The tallest living creature on Earth based on height (378+ feet / 115 meters) is thought to be the Hyperion redwood tree in northern California. Because California (and southern Oregon) is the only place in the world to see the tall redwood trees over 200 feet / 60 meters, many visitors have redwoods as one of the "must see" items during their trip.
This article consolidates information for someone interested in seeing redwood trees during a trip to California:
- Old Growth versus Second Growth
- Where to see Coast Redwoods in California
- Different ways to enjoy redwoods
- Sample itineraries
There are different types of redwood trees, just like there are different types of pines or oak. The Coast Redwood is just one of three different types of redwood trees living today:
- Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). Once found only in fossils and thought to be extinct, a grove was found in China in the 1940s. They are the smallest of the redwood species. Unlike the other redwoods which are evergreen, dawn redwoods are are deciduous and change colors in the fall. The only dawn redwoods in California are young (under 50 years old) and mostly found in botanical gardens.
- Giant Sequoia (Sequoia gigantea). Discovered in the Sierra Nevada during the gold rush, these trees are found inland at elevations between 5,000 to 8,000 feet. Although very tall, they are more massive and thick and their diameters are larger than the Coast Redwoods. Giant Sequoias (sometimes called Sierra Redwoods) are tourist attractions in their own right but are not the focus of this article.
- Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Found mostly in the alluvial plains by lower elevation coastal areas, Coast Redwoods are not as broad as the Giant Sequoias but grow taller.
Those interested in more detail about the differences between the types of redwood species can read the National Park Service brochure.
Characteristics of the Coast Redwood
Although the tallest redwoods are over 350 feet, expect a mature redwood tree several hundreds years old to be about 250 feet (75 m) and 15 feet (5 m) wide. For comparison, Niagara Falls has a 175 feet (50 m) drop. Coast redwoods grow tall because of the fertile alluvial soil, the large amount of rain and fog available, resistance to disease/fire/wind, as well as as the ability to regenerate and grow after fires or storms.
Redwood trees live a long time -- typically between 500-800 years, though some can live over 2,000 years. Several of the trees still alive today were born during the time of the Roman Empire and Chinese Xin Dynasty. Rewoods can grow a couple of feet each year; however, the size of the tree is not an accurate gauge of the age: Two same sized trees in the same forest can differ in age by a thousand years. Because the only way to estimate the age of a tree is to cut it down to count the growth rings, ages of living trees cannot be accurately estimated unless the planting date is known. Note that redwoods are not the "oldest" trees -- that belongs to the bristlecone pine (also found in California).
Coast redwoods are evergreen conifers and have needles instead of leaves. The cones are very small (fits in your palm) compared to the larger pine cones. The roots are also very shallow and trees avoid falling during a storm by spreading their roots very wide, interlocking with the roots of surrounding coast redwood trees for strength.
The most distinguishing characteristic of the coast redwood (besides the height) is the reddish brown bark. The tannins in the bark is what gives it the reddish color. The tannins also protects the bark from disease, pests and fire.
[Reddish-brown, spongy bark at Prarie Creek State Park]
Old Growth versus Second Growth
Just 175 years ago, coast redwoods could be found growing up and down the coasts of Oregon and California. However, much of those redwood forests have been harvested and cut down for use as lumber or fuel to drive factories during the gold rush years. Today, only about 3-5% of the original trees remain and the oldest redwood trees can only be found in county, state, or federal parks.
Second growth redwoods are those that have regenerated from the small sprouts or the seeds that were left after the original forest was cut down. There are also redwoods which were planted in areas where redwoods did not naturally grow. These trees are therefore fewer than 200 years old. Though they are still impressive (150 year old trees can be as tall as the Statue of Liberty), they are not as tall and wide as the older redwoods that are more than 400 years old.
[typical foggy morning at LadyBird Johnson Grove]
Regardless of the age of the trees, trails in Coast Redwood groves and parks have the following common characteristics:
- Shade because of the tall trees and canopy.
- Moist, spongy and soft ground because of decomposing foilage and ferns from the lack of direct sunlight.
- Fragrance from the decomposing foilage mixed in with scents from companion trees like the California Bay Laurel and the Douglas Fir.
- Fewer insects and mosquitoes because the tannins in the bark act as a natural repellent.
- Flowing water because streams or creeks are always nearby to orovide the alluvial soil that the redwoods need.
- Fog during the summer (and rain during winter) that supply year-round moisture for the trees and also that spooky beauty.
As a result, all redwood parks are wonderful to visit and can be enjoyable regardless of whether they are old growth or second growth forests. But given a choice between visiting younger trees or older trees, it makes sense to go for the older, more mature ones. But that doesn't mean that only the tallest trees are worth visiting. In fact many of the tallest trees are in "undisclosed" locations to prevent abuse (though enough people still visit to cause some deterioration).
[hard to see the top of a 280+ foot tree at Henry Cowell SP]
The following general principles are helpful for those interested in seeing impressive redwood trees:
- Go further north in California to see the older, wider and taller trees. However, the old growth trees in the 200-300 feet range are still mighty impressive and easy to visit via day trips from San Francisco. Parks with old growth forests will also have younger trees mixed as that is part of the natural cycle of the forest. Similarly, second growth forests may have one or two original trees remaining -- perhaps they were too hard to cut down or were saved before they could be harvested?
- Camp overnight if possible to fully enjoy the redwoods. The soft spongy ground and the shade make it a plesant place to camp.
- Expect fog (especially in the morning during the summer months) so dress accordingly in layers.
Where to See Coast Redwoods
Map of all California Redwood State Parks
List of Dave Baselt's Redwood Hikes
MD Vaden's Photo Album of all things Redwoods
The main areas to see California coast redwoods are as follows (from south to north):
- Big Sur: Mostly younger trees can be found at Pfeiffer Big Sur SP and Limekiln SP that provide pleasant redwood hikes, but without the the tall giants that are found further north. However, there are a few older growth ones:
-- On the Ewoldsen trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP (the redwood groves are near the beginning of the trail so you don't have to complete the whole loop. Just hike into the redwoods and then back if you are short on time)
-- A lone old-growth redwood right by the Big Sur Lodge restaurant at Pfeiffer Big Sur SP (park at the lodge restaurant, grab a drink and sit by the tree).
- San Francisco Bay Area (including Santa Cruz Mountains): Visitors can enjoy young coast redwoods transplanted from the Santa Cruz mountains right in downtown San Francisco at the Transamerica Pyramid Redwood Park. However, you have to venture outside the city for old growth redwoods. There are several options near SF. Because Muir Woods is the closest to SF and a National Monument, it is very popular and the de facto choice for SF visitors. There are also five "old growth" alternatives to Muir Woods that are a lot less crowded and much quieter:
-- Armstrong SNR is highly recommended even though it requires an extra hours drive further north. Not only is it larger than Muir Woods (800 acres to 250 acres in Muir Woods), it also has the taller tree (Parson Jones in Armstrong is 310 feet tall compared to 260 feet for the tallest tree in Muir Woods).
-- Henry Cowell SP is a good alternative to Mur Woods for those traveling to Monterey as it is about a 15 minutes detour off the freeway. It also has taller trees (285 feet) than Muir Woods.
-- Big Basin SP rewards those who make the long winding drive with larger groves and the tallest redwood tree in the Bay Area (the Mother of Forest tree at Big Basin is 329 feet tall).
-- Memorial Park is managed by San Mateo County and located in Pescadero. The campground is popular as it is located in the middle of a small grove of old redwoods. It is a 9 mile detour off Route 1 on the way from San Francisco to Santa Cruz.
-- Samuel P. Taylor SP is not as highly recommended as it only has one old growth tree within the second generation redwood forest. However, the park is very convenient for those visiting Point Reyes and the lone old growth tree is large enough to stand in.
- Mendocino: Montgomery Woods SP is often overlooked because it is so remote but it has one of the more scenic redwood groves and used to have the "tallest tree in the world". It has several trees in the 360 feet range. Less remote is Hendy Woods SP as it is close to Hwy 128.
- Ave of the Giants/Southern Humboldt County: The Avenue of the Giants is the commercial name of a scenic road that weaves through Humboldt Redwoods SP. It is a huge park with many old growth redwood trails that range from easy to strenous.
- Redwood National and State Parks: These are where the tallest trees over 350 feet are and the largest area of redwoods. About 45% of all the older trees still in existence grow within the separate parks (from south to north):
-- Redwood National Park is where the Hyperion tree and tallest trees over 350 feet grow.
-- Prarie Creek Redwood SP has a campground and is great for viewing elk. The Nathan Drury Scenic Parkway through the park offers lots of opportunities to stop at pull-outs and take short walks like the aptly named "Big Tree Wayside"
-- Del Norte Coast Redwood SP is not as popular for viewing redwoods because the taller trees grow at elevation and are hard to get to. However, it is the place for viewing rugged, wild coastline. Visitors who make the short walk to Enderts Beach at low tide are rewarded with tidepools and sea arches perfect for clambering.
-- Jedediah Smith Redwoods SP has the famous Stout Grove and "Boy Scout Tree" as well as the harrowing Howland Hill Drive. The campground by the Smith River is popular in the summer.
[enjoy redwoods right in downtown San Francisco]
Seven Different Ways to Enjoy Coast Redwoods
Although most people enjoy the redwood trees by talking a walk or scenic drive, there are other ways to enjoy the tall trees, the mystical fog, the distinctive smell, the shady canopy and the soft spongy dirt that characterises a redwood grove. Here are seven different perspectives to consider:
- By foot. The best way to enjoy redwoods is to simply go on a walk to appreciate the heights and also the other sights on the trail like ferns and banana slugs. Redwoodhikes.com has a list of self-guided trails with the old growth trails highlighted. Adventure companies and park rangers also provide guided walks to visitors.
- By horseback. Pack stations that offer redwood rides include Armstrong Woods, National Park Lodge Company & Redwood Creek Buckerettes in Redwood National Park, Richochet, Tell Tales or Ross Ranch in Mendocino, and Redwood Trails in Trinidad.
- By train. Classic options popular with kids include the Skunk Train in Mendocino and Roaring Camp in Felton/Santa Cruz.
- By car. Driving through redwood groves is both an exhilerating and harrowing experience as you try to avoid hitting huge tree trunks shroudded in fog. The classic scenic drives include Howland Hill, Newton Drury Scenic Parkway and the more commercial Avenue of the Giants. Of course, many visitors think of actually driving "through" a tree. There are three coast redwood "drive-through" trees: The Klamath Tour Thru Tree, Myers Flat Shrine Tree and Leggett Chandelier Tree. The other drive-through trees are Sequoias.
- By zipline/gondola. Take a ropes course or zipline among the majestic redwoods at Felton/Santa Cruz, Sonoma, or further north in Arcata. If ziplines are too stressful, try a gondola ride in Klamath to get a unique view of the redwood trees from the canopy.
- By bike. Many parks will not allow bicycles on hiking trails but there are some great bike trails (some with bike rental shops nearby) at Redwood National and State Parks, Armstrong SNR and Van Damme State Park in Mendocino. The Avenue of the Giants is open to both cars and bicycles.
- By Segway. Segway tours are popping up among older trees at Armstrong in Sonoma as well as in the younger trees in Oakland.
Sample Itineraries and Trip Reports
The following are links to resources posted by TA members:
Northern California Road Trips:
Day Trips from San Francisco:
Big Sur redwood drive:
- Pfeiffer Big Sur Hike past redwoods (Note.. some TA members find that the trees in the campground section are more impressive than the ones on this trail, plus there's a lone, large redwood right by the restaurant for viewing without having to hike).