Photo: Stephen Moehle/Shutterstock

Guide to California's Redwood Groves and the Tallest Trees on Earth

National Parks
by Hal Amen Nov 23, 2009
Taller than a football field. Older than Jesus. There are only a handful of places on Earth where living things fit these descriptions.

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:

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.

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
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.”

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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