Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Merced Grove

Giant sequoias of Merced Grove
3 miles round trip, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

Merced Grove is the quietest of the three groves of giant sequoias in California's Yosemite National Park, a tranquil collection of a handful of massive trees reached by a short and not terribly difficult hike from a trailhead just minutes away from the park's Big Oak Flat Entrance. After its waterfalls and granite domes, giant sequoias are perhaps the next most heralded attraction at this extremely popular national park. Almost all visitors head to Mariposa Grove in the southern part of the park and a good number stream into Tuolumne Grove during summer months as well. Merced Grove sees the fewest visitors of these groves, despite having some impressive big trees. The grove is quiet and beautiful, but at the end of the day has fewer and smaller trees than the more famous Mariposa Grove. First time visitors to the park will probably want to stick with seeing Grizzly Giant in Mariposa Grove, but repeat visitors will find this an enjoyable hike to experience these great trees with just a fraction of the crowds. The trail heads downhill on the way to the grove and requires hiking uphill on the return, so make sure you're in appropriate condition to hike up before you head down to the grove.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Yosemite National Park has used a permit quota system to restrict the number of visitors in the park during peak tourist season. Check nps.gov/yose before you go to see whether there are currently restrictions on visiting the park.

I hiked to Merced Grove during a mid-April visit to Yosemite. The trailhead is conveniently located just off of California Highway 120, just a few miles from the Big Oak Flat entrance that most Bay Area visitors use to pile into this park. To reach the trailhead, I followed Highway 120 east from Manteca in the Central Valley, staying on Highway 120 at the junction in Oakdale and Chinese Camp. I passed Groveland as the sun began to rise and arrived at the Big Oak Flat entrance around 7 AM. The Merced Grove Trailhead was four miles beyond the entrance station on the right side of the road: there was parking for about 10 cars and a pit toilet.

The hike to Merced Grove started out by following a road trace south from the parking area. The initial 3/5 of a mile were flat and easy as the trail passed through a sparse and fairly uninteresting forest. At 0.6 miles, the trail came to a junction; I took the left fork for Merced Grove. This left fork was another road trace but this time, the trail began a steady descent. Over the next mile, the road trace dropped about 550 feet down into the valley of Moss Creek.

As I approached the bottom of the valley, I began to catch glimpses of soaring, burnt-orange tree trunks of enormous girth. The trail then arrived at the base of a cluster of five old-growth giant sequoias. This collection of trees- which marked the start of the grove- were perhaps also the grove's most spectacular sight. Although there are larger trees elsewhere in the grove, this is the only spot in Merced Grove when so many sequoias are in such close proximity. A fence kept visitors away from the base of these trees to protect these sequoias' sensitive roots.

Cluster of sequoias at the start of Merced Grove
Continuing on from this first cluster of big trees, the trail descended a bit more to reach the Merced Grove Ranger Station, passing directly in between two old growth giants at one point. The ranger station was a rustic wooden structure that was unstaffed at the time of my visit; it was surrounded by a number of soaring old growth redwoods. The trees were not particularly dense here but a few of these trees were of impressive size. This was the heart of the grove and marked the end of the hike. I stuck around the ranger station for a while, gazing up at the massive giants nearby before returning to the trailhead.

Giant sequoia
Giant sequoias- Sequoiadendron giganteum- are the largest single-trunk organisms on our planet. These trees can reach diameters of about 30 feet and grow up to 250 feet tall. While their coastal cousins, the redwoods, are taller, no other tree on Earth is as massive. These trees likely had a much more widespread range but today these species are confined to a number of groves scattered along 250 miles of the west slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Merced Grove is one of the northernmost giant sequoia groves left: only nearby Tuolumne Grove, the famed Calaveras Grove, and northernmost Placer Grove are at higher latitudes. As there just tens of old growth sequoia groves left in the world, the species is in increasing danger, not only from development and logging but from climate change. Sierra snowpack is diminishing and wildfires are becoming more severe. Merced Grove survived the 2013 Rim Fire that devastated the area around the Big Oak Flat entrance, but in the summer of 2020 some of the southernmost giant sequoia groves were lost multiple old growth giants to the Sequoia Complex Fire.

Giant sequoias near the Merced Grove Ranger Station
Giant sequoias are the species' most common name for the moment, but I'm not sure it is a name that necessarily makes as much sense as more descriptive names like the Sierra redwood. This is partially because the name "Sequoia" has little to do with these massive trees: it is not a name bestowed by the local Miwok or any other native peoples of California. Instead, the name was most likely settled upon by European scientists, who named the tree after Cherokee leader Sequoyah. While Sequoyah developed a syllabary for his people's language and certainly deserves to be honored, it does strike me a bit odd that his name has stuck on a tree that has no real relation to him.

Soaring sequoias
I had the entire grove and the entire hike to myself. Granted, this wasn't surprising as I wrapped up my hike by 9 AM; still, I visited on a nice spring weekend when traffic was terrible in Yosemite Valley. While Merced Grove is far from being the most impressive grove of giant sequoias, it is still a beautiful and tranquil spot to appreciate these mighty trees and a good place to escape Yosemite's crowds.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

High Rock (Humboldt Redwoods)

Eel River from High Rock
1.2 miles, 200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Short dirt access to trailhead, no fee required

The old growth redwood forests of California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park are among the most extensive and beautiful such forests left on the planet. The short hike to High Rock visits some of the most extraordinarily beautiful alluvial flat redwood forest in the park and leads to a pretty view over the winding Eel River. The river view- while not remarkable- gives this hike more variety than most of the other hikes in the area that stick to forest alone, while the beauty of this particular forest makes this a hike that can challenge the better known trails through Rockefeller Grove and Founders Grove in Humboldt Redwoods. While few hikers choose this hike, the trail's proximity to the traffic on the Avenue of the Giants somewhat disrupts the quiet; still, this is an excellent hike for visitors to Humboldt Redwoods looking for some variety and a place to avoid the crowds at the more popular redwood groves.

I hiked to High Rock during a January trip to Northern California's Redwood Country. Humboldt Redwoods State Park is far from any major metropolitan area, about a four hour drive from either San Francisco or Sacramento, although it is just 40 minutes driving away from Eureka, the main population center in Humboldt County. Regardless of which direction you're coming from, you'll have to take US 101; to reach the trailhead, leave US 101 at exit 663 and follow Highway 254- the Avenue of the Giants- north. The Avenue of the Giants started out by following the Eel River but soon left the riverbank and enters forest; I came to the High Rock Trailhead 2 miles after turning onto the Avenue of the Giants. The road to the trailhead was unmarked and difficult to find if you're not looking for it: a short dirt road led to the right off the Avenue of the Giants and towards the river, with a slightly wider parking area about 50 yards off the Avenue that marked the start of the hike. The turnoff is on the east side of the Avenue of the Giants just slightly past the signed turnoff for the High Rock Conservation Camp.

There's no sign telling you that you're at the start of the trail, so you'll need to do your homework in advance to make sure you know where you are. An unmarked but well-established trail headed off to the right (to the south) from the dirt road and entered one of the most glorious old growth forests I've experienced. Humboldt Redwoods is particularly well known for its alluvial flat redwood forests and that's exactly what the trail goes through here. Although the forest is not particularly expansive here- its width is only the two hundred meter distance between the Avenue of the Giants and the sandbars of the Eel River- the flats here are magnificently lush and the trees here are stately and soaring. The generally open redwood sorrel ground cover at the start of the trail is similar to other areas of sorrel ground cover in the park like the Grieg-French-Bell Grove, but the redwoods along the High Rock Trail are certainly more impressive.

Redwoods along the Eel River
The trail passed by a number of signs indicating the names of the groves. The Save the Redwoods League- the organization responsible for the preservation of most of California's old growth redwood forests- uses naming rights as a fundraising tactic to raise money to save these forest giants. The Save the Redwoods League was founded in the 1910s when Stephen Mather, the then director of the National Park Service, dispatched a group of conservationists to northern California to investigate the claims of soaring trees of immense height. Upon reaching coastal northern California, these conservationists- who went on to found Save the Redwoods League- realized that California's two million acres of old growth redwood forest was rapidly being consumed by voracious sawmills to feed California's booming economy. Banding together to found the League, they worked to have some grand old growth forest along the Eel River protected in Humboldt Redwoods State Park with the help of funding from John D. Rockefeller.

Save the Redwoods League's efforts ultimately resulted in the preservation of Humboldt Redwoods State Park and what is today Redwood National and State Parks. However, public lands today protect only about 100,000 acres of old growth redwood forest of the 2 million acres that once stretched across this area of the state. Almost no privately owned old-growth forest remains. The great redwood forests that once would have lined the shores of Humboldt Bay and the Mendocino Coast are now no more. Thus, while the world's tallest known tree today is the coast redwood Hyperion in Redwood National Park, there's a good chance that taller redwoods might have once stood in these forests but then fell to loggers' saws. The forests that remain today are inspiring with their skyscraping canopies, but contemplating the removal of vast tracts of redwoods here also imbued me with a deep sense of loss.

Redwoods along the trail to High Rock
There are few things that can make me feel as small as standing on the floor of a redwood forest. Looking up, I could see straight and sturdy trunks of the redwoods around me soaring over three hundred feet high. The tallest known coast redwood today is a specimen in Redwood National Park reaching 379 feet tall.

Soaring redwoods
At a quarter mile from the trailhead, the trail crossed a bridge over a creek. Soon after crossing the bridge, the trail left the alluvial flats of the early stretch of trail and began a gentle ascent through redwood forests on a slope. The trees became a little smaller here and the ground cover transitioned between the a sorrel-fern mix to predominately ferns, but the forest was still very beautiful and impressive here. 

Redwoods rise above an understory of ferns
As the trail climbed gently, it passed by an unmarked spur trail heading off to the left that I believe led down to the banks of the Eel River. The main trail continued onwards, passing close by the roadway of the Avenue of the Giants before making a couple switchbacks up the north slopes of High Rock. The forest here transitioned from redwoods to a drier mix of oaks and madrones. The trail going up to the viewpoint atop High Rock was unmarked but obvious: I kept following the switchbacks up to the top of the low ridge and then I followed the trail on the ridge out to a fenced-in viewpoint. There is no grand, sweeping view here: just a narrow view of the Eel River through a medium-sized gap in the trees. That said, this was still a nice view of the Eel River, with faraway forested mountains rising over the river and three-hundred foot forest giants rising directly from the river's banks nearby.

Eel River flowing through the Humboldt Redwoods
I saw just two other hikers on my evening hike up to High Rock. While the forest may not be as expansive as some of the other groves at Humboldt Redwoods, it still exemplifies many of the qualities that make redwood forests so special and makes for a lovely hike when paired with the views of the Eel River. I recommend for both visitors to the region and those who hike here frequently.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Richardson Grove

Redwoods of Richardson Grove
0.6 miles loop, 0 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Richardson Grove State Park entrance fee required

For many northbound visitors, Richardson Grove signals their arrival into northern California's Redwood Country. This small state park protects a majestic old growth redwood grove that is bisected by US Highway 101. While the narrow drive through the grove on US 101 is already quite scenic, many visitors will find that the grove is even more beautiful when explored on foot on this short and flat loop trail. Richardson Grove does not quite match the lushness of the more famous groves to the north in Humboldt Redwoods State Park or Redwood National Park, but it is an easily accessible and enjoyable leg-stretcher for travelers on US 101. There are more extensive trails in Richardson Grove State Park, but the short loop described here visits the most impressive part of the grove.

I visited Richardson Grove during a January trip to Northern California's Redwood Country. Richardson Grove State Park is far from any major metropolitan area, about a 3.5 hour drive from either San Francisco or Sacramento and still over an hour away from Eureka. Regardless of which direction you're coming from, you'll have to take US 101, which passes through the grove a little bit north of Leggett and a bit south from Garbersville. As this is perhaps the most impressive redwood grove directly along US 101, you'll know you're at the park when you arrive; there is a signed turnoff into the park on the west side of the road, which I took and then followed the park road to the visitor center, which was the trailhead for this short loop.

The Richardson Grove Visitor Center- which occupies the structure once known as the Richardson Grove Lodge- is in the very heart of the grove, surrounded by towering redwoods on all sides, with the lodge itself built around a number of redwood trees. This lodge was once a popular retreat for vacationers from the Bay Area; its location as the southernmost of the major groves in the Humboldt Redwoods area made it a popular destination for tourists not looking to travel much farther north. Many aspects of this lodge- including the choice to build it amongst and around old growth redwoods- would be considered abominations by modern environmental preservation standards but these structures still stand as they were built long before these environmental considerations came to mind.

Richardson Grove Lodge (now a visitor center)
From the visitor center, short loops branch off to both the north and the south. This short hike through Richardson Grove combines both loops, each of which are flat and wide. The southern loop is particularly enjoyable to hike and is only about a third of a mile long. To reach the southern loop, I left from the left (south) side of the visitor center, where a nature trail with many interpretive placards led around the bases of these massive redwoods.

Richardson Grove had a majestic feel with its soaring, pillar-like trees reaching over 300 feet into the air. Although the soil and branch litter groundcover here was more reminiscent of the drier redwood forests to the south, the size of these trees and the number of exceptionally big trees made this grove substantially more impressive than groves in the Santa Cruz Mountains or Sonoma County. 

Soaring redwoods at Richardson Grove
The southern loop was intuitive to follow, despite a few intersections with side trails that led to a camp amphitheatre and out to US 101. The interpretive placards gave good background on the trees, noting that these trees- the tallest known in the world- have many odd quirks. For example, redwoods are extremely resistant to fire and many still stand and grow even when their trunks have been hollowed out and blackened by fire. These remarkable cavities in the trees are today known as goosepens, as that's exactly how many early European American settlers in the region used them. Redwoods are also notable in their ability to regenerate, sprouting new trunks from burls in the trunk or base of existing trees after damage. 

Near the far end of the southern loop, I came upon an absolutely massive redwood that sported two massive burls on either side of its trunk, about thirty feet off the ground, each of which then supported another soaring vertical trunk. This was an extraordinarily voluminous redwood- surely one of the largest trees in the grove- and a highlight of this hike.

Massive burl on a redwood giant

Soaring redwoods of Richardson Grove
After finishing the southern loop, I found myself back at the visitor center. Walking along the backside (western side) of the visitor center, I came to a parking lot at the north end of the visitor center and then set out on the northern loop. The forest here was still beautiful but the trees were perhaps somewhat less impressive than those on the southern loop. The trail ran quite close to US 101 and the sound of traffic was constant. The trail intersected with trails leading to the western section of the park; stay right at every intersection to do this loop clockwise and return to the visitor center.

Richardson Grove
Richardson Grove's proximity to US 101 has become a problem for both the highway and the grove itself. The grove marks the narrowest stretch of US 101 in its 808-mile journey up the state of California as the highway is confined by the trees themselves. In fact, the current highway is too narrow here to accomodate tractor-trailers carrying freight up this main coastal arterial, forcing cargo traveling from Eureka to San Francisco to take a nearly 300-mile detour up through Grants Pass, Oregon. As the redwoods line both side of the Eel River here, it's not feasible to simply reroute US 101 around the grove; therefore, Caltran's current plan is to widen the highway in the grove itself. Such a plan would require a number of trees in the grove to be cut down, although Caltrans claims that the trees affected would only be second-growth. 

As of early 2021, work has not begun on this road expansion yet, but Caltrans is fighting with environmental groups (including Save Richardson Grove) to break ground. The commercial need for widening US 101 is obviously clear for Humboldt County, but old growth redwood groves like Richardson Grove are a rarity now that 95% of Northern California's old growth redwood forests have been logged. While Caltrans states that no old growh trees will be removed, it has acknowledged that roadwork will likely overlap with the delicate root systems of the old growth here, which is a problem as redwoods- tall as they are- have very shallow and sensitive roots. Ultimately, this tug of war between economic development and saving soaring trees some 2000 years old will depend on our priorities and our values.

In case you're worried about the effect that road expansion will have on Richardson Grove, it's probably better to visit sooner rather than later. If you visit Humboldt Redwoods or Redwood National Park, you'll see more impressive forest. But if you don't bother to leave the highway, this grove remains a place where you'll be forced to slow down enough to notice and be in awe of this majestic forest.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Damnation Creek

Redwoods meet the coast at Damnation Creek
4 miles round trip, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The Damnation Creek Trail passes through an incredibly lush and beautiful redwood forest on its descent from US Highway 101 to the Pacific coast in California's Del Norte Redwoods State Park, which is a part of the larger Redwood National and State Parks system. The hike's coupling of spectacular forest and coastal scenery makes it one of the premier hikes around Redwood National and State Parks.  The hike makes a steep descent through redwood forest to reach the shoreline, meaning that hikers will have to tackle a fairly big hill climb on the way back. Damnation Creek is a good late afternoon hike- the west-facing slopes here allow sunlight to stream in late in the day, even when other redwood forests are largely in the shade. I found this to be one of the more enjoyable hikes during my second visit to Redwood National and State Parks.

The last bridge on the Damnation Creek Trail- which is just a few hundred yards before the trail reaches the beach- has seen structural damage and been closed for a few years now. While the trail is technically closed at this point, many visitors have obviously found ways to continue onward across the gully at that point to reach the coast. Park regulations dictate that you should turn around at the bridge; ultimately, you'll have to rely on your judgment on what to do here.

I hiked the Damnation Creek Trail during a January visit to Redwood National and State Parks. The trailhead is just off of US Highway 101, ten miles south of Crescent City and 30 miles north of Orick. The hike- and Redwood National and State Parks in general- is far from any major metropolitan area, with the San Francisco Bay Area, at six hours away, being the closest. Eureka is an hour and a half to the south. Thus, unless you live along the Northern California coast you'll have to make a trip out here. The trailhead is not clearly signed when approached from either the north or the south; there is an unmarked but well-defined parking area on the west side of Highway 101 at the trailhead. For those approaching from the south, the trailhead is on the left side of the road immediately after Highway 101 turns inland from the coastal bluffs of the Last Chance Grade; those coming from the north will just have to keep an eye out for the pullout on the right side of the road and know that they've missed it if they hit the Last Chance Grade. There are no restrooms at the trailhead and a Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park entrance fee is not required.

Leaving US 101, the Damnation Creek Trail immediately plunged into a soaring old-growth redwood forest with lush undergrowth. The trail began with a gentle ascent as the trail followed the east side of a low ridge with gargantuan coast redwoods; however, the trail roughly paralleled US 101 here, with the highway constantly within sight and earshot, so despite the impressive forest scenery it was not particularly quiet. 

Massive redwoods of Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
After a fifth of a mile, the trail leveled out as it rounded the side of a hill, leaving behind the sounds of US 101 and entering a redwood forest on west-facing slopes. Although the largest redwoods are typically found in valley bottoms and alluvial flats, there were some impressive giants here on these slopes. Late afternoon filtered into the redwood forest. Ferns dominated the understory here, coating the forest floor and contributing to the prehistoric feel of the forest; rhododendron occasionally dotted the understory here, too. This stretch of trail featured the hike's most impressive trees.

Lush redwood forest along the Damnation Creek Trail
Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
The trail descended steadily down these slopes, soon paralleling the Coastal Trail for a stretch (ignore the first use path descending to the Coastal Trail and stay on the single-track Damnation Creek Trail, which stays just uphill of the Coastal Trail. At 2/3 of a mile from the trailhead, the Damnation Creek Trail intersected the Coastal Trail. Crossing the Coastal Trail- which was a wide, well maintained road trace in the Last Chance section here- I continued on the Damnation Creek Trail, which began to follow a ridge.

Sun filtering into the redwoods
The Damnation Creek Trail briefly followed the top of a gently descending ridge, winding between the bases of some soaring redwoods. I really enjoyed this part of the hike: the slight topographic prominence of the ridge helped the trees here catch a lot of late day sun, making for gorgeous lighting.

Redwoods along the ridge
Soaring redwoods along the Damnation Creek Trail
The trail soon began to descend in earnest, dropping down the continent's final western slopes in a series of well-graded switchbacks. Sun filtered through the redwoods and Douglas firs and I caught glimpses of the late-day light glimmering on the Pacific through the trees. The trees here were not as large as higher on the ridge, the understory vegetation was less spectacular, and there were more non-redwood trees mixed in here, but the forest still had a serene and cathedral-like feel.

Forest along the Damnation Creek Trail
Redwood forest
As I descended further down the switchbacks of the Damnation Creek Trail, the composition of the forest began to change: the redwoods became smaller and Sitka Spruce started getting mixed in. Coast redwoods are intolerant to salt, so despite their name they are almost never found directly along the coast. Sitka Spruce, on the other hand, are still able to grow and reach impressive heights even when bathed in sea spray, so spruce trees largely dominate the immediately seaside forests of Redwood National and State Parks (and much of the Pacific Northwest coast!). Though lacking the girth of the mighty redwoods, Sitka spruce are able to achieve impressive heights as well: the tallest known Sitka Spruce reaches 315 feet tall on Vancouver Island and even here along the Redwood Coast they are nearly able to match the height of their more rich-hued and majestic neighbors.

Soaring redwoods
Soon the redwoods ended completely and the forest was spruce alone. The trail turned away from the coast and continued its descent into the canyon of Damnation Creek; some final steep drops brought me to the level of the creek. The trail then began following the creek towards the coast. There were two wooden truss footbridges over gullies along this final stretch of trail; both were damaged during my visit, the first having been partially crushed by a falling tree and the second fenced off with orange netting. As no signage prohibited me from crossing the first bridge, I made my way to the second bridge, where I found a way across the gully and emerged onto the grassy bluffs rising above the rocky beach at the mouth of Damnation Creek.

This was a lovely spot of wilderness coast with sweeping views to the south. The hills of the Del Norte Coast dropped away steeply to meet the ocean here. Far away, the skyscraping skyline of coast redwoods rose above coastal bluffs, making this a rare spot to simultaneously appreciate the world's tallest species of trees alongside the planet's largest ocean. Seastacks dotted the coast, each sending up a curtain of mist each time a wave rolled in off the Pacific.

Beach at the mouth of Damnation Creek
The view to the north was more limited, as a high bluff rose directly to the north on the other side of the mouth of Damnation Creek. While the views from the low grassy bluff were nice, it was not particularly straightforward to get from here down to the beach itself and I stayed at this slightly elevated viewpoint of the ocean to watch the sunset.

Rocky Pacific Coast at Damnation Creek
While I saw a handful of hikers on the way down to the beach, I had the coast all to myself when I arrived about 20 minutes before sunset and did not another person for the rest of the evening. I watched that day- the last day of a particularly bad four years- end as that mid-January sun sank below the western horizon, illuminating the surf on the incoming waves just as it was about to disappear behind the ocean. This is a beautiful spot for a sunset, but if you choose to watch the sunset here it is very important to have a flashlight or headlamp available to return safely up the trail. As dusk settled in, I returned the way I came.

Pacific waves lit by the setting sun
Damnation Creek is an excellent hike, with both a lush and towering redwood forest and access to a rocky and scenic stretch of wilderness coast. While Del Norte Coast Redwoods does not contain the most spectacular of the redwood forests, the varied scenery of this hike still makes it one of the most outstanding hikes on the Redwood Coast.