Westward Wanderlust Day 15
Mill Creek Campground, Redwood National Park, CA
July 24th, 2012
The shrill squawks of a band of Steller’s blue jays woke us early. Not the most courteous or delicate of an alarm clock to be sure, but still much better than the early morning shriek of police siren or the rumbling growl of a semi truck engine-breaking down the hill outside our house. It was an undeniable reminder of where we are, and where we are not. We rose quickly, broke camp, and said goodbye to The Stump.
It was 55 degrees at 8:35 am when we ascended the steep, curving road from Mill Creek Canyon to the main asphalt artery of the Redwoods, Hwy 101.
The light of the morning was concealed by dense fog. We followed course of yellow median lines and hoped that the fog would lift as the day progressed. Hwy 101 runs the length of Redwood National Park, paralleling the coastline and passing various tree-focused attractions including the Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park and the ever-intriguing Trees Of Mystery.
How could we possibly pass this by without at least a cursory examination of said arborous ambiguity? Being from the Midwest, we have an unquestionable fondness for Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox. But seeing them in California, in a park dedicated to the preservation of trees and not the chopping down was, at the least, unexpected. And so was Paul’s personality. We pulled into the parking lot, realizing the closer we came to the attraction the more ridiculous it was. We got out of the car and were greeted by a loud nasaly voice informing us “Children and pets are welcome at the Trees of Mystery! You can visit our huge gift shop and museum free of charge! NO OTHER attraction as mystifying and exciting as the Trees of Mystery!” D and I looked at each other and exchanged raised eyebrows. “Are you sure you can handle the excitement?” D asked. “Maybe we should leave now while we still can.”
“This seems too ridiculous to not at least go inside,” I said, I don’t need to experience the mystery – but maybe the free museum?”
The faceless voice continued to go on about the fantastic deal that was awaiting us when the voice suddenly reverted from the commercial monotony to an over-enthused exclamation of “Hey you! Yeah, you!” We stopped walking and looked around us. Was that voice talking to us? If so, where was it coming from? The high-pitch voice continued; “You! With the dog! If you think that we don’t allow pets you’re wrong! Bring Fido inside and reserve your tickets for the next tour the famous Trees of Mystery!”
We scanned the parking lot and saw a man with a dog on a leash looking up at the massive lumberjack statue. Paul Bunyan was talking. Not only was Paul talking, but Paul was live. So you’re telling me that there is an employee at The Trees of Mystery who’s sole responsibility is to watch people pull into the parking lot and then call them out via a the persona of a gigantic fabled lumberjack? Now maybe it’s just me, but when I think Paul Bunyan, I think deep, booming, James Earl Jones/Santa Clause-esque voice. Not a nasal, fast-talking, game show host/car salesman carnival barker creeping the heck out of everyone that walks too close to Paul’s imitation steel-toed boots.
We hustled inside before Paul could call us out for not getting in line for tour tickets. The gift shop was massive; 5 long rows of any tree-themed knick-knack you could imagine, a fudge and ice cream shop, and Indian artifact museum and jewelry shop. We chose a few small items in memory of the stop and quickly continued on our way.
Next, we stopped at next visitor center and ranger station to check the tide times and to get some information about our main goal for the day, the Tall Trees Trail. Upon consulting Mike’s book, we noticed he had identified Tall Tree Grove as the best attraction of Redwoods. He also noted that the trail requires a permit (free) and only 50 permits are given out each day on a first-come first-serve basis. We wanted to make sure that we obtained one of the 50 permits.
Hopeful that we were not too late, we spoke with the ranger about our goal. To our surprise, the ranger informed us that they, to his knowledge, have NEVER sold out of permits for the Tall Tree Grove. This shocked us both. 420,00 visitors annually to the location of 45% of all remaining coastal redwoods, some over 2,000 years old, and they never sellout of permits? Of course, we were pleased that this meant we would be able to obtain our own permit no problem (but only at the Crescent, Hiouchi, or Kuchel Visitor Centers, which was not where we were) we were still very surprised. We had found another “hidden treasure” of the National Park System.
The tide had gone out at 9:00 am, and I was intent on exploring the tide pools one last time, hoping to catch a glimpse of a few beach creatures. Since we knew now that we didn’t need to rush to get our permit, we decided to see what we could see at of the shoreline and then head south along the coast toward Kuchel Visitor Center and Tall Trees Grove. The closer we came to the ocean, the foggier it became.
We carefully climbed around on the slick rocks, aware that any number of small sea creatures could be at our feet.
And they were!
Content with my shots of the tide pools, we continued south along the Hwy 101 “scenic drive”. Yeah, way too foggy to see anything. The curvy coastal road was certainly fun to drive though! We crossed the Klamath River, which is flanked on either side by two giant bronze bear statues, then cruised through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park to Kuchel to obtain our Tall Trees Grove Permit.
The permit signup sheet only had a few people ahead of us, and many vacant slots after us. Along with the permit, you are given an allotted time that you can visit the trail after. This is to insure that there is some space between each group of hikers, as well to keep the rangers informed as to approximately how long people have been in the grove as well as how many. We also received directions to the trail and a series of numbers to open the combination lock on the gate to the trailhead. The combination is changed daily to guard against anyone trying to get in without a permit. It was 68 degrees and about 12:30 when we turned from Hwy 101 on to Bald Hills Road, the path that would take us to the Tall Trees Grove. The road paralleled the Redwood Creek, leading us to an upstream overlook.
We could see the top of the fog bank we had been swimming through all day drift through the tops of endless redwood trees. It was surprising to see how high we were.
D and I stood quietly looking out across the Redwood Creek Basin, musing over the immensity of the landscape before us. A single coastal redwood consumes up to a whopping 500 gallons of water every day, 1/3 of which can be provided by fog.
Though impressed by the view, we were anxious to get to the Tall Trees Trail. The Bald Hills Road stretched 6 ½ miles south from Hwy 101 to the trailhead gate, and then the Tall Trees Access Road was another 6 ½ unpaved miles to the trail.
Including the drive to and from the trailhead, Tall Trees Grove Trail is estimated to take about 4 hours. The road was bumpy and narrow; not recommended for trailers or motor homes. We drove down the rough road until we came to a circular turn around with a few cars parked along the far edge. We parked beside a pickup truck displaying two important suggestions on the back bumper:
It was 1:24 pm and 72 degrees when we packed up our water bottles and camera equipment and set off for the Tall Trees Trail. The day had become more humid and the sun was shining persistently through any openings in the canopy of towering Redwoods and Douglas firs. The trail is a 3/12 mile semi-loop with an 800 foot descent/ascent (out and back) over 1 ¼ miles to/from the Tall Trees Grove. One the benefit of a small amount of visitors is the lack of alternation to the natural landscape by humans. Other than the trail itself, there is not much evidence that people regularly visit here. This is also one of the least crowded trails, since so many people either don’t know it’s there, don’t want to get a permit, or are not up for the hike which is characterized by the park as “vigorous”.
The trail begins to descend almost right way. The track is steep, requiring us to be more than moderately aware of our pace and footing. It was easy to fall into a slight gravity-induced bound down the trail, but we tried hard to pace our gait.
I can say, without reservation, that if you had to choose one tall tree experience in the Redwoods, this is it. The trail is so intimate and the atmosphere so encompassing we felt as if we had been transported to another world, one inhabited by giants.
The soft quiet of this place is palpable, like we were walking inside the serenity, becoming the stillness. The only sounds around us belonged to the Earth. When we stood still, we could hear the trees talking to each other. They spoke in a tongue that has no translation, creaking and groaning the language of wind and wood.
The canopy of trees and moss ranged in thickness, sometimes allowing bright shafts of light to cascade from high above us, and other times stitching a ceiling so thick that it was almost dark. Everything was extraordinarily green and lush; from the moss and giant ferns on the forest floor, to the crowds of leaves and needles above us, to the very tops of these mighty masses of life.
It was awe-inspiring and humbling to walk through this grove of giants. Able to walk right up to a tree, or even right inside of it only made the magnitude even more unbelievable.
We were so close to everything, yet still unable to fathom the enormity of it all. We relished our exclusive experience in this amazing place, continually staring agape up the trunks of these thousand year old trees as well as observing the life within the fallen “nursery logs” around us.
At the bottom of the descent, we followed the trail to Redwood Creek for a short rest.
Eventually, we started the return hike…the 800-foot ascent back out of the grove. I would be lying if I said that it was easy. The humidity and altitude worked together, tempting sweat and gasps from my exhausted body. We had certainly climbed steeper altitudes throughout our trip, and perhaps it was because the end of the day was drawing near and I had ideas about dinner, but the hike back up was, at times, a challenge. But it was without question, absolutely worth it.
The opportunity to be among some of the tallest trees on Earth is one that should not be missed. It is a place where everything is bigger than you. Your problems in life, your status, your worries, your cares, your inabilities, your insecurities, your doubt – everything in life that seems so big, too big to control or face are dwarfed by these towering goliaths. The strength and power of nature is much bigger than we are. We are forced to remember this here. Hopefully we learn from it as well, and remember that we are only one member of a greater realm, a small cog in the beautiful spinning wheel of existence.
It was 5:00pm when we finally made it back to the top of the trail. Phew! What an amazing hike! My thoughts of dinner had grown into full-blown fantasies and we decided to set out in search of a costal must – a seafood dinner! We headed back up Bald Hills Road to Hwy 101 and south along the coast of California toward Eureka. Some quick research on my cell phone directed us toward The Sea Grill where we enjoyed a delicious, well-deserved crab dinner.
It was obvious when we arrived that at The Sea Grill that this was the kind of place you usually make reservations for…and probably shower before visiting. But the hostess smiled politely and seemed used to somewhat bedraggled hikers or tourists patronizing their establishment. The salad bar was awesome, Redwoods Curtain IPA deliciously hoppy, and the crab legs delectable. Stuffed and satisfied, we were back on the road, motoring east down Hwy 299 toward Redding.
D had done the majority of the driving during the day and I was on for the night shift. The section of Hwy 299 that extends from the Pacific coast to Whiskeytown and Redding winds through the Salmon Mountains, Trinity Alps Wilderness, and the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
California mountain roads seem to be carved through the very rock. Like the walkway cut through the huge redwood that had fallen across the Tall Trees Trail, these roads drive straight through the middle of the mountains at times. Curve after curve snakes through the walls of rock, clutches of trees, and along the edges of many sheer cliffs. The road signs glowed in the last hours of day light, flaunting their cautionary counsel: 30 m.p.h. Turns, Road Narrows, Curvy Turns, Arcs Ahead.
As the night began to settle deep into the valley below, the road seemed even more treacherous to me. Even though I knew there was often nothing to my right but a gaping hole, at least I could see it in the fading daylight; I knew my proximity to the precipice. Not being able to see this somehow made it worse. I gripped the steering wheel and maneuvered us along the twisting highway. Every now and then, headlights would suddenly appear before me as a car going to opposite direction came careening around a corner, feeding my fear that something would come at us and cause me to jerk the wheel too far, sending D and I over the mountain edge. I finally had to wake D up and ask him to switch with me. Finding a place to pull over on these roads is a challenge as well. Eventually we found a safe spot and I pried my pale knuckles from the steering wheel.
D drove for a while longer until we decided we were both too tired to continue driving. We finally came across a rest stop situated between the highway and the jagged mountain walls. D pulled into the back of the parking lot and we built our bedroom. Worn out and weary, we crawled into bed and were asleep in seconds. Tomorrow morning we would be off to the next National Park in our path, Lassen Volcanic.
Westward Wanderlust Soundtrack Day 15
Bald Hills Road to Tall Trees Trail – The Dead Weather Sea of Cowards album