A CLOSER LOOK AT REDWOOD NATIONAL AND STATE PARKS
July 30, 2004 11:00 pm
Tourists pose for pictures in front of Big Tree along Newton Drury Parkway. ().
Tourists pose for pictures in front of Big Tree along Newton Drury Parkway. ().

Pilot story and photos by BILL LUNDQUIST

The South Coast Discovery Series featured the North Coast of California July 23 with a talk on the Redwood National and State Parks.

Yes, that's "parks," not "park," explained Ranger Susan Davis, speaking outside the Book Dock at the Port of Brookings Harbor.

The system encompasses three California State Parks and National Park land that connects and surrounds them, all cooperatively administered by the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Worldwide, the parks are recognized as a World Heritage Site and part of the California Coast Range Biosphere Reserve.

Davis explained that the Redwood Parks idea began to germinate during the late 1800s.

Logging of the world's tallest trees began in the 1850s, when gold miners turned to a more stable way of making a living.

Bills proposing a Redwood National Park died in Congress in 1852 and 1879, but by the early 1900s, some groves near San Francisco came under state or federal protection.

A 1915 tour of the North Coast by three influential San Francisco men resulted in the formation in 1918 of the Save-the-Redwoods League, which has 43,000 members worldwide today.

The league helped establish three state parks to protect the towering redwoods: Prairie Creek Redwoods in 1923, Del Norte Coast Redwoods in 1925, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods in 1929.

Logging continued between the parks, however, and a National Geographic Society naturalist discovered in 1963 that the the tallest tree of all, nearly 368 feet, was not protected.

Congress rectified the situation with the Redwood National Park in 1968, which was expanded in 1978.

The 2002 purchase of 25,000 acres of heavily-logged land from Stimson Lumber Co. will further protect the park and allow the Mill Creek watershed to grow back into a redwood forest.

Together, the parks protect nearly half of all the surviving redwood trees in California. Unfortunately, 96 percent of the state's redwoods were harvested before they could be protected.

Those remaining, however, are one of the natural wonders of the world, and some of the best groves can be seen a short drive south from Brookings in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Simpson-Reed Grove is right on U.S. Highway 199, a few miles east of its junction with U.S. Highway 101.

Stout Grove is a few miles farther east, accessible from Howland Hill Road or across a footbridge in the summer from the campground at Jed Smith.

Information on both is available at the Hiouchi Information Center. Because the groves are on the Smith River, said Davis, flooding removes undergrowth, leaving the giant redwood trunks separated in a cathedral-like setting.

The park and river are named after Jedediah Smith, a fur trapper who explored the region in 1828 and recorded it in one of the best-kept journals of any explorer.

Park visitors can still explore the redwood forest back country today on Howland Hill Road, which progressed from an Indian path to a logging road paved with redwood planks.

Paved today with gravel and plenty of dust, the road is called a "corduroy" road by Davis.

"I can't imagine what it was like to travel on it in a buggy or wagon," she said.

Davis said a new archeological dig conducted by the University of California at Davis in the park has uncovered evidence of permanent dwellings dating back 6,000 to 8,000 years.

Today, said Davis, most of the area's modern highways and roads follow ancient Indian paths.

Old sections of U.S. Highway 101 can still be accessed at several points in the park. In the 1920s, the highway ran up what is now Enderts Beach Road just south of Crescent City.

The road now ends at the Crescent Beach Overlook, but Davis said portions of the abandoned pavement can still be seen near where Damnation Creek Trail (trailhead at mile post 16) intersects with the Coastal Trail.

Farther south, U.S. Highway 101 descends out of the trees to a rocky beach at False Klamath Cove.

Davis said redwood trees grow in a narrow fog belt and can't take the wind and salt air right on the beach.

A few miles farther south, Requa Road runs west from the highway to take visitors to an overlook 600 feet above the mouth of the Klamath River.

A turnoff just south of the bridge over the Klamath River takes visitors to the Coastal Drive, another old section of 101.

The drive goes to the old Douglas Memorial Bridge, which washed away in the great flood of 1964.

Visitors can then drive southwest on Alder Camp Road, a section of the old highway, or continue to the mouth of the river.

South of the mouth, the road turns to a narrow gravel route closed to trailers and motor homes.

It goes past what appears to be an old farmhouse and barn. The buildings were actually part of a World War II radar station where 40 soldiers worked every day.

The narrow road intersects with Alder Camp Road again near the High Bluff Overlook, a great place for a picnic.

Following the coast closely, Coastal Drive eventually comes out on Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, which was U.S. Highway 101 until 1992.

Davis calls the parkway "the Avenue of the Giants of the North" and admits its real name suffers in comparison with the more famous route in Humboldt County.

Still, she said, Drury Parkway was aptly named. Drury was a founding father and a director of the Save-the-Redwoods League. He also served as a director in the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the National Park Service. Few people did as much to save the redwoods.

The parkway is closed to commercial traffic and passes through 10 miles of redwood forest.

Trails long and short branch off the parkway. One of the most interesting is a quarter-mile interpretive trail named Ah-Pah.

Until 1995, the trail was a wide paved logging road. It now looks like a foot path through pristine ancient forest. Interpretive signs explain how the transformation was achieved.

Also just off the parkway are the Cal-Barrel Road scenic drive, and the Big Tree Wayside.

Big Tree is also aptly named, soaring from an unbelievably thick base to 305 feet tall.

Near the south end of the parkway is Prairie Creek Visitor Center, which features an old day-lodge, several trailheads, and a good site for viewing 1,200-pound Roosevelt elk.

Another good elk-viewing meadow is a few miles south of the intersection of the parkway and 101 at the base of Davison Road.

Davison Road also continues down to the Gold Bluffs. The bluffs are made of river rock sediment because they sit where the mouth of the Klamath River was millions of years ago.

The steep, narrow road can best be described as dust paved with more dust. Davis said she doesn't like to hike the back country until the fall rains settle the dust on the roads a bit.

A few miles farther south, Bald Hills Road takes visitors up to the Lady Bird Johnson Grove.

A plaque on the easy one-mile interpretive trail marks the spot where the First Lady dedicated the grove in 1969.

Davis recommended that those touring the flatter riverside groves along the Smith River should also tour Lady Bird Johnson Grove to experience the contrast.

The grove is on an inland ridge where the air is hotter and drier. There is more undergrowth between the giant trees, and a greater diversity of plant species.

From Bald Hills Road, a steep, twisty, but paved road, hikers can reach the Redwood Creek Trail along one of the most prolific coho salmon-bearing streams in California.

The road also leads to the Tall Trees Access Road. Permits can be obtained at the park information center in Crescent City or at the information center near Orick to drive the access road to the Tall Trees trailhead.

It takes about four hours round trip from 101 to drive and hike to the grove, but Tall Trees features several trees topping 360 feet, the world's tallest living things.

Bald Hills Road also continues to an overlook on the Redwood Creek watershed and southeast to the prairie portion of the park, once famous for sheep-raising.

Whether near Orick or Hiouchi, the redwoods are worth a look. Davis said scientists studying the canopy of redwood forests have discovered a unique ecosystem with plants and animals that never touch the ground.

The canopy is also home to marbled murrelets, sea birds that not only fly underwater, but fly through the air at up to 60 mph.

The only sea bird outside the tropics to nest in trees, a murrelet lays a single egg on the large limb of a redwood tree.

Unfortunately, said Davis, blue Stellar's jays, ravens and crows have come to the parks in search of scraps from human picnics, and have discovered murrelet eggs and chicks are easy targets.

"Please don't feed them," said Davis. "It encourages them to be around endangered birds."

"Everything out there is connected in one way or another," she said, "in ways we don't always understand."