By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
The trippy girl with the hiccups was whirling and laughing joyfully on the soft, woody carpet, arms raised in reverence to the towering grotto of the redwood forest.
Easy to guess a mood enhancer of choice for her and bearded boyfriend. But none was needed here. Fran and I felt just as high on the spiritual plane as they appeared as soon as we entered the realm of the coast redwoods along the Avenue of the Giants in northern California.
The 32-mile strip alongside Highway 101 in Humboldt Redwoods State Park is touted as one of the best places to see redwoods by car. It truly is an unforgettable pathway to viewing the largest stand of old-growth redwoods in the world.
“Isn’t it incredible?” the girl said, dancing with wild-eyed wonder among some of the tallest and oldest living things on earth.
The redwood forest is: Remarkable; stupefying; unimaginable. And, yes, awe-inspiring, in the genuine sense of the overused phrase.
“We’re from Kentucky,” her companion said. “We’ve never seen anything like it.”
There are few places to experience genuine forest primeval, to step into an ecological time warp to a world that dinosaurs roamed. Most are in California in the giant sequoia and coast redwood preserves that are among the nation’s most precious natural treasures.
Many visitors to San Francisco take a side trip to Muir Woods, a few miles outside the city. No knock on Muir Woods – Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed it the seventh national monument – but it’s often crowded, and like a wine tasting it leaves one wanting more.
To gain full appreciation for the redwood experience, make the 200-mile journey north of the city on Highway 101 to Humboldt Redwoods State Park. An unexpected business trip provided the opportunity to spend a day on the Avenue of the Giants.
Yes, this is where you can drive through a tree – there are four such opportunities at roadside attractions along the way.
We passed on the kitschy sideshows. The magnificent trees are enough of an attraction. There are plenty of places to pull off the avenue and hike trails or just walk among the giants.
Get a hundred yards from the roadway and it is like being transported to a time long before roads. Easy to envision a Triceratops munching ferns or sharpening its horns on the trunk of a fallen redwood.
But we saw no animals during our walks at several stops. There weren’t many people either, which was an advantage to an off-season visit. The cool weather in early December brought another benefit: no bugs.
Yet even in its solitude, the forest hums with a life force. It is more than the chorus of the wind through the coniferous canyons far above; there is a benevolent power that is palpable.
“It feels like you’re surrounded by wise beings,” Fran said.
No wonder. Some of them have stood for more than 2,000 years.
Can’t help but be a tree hugger in the redwood forest, even if the notion of getting your arms around one is ludicrous. The allure is strong to touch them, inhale their earthy scent and try in vain to see to the top.
Fran has been infatuated with the redwoods since a brief visit to Humboldt a decade ago. This time she returned with an offering, a small quartz crystal that she pressed against the bark of one of the giants. Remarkably, the crystal disappeared as if sucked in by the tree.
“It just took it from me,” she said.
You can almost feel a pulse when you touch a redwood. The bark is damp and pliable, more like a thick hide than a hard wood.
Coast redwoods are the world’s tallest trees, and some at Humboldt reach well above 300 feet. Photographs fail to capture the feeling of standing among them.
The enormity begins to come into focus when you stand next to one that has fallen. In some cases the girth is too great to see over.
Most impressive is one known as the Dyerville Giant, accessed on the Founders Grove loop trail near Weott. The massive tree, which fell in 1991, has been measured at 370 feet and has a 17-foot diameter. There is a small tree growing from its uprooted base.
According to the park, the Dyerville Giant will remain an asset to the forest for hundreds of years. Redwoods have a shallow root system and are susceptible to toppling in heavy wind and rain. But when the biggest fall, they open space for upstarts in the forest ceiling. As they decay, their trunks nurture as many as 4,000 types of plants and animals.
It is the cycle of life in most dramatic display. And it’s spiritually uplifting to experience. The ground, covered in redwood needles, is so soft you can walk all day without feeling tired – unlike traipsing through a shopping mall.
Pay a visit to this natural cathedral and it’s hard to resist the urge to raise one’s arms in a reverent hallelujah.
Getting to the Humboldt redwood forest
Humboldt Redwoods State Park is a primal redwood forest in northern California along Highway 101. State Route 254, aka Avenue of the Giants, takes you among the world’s largest trees.
Avenue of the Giants runs roughly parallel to Highway 101 and through the park for about 32 miles. All Highway 101 exits for Humboldt Redwoods State Park, with the exception of the Salmon Creek exit, allow easy access to the Avenue of the Giants and Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
From the South:
Humboldt Redwoods State Park Headquarters and Visitor Center are approximately 228 miles north of San Francisco and 20 miles north of Garberville. Take Highway 101 north. There are several exits for the park off Highway 101, beginning with the Avenue of the Giants/Phillipsville Exit #645.
From the North:
Humboldt Redwoods State Park Headquarters and Visitor Center are approximately 45 miles south of Eureka. Take Highway 101 south. There are several exits for the parkoff of Highway 101, beginning with the Avenue of the Giants/Pepperwood Exit #674.
There is no charge to enter the redwood forest in Humboldt Redwoods State Park or the Visitor Center. There are several campgrounds in the park. For daily rates and reservations, visit the park website at humboldtredwoods.org