or years, the Grove of Titans was barely more than a myth. Incredibly old. Incredibly large. And incredibly hard to find.
It used to be that the grouping of eight old-growth redwood trees deep within Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park near Crescent City could be reached only by following clues in a book about tree hunters. There were no direct hiking trails, and the nearest road was miles away.
Then, in 2011, someone uploaded a geotag marking the trees’ location online. As many as 50 people a day began finding their way to the grove and loving it to death.
The onslaught of tourists bushwhacking through the rain forest is slowly killing the giant trees, park officials say. The damage can be reversed by building elevated walkways and viewing platforms, similar to the ones used at Muir Woods, they say. But it’s going to cost more than $1.4 million.
The Redwood Parks Conservancy, the nonprofit paired with the state park, is crowdfunding part of its construction. So far, the group has raised $14,940. There is no timeline for when the project will begin or finish, and there is little state funding available.
There are many trees in the park, but none quite as large as the titans. The biggest ones — Del Norte Titan, at 307 feet, and the 230-foot Lost Monarch — are the fourth- and fifth-largest known coastal redwoods in the world.
Naturalists Stephen Sillett and Michael Taylor named the stand in 1998 and wrote about it in their book “The Wild Trees.” In a chapter called “The Lost Valley,” they gave clues about the redwoods’ whereabouts, tempting many readers to set out to find the giants.
Officials say a walkway would protect the redwoods’ shallow and fragile root systems from being trampled and prevent the flattening of forest vegetation. Already, an area of native plants about the size of seven basketball courts has been badly damaged, and a tree in the grove called Screaming Titans is showing signs of stress, officials say.
“There’s a trail network going into and out of the forest grove right now that looks like the Los Angeles freeway system,” said Joanna Di Tommaso, development director for the Redwood Parks Conservancy. “The goal of this project is to get ahead of the problem and make sure we don’t wait until the trees are already dead to do something.”
Visitors have stripped layers of bark from the redwoods’ trunks while posing for tree-hugging photos, destroyed huge swathes of ferns on the forest floor and left behind trash such as protein bar wrappers and plastic bottles. And the culprits aren’t hard to find, if the hundreds of geotagged photos on Instagram are any indication.
“Started the day off by finding the elusive Grove of Titans!” one woman wrote, her four children squeezed into a hollowed-out redwood trunk. “Explorer’s reward,” said the caption on another photo shot upward into the canopy.
“They have this mentality of, ‘Oh, it’s just me,’” said Brett Silver, sector superintendent for the California State Parks. “‘I’m not doing any damage. If I just go out there, I won’t hurt anything.’ They aren’t thinking of the thousands of other people doing and thinking the exact same thing.
“The genie is out of the bottle, and we can’t put it back. It’s gotten to the point where the social trails are more flattened and in better condition than our own trails.”
Soil compaction caused by meandering hikers has led to increased erosion and hurt plant growth, according to a park report issued last year. Visitors also bring in seeds and pollen from other areas, introducing non-native species, the report said.
“Social trails are often created with motivations such as avoidance, exploration, access to places of interest and shortcuts,” said Claudia Voigt, a researcher with Humboldt State University who wrote a thesis on damage caused by social trails in the park. “Once created, social trails are difficult to disguise and slow to recover because of the associated vegetation loss. Frequently-used trails become more attractive because of the ease of use.”
Those trails, in turn, draw more visitors because they are easily recognizable, she said.
Some 200,000 people are expected to visit Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park this year, nearly double the total who visited in 2015. The increase was partly because of the National Park Service’s centennial anniversary last year, Silver said. That means more people are straying down the undesignated trails.
Park officials have installed signs with before-and-after photos showing damage to the redwood stand, but not enough people are getting the message. The park has also put up cameras near the grove that capture footage of trespassers, but ticketing offenders is difficult.
“The state parks just don’t have the resources to keep up with the monitoring and maintenance required to pick up after everyone, let alone catch the offenders,” said Di Tommaso.
“Although we have tons of incredible trees, everyone wants to go to this particular stand because of its name,” she said. “Creating a new path for that purpose will be incredibly helpful.”
Building a walkway right to the grove might save it. But Silver said he knows it’s going to take time. The conservancy has barely made a dent in the needed funding, and significant help from the state is unlikely. There’s barely enough money now to cover maintenance projects on trails, officials say.
“Everyone who is going in there is doing damage,” Silver said. “If people could just have some patience, we can get the trail built out. We just need to fund the project first. We know they want to see it. We want to share it. It will happen, but it’s going to take time.”