Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Tall Trees Grove

Soaring redwoods of Tall Trees Grove
3.6 miles loop, 720 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Potholed, muddy gravel road to trailhead, no fee, Tall Trees Day Use Permit required

The discovery of a 369-foot tall coast redwood known as the Libbey Tree- the tallest known tree in the world at the time - in the Tall Trees Grove of the far north of the California Coast in 1963 by a National Geographic expedition prompted the establishment of Redwood National Park just a few years later. While the Libbey Tree has since been eclipsed by the discovery of other trees, the Tall Trees Grove still lives up to its name and is home to a number of extraordinarily tall trees that break 350 feet in height. The height of the trees here is the main attraction of this grove, which is otherwise less scenic than the more atmospheric and lush redwood forests at Jedediah State Redwoods, Prairie Creek Redwoods, and Humboldt Redwoods State Parks. Unfortunately, from the ground level, any redwood that breaks 200 feet looks extremely impressive and visitors will not get any more visceral sense of the height of the trees here than they would at many of the other parks along the Redwood Coast. Nonetheless, this is a sought-after destination due to the unique statistics of the grove's trees; to limit visitor impact to the grove, the National Park Service issues permits for just 50 groups to visit the grove daily.

Is it worth visiting? As I've just outlined, Tall Trees Grove is not the most scenic redwood grove; on a short visit to Redwood National Park you should concentrate your energy elsewhere, although it's worth seeing the grove if you have more time. Make sure you reserve your day use permit at least 48 hours in advance before you go: the road to the trailhead is controlled by a locked gate. Also, note that you'll have to descend from the trailhead to reach the grove: make sure you're in at least okay shape for the return ascent.

I hiked to the Tall Trees Grove during a January visit to Redwood National Park. The grove is far from any city; in fact, it's one of the more remote day hikes in the park, as it's most of an hour's drive from Orick. North of Orick, I turned off US 101 onto Bald Hills Road, which was a paved but narrow and highly potholed road that ascended past the Lady Bird Johnson Grove trailhead. I followed the Bald Hills Road for 7 miles, passing a large amount of logging traffic and the Redwood Creek Overlook. Shortly after passing the Redwood Creek Overlook, I came to a signed turnoff on the right for the Tall Trees Grove: turning right here, I entered the code to unlock the gate and then followed a decent gravel road downhill for the next seven miles to the parking lot for the Tall Trees Grove. There was limited parking at the trailhead.

I left the trailhead and began a steady descent on the Tall Trees Trail, immediately passing a turnoff on the left for the Emerald Ridge Trail, which provided alternate access to Redwood Creek. The forest near the trailhead was not particularly interesting or impressive: although there were a few redwoods mixed in, some of which might have been old-growth, the forest here was largely mixed and seemed to have been at least partially logged in the past.

The 1.4 miles from the trailhead down to the alluvial flats of Redwood Creek were really not much to write home about. Trailside vegetation alternated between a drier setting with berry bushes and a more lush setting with ferns. A few old growth redwoods grew near the trail but the forest seemed at least partially second growth and there were plenty of other species mixed in with the redwoods. A more notable stretch of trail passed beneath two massive but fallen old growth giants.

Fallen giant along the descent to the Tall Trees Grove
At slightly over a mile from the trailhead, the descent began to level out a bit as the trail crossed a forested bench with a dense understory. The trail straightened out as it crossed this bench, then made a final, short drop to reach the start of the Tall Trees Loop Trail at 1.4 miles.

Trail down into the Tall Trees Grove
The truly impressive redwoods did not start until the trail made its final descent down into the Tall Trees Grove. Upon reaching the alluvial flats of Redwood Creek, I was transported to a forest of soaring wood pillars, many taller than the Statue of Liberty. The loop trail through the alluvial flat started here: I took the right fork to hike the loop counterclockwise.

Redwoods of the Tall Trees Grove
Taking the loop through Tall Trees Grove counterclockwise, I encountered some of the most impressive trees first. Tall Trees Grove was quite small, covering an alluvial flat that is only about a third of a mile long with only about a hundred meters of space for the trees to grow between the hillslope and the creek. However, the trees that grew in this small area included some incredible giants. 

Tall Trees Grove
The tallest tree in Tall Trees Grove today is the Nugget Tree, an unmarked tree that is nearly 374 feet tall that briefly held the title of the tallest tree in the world in the 1990s. Nugget Tree, like other champion redwoods, is not identified for its own protection; as the Nugget Tree does not appear superlative from ground level, I was not able to identify it while I hiked through the grove.

Grove along Redwood Creek
The most visibly impressive tree in the grove was perhaps Redwood Creek Giant, a massive but unmarked tree to the right of the trail that is recognizable by its unrivaled girth in this grove. Redwood Creek Giant is the third largest tree in Redwood National Park and it is no slouch in the height department, either, at a skyscraping 360 feet. As a few feet of difference of the 360+ feet giants in this grove are generally not discernable from ground level, Redwood Creek Giant's incredible mass ends up making it one of the most notable trees in the grove.

Redwood Creek Giant
The understory of the grove was packed with ferns, but was also unusually busy with scattered smaller trees. This made the forest floor less open, detracting somewhat from the atmosphere of the grove. The forest here was not as lush as the fern-coated gulches of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park just a few miles away and the tall nearby ridges blocked the grove from receiving the copious sun that shines into Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park's Stout Grove. As a result, even though this grove was generally quite beautiful, the less inspiring understory and the relatively limited area of the grove made it a less compelling redwood forest than some of the groves found in other, nearby parks.

Tall Trees Grove
At 1.7 miles, the trail came to a junction: here, the Redwood Creek Trail split to the right, while the Tall Trees Grove Loop turned to the left and started its counterclockwise return. In summer, when flow is low in Redwood Creek, hikers can ford Redwood Creek and follow it downstream to a trailhead near Orick; in winter, after rains arrive, the creek is impassable. Thus, I stayed on the Tall Trees Grove Loop by taking a left at the junction. Shortly after passing the junction, I came to a social path down and to the right across the gravel bar of Redwood Creek to the banks of Redwood Creek itself. I took a short detour here to explore the banks of the creek. 

Redwood Creek flowed placidly through its valley here; looking back, I could see soaring redwoods on this bank of the river. Looking across, I was surprised by how much smaller the trees looked. In fact, much of the land across Redwood Creek was logged in the lead up to Redwood National Park's establishment- a reminder of how close we were to losing these redwoods altogether.

Redwood Creek
The return leg of the Tall Trees Loop had far fewer coast redwoods than the first half of the loop; the trail stayed close to the creek, where the vegetation was dominated by far smaller deciduous trees, many of which were overgrown with moss and ferns in this extremely moist environment. While the scenery here was still pretty here, it was nowhere near as spectacular as the great-girthed redwoods that hikers travel out here for. 

Lush environs along Redwood Creek
At about 2.1 miles, the trail reentered the redwood grove. Here, another social path led down to a second gravel bar along Redwood Creek. Walking out to the edge of the creek at his gravel bar, I looked back and had a great view of the redwoods of Tall Trees Grove soaring above the alluvial flats. Among the trees visible from here was the Libbey Tree, perhaps the best known redwood of Tall Trees Grove.

Tall Trees Grove from the banks of Redwood Creek
Returning to the trail, I soon arrived at a plaque at the base of the Libbey Tree, one of the few named trees in the grove that is publicly identified and that was once thought to be the tallest tree in the world, a tree that played an integral role in the creation of Redwood National Park. The Libbey Tree was 369 feet tall at the time of its first measurement in the 1960s but has been measured to be just 363 feet tall more recently, potentially due to loss of a segment of its crown.

Base of the Libbey Tree
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Libbey Tree was how utterly unremarkable it was compared to the other forest giants around it. Its base was not particularly wide and both trunks of the tree were slender for an old-growth coast redwood; the girth of the tree was slight compared to the nearby Redwood Creek Giant. Yet this tree was thought for over two decades to be the world's tallest, although it is now known that the Nugget Tree within this very same Tall Trees Grove is even taller. Still, the Libbey Tree is an extraordinary arboreal height specimen and is only 16 feet shorter than the current known champion, Hyperion; it remains the tallest tree with a publicly identified location in the world. Hyperion, the world's current height champion at 379 feet tall, also lies within the boundaries of Redwood National Park and is across Redwood Creek from the Tall Trees Grove area. Hyperion's precise location is not disclosed to protect this rare and superlative tree; as large portions of the slopes across Redwood Creek were logged prior to the establishment of the park, it is incredible that Hyperion was able to escape the chainsaw and the lumber mill. It made me wonder whether taller redwoods had once existed only to fall victim to the axe and the saw and whether what once would've been the tallest tree on Earth was now a cabinet or long-discarded paper.

As I later found out, my thoughts were not idle ones: taller trees have almost certainly existed in the past along the West Coast of the United States, until European American arrivals in the nineteenth century decimated these great expanses of timber. 95% of old growth coast redwoods have been logged in the past two centuries, but many tall champion redwoods like the ones in Tall Trees Grove escaped logging because of their remoteness. The forests of Douglas Fir in Washington State and British Columbia were not so lucky. In 1924, the tallest known measurement for a tree was made by a former US Forest Service chief near Mineral, Washington; he found a Douglas Fir that measured 393 feet tall, 14 feet taller than Hyperion today. The Nooksack Giant, a massive tree that grew in the shadow of Mount Baker near the Washington-British Columbia border, was purportedly 465 feet tall at the time it was logged. While the veracity of that claim is unclear, photographic evidence and reported numbers on marketable lumber from the tree are not inconsistent with the superlative claims. At any rate, taller trees have almost certainly existed on the West Coast of North America within the past two centuries.

Libbey Tree
The Libbey Tree is, ironically, named for Howard Libbey, the founder of the Arcata Redwood Company (ARCo). ARCo was one of the major logging operators in the Redwood Creek valley prior to the establishment of the park and fought the formation of the park, so it's hard to think that Libbey's name is an appropriate name for what was once the tallest known tree in the world.

Shortly after I left the Libbey Tree, I closed the loop around this soaring redwood grove on the alluvial flat. Connecting back to the main Tall Trees Trail, I followed the path uphill back to the trailhead. On my drive back to the Bald Hills Road, I had to reopen the gate for Tall Trees Road, making sure to relock it before I continued on with my day.

Tall Trees Grove can be somewhat hard to visit during summer or on a weekend, when the fifty daily permits to the grove are snatched up in advance; at the same time, the limited number of permits means that the grove is never too crowded. The grove is beautiful and noteworthy for its especially tall trees, but despite its beauty it ultimately doesn't deliver the same ethereal scenery as the cathedral-like forests of Bull Creek Flats in Humboldt Redwoods, the fern-choked watersheds of the James Irvine Trail in Prairie Creek Redwoods, or the sun-dappled majesty of Stout Grove in Jedidiah Smith Redwoods. Hikers who love redwood forests will undoubtedly be enraptured by this grove, but skip this grove if you have limited time in your Redwood country visit.

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