Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Founders Grove and Mahan Plaque

Founders Grove at the heart of Humboldt Redwoods
1.5 miles loop, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Founders Grove lies at the heart of California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park, in the alluvial flats along the South Fork Eel River. Here, the straight trunks of coast redwoods soar 350 feet above a floor of redwood sorrel and ferns; the scenery here is especially magical when rays of afternoon sunlight pierce the canopy and light up the rich color of the redwood bark. The most popular route through this spectacular redwood grove is an entirely flat half-mile loop, but a quieter and equally beautiful part of the grove can be seen on an additional half mile spur trail to a plaque commemorating the Mahans, a couple instrumental in saving this grove. Visitors with limited time in Humboldt Redwoods should consider making Founders Grove one of their higher priority stops in this incredible redwood park.

I wandered through Founders Grove during a January trip to Northern California's Redwood Country. Humboldt Redwoods State Park is far from any major metropolitan area, about a four hour drive from either San Francisco or Sacramento, although it is just 40 minutes driving away from Eureka, the main population center in Humboldt County. Regardless of which direction you're coming from, you'll have to take US 101; to reach the trailhead, leave US 101 at exit 663. Instead of turning at the Avenue of Giants, I went straight onto the road towards Founders Grove and Founders Tree at the end of the freeway off ramp. A hundred meters down this road, I pulled into the parking lot on the left (north) side of the road, where there was room for over 20 cars and a pit toilet. The parking lot was set amidst a glorious old growth redwood forest.

I crossed the road to start the Founders Grove hike on the south side of the road. The wide and flat dirt trail entered the cathedral-like grove, traveling into a magical forestscape of stately trunks with sunlight streaming through the high canopy down to the lush groundcover of ferns and redwood sorrel.

Founders Grove
Within a hundred meters of the trailhead, I came to a split in the trail where the two directions of the loop headed off to the left and right. In the middle, a short boardwalk led to the base of the Founders Tree. A sign at the base of the Founders Tree noted that the tree is 346 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter; the first major limb of the tree does not branch off until 190 feet up the trunk. The Founders Tree was once thought to be the tallest tree in the world until it was dethroned by the Libbey Tree in the 1960s; however, it's possible that this tree was never as tall as the 364 feet that it was claimed to reach during the early 20th century. While certainly a very tall and large tree, it's not necessarily the most impressive of redwoods in the region and or even in this grove. 

Founders Grove- and the Founders Tree- are so named to commemorate the founders of the Save the Redwoods League, an organization that was instrumental in preserving the redwoods of Humboldt County. John Merriam, Madison Grant, and Henry Osborn founded the organization in 1918 after being sent on a fact-finding mission to Humboldt County by Director of the National Park Service Stephen Mather. The three men- all prominent scientists of their day- were in awe of the forests of the North State and realized the threats of encroaching lumber interests, so they founded the Save the Redwoods League as an advocacy organization that could push for the conservation of these old growth forests. The League was successful in saving many of the awe-inspiring old growth forests in Humboldt Redwoods and in today's Redwood National Park, although this still only represents 5% of the total old growth forest that existed when European Americans first arrived in California. 

It's a bit irresponsible to talk about the founders of the Save the Redwoods League without talking about the complex legacy that they left behind. All three made great contributions to the preservation of key American landscapes, but Grant and Osborn also had a more dubious legacy of championing eugenics and scientific racism. Grant, in particular, held views of not just white but "Nordic" supremacy- his writings provided a scientific veneer to the rise of ethnic nationalists in northern Europe, inspiring Adolf Hitler himself. Osborn, in addition to co-founding the Save the Redwoods League, also co-founded the American Eugenics Society in 1922. We should obviously be beyond thankful that the Humboldt Redwoods were saved from the sawmill, but it is necessary when honoring their preservation to remember the sometimes ugly forces involved in achieving it.

Founders Grove
I followed the right fork of the loop at the junction in front of the Founders Tree to hike the Founders Grove Loop in a counterclockwise direction. Beyond the Founders Tree, the forest maintained its utter magic as sunlight streaked through the lofty canopy and painted strokes of color and shadow across these great trees and their green environs.

Redwoods of Founders Grove
About a quarter mile from the trailhead, I came upon a massive fallen trunk: the Dyerville Giant. This was once the largest tree in Dyerville Flat, a redwood titan with a trunk that was 16 feet in diameter; after it fell in 1991, measurements confirmed that it would have been the tallest known living redwood at the time. 

Fallen Dyerville Giant
The trail wrapped around the lengthy trunk of the Dyerville Giant and then came to the marked spur trail for the Mahan Plaque about a third of a mile from the trailhead. Turning right onto this spur trail, I headed deep into some of the most scenic forest of this hike.

Redwoods along the trail to Mahan Plaque
Although there is apparently a loop trail that can lead to Mahan Plaque, I only obviously saw a single path leading to it; the trail winded its way among the great trees until reaching the foot of a hill and then followed the base of the hill to the plaque.

A towering coast redwood
The trail ended at a plaque embedded in a rock, next to the logged stump of an old growth giant. The plaque commemorates Laura and James Mahan, a Eureka couple that were instrumental in the protection of the Humboldt Redwoods and of this grove in particular. Laura Mahan spearheaded an effort for the California Federation of Women's Clubs to buy up redwood forests for preservation. Her best known heroics, though, occurred at the spot marked by this plaque in 1924. In November of that year, she and her husband discovered that the Pacific Lumber Company had begun logging this old growth grove in Dyerville Flat, on land that had been legally protected from logging. While James Mahan sought a court injunction to stop the company's actions, Laura Mahan led a group of women from Eureka who placed themselves between the saws and the redwood giants, delaying the illegal cutting for long enough until Pacific Lumber was forced to back down. Her legacy today is every ancient, soaring redwood trunk of this grove. What will be ours?

Mahan Plaque
From Mahan Plaque, I retraced my steps back to the Founders Grove Loop. I finished up a counterclockwise journey through the loop along the loop's eastern half, traveling through more old growth forest until closing the loop back at the Founders Tree.

Founders Grove is one of Humboldt Redwoods' highlights. While many other groves may be just as beautiful but quieter, every visitor to this part of California should still see this grand forest in Dyerville Flat and reflect on the work done to save it.

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