Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Garden Club of America Grove

Redwoods near Canoe Creek in Garden Club of America Grove
3 miles round trip, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, some route-finding and bushwhacking necessary
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The Garden Club of America Grove is a sprawling section of skyscraping coast redwoods on the west bank of the Eel River in California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The grove is infrequently visited in this otherwise fairly popular park, partially due to its location across the Eel River from the Avenue of the Giants and partially due to the fact that much of the grove is fairly lackluster compared to the more impressive alluvial flat forests along Bull Creek and the east shore of the Eel River. While much of the trail-accessible portions of Garden Club of America Grove are less spectacular than surrounding areas in the Humboldt Redwoods, there is one noteworthy grove of soaring redwoods on the alluvial flat where Canoe Creek flows into the Eel River that is today only reachable via some bushwhacking along a decomissioned trail. Most visitors will find other groves to be easier to access with few of the challenges of visiting the Garden Club of America Grove, but hikers who have spent time in the park already and want to see a secluded and seldom-visited old growth grove may want to consider this hike. 

The Garden Club of America Grove is only accessible during summer months, when a footbridge is erected over the Eel River. In winter, there is no bridge crossing of the river and the water level and current of the river are typically too strong to allow for safe fording. Check before going to make sure that the bridge across the Eel River is up.

To get to the trailhead from Highway 101, take Exit 656 for Myers Flat and then follow the Avenue of the Giants north for just over two miles to the turnoff on the left (west side of the road) for the Garden Club of America Grove parking area. The signage is clear when turning onto the spur road but the signs don't clearly face the Avenue of the Giants, so it is necessary to pay attention on the approach. The turnoff led to a cul-de-sac with ill-defined parking and some picnic tables; I parked here.

The hike to the Garden Club of America Grove started on the west side of the parking area, at the edge of the forest close to the river; a sign at the trailhead points towards the "GCA Grove." The trail started by dropping slightly downhill from the alluvial flat of the forest down to a gravel bar alongside the South Fork Eel River. Following cairns, I headed left (south) upon reaching the gravel bar and reached a seasonal footbridge over the Eel River about a hundred meters from the trailhead. Water levels in the Eel River become much higher in the rainy winter and spring seasons; at those times, the footbridge is removed and the river is impassable, making this hike inaccessible.

Footbridge over the Eel River
I crossed over the bridge, admiring the 300-foot tall towering trees rising above each bank of the Eel River. Once across the bridge, a clear trail led uphill from the gravel bar on the west bank of the river, gaining about a hundred feet of elevation in a brief but steep uphill climb that ended in a junction with the River Trail, which is the main trail running along the South Fork Eel River's west bank.

No signage for the Garden Club of America Grove adorned the signage at the junction with the River Trail, which indicated that Canoe Creek was to the north and the Childrens Forest lay to the south. That's because this entire side of the river is the Garden Club of America Grove: covering such a large area, the disparate parts of the grove thus have uneven scenery quality. While the hike's main destination was the grove at Canoe Creek to the north, I started out the hike by dipping south (heading left at the junction) to visit a pretty grove of medium-sized redwoods just beyond the junction.

Fire-scarred redwoods along the River Trail
The redwoods in this part of the GCA Grove made up the second nicest cluster of redwoods on this hike after the Canoe Creek Grove. Groundcover was sparser than the more famous alluvial flat groves, making this grove a bit browner and barer. Fire scars from the 2003 Canoe Fire on the trunks of the redwoods also contributed to this grove feeling somewhat less lush than the typical Humboldt Redwoods forest. I followed the River Trail for about 200 meters south from the access trail junction, crossing two small wooden bridges as I hiked through the nicest stretch of redwoods here; I turned back when the forest thinned and returned to the junction. 

Redwoods in the first grove near the Eel River crossing
Returning to the junction with the access trail, I then began following the River Trail north towards the redwoods of Canoe Creek Flat. The trail ascended gently through a fairly open forest in this stretch until it rounded a corner into the Canoe Creek watershed and began heading west; the trail contoured on hilly slopes, staying above the forest that filled the alluvial flat below.

Prior to the 2003 Canoe Fire, the River Trail traveled through an impressive old growth alluvial flat grove at the mouth of Canoe Creek, which formed the primary attraction of the Garden Club of America Grove. In the aftermath of the fire, the trail was rerouted to cross Canoe Creek further upstream, detouring around the best stretch of forest. Today, the trail trace down to the Canoe Creek grove has become completely swallowed by vegetation when approached from the south, but the northern approach, while overgrown, can still be followed by hikers with good trail-finding and navigation skills and descends into the heart of the grove.

At a half mile north from the River Trail/GCA Grove access trail junction, the trail dropped steeply into the Canoe Creek alluvial flat, where there was a pretty old-growth stretch of forest; while nice, this was not quite as impressive as the off-trail portion I would visit later.

Redwoods in the alluvial flat near the crossing over Canoe Creek
After crossing the alluvial flat, the River Trail descended to a bridge-assisted crossing over Canoe Creek. The bridge looked similar in construction to the seasonal bridges over the Eel River, so it's likely that this bridge is removed in winter as well.

Seasonal footbridge over Canoe Creek
After crossing Canoe Creek, I followed the River Trail back uphill through about 120 feet of elevation gain as the trail skirted the slopes above Canoe Creek Flat. A mile after leaving the River Trail/GCA Grove access trail junction, I came to another junction: the Grasshopper Trail headed uphill to the left while the River Trail continued straight. Here, an unmarked path to the right led downhill towards Canoe Creek: this was the abandoned trail through Canoe Creek Flat's grove.

I followed the abandoned trail downhill. Despite little use for nearly two decades, the path is still faintly visible and while it is a bit brushy and overgrown with quite a bit of deadfall to climb over, experienced hikers will be able to follow it. The old path led all the way down to the alluvial flat below, where it faded out at the foot of a great old-growth grove.

Canoe Creek redwoods
The redwoods in this alluvial flat were the most spectacular to be found in the Garden Club of America Grove. Here, thick-girthed redwood trunks soared skyward. Redwood sorrel and ferns covered the ground. The understory of the grove was actually not particularly open- many young trees and bushes, including a few redwoods that had only sprouted after the fire, crowded the forest floor. Nonetheless, this small and contained grove was still impressive and beautiful.

Fire scars from the Canoe Fire
The Garden Club of America, a national organization comprised of member garden clubs from around the country, played an integral role in the preservation of the Humboldt Redwoods region. During the Great Depression, the organization raised about a hundred thousand dollars from its members to help the Save the Redwoods League purchase old growth forests in the Eel River watershed to contribute to Humboldt Redwoods State Park. As an expression of gratitude, Save the Redwoods League named a 5000-acre section of old growth forest on the west bank of the Eel River after the club. Grove dedications continue to be a primary strategy through which the Save the Redwoods League is today able to garner large individual contributions.

Soaring redwoods above Canoe Creek alluvial flat
In September 2003, a lightning strike on the west bank of the South Fork Eel River in the Garden of America Grove set off the Canoe Fire, which consumed 10,000 acres of forest in Humboldt Redwoods State Park from the riverbank up to the summit of Grasshopper Peak, the highest point in the park. The fire scorched areas of old growth redwood forest but was particularly brutal on upland forests that were more heavily dotted with Douglas firs. The alluvial flat and riverside redwood forests survived with largely superficial damage, although some trees in the Canoe Creek flat had freshly blackened goosepens reaching fifty feet up that resulted from their heartwood being consumed by fire. 

Canoe Creek redwoods
As redwood forests typically occur in areas too moist to support intense fires, the Canoe Fire was the most major fire to affect an old growth redwood forest in modern California history until the far more intensely destructive CZU Lightning Complex conflagration that torched the redwoods of Big Basin State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains during the summer of 2020. While redwoods do not face the same degree of risk from fire that threatens their giant sequoia cousins in the Sierra Nevada, the Canoe Fire and the CZU Lightning Complex Fire have opened a window into the destruction that fire can have on old growth redwood forests when a century of fire suppression policies are coupled with a warmer and drier climate.

Massive goosepen left by the Canoe Fire
After enjoying the silence of this grove- I did not see any other hikers on this September weekend afternoon after crossing the Eel River- I retraced my steps along the abandoned path uphill to return to the River Trail, which I followed back to the bridge over the Eel. This was a lovely and quiet grove; however, it's not my top recommendation for visitors with limited time in the park. Although more crowded, the Founders Grove and Rockefeller Forest area, as well as the Grieg-French-Bell and Drury-Chaney Groves, are still the top spots to go for an old-growth experience in the Humboldt Redwoods; save the Garden Club of America Grove and its quiet beauty for a second visit.

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