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.

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