Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Cheatham Grove

Redwoods rising above the fern understory of Cheatham Grove
0.7 miles loop, 10 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Three hundred-foot tall coast redwoods tower above a lush understory of redwood sorrel and ferns in Cheatham Grove, one of the most beautiful groves of these skyscraping trees in Northern California. Outside of the main tourist circuit of Redwood National Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Cheatham Grove, which lies within Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park in an alluvial flat on a bend of the Van Duzen River, is far quieter than better known groves while being every bit as beautiful. In fact, Cheatham Grove's forest scenery was so otherworldly that George Lucas filmed scenes of the forest moon of Endor from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi here. The hike through this grove is entirely flat and can be done in a leisurely hour and the trailhead is just a short drive down Highway 36 from the main arterial of Highway 101 along the Northern California coast. 

Cheatham Grove is closer to the Humboldt Redwoods region than Redwood National and State Parks; it is south of Eureka and east of Fortuna. Most visitors will from Highway 101; to reach the grove, exit Highway 101 onto Highway 36 just south of Fortuna (or north of Rio Dell) and follow Highway 36 east for just under 13 miles through Hydesville and Carlotta. Immediately after the first bridge over the Van Duzen River, turn left into a small and easily missable parking lot on the left side of the road with a sign for Owen Cheatham Grove. There are no bathroom facilities at the trailhead, which has a tiny parking area sandwiched between the redwood forest and the river with enough room for only about six or so cars. I visited Cheatham Grove in a September trip to the Humboldt Redwoods region, choosing to focus on redwoods at a time of year when wildfire smoke made most of the alpine hiking in California unpleasant.

The trail into Cheatham Grove leaves the parking lot by the river and drops just slightly downhill into this magnficent grove. The magic of the grove is apparent from the start of the hike: the vertical trunks of stately redwoods appeared like the columns of a great cathedral. The soft mulch tread of the trail cut through a sea of ferns and redwood sorrel covering the ground. The understory of the forest was open enough that faraway trees were visible, but still had enough growth to add more pleasant greenery at eye level.

A few meters into the forest, the trail split at the start of the loop through the grove. I chose to travel counterclockwise through the grove, taking the right fork to start; there's no particular rationale to travel one way or the other.

Trail through redwood sorrel in Cheatham Grove
The right fork cut through the heart of the grove. There were a few truly massive trees here, although overall I found the trees here smaller than the ones in the more famous parks to the north and south; the attraction of this grove is really in the overall beauty of the grove. Owen Cheatham certainly thought so: Cheatham was the founder of the lumber and paper company Georgia-Pacific, which expanded beyond its traditional East Coast holdings to encompass redwood forests in the California by the 1940s. Although Cheatham's company was otherwise engaged in the obliteration of old growth forests, Cheatham was impressed by the beauty of his namesake grove and donated this plot of land to the State of California. It's interesting how many of California's redwood parks are named after the men who spared small patches of forest after being primarily engaged in their destruction: Hendy Woods and Samuel P. Taylor State Park, for instance, have similar histories behind their names.

Verdant Cheatham Grove
The trail looped through the grove, which occupied a wide bend in the Van Duzen River. A few spur trails split off to the sides of the main trail at times and it was sometimes unclear what was the main trail and what was a spur; however, as the grove is quite contained, all spur trails were fairly short and I simply backtracked and took the other fork at the last junction whenever I reached a dead end.

Cheatham Grove
About halfway through the loop, I passed a spot where a thin fallen trunk arched across the forest at just above head height. This spot was immortalized in film history in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, in which a stormtrooper is knocked off his speedbike by this trunk while chasing Luke and Leia. This splendid forest was George Lucas's forest moon of Endor, home of fuzzy Ewoks.

Cheatham Grove
Cheatham Grove is part of the remnant 5% of old growth redwood forests that have survived two centuries after European-American colonization of California. Old growth redwood forests once stretched across the coastal plains near Eureka and Fortuna, but 95% of the old growth redwoods that would have been found here in 1850 have been felled by timber companies. 

Redwoods of Cheatham Grove

Cheatham Grove

Soaring redwoods in Cheatham Grove
One of the most unexpected sights in the grove was a massive, branching maple tree that grew sideways in the middle of the redwoods, with a sprawling footprint and canopy to match. The maple was reached via a short detour path off to the right of the main trail; after checking out the maple, I returned to the main loop and continued counterclockwise and soon found myself at the start of the loop and the end of the hike.

Giant maple in Cheatham Grove
I saw just two other hikers during my morning stroll through Cheatham Grove- granted, I was here shortly after sunrise on a Sunday morning, so most people probably weren't out of bed yet. All in all, I found this grove to be extremely scenic and enjoyed its Star Wars connection; swing by if you have extra time between visiting Humboldt Redwoods and Redwood National Park!

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