My return to hiking after my latest injury was a worthy experience which fulfilled my hunger to explore, to get my heart pumping hard again, and to have my mind calm in a way that only comes for me with exercise. I’d been away for so long that I wanted my first hike back to be special which inspired me to try and find something unique. The timing worked out so that it would coincide with dropping my daughter off to start college at Humboldt State University. Having never hiked in that area, I was at least guaranteed to cover new ground.
Reading through a guide book, I found a hike (#39 in White 2014) that had an unusual set of requirements to gain access to a grove of very tall redwoods (many over 300′ in height). Having just read The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring (an account of the search for the tallest trees–many of them found in Humboldt County, the fascinating and unexpected life found in the redwood canopy, and tales of climbing/sleeping in redwoods and associated dangers); I liked the idea of journeying to a grove which was talked about in the book. The Tall Trees Grove is home of the Libby Tree (a.k.a. Tall Tree) which at one time was the tallest known tree in the world. The tallest known tree today (Hyperion at 379.1′) is in this same area (but unmarked to protect it from vandalism).
I began at the Kuchel Visitor’s Center to get a permit and the day’s combination for the lock to open the gate and gain access to the 6 mile dirt road leading to the trailhead. Being in the mood for something special, I enjoyed the serious conversation with the ranger who wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into–essentially a handful of things to consider that wouldn’t impact my recovering Achilles tendon at all and make a fairly easy short hike feel a little more adventurous. The act of parking my car, unlocking the gate, parking again, locking the gate, and driving down the long dirt road to the trailhead made my return to hiking feel almost ceremonial.
I took my time walking down the Emerald Ridge Trail. I stopped about every hundred yards or so to take in my surroundings. Although in the midst of towering trees, this forest feels intimate. The dense understory of diverse vegetation provides a lush human scale at the forest floor to juxtapose against the towering canopy above. The trail itself is virtually the only area not covered with some form of plant life. Numerous fallen trees covered with diverse flora combined with a complex texture of young and old trees provide a constant awareness of the forest’s old age. With abundant shade provided by the canopy and understory trees, light and shadow interplay in interesting ways. Most of the forest floor is in shadow and most of the light that makes it down that far is reflected. The small beams of direct light that do break through serve to beautifully highlight areas and feel like a treasure instead of a blinding source of midday heat.
Arriving at Redwood Creek provided a huge contrast. Initially, leaving the dark and cool forest for the bright and hotter creek was uncomfortable. It took me a few minutes to acclimate to such a dramatic change. There is no trail along Redwood Creek between the end of the Emerald Ridge Trail and Tall Trees Grove. I already knew that the prescribed route is to follow the creek hiking on the gravel of its banks and crossing it as needed. Standing at the creek however, having walked to it in a straight line; I looked back toward the trail I just left and couldn’t see the trailhead. I wondered if I would have found that trailhead if I had done the loop in the other direction. This made me pause and ask myself, would I see the trailhead for the Tall Trees Trail? How would I know if I passed it? It was good that I had purchased a map at the Kuchel Visitor’s Center. Studying it more carefully, it was clear I’d have at least six stream crossings and the only other creek in this stretch (Tom McDonald Creek) would drain into Redwood Creek shortly before reaching the Tall Trees Trail. With renewed confidence, I headed upstream.
Fortunately, I came across a man hiking the loop from the other direction. He told me of the weather station that makes the Tall Trees trailhead easy to spot. As I made my way up the wide canyon, I internalized how challenging it must have been to discover the tallest trees. Although I’d read descriptions of the process in The Wild Trees book, the act of trying to discern the tallest ones myself and think about how to get to them yielded in me even more respect for the accomplishments of the discoverers. With such dense forest rising up the sides of the canyon and visually creating a massive sloped wall of trees as far as my eye could see, I keenly felt the sense of isolation that wilderness can provide.
The overall feel switched from human scaled intimacy to hard to wrap my head around grandeur. The often delicate and idiosyncratic interplay of light on the foliage that I could reach out and touch within the canopy had given way to a textured but visually impenetrable boundary between the forest edge and creek viewed under the harsh light of a cloudless afternoon sky. The way forward was slow going as I walked through gravel the whole way and crossed the creek six times. However, with several changes in water depth (ranging from ankle to knee deep), width (ranging from a narrow portion of the channel to almost completely filling it) and differing conditions for crossings; the 1.7 mile segment along the creek held my interest throughout. To be treated to such contrasting experiences on such a short hike was already exhilarating for me.
Heading up the embankment to enter Tall Trees Grove I expected to see the same things I did coming down the Emerald Ridge Trail. To my delightful surprise, this area of the forest is meaningfully different. Lichen covered maple trees define much of the north facing boundary between Tall Trees Grove and Redwood Creek. Looking at the map, I assume this is the result of some combination of the presence of increased light due to the widening of the creek channel as it makes close to a 180 degree turn around the grove and the north facing orientation.
This edge condition provides an interesting transition between the creek and the redwoods close by (often as close as ten or twenty feet further in). With branches barely above head height spanning the trail in some spots, the much shorter and wider form of the maples overhead, and the ability to be both close to the maples and able to discern the top of them; the space felt more enclosing and human scaled.
Although in shade and much cooler than the open riparian habitat of the creek, this stretch of trail is brighter than what exists deeper in. Much more light comes in from the outer side of the trail illuminating large swaths of forest floor. Similarly, the much lower arching maple canopy produces a brighter ceiling. After hiking three other redwood trails on my way home from Humboldt without seeing anything like this; I look back at this stretch of lichen covered maples as a wonderfully unique ecotone providing a remarkable transition between creek and redwood forest.
The maples gave way to redwoods on the inner portion of the loop of Tall Trees Grove. Space became more open, taller, and noticeably darker. With a more tightly packed juxtaposition of mostly old growth redwoods and less understory trees than the Emerald Ridge Trail, the grove represented a fourth major form of scenery . By comparison, these redwoods were also typically larger in diameter and taller.
As I walked along this portion of the loop I kept hearing a sound that I couldn’t identify right away. Although not loud, the sound was audible enough to interrupt my thoughts. I in no way needed to listen for it. The sound lasted several seconds at a time and produced a sizable accelerating crescendo punctuated in silence. Standing under a group of redwoods, I finally realized what I was hearing was the sound of some of the trees creaking as they moved in the slight breeze. This made me think about the relationship between the diameter of these trees and their height (structurally referred to as their slenderness ratio). It was as if I could hear that some of these trees were as tall as they could be without snapping. That thought made me recall reading about how the top spire of middle-aged redwoods typically dies and falls off the tree, how a redwood responds to that by growing new trunks from its larger branches which rise vertically parallel to the main trunk, and how over centuries the tree grows an aerial grove of redwoods (some pretty large themselves) all connected to the ground via the one main trunk (Preston 2007, pp. 20-21). Looking up the whole time I was pondering that, I eventually realized that I was swaying side to side in rhythm with the trees. It was probably my most profound moment of physical and intellectual connection to any forest.
I finished the loop by hiking up the Tall Trees Trail. As I got closer to the trailhead the landscape became similar to the Emerald Ridge Trail. However, there was a fairly long transition from the grove to the trailhead that was more open, yielding longer forest views, and comprised of more taller redwoods and Douglas firs than found along Emerald Ridge. It was different enough over a long enough stretch of trail that I feel I had five meaningfully different experiences along this short 5.2 mile hike with only around 700 feet of gain and loss. Thinking about the range and magnitude of what I saw while driving back up the long dirt road, I felt this was a phenomenal choice. Closing and locking the gate behind me in order to leave felt like the act of closing a hard to put down book upon finishing it.