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.

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