Guide to California’s redwood groves and the tallest trees on Earth

Taller than a football field. Older than Jesus. There are only a handful of places on Earth where living things fit these descriptions.

Photo: mason bryant

When people talk about the tallest trees on the planet, Sequoia sempervirens is what they’re referring to.

Commonly called coast redwoods, these giants are known to reach 379 feet tall (115.5 meters; in theory, they could grow as tall as 425′), with trunk diameters of up to 26 feet (8 meters). Some standing today sprouted before the birth of Christ.

Though once occupying a much larger range, they’re now confined to a narrow strip of America’s Pacific Northwest. Lucky for amateur tree-lovers, a large selection of serious coast redwoods is easily accessible to hikers (and, in some cases, drivers).

But the real titans remain hidden within forests of fog and van-sized poison oak vines, the secret of their locations safeguarded by a small band of die-hard forest explorers. Not only that, but more are being discovered each year.

What follows is a summary of the info that’s out there.

Redwoods for Mortals

Redwood hunters should head to the northernmost coast of California. Here, close to 65 square miles of old-growth forest is protected by the Redwood National and State Parks system. There are also big trees in southern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest and in reserves near the Bay Area.

Redwood groves are year-round destinations; in fact, they can be at their most majestic in winter, with a lusher look and smaller crowds. Just make sure to check park websites for the latest on opening hours and services, as many California state parks have been burned by budget cuts.

Here’s a rundown of the best groves to seek out, listed in order of difficulty:

Stout Grove panorama / Photo: M. D. Vaden of Oregon

Avenue of the Giants
Location: Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Length: 30-35 miles

This 30-mile section of old Highway 101 offers an effortless option for seeing big trees. If the landscape looks familiar, it’s probably because scenes of the Ewok moon of Endor from Return of the Jedi were filmed here.

A four-mile detour down Mattole Road (where the highway crosses Bull Creek) will take you to more groves and a short hiking trail.

Stout Grove
Location: Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park
Trail length: 0.6 mile (loop)

The individual trees here may not be record breakers, but the collective aesthetic of the grove makes it one of the better known.

Montgomery Grove
Location: Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve
Trail length: 2 miles (loop)

At less than five square miles, this is a tiny reserve, but it’s pretty much all old growth. Its sole trail loops through some serious groves.

One of the tallest trees in the world lives here — off-trail and unadvertised, of course.

Homestead and Big Tree Loop
Location: Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Trail length: 2.4 miles (loop)

This is one of the hikes accessible from Mattole Road off Avenue of the Giants. Both trails in the loop pass through old growth.

Near Rhododendron Trail, Prairie Creek
Photo: M. D. Vaden of Oregon

Brown Creek Trail
Location: Prairie Creek Redwood State Park
Trail length: 3.5 miles (loop)

The Brown Creek walk accesses some super thick groves and can easily be linked with the more backcountry-ish Rhododendron Trail.

Tall Trees Grove
Location: Redwood National Park
Trail length: 3.9 miles (one way)

Tall Trees Grove is home to the Libbey Tree, which at almost 363 feet was once the tallest on record. And unlike most other trees with this distinction, Libbey is open for viewing by the general public.

Of course, this makes the grove a huge draw, and a complicated system of permits and cryptic driving directions has been implemented to limit visitor numbers. Read more here.

Boy Scout Tree Trail
Location: Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park
Trail length: 5 miles (one way)

This one is remarkable for its abundance of unadulterated old growth, which also encompasses the drive to the trailhead.

Miners’ Ridge and James Irvine Loop Trail
Location: Prairie Creek Redwood State Park
Trail length: 11 miles (loop)

This trail combo is your best option for a full-day redwood trek. It takes in several diverse ecosystems, including an undeveloped beach.

* For additional details and maps of these and other redwood trails, check out the website — solid.

Redwoods for Superheroes (or Naturalists in the Know)

The locations of the tallest trees and most impressive groves are kept secret to protect the redwoods, their ecosystem, and inexperienced visitors alike.

In the words of Richard Preston, author of The Wild Trees:

…the truth of the matter is that redwood rainforest is exceedingly difficult to move through, physically. You get out in there, and it takes a physically fit person up to 12 hours to move two miles. You’re belly crawling, you’re crawling through thorns, your skin gets all bloody, you can’t see anything. It’s absolutely thick.

And then you come across these piles of redwood trunks that have fallen down like pick-up-sticks. These are trunks that are anywhere from eight to 12 feet in diameter piled up, and…you get a wall of wood that may be 30 feet tall. And as you climb over it, if you slip down into a crack, you can fall into the pile — 30 feet — and break your leg and never be heard from again.

Source: NPR

There’s also the fact that redwood country is bear and mountain lion country, too.

And on top of all that, trees are always growing and new groves are discovered frequently, so the official ranking of biggest and baddest is in constant flux.

Here are the most famous of the hidden titans.

Grove of Titans
Photo: M. D. Vaden of Oregon

Grove of Titans
Location: Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park

Discovered in 1998, this grove is said to have the biggest average tree size of any so far found. Its most famous resident is Lost Monarch, the most massive coast redwood known with a height of 320′ and a diameter of 26′.

According to Richard Preston, the grove lies at “the bottom of a hidden notch-like valley near a glade.”

Mario Vaden says, “Grove of Titans is across the water from the campground, on the west side of the Smith River,” and that it “extends through the confluence of valleys among flat, slopes and mounds.”

Atlas Grove
Location: Prairie Creek Redwood State Park

Knowledge of Atlas Grove dates to at least 1991. Iluvatar, currently the third-largest coast redwood by volume, is found here.

A careful study known as the Atlas Project was carried out recently in a portion of the grove to learn more about these giant trees and their habitat.

Hyperion: the tallest tree on Earth
Location: Redwood National Park

The current record holder goes by the name Hyperion and reaches a height of 379.1 feet. Standing at a remote, undisclosed location in Redwood National Park, it was found and measured just three years ago.

What descriptions there are of its position are quite vague: “in the southern section of the park,” “on a slope above a creek,” “too far from any trail to visit.” And capped off with, “Everyone who knows anything about this tree is sworn to secrecy.”

For an engaging account of one team’s search, check out Tom Clynes’ “Slippery Slope: In search of Humboldt’s giant Hyperion redwood.”

* Special thanks to Mario Vaden for allowing use of his photos here.

Community Connection

Make sure not to miss the companion Photo Essay: GIANT Redwoods, the Tallest Living Things on Our Planet

Have you hunted hidden redwoods? Stumbled on the location of Grove of Titans, Atlas Grove, or Hyperion? Trips wants to hear from you in the comments.

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  • Ben | Backpack Australia

    Great post! For some disturbing reason I’ve always been really fascinated by big trees. There is something about thinking of how the enormous tree has evolved from a tiny, tiny nut, in to this freakly huge tree. And who am I kidding, Huge stuff kicks ass!


  • Abbie

    Perfect timing – standing next to a giant redwood tree is on my recently published life list :)

  • Simone

    Wonderful! There is really nothing more silent and sacred than a redwood forest — they feel, like a beautiful church, full of prayer. I spent my high school years running cross country through the redwoods every afternoon, unaware of just how lucky I was.

  • Carlo Alcos

    Great list Hal.

  • Hal Amen

    Thanks guys. Haven’t had this much fun researching a piece in quite a while. I had no inclination to visit this region, but now I feel like I need to be standing in the fog under these gentle monsters.

  • karl

    I find it interesting that this article centered completely on the Coastal parks 3+ hours north of San Francisco and by extension the coastal redwoods (Sequoia semprevirum). The article made ZERO mention of Sequoia or Kings Canyon national parks and the bigger Sierra Redwoods (Sequoia Giganteam) that are about 3ish hours north of Los Angeles in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
    Between the redwoods, Banana Slugs and the Roosevelt Elk, Prairie Creek is amazing but for my money the basically roadless Kings Canyon is better, more wild and more fun.

    • Hal Amen


      As the title lets on, this piece was all about the *tallest* trees (i.e., coast redwoods). The giant sequoia (largest in the world by volume) would make good material for a followup article.

    • Redwood Explorer

      @ Karl … I’ve met several people who travel California and internationally, and the preponderance put the Coast Redwoods ahead of the Giant Sequoia for the overall awe and grandeur. Also, one Coast Redwood is the 8th largest tree in the world, and there are several Coast Redwoods wider even than General Sherman trunk. Jedediah Smith and Prairie Creek redwoods each have a redwood 30 feet in diameter if people take the time to look for them. The biggest and tallest coast redwoods are in the far north redwood parks, literally blowing away Muir Woods. Muir Woods max is near 260 feet, shorter than Oregon’s tallest Pine tree. All the redwood parks are nice, but the article chose wisely to focus on the northern range of the trees.

    • Pin51co9ol

      you can take the smog with you in kings canyon

  • Sierra Hiker

    Great List, Hal!
    My favorite place on earth is Lady Bird Johnson Grove in Redwoods State Park. Up a windy road (I drove up it in a Toyota Corolla, hauling a trailer once…NOT recommended!!) just outside Orick, CA. There is a beautiful 1 mile loop through some amazing sequoias. Yes, you get the mysterious foggy days here, and there are rarely any “looky-loo” tourists (even if you go in the middle of the summer).
    This is where I want my ashes scattered, to become part of this wonderful eco-system, to become part of the trees.
    Thanks for telling us about your redwood hikes so we may enjoy them too!

  • Jillian

    If you have the chance to go, go! I grew up about 30 miles north south of the Redwoods. They are beautiful and something everyone should see in their lives.

  • Raymund with a U

    Lady Bird Johnson Grove that Sierra Hiker mentioned is where I plan to go next. I’ve read that the location of Hyperion the tallest tree is supposed to be between that grove on the hill and the headwaters of Larry Dam Creek. That sounds like its got to be in the Lost Man creek basin or on the hill between it and Lady Bird Johnson.

    Am itching to drive up there in the next couple of weeks. A friend overheard a ranger say something which confirms Hyperion is south of Larry Dam Creek, not just south of its small headwaters.On Google Earth, the area looks well protected from wind. If I don’t find it, at least there is a new trail to try out in the area.

    • Hal Amen

      Sounds intriguing, Raymund. Definitely let us know how it goes.