of the area, we stopped at Enderts Beach because the sun was out and R was interested in looking at tide pools.

Enderts Beach, Crescent City, CA

While we hanging out at the scenic overlook, we struck up a conversation with a man who seemingly knew everything. EVERYTHING. He was telling us about the history of the city, about the birds, about the tides, about the forest.

Now, let me back up a few days: on our first full day in the park, we had gone on a nature walk with Ranger Dan, who tried to discourage us from going to see the Grove of the Titans, because “it’s not that interesting.” I had also asked him if he often had to rescue people who were lost in the forest looking for it. He had admitted that 99% of the people who come through the area have never even heard of the Grove, much less gone looking for it, but there was one guy, “The Professor,” who returned every few summers hunting the hidden trees that lived out of this car. He spent his year teaching at a college in Boston.

Flashback to today: we are talking with this man and he mentions hidden trees. We admit that we managed tp visit the Grove of the Titans. He lights up with delight and all the sudden I realize: this MUST be the professor. “Are you the professor? Are you living out of your car?”

We had not only managed to enter the Grove of the Titans, but we had somehow stumbled upon the Professor as well. What good fortune! In the end, we spent almost an hour chatting with him as he pulled out maps and lists and filled our brains with more information than we could later remember. Two amazing things came out of our discussion: 1) a fantastic place to stop for dinner (the Samoa Cookhouse) and 2) that we absolutely MUST stop in the Prairie Creek Redwoods Forest to see the hidden tree, Iluvitar.

Iluvitar is the world’s third largest redwood tree. It’s 20.5 feet in diameter and 320 feet tall. If you’re looking in the woods for Iluvitar and mucking around in the forest where you shouldn’t be, you are in the wrong place.

Taking snapshots of Iluvitar.

Thanks to the Professor, we had a bit of a road-map straight to the large tree, which, according to the Professor, has the most “sophisticated canopy” of any redwood.

Looking up at the bungled canopy of Iluvitar, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Also thanks to the Professor, we made our dinner stop at the Samoa Cookhouse, where dinner is served family style and there is no choice in your dish. R was thrilled that it was Southern Fried Chicken Night!

Samoa Cookhouse Price Board.

The Samoa Cookhouse is the last surviving cookhouse in the west and is where the lumberman in Northern CA used to eat their three meals a day. You sit at long family tables covered in camp style checkered cloth. It was quite an experience!

Samoa Cookhouse, outside Eureka, CA.

Strangely enough there was some sort of classic car club meeting there that night and the parking lot was even more of a blast from the past!

Classic cars at a classic cookhouse: surreal.

After our long winding adventure down 101 hunting more hidden trees and gorging ourselves on classic American fare, we were exhausted. Thankfully, we had booked a campsite ahead of time at Albee Creek Campground, which is a little bit more off the beaten path. It was a wise choice we would find the next morning. The Humboldt Redwoods, though phenomenal and spectacular in their own right, don’t feel nearly as removed from the world as Jedediah Smith, mostly because hwy 101 runs smack through the middle of them, something we wouldn’t witness until dawn.

Grove of the Titans

Exploring Mill Creek Trail, Jedediah Smith State Park

The next day we woke up quite late, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, and then wasted time exploring the Mill Creek Trail in the park until it was the appointed time we had set to meet our guide to The Grove of the Titans. Thanks to our friendly nature, vivacious personalities, hysterical antics and ability to small talk, finding the infamous Grove of the Titans was a piece of cake: we just had someone take us there, which, was my plan all along. Because really, tromping through the forest and bushwhacking through redwood groves is just plain dumb. Don’t do it.

I will not disclose the location of the grove, I won’t tell you how to get there. What I will tell you is that if you are bushwhacking for miles off trail you are way off base. These trees are hidden right under your nose and there are small hidden social trails leading to all of them. They are within a quarter mile of major roads. If you spend weeks getting muddy and scraped up and dirty and lost and etc, just stop!

The Del Norte Titan, Grove of the Titans

This is the first Titan we went to see, the Del Norte Titan. It’s fourth on the list of the “Largest Redwood Trees” and has a cubic volume of 37,200 feet and is 307 feet high.

This was where our guide left us, giving us instructions on how to find the others. They are all in close proximity to each other.

R, forging the creek to find more Titans, Grove of the Titans, Jedediah Smith State Park

The trees are hysterically not well hidden. So much so, that reading people’s accounts of doing months of searching via foot and the internet is somewhat comical.

El Viejo Del Norte, Grove of the Titans, Jedediah Smith State Park

El Viejo Del Norte is the 5th largest known coast redwood. At 332.8 feet, it has a cubic volume of 35,400 cubic feet!

El Viejo Del Norte, Grove of the Titans, Jedediah Smith State Park

The Screaming Titans are neighbors to El Viejo Del Norte. They are very unusual as they are two massive redwoods fused together. They have a combined diameter of thirty feet

Screaming Titans, Grove of the Titans, Jedediah Smith State Park

Screaming Titans, Grove of the Titans, Jedediah Smith State Park

I’m so thrilled that I accomplished my ridiculous goal to find a not-so-hidden grove of trees with absolutely zero research and two days in the park. And actually, after we found the Grove of the Titans, all the other trees paled in comparison. But the walk out of the grove along Mill Creek Trail was absolutely stunning!

Here are a few of my other favorite photos from our afternoon in the Grove of the Titans.

That being said, there is one reason that these massive trees are being kept hidden and it’s clear and in abundance in Stout Grove: grafitti. Why a person would want to carve their name into the side of trees is beyond me, but it’s everywhere and very sad. So, if you do decide to go into a hidden grove, have respect. Be careful where you tread and for goodness sake, don’t carve your name or anything else into the trunk of these majestic beasts.

Stout Grove

The 2.2 mile long Hiouchi Trail leads into Stout Grove, which, in and of itself, is very unique in the world of redwood groves.

Stout Grove, Jedediah Smith State Park

Stout Grove is special for a number of reasons, but primarily because of it’s general flatness. Most redwood groves are notoriously difficult to traverse and explore: thick foilage and underbrush, combined with fallen trees, often create extremely uneven ground. They tell campfire stories in the park about Jedediah Smith and his fabled difficult crossing through the forest, when it took 10 days to traverse three miles. He wrote in his diaries, “The traveling very bad on account of brush and fallen timber.”

Stout Grove, Jedediah Smith State Park

Stout Grove, however, is located on a bend of the Smith River, the last wild river in CA, and also, on a flood plane. This means that every few decades, a large flood sweeps through and clears out the underbrush and downed trees. This keeps the land flat and prevents too much wild overgrowth in the grove.

Stout Grove, Jedediah Smith State Park

Redwoods are amazing for a number of reasons. First of all, they are incredibly resilient and extremely dense. They grow unbelievably tall. So tall that you cannot see the tops of the trees. The tallest known redwood at 379 feet is a hidden tree named Hyperion (more on him later!). Despite their heights, the roots only go ten to twelve feet under the ground! All of that massive weight helps keep them upright. That being said, these ancient trees do fall and when they do, they continue to help the forest.

Downed Redwood: Stout Grove, Jedediah Smith State Park

Redwoods contain a very special trait: the ability to create carbon copy clones of their DNA to reproduce. They do this with something called burl.

Checking out burl.

Burl, in plain English, contains the DNA code to reproduce an exact replica of the mother tree. When a redwood is damaged in some way, it creates burl and out of the burl grow new redwood trees. When a redwood tree falls to the ground, not only will it help feed the surrounding forest with essential nutrients, but new trees will grow out of it’s burl. When this happens, the tree is referred to as a nurse log.

Nurse Log.

One of the biggest reasons folks travel to visit Stout Grove is to see the Stout Tree, which at one point was thought to be one of the largest redwoods but has now been dwarfed by others. It has 21,000 cubic feet of trunk volume!

Stout Tree, Jedediah Smith State Park.

Today, the Stout Tree has fallen far down on the list of largest redwoods. It just happens to be one of the only ones that isn’t “hidden.”

See, there is a difference between a normal Redwood and something now called a “Titan.” They may not be the tallest trees, but they are the biggest. Botanists make a distinction between the tallest trees and the overall size of trees. While some of the tallest trees are over 350 feet tall, the most massive trees are sometimes shorter but contain four to five times more MASS than the tallest redwoods. Many of the most massive (and a few of the tallest) Redwoods are “hidden” trees and have undisclosed locations.

In 1998 a botanist named Steve Sillett decided to go hunting for Titans in Jedediah Smith State Park. The search was long and difficult, not unlike Jedediah Smith’s traverse through the very same forest. You can read about the melodrama on the internet, which makes the entire trip sound like it was a near death experience. The short of it is that Sillett found a number of massive Titans in a grove which he then named the “Grove of the Titans.”

This is how melodramatic the story is: they call the day Sillett found the tress “The Day of Discovery.” YAWN.

Today, the grove is unmapped and untold of, mostly, from what I can tell by reading on the internet, because Sillett is a pretentious jerk who likes to keep things to himself. “They” say that the exact location of the grove is known only to a handful of biologists, who climb the trees and study the ecology of the grove. “They say” that the Grove of Titans exists at the bottom of a hidden, notch-like valley deep in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. So, while the Stout Tree is the “official” largest tree in the park, there are many many more much more massive trees in the Grove of the Titans. When you google it, there are youtube videos from a nerdy science kid who finds the trees and posts them online and blog posts from people who spent days bushwhacking through forests looking for this “secret” grove of trees that not only is no one supposed to go to, but they also aren’t supposed to know about. You read stories about how people search for years to find these special trees and how fraught with peril their searches are.

Well, what’s the first thing I want to do when you tell me I can’t go see something awesome? Yeah, that’s right, I want to go see it. And I sure as hell aren’t going to be dumb and go bushwhack through forest to do it.

So, as soon as I read about the Grove of the Titans online, I determined that I was going to go there. As soon as I told my friends about the Grove of the Titans we came up with a plan of attack: we were going to go to the Grove of the Titans. Simple.

But first, it was time for dinner and that night’s campfire talk, led by Ranger Nate.

Dinner. Ha! Just kidding. That’s a banana slug.

Camp dinner, for realz.

Our Intro to the Redwoods: Hiouchi Trail

Morning in the Redwoods

After my morning photo session, I returned to camp to wake my lazy still-sleeping friends up. We went on a gorgeous 3 mile run and then feasted on super amazing smoked salmon and egg breakfast tacos. Our plan for the day was to hike the 2.2 mile Hiouchi Trail into Stout Grove. I really enjoy how the description on that website refers to the trail as a hike through “mostly through uninteresting mixed-species forest at the edge of the old growth redwoods.” I would have to disagree.

Exhibit A: you get to walk through trees.

Exhibit B: you get to stare at the canopy through the trunks of trees.

The hike actually took us quite sometime because we kept stopping to stare gape at various things, like bugs and big trees, which at this point, were a very new novelty to us.

Hiking the Hiouchi Trail, Jedediah Smith State Park

Gaping at Massive Trees, Hiouchi Trail, Jedediah Smith State park

We were marveling at all the things that we were still yet uniformed on regarding the redwoods, like how trees grow out of the sides of trees.

See that downed tree there? There are trees growing out of the tree.

We would come to find out much later in the day, thanks to Ranger Dan, all about how these magnificent trees have managed to last so long and why they do the crazy things they do.

Morning Redwood Fog

You know how when you’re camping you wake up like nine times in the middle of the night and sleep horribly and your arm is always asleep and you dream someone is cutting it off?

Yeah, well, apparently when you take melatonin before bed that doesn’t happen. New favorite drug.

I’m not sure if there’s any reason why I shouldn’t be taking melatonin every night, but I’m totally taking melatonin every night now.

Since I slept so amazing for the first time ever in the history of camping, I woke up at 6 AM to take photos at dawn. I couldn’t believe how light it was outside already and I quickly made coffee and booked it down to the river, fully expecting to have missed all the good picture taking opportunities.

I was delightfully surprised to find that I was early still – the fog didn’t blanket the river valley until almost a full hour later! It inched it’s way towards me from both sides, filling in the sky and covering the treetops. There wasn’t a soul around. All around me, the last of the owls were hooting, birds were chirping, and a family of river otters splashed in the water as the quiet dawn light was shut out and still grayness enveloped the river. Such a gorgeous way to spend my morning!

Adventure to the Redwoods!

I’ve had the CA coastal redwoods on my list of must-visits for quite some time. I was determined to make it there this summer and thankfully, two good friends of mine had a similar idea and a similar schedule so off to Northern CA we headed.

It always amazes me how much crap is required for camping. You’d think you’d be taking less stuff. Not so. Between all the necessary items, which included one camp grill, one camp stove, one corn hole set, six bottles of wine and two cases of beer, four real pillows from our home beds, two tents, and my ridiculously excessive yet exceedingly comfortable Thermarest Dreamtime (worth every penny), all for three people and four nights, our car was stuffed to the gills.

It was ALL necessary.

It’s an outrageously long drive from Tahoe to our destination: Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. As a bonus though, we got to drive through Whiskeytown. I had previously believed that Whiskeytown was an awesome figment of musical song lyric imagination (much like Margaritaville). I would like my town to be renamed Whiskeytown because it would be so much cooler to live in a town named Whiskeytown. Everyone would want to go to Whiskeytown. Anyways, I digress.

In addition to driving through Whiskeytown, we also drove through The Trees of Mystery which is a standard All-American Roadside Attraction featuring ridiculously tall statues that people driving by can take pictures with. What did we do? We took some sweet photos with giant statues and it was great fun.

Paul Bunyon and Babe at the Trees of Mystery.

I chose the park for a number of reasons, but primarily because the reviews I read online touted how amazing it’s remoteness and camp settings were. I should have realized based on the lack of availability how special of a place we were going: we managed to reserve the last campsite there and there were only two nights available. Oddly enough, after I made the reservation, I discovered the Jedediah Smith Campground referenced on multiple “Best Of Camping” Lists, including this one from Sunset Magazine. I can attest to Sunset Magazine’s list because Jedediah Smith Campsite was the best campsite I’ve ever been to. Our site was shrouded in so much brush, trees and overgrown ferns that despite our proximity to our neighbors, it was as if we were in the woods completely alone. The showers were brand new and warm, no matter what time of day. There were huge bear boxes in the site and it’s proximity to the state park was ideal. Overall, we were totally and completely wowed.

Jedediah Smith Campground, site 101, Jedediah Smith State Park

Let me tell you a secret: I hate camping. Now that I live IN the mountains, I wholeheartedly would prefer to go into the wilderness and return home to the comfort of my extraordinarily large and remarkably comfortable Western King bed with the Temperpedic knock-off mattress and down comforter. That being said, if I do camp, one must camp in style which include the previously discussed and completely excessive Dreamtime, a full four inches of Thermarest self inflating mattress and Isotonic® Memory Foam topper.

Also necessary: fabulous food. For our inaugural evening, camp chef Lauren had a nice antipasto plate of homemade rye bread, assorted cheeses, salami, olives and marinated artichokes. I knew we would show up to camp starving, need to set everything up and prep before we could even start dinner. Rule of camping: appetizers are ALWAYS necessary when you arrive at camp.

Camp Antipasto Plate: camp with good grub.

We set up camp, had an delicious dinner of fish tacos, the required s’mores ’round the campfire and generally spent the evening in complete awe of our surroundings. Even after a nine hour drive, we could tell that the location and park we had chosen to explore the redwoods in was a good choice the best decision EVER.

Relaxing: Camp Style

Coming up: we search for the Grove of the Titans.