The world’s tallest living trees can be found along the northern California coast. Of the coast redwood forests still around today, almost one half of them can be found within the protected boundaries of Redwood National and State Parks. In 1994, the National Park Service and the California State Parks joined forces to manage four parks Redwood National Park, Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Coast and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks collectively known as Redwood National and State Parks. These parks have been designated a World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve, thereby protecting that which is loved by many.
Redwood National and State Parks are home to some of the world’s tallest trees: old-growth coast redwoods. They can live to be 2000 years old and grow to over 300 feet tall. Spruce, hemlock, Douglas-fir, berry bushes and sword ferns create a multiple canopied understory that towers over all visitors. The parks’ mosaic of habitats include prairie/oak woodlands, mighty rivers and streams and 37 miles of pristine Pacific coastline. Cultural landscapes reflect American Indian history. The more recent logging history has led to much restoration of these parks. Three California state parks and the National Park Service unit represent a cooperative management effort of the National Park Service and California Department of Parks and Recreation. The four parks that contain 45 percent of all the old-growth redwood forest remaining in California are:
- Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
- Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
- Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
- Redwood National Park.
Together these parks are a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, protecting resources cherished by citizens of many nations.
History & Culture
The native people of the North Coast region have made the redwood forests and associated ecosystems their home for thousands of years. These American Indians spoke many different languages and held numerous and distinct identities. Today, the descendants of these people continue to live on and off reservations in the redwood region. Prior to Euro-American contact, American Indians had adapted well to this environment. Their profound religious beliefs, extensive knowledge of the natural world, languages, customs and perseverance continue to be a source of admiration for other cultures.
American Indians in the region belonged to many tribes, although no one tribe dominated. Indeed, the concept of “tribe” does not describe very well the traditional political complexity of the area. There were scores of villages that dotted the coast and lined the major rivers; each of these villages was more or less politically independent, yet linked to one another by intricate networks of economic, social and religious ties.
Food sources important to the native peoples included deer, elk, fish from the ocean, rivers and streams, nuts, berries and seeds. Efficient and reliable hunting, fishing and gathering methods were always paired with a deep spiritual awareness of nature’s balance.
Traditional homes of the region’s American Indians usually were constructed of planks split from fallen redwoods. These houses were built over pits dug beneath the building, with the space between the pit and the walls forming a natural bench. A house was understood to be a living being. The redwood that formed its planks was itself the body of one of the Spirit Beings. Spirit Beings were believed to be a divine race who existed before humans in the redwood region and who taught people the proper way to live here.
Once gold was discovered along northwestern California’s Trinity River in 1850, outsiders moved into the area in overwhelming numbers. The initial contact with native peoples was gruesome.
The newcomers pushed the American Indians off their land, hunted them down, scorned, raped and enslaved them. Resistance and many of the American Indians did resist was often met with massacres. Militia units composed of unemployed miners and homesteaders set forth to rid the countryside of “hostile” Indians, attacking villages and, in many documented cases, slaughtering men, women and even infants. Upon their return, these killers were treated as heroes and paid by the state government for their work.
Treaties that normally allotted American Indians reservations were never ratified in this part of California. Although treaties were signed, the California delegation lobbied against them on the grounds that they left too much land in Indian hands. Reservations were thus never established by treaty, but rather by administrative decree.
To this day, the displacement of many tribes, the lack of treaty guarantees and the absence of federal recognition of their sovereignty continue to cloud the legal rights of many American Indians.
When Euro-Americans swept westward in the 1800’s, they needed raw material for their homes and lives. Commercial logging followed the expansion of America as companies struggled to keep up with the furious pace of progress. Timber harvesting quickly became the top manufacturing industry in the west.
When gold was discovered in northwestern California in 1850, the rush was on. Thousands crowded the remote redwood region in search of riches and new lives. These people were no less dependent upon lumber and the redwoods conveniently provided the wood the people needed. The size of the huge trees made them prized timber, as redwood became known for its durability and workability. By 1853, nine sawmills were at work in Eureka, a gold boom town established three years prior due to the gold boom. Large-scale logging was soon underway and the once immense stands of redwoods began to disappear by the close of the 19th century.
At first, axes, saws and other early methods of bringing the trees down were used. But the loggers made use of rapidly improving technology in the 20th century that allowed more trees to be harvested in less time. Transportation also caught up to the task of moving the massive logs. The locomotive replaced horses and oxen. The era of railroad logging became the fastest way to transport the logs to mills.
Land fraud was common, as acres of prime redwood forests were transferred from the public domain to private industry. Although some of the perpetrators were caught, many thousands of acres of land were lost in land swindles.
By the 1910’s, some concerned citizens began to clamor for the preservation of the dwindling stands of redwoods. The Save-the-Redwoods League was born out of this earnest group and eventually the League succeeded in helping to establish the redwood preserves of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
But still logging continued in those parts of the forests that were privately owned, accelerated by WW II and the economic boom of the 1950’s. By the 1960’s, logging had consumed nearly 90 percent of all the original redwoods. It wasn’t until 1968 that Redwood National Park was established, which secured some of the few remaining stands of uncut redwoods. In 1978, Congress added more land that included logged-over portions of Redwood Creek. Today, these lands are undergoing large-scale restoration by the parks’ resource managers. Logging continues on privately-held lands nearby and throughout the redwood region.
Save the Redwoods League
When redwood logging reached a fever pitch by the 1890’s, most of the redwood forests had become privately owned. Though some people had previously proposed the idea of preservation, the huge demand for lumber in America made it impossible at the time.
By the late 1910’s, it became obvious that the last remaining stands of old-growth redwoods were about to disappear. Because the trees had been linked with fossil records millions of years old, they were looked upon as a living link with the past. Thus, the urge to protect these last stands came not from an aesthetic concern, but rather a scientific one.
Paleontologists Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History, Madison Grant of the New York Zoological Society and John C. Merriam of the University of California at Berkeley founded the Save-the-Redwoods League in 1918. The League was formed as a nonprofit organization dedicated to buying redwood tracts for preservation. Through donations and matching state funds, the League bought over 100,000 acres of redwood forest between 1920 and 1960.
The majority of these purchases consisted of North Coast redwood groves. The California Department of Parks and Recreation created Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park in the early 1920’s with these lands. Today the League continues its protective work in partnership with RNSP.
The Memorial Grove Program of the Save-the-Redwoods League was started in 1921 when the first large donation was given to the League to purchase and dedicate a redwood grove. Now more than 700 memorial and honor groves, named for individuals and organizations, have been established in California State Parks and Redwood National Park, with more being added each year.
Thanks to the California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR) and the National Park Service (NPS), citizens of the world will always have the opportunity to experience the majestic coast redwood ecosystems at RNSP. The stories of the two agencies is one of cooperative management at RNSP, because they now work side by side to maximize protection of the parks’ natural resources.
When redwood harvesting began in the early 1850’s, over two million acres of old-growth redwood forests existed. But Euro-Americans took less than 60 years to reduce this number into hundreds-of-thousands of acres. By the late 1910’s, a preservationist group called the Save-the-Redwoods League began purchasing large tracts of redwood acreage in an effort to save the quickly disappearing forests. The State of California pledged to match funds put forth by the League and between 1920 and 1960, over 100,000 acres were set aside through this partnership.
In the early 1920’s, the state of California established the three state parks, as well as Humboldt Redwoods State Park to the south, with the purchased lands. Since these early days, the state park system has protected the parks’ natural and cultural resources while welcoming visitors to explore the redwood groves and surrounding ecosystems.
However, logging continued outside the state parks and as the years passed by, conventional thinking about the environment changed as well. In the 1960’s, more emphasis was placed upon the importance of preserving whole ecosystems as opposed to just portions of ecosystems. Aided by the Sierra Club and the National Geographic Society, the Save-the-Redwoods League now called for Congress to create a national park that would include land in the Redwood Creek area adjacent to the state parks.
By this time, 90 percent of the original redwoods had been logged. after much controversy and compromise with timber companies, Congress finally approved a federal park and on October 2, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the act that established Redwood National Park. The new preserve placed 58,000 acres in the care of the NPS.
Some of Redwood National Park included state park lands, which were still under state jurisdiction. Also, NPS land included the Tall Trees Grove along Redwood Creek, which remained at risk from upstream logging. As the logging continued into the 1970’s, sediment loads increased dramatically along Redwood Creek, threatening the health of the streamside redwoods.
In 1977, Representative Phillip Burton introduced legislation to expand the federal park. Despite much opposition from the timber industry, in March 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the addition of 48,000 acres to Redwood National Park. This addition widened the protection in Redwood Creek, although 39,000 acres of the addition were already logged over. Restoration of these lands commenced and continues today.
And then, in 1994, the NPS and CDPR agreed to jointly manage the four parks for the best resource protection possible. RNSP today form a World Heritage Site and are part of the California Coast Range Biosphere Reserve, designations that reflect worldwide recognition of the parks’ natural resources as irreplaceable.
Nature & Science
Superlatives abound when a person tries to describe old-growth redwoods: immense, ancient, stately, mysterious, powerful. But the trees were not designed for easy assimilation into language. Their existence speaks for themselves, not in words, but rather in a soft-toned voice of patience and endurance. From a seed no bigger than one from a tomato, California’s coast redwood (Sequoia semperviren) may grow to a height of 367 feet and have a width of 22 feet at its base. Imagine a 35-story skyscraper in your city and you have an idea of the trees’ ability to arouse humility.
Some visitors envision dinosaurs rumbling through these forests in bygone eras. It turns out that this is a perfectly natural thought. Fossil records have shown that relatives of today’s coast redwoods thrived in the Jurassic Era 160 million years ago. And while the fantastic creatures of that age have long since disappeared, the redwoods continue to thrive, in the right environment.
California’s North Coast provides the only such environment in the world. A combination of longitude, climate and elevation limits the redwoods’ range to a few hundred coastal miles. The cool, moist air created by the Pacific Ocean keeps the trees continually damp, even during summer droughts. These conditions have existed for some time, as the redwoods go back 20 million years in their present range.
Exactly why the redwoods grow so tall is a mystery. Theories continue to develop but proof remains elusive. The trees can reach ages of 2,000 years and regularly reach 600 years. Resistance to natural enemies such as insects and fire are built-in features of a coast redwood. Diseases are virtually unknown and insect damage insignificant thanks to the high tannin content of the wood. Thick bark and foliage that rests high above the ground provides protection from all but the hottest fires.
The redwoods’ unusual ability to regenerate also aids in their survival as a species. They do not rely solely upon sexual reproduction, as many other trees must. New sprouts may come directly from a stump or downed tree’s root system as a clone. Basal burls, hard, knotty growths that form from dormant seedlings on a living tree, can sprout a new tree when the main trunk is damaged by fire, cutting, or toppling.
Undoubtedly the most important environmental influence upon the coast redwood is its own biotic community. The complex soils on the forest floor contribute not only to the redwoods’ growth, but also to a verdant array of greenery, fungi and other trees. A healthy redwood forest usually includes massive Douglas-firs, western hemlocks, tanoaks, madrones and other trees. Among the ferns and leafy redwood sorrels, mosses and mushrooms help to regenerate the soils. And of course, the redwoods themselves eventually fall to the floor where they can be returned to the soil.
The coast redwood environment recycles naturally: because the 100-plus inches of annual rainfall leaves the soil with few nutrients, the trees rely on each other, living and dead for their vital nutrients. The trees need to decay naturally to fully participate in this cycle, so when logging occurs, the natural recycling is interrupted.
At Redwood National and State Parks visit one of the five visitor centers to find out about ranger-led programs. Pick up an official map and look for these place names. Suggestions are given north to south. Howland Hill Road/Stout Grove 6 mile scenic drive through old-growth redwoods; 1/2 mile walk through river bottom grove of tremendous trees.
Enderts Beach/Crescent Beach Outstanding Pacific Ocean view from the overlook; 1 mile walk to Enderts Beach provides access to tidepools. Check low tide times.
Klamath River Overlook Watch for gray whales, other marine mammals and seabirds; hike 1/4 mile steep trail to lower overlook.
Coastal Drive 8 mile rough road winds past expansive Pacific Ocean views and descends into redwoods at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway/Big Tree Wayside 10 mile scenic drive through old-growth redwoods; 1/8 mile walk to Big Tree Wayside; Roosevelt elk viewing in the prairie.
Davison Road Roosevelt elk viewing; 2 mile Trillium Falls Trail loop. Gold Bluffs Beach – Go beyond Davison Road to access this isolated Pacific beach; hike Fern Canyon with 30 foot walls full of ferns; birdwatching and hiking.
Redwood National and State Parks are along US Highways 101 and 199.
Access additional park sites via the Bald Hills Road, Davison Road, Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, Coastal Drive, Requa Road and Enderts Beach Road (south to north).
Take South Fork Road to Howland Hill Road.
Redwood National and State Parks
1111 Second Street
Crescent City, CA 95531
Temperatures range from 40-60 degrees year round along the redwood coastline. Redwoods rely on the fog that envelops the coast in the summer. Summers are mild with warmer temperatures inland. Winters are cool with considerable precipitation.
Call 707-443-7062 for current weather conditions. Always pack your rain gear and good walking shoes for the slippery rain forest. Wear layers to accommodate cool to warm temperatures.