Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Lady Bird Johnson Grove

Upland redwoods of Lady Bird Johnson Grove
1.5 miles loop, 150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Potholed paved road to trailhead, no fee required

In 1968, Lady Bird Johnson dedicated the newly established Redwood National Park in this sunny, upland forest of soaring trees that was later named after her. Attaching the former first lady's name to this grove has made it a fairly popular tourist stop: this is perhaps the most frequented grove within the official federal boundaries of Redwood National Park. It is indeed a beautiful spot, with plenty of massive trees towering a groundcover of rhododendron and ferns; however, visitors to the larger Redwood National and State Parks complex will find more impressive forests and trees in Prairie Creek Redwoods and Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Parks. Visitors with limited time are encouraged to concentrate their efforts at Stout Grove or the Big Tree Loop, but those with a bit more time or who are determined to see the national park proper will find this to be an enjoyable and easy hike as well.

I hiked to Lady Bird Johnson Grove during a January visit to Redwood National and State Parks. The hike is far from any major metropolitan area, at about six hours driving from San Francisco and six and a half hours from Portland, but is just an hour away from either Eureka or Crescent City on US 101. The closest inhabited area is Orick; from Orick, I reached the trailhead for the LBJ Grove by taking US 101 north for a mile and then turning right onto Bald Hills Road. I followed Bald Hills Road- a paved but steep and sometimes potholed road- for three miles uphill until reaching a well-marked turnoff on the right for Lady Bird Johnson Grove. There was ample parking here, perhaps enough for around 40 cars; in summer, this trailhead is likely to be crowded, but in January there was only one other car parked here.

The trail started by crossing a well-built pedestrian bridge with wooden planking that spanned Bald Hills Road, allowing hikers to avoid having to walk across a road frequented by large logging trucks. The forest at the trailhead is not impressive, with the landscape dominated by a dense and thin second growth forest. Five decades ago, at the time of the park's establishment, visitors hiking this trail would encountered hills stripped of their mighty forests overlooking vast swaths of largely denuded mountains. 

Pedestrian bridge over Bald Hills Road at the start of the trail
A largely-logged landscape might seem antithetical to a national park, but in the case of Redwood National Park, the logging here was exactly the reason the national park was needed. When European Americans first arrived on the northern California coast, about 2 million acres of old growth redwood forest covered the coastal plains, alluvial flats, and mountains along the coast. By the 1960s, after nearly a century of aggressive logging, only about 5% of those forests remained. While much of this remaining forest was protected in a series of state parks stretching from Humboldt Redwoods along the Eel River to Jedidiah Smith Redwoods just short of the Oregon border, the largest remaining unprotected tract of redwoods remained along the Redwood Creek watershed outside Orick. A National Geographic Expedition that reported the tallest known trees on the planet in this watershed, along with a concerted push by the Save the Redwoods League and the Sierra Club, helped get a bill establishing Redwood National Park to President Lyndon Johnson's desk. As Congress and the Johnson Administration worked to preserve these trees, local logging companies- such as the Arcata Redwood Company (ARCo) raced against time to harvest as many trees as possible. As a result, many lands incorporated into the new national park were either logged or directly bordered forest that had been logged at the last minute.

Luckily, Lady Bird Johnson Grove- as well as some of the tallest trees along Redwood Creek- escaped the chainsaws and the sawmill. As I followed the trail across the bridge over the Bald Hills Road and gently down the crest of the ridge for about 200 meters, I finally left the second growth and arrived among the giant trees saved by the establishment of Redwood National Park. At a fifth of a mile from the trailhead, the trail forked at the point where the two legs of the loop split; this junction was marked by a massive coast redwood of astonishing girth.

Massive redwoods in Lady Bird Johnson Grove
I did the loop clockwise, choosing to the take the left fork along the ridge first. The trail along the ridge traveled through a bright upland redwood forest, which had a much different feel than the lowland alluvial flat redwood forests that tend to make for the most famous groves. The understory composition was different here, with rhododendron, evergreen huckleberry, Oregon grape, and salmonberry growing in lieu of the more aggresively lush fern and sorrel understory found in the lowland forests. With no mountains blocking low angle sunlight, morning rays poured into the grove, casting elongated shadows of the canopy onto the forest floor.

At 0.6 miles from the trailhead, after a stretch of gentle descent along the trail, I came to a junction with the Berry Glen Trail. The Berry Glen Trail led to the left downhill towards Highway 101 while the Lady Bird Johnson Trail headed to the right. This junction was marked by a plaque noting that Lady Bird Johnson dedicated the newly formed Redwood National Park at this very spot in 1969, a year after her husband had signed into law this national park. Redwoods of extraordinary height soared above the ridge here, giving this spot a hushed and cathedral-like feel.

Redwoods at the heart of Lady Bird Johnson Grove
I stayed on the Lady Bird Johnson Grove at the junction with the Berry Glen Trail. The trail turned to the right and began to loop back to the east just below the top of the ridge. Here, the understory composition shifted, with a return of ferns. The trail wove amongst the bases of these living skyscrapers over the next 0.6 miles until it returned to the junction where the loop had split; at that junction, I took the left fork and returned over the bridge to the trailhead.

Lady Bird Johnson Grove
Coast redwoods are the tallest known trees on Earth today, with the very tallest specimens found just a few miles away from the Lady Bird Johnson Grove in the Redwood Creek drainage. The importance of preservationist advocacy in saving these trees for us to see today cannot be understated. Great expanses of old growth forests once blanketed the West Coast of the United States before the arrival of European American immigrants; Douglas Fir trees up to 400 feet tall may have once dotted the Pacific Northwest. In Chile and Argentina, old growth alerce forests in Patagonia once rose to unmeasured heights. Yet most of the old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest and Patagonia, lacking human advocates at the time of their greatest vulnerability, fell victim to axes and chainsaws. Today, we still have Lady Bird Johnson Grove and these soaring redwoods because environmental organizations spoke up in the 1960s. We must remember, too, that the long term health of these lands is now our responsibility.

Redwoods of Lady Bird Johnson Grove
Lady Bird Johnson Grove
Lady Bird Johnson Grove is one of the best known hikes in Redwood National Park, so it is typically quite busy during tourist season. However, arriving early on a weekday morning during the middle of January, I saw only a handful of other hikes over the course of the hour that I spent in this hushed and lovely grove. At the height of tourist season, there are certainly better and quieter hikes in Redwood National Park, but when this hike isn't crowded it's certainly extremely beautiful with its unique upland forest feel.

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