The Skinny: The redwood forest of northern California is a must-see destination. The seaside town of Trinidad is a lovely base for your forest explorations.
People are spellbound by superlatives – the biggest, the tallest, the shortest, the oldest, the best. That’s why the Guinness Book of World Records is the best-selling copyrighted book series of all time (itself, of course, a superlative), and one of the most-stolen books from public libraries in the US. Go to their homepage and you will discover the world’s largest atlas (England), the record for most human mattress dominoes (China), the youngest-ever Wimbledon champion (Boris Becker), and the most people unwrapping candy simultaneously (590 in New Hampshire, USA).
The redwoods of northern California and Oregon belong to the exclusive club of the superlative, and are, to my mind, even more impressive than 590 people unwrapping chocolates at the same time. In fact, you would have to stack about 65 of those people on top of each other to reach the tip of the tallest redwoods, something which might interfere with their ability to unwrap chocolate.
The numbers are staggering. Many trees tower over 300 feet (91 meters), and trees over 200 feet (61 meters) are quite common. The tallest known tree, discovered in 2006 and named Hyperion, is 379 feet tall (115 meters) and still growing. To put that in context, it’s taller than a 30-story skyscraper, and over 200 feet higher than Niagara Falls. A single tree may carry thousands of pounds of epiphytes and other plants in its branches – in one tree researchers found a single mass of ferns weighing more than 1,600 pounds (726 kilos). One tree can yield as many as 65,000 board feet of marketable lumber.
And that’s part of the problem. Redwoods are extremely valuable to the logging industry. It’s estimated that over 95% of old-growth redwood forests have been lost due to logging, and what’s left are thin slivers and isolated pockets of ancient trees. Even so, standing in what’s left of the redwood forests is a humbling and awe-inspiring experience, and visitors bring in revenue and provide incentives to protect these areas.
The little town of Trinidad is just south of Redwood National Park, and is an intensely picturesque place to use as a base for exploring the area. There are a number of gorgeous beaches in and around Trinidad, but the easiest to access and most kid-friendly is Trinidad State Beach, directly below the town.
The beach is a wide sandy crescent framed by two towering promontories – Trinidad Head and Elk Head – and backed by steep bluffs studded with Nootka roses, twining morning glories, blackberries, and many other sun-and-sea-loving wildflowers. You’ll see black oystercatchers and other sea birds, and hear the barking of sea lions on the offshore islands.
At low tide there are extensive tide pools at the northern end of the beach. We lucked out and found ourselves in the company of a local schoolteacher who was also a marine biologist, who pointed out magnificent (and massive) sun starfish, sea slugs, many species of crabs, anemones, and other life of the tidal zone. (Keep an eye on the incoming tide if you don’t want to have to wade.)
Two hiking trails can be accessed directly from the beach. Trinidad Head Loop follows a fairly strenuous route around the point, but opens out on stunning views of the harbor and coastline. The Elk Head Trail is a much easier walk and is virtually unused by anyone but locals.
But you came here to see some big-ass trees, and big-ass trees you shall see. About twenty minutes north of Trinidad you’ll come to Redwood National Park. There are trails for every ability and interest, so it’s easy to find something suitable. The Trillium Falls Trail is a fairly easy 2.8-mile loop through old-growth redwoods and monumental ferns. Trillium falls itself is a small but scenic cascade that tumbles through a maple-lined ravine. Giant banana slugs race through the undergrowth, and if you gently and carefully turn over damp logs, you’re likely to uncover California slender salamanders, arboreal salamanders, and rough-skinned newts. You might even catch a glimpse of a California red-sided garter snake, but if you do, and you’re wearing the baby, try to refrain from lunging for it and scrambling wildly on your hands and knees in an attempt to catch it. Your wife will be upset with you. Trust me.
The aptly-named Big Tree Loop is an easy 3.2-mile trail that includes portions of the Prairie Creek and Cathedral Tree trails. The trail head can be found at the park headquarters at Elk Prairie where, as you might expect, you’re almost assured of seeing elk. Stop for a picnic at the base of a “fairy ring,” a circular stand of trees that spring up when the parent tree dies, and you’ll feel like you’re eating in the forest primeval.
If you’re headed back south on Highway 101, by all means take the detour on the Avenue of the Giants – a 31-mile stretch of old 101 that parallels the new highway. It is, in a word, breathtaking, and you can do short hikes like the one to the Dyerville giant on the Founders’ Grove nature trail. The Dyerville giant, 52 feet (16 meters) in circumference and 1,000 years old when Columbus landed in the New World, fell in 1991 – over 1 million pounds (450,000 kilos) of redwood crashing to the forest floor – and will now be studied as it begins the centuries-long process of decay. May it rot in peace.
A single mature specimen of the subfamily Sequoiideae has been around for the rise and fall of empires, the ‘discovery’ of the New World, countless revolutions and two world wars, raging forest fires and lumberjacks’ ripping saws, the eradication of smallpox and men on the Moon. Standing in a redwood forest produces an emotion akin to being in the Sistine Chapel or Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, an indescribable synthesis of wonder and insignificance. Let’s hope that we have the foresight and will to allow these venerable titans to see what the next couple of millennia will bring. And by the way, sequoia is one of the shortest words in the English language to contain all five vowels. And that’s pretty superlative, don’t you think?
Where to Stay
As always, vrbo.com is an excellent resource for finding home rentals. Trinidad Retreats has some great property listings, as does Redwood Coast Vacation Rentals. We shared a house on the cliff top above the beach with my wife’s sister and her family which was quiet, secluded, and had spectacular views. It also had a fireplace, which was a welcome amenity on chilly evenings, which was all of them. Summertime temperatures range from 40 to 65 Fahrenheit (4-18 Celsius), so don’t expect to spend a lot of time sunbathing. Sunsets from the house were spectacular, and it would be easy to spend hours simply sitting on the deck, watching the ever-changing sea and sky.
One tip on renting a house: if you plan to do much cooking, ask prospective places if the kitchen is stocked. It’s depressing to open the cupboards and find them bare, and have to buy such essentials as salt, sugar and oil, or to have to get a big bag of dried basil for that pinch you need for the spaghetti sauce. The kitchen at our house was absolutely packed with goodies, which made the stay a lot easier.
If you’re interested in camping, Patrick’s Point State Park offers excellent facilities and gets rave reviews, along with hiking trails among some splendid scenery. There are four campgrounds within Redwood NP; the only one we saw was Elk Prairie, which looked nice but didn’t seem to offer a lot of privacy. Keep in mind that nights get quite chilly, so have good sleeping bags for the kids.
Where to Eat
To be honest we ate mostly at home, which was easy because Murphy’s Market and Deli is an outstanding supermarket for such a small town. If you stay in Trinidad, you’re going to be shopping at Murphy’s.
The Beachcomber Café is a fun and funky place with pretty good food. Recommended.
The folks at the Moonstone Grill graciously allowed us to get takeout on our first evening in Trinidad, and although it was somewhat pricey, the food was great. Highly recommended.
Well people, I hope you can make it to Trinidad and the redwoods at some point. I’m dying to go back and spend some more time there myself. Maybe we’ll run into each other. Until then, keep looking up.