Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Drury-Chaney Grove

Drury-Chaney Grove
2.4 miles loop, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Located at the far northern end of the Avenue of the Giants, Drury-Chaney Grove lacks the largest trees of California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park but makes up for it with some extremely scenic forest scenery. Here, in the alluvial flats of the Eel River, towering redwoods rise over dense carpets of redwood sorrel, one of the most picturesque scenes that one can find among California's many old-growth forests. The short and easy hike through Drury-Chaney Grove is peaceful and remarkably beautiful and has redwood sorrel groundcover that is only matched by the nearby Grieg-Bell-French Grove.

I hiked the Drury-Chaney Grove in September, towards the end of the long summer dry season for the redwoods. Many redwood groves are prettier in spring, when higher moisture helps support more lush groundcover; in groves like Montgomery Woods or Big Hendy, the groundcover is often dead and brown by autumn. However, Drury-Chaney and much of the nearby Humboldt Redwoods stay a lush green throughout the entire year and are thus a great destination in any season.

Drury-Chaney Grove is the northernmost of the redwood groves in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The forest- and Humboldt Redwoods State Park in general- are quite far from any major metropolitan area, with San Francisco over four hours away; however, the town of Eureka is only a little over a half hour north of the grove on Highway 101. Visitors coming from Eureka will want to exit Highway 101 at Exit 671, which is signed for Redcrest when coming from the north and Pepperwood when coming from the south. After exiting, turn to the northeast (follow signs for Pepperwood) and immediately come to a junction with the Avenue of the Giants; turn left at the Avenue of Giants and head north for a half mile, passing the Grieg-Bell-French Grove. The Drury-Chaney Grove trailhead is on the left (west) side of the road, marked with a signboard; there is room for parking on both sides of the road, with enough space for about ten cars. No restroom is available.

From the road, the true character of the grove is not yet obvious. The trail leads through some smaller deciduous trees before entering the actual redwood grove, where the forest suddenly opened up, with a 300-foot tall canopy supported by great redwood pillars rising out of a dense carpet of redwood sorrel. The understory was not too dense, allowing for long sightlines deep into the grove. This was an extraordinarily scenic grove and its beauty was already fully apparent just a fifty meter walk from the car.

Redwood sorrel carpet in Drury-Chaney Grove
After this spectacular entrance, I followed the trail deeper into the grove. The trail was nearly completely flat, with only a few occasional undulations and one brief and mild uphill stretch. Many side paths cut into the redwood sorrel carpet. As I entered deeper into the grove, the sorrel understory transitioned to a mix of sorrel and ferns, which was somewhat more commonplace and less picturesque than the pure redwood sorrel groundcover but was still very pretty.

Soaring redwoods rising above redwood sorrel and ferns
Ferns came to dominate the understory as the trail crossed by a dirt road and a power line at just over a half mile from the trailhead. Shortly after passing the dirt road, at 0.7 miles from the trailhead, I arrived at the start of the loop through the deepest part of the grove. There was no compelling reason to hike the loop in one direction vs the other; I chose to hike it clockwise and started off by heading down the left fork.  

Trail through the fern-coated Drury-Chaney Grove
The loop was lovely though not necessarily distinct from the trail that I followed to reach it; the character of the grove remained largely the same. A few wooden bridges carried the trail across a streambed that would likely have an active, flowing stream in winter and spring, which certainly would have made the grove even more idyllic; however, by September, the streambed was completely dry. 

Redwood sorrel in Drury-Chaney Grove

Drury-Chaney Grove

Soaring redwoods of Drury-Chaney Grove
Today, Drury-Chaney Grove is the first major old-growth redwood grove on the Eel River; however, when the first European Americans arrived in this corner of California, these towering forests stretched down to the coastal plain by Fortuna. Nineteenth century arrivals regarded the forests as a rich source of lumber rather than as sacred arboreal cathedrals; much of these forests were gone by the time the Save the Redwoods League was founded in 1918 to push for the protection of the remaining old growth forests of Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. Newton B. Drury was the first president of the organization and led the group's successful drives to push for the establishment of Humboldt Redwoods State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Drury later became a director of the National Park Service during FDR's long tenure. Despite Drury's best efforts, only 5% of the old growth redwood forests that stood in California at the start of the nineteenth century remain today, the rest victims to the sawmill.

Drury-Chaney Grove
Ralph Chaney, the other man who lends his name to this grove, was a Berkeley paleontologist who made the discovery that even greater redwood forests have been lost on a geological time scale. Today, three redwood species remain: the coast redwood (found in this grove), the giant sequoia (found in the Sierra Nevada), and the dawn redwood (found in Hubei Province, China). Chaney's study of fossilized trees around the world led him to the discovery that various species of redwoods have existed since the Mesozoic Era, making these tree species contemporary with dinosaurs, and that redwoods once had a widespread distribution, found throughout North America and Eurasia. In fact, climatic changes in Europe during the Ice Ages of the Quaternary Period may have been responsible for the trees' extinction in Europe. We live in what is perhaps the dying days of the redwoods: a once mighty family of plants that dominated the world's forests are now restricted to a few patches along the California Coast and the Sierra Nevada, their remnants still threatened with logging and decimated every year by fire in a newly changing climate.

Chaney, after making these incredible but sobering discoveries, also served as a later president of the Save the Redwoods League, which is the more likely reason that the grove today bears his name.

Drury-Chaney Grove
Some of the best redwood sorrel understory came at the end of the loop when traveling in the clockwise direction; there was a brief stretch of forest here that was exceptionally scenic. After closing the loop, I wandered slowly back along the trail that I came up to return to the trailhead. I saw a good number of other hikers on this trail: the opening two hundred yards is especially busy as the grove is so easily accessible from the Avenue of the Giants and comes so early along that drive. However, most visitors turn back before getting to the loop, so the far end of the trail was very quiet.

Carpet of redwood sorrel

Redwood sorrel in Drury-Chaney Grove

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