Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Rockefeller Loop

Soaring redwood trunks in Rockefeller Forest
0.6 miles loop, 10 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Narrow paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

At the heart of California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Rockefeller Forests' coast redwoods- which include some of the tallest trees in the world- grow from the rich soil of an alluvial flat along Bull Creek. The forest is the largest remaining stretch of old growth redwoods that remain on our planet: this easy hike loops through the extremely scenic lower portion of the grove. The understory of this grove is generally open with beautiful blankets of redwood sorrel and occasional ferns; the trees themselves are of massive girth and soaring height, some of the largest redwoods to be found anywhere. This beautiful and easy hike, an absolute highlight of Northern California's Redwood Empire, is just a short distance off of Highway 101, making this a great option for all visitors. 

I hiked the Rockefeller Loop during a January trip to Humboldt Redwoods and Redwood National Park. Humboldt Redwoods is a long way from any major metropolitan area, at over a four hour drive from San Francisco; the closest larger town is Eureka, about 45 minutes to the north. Regardless of which direction you come from, you'll almost certainly be taking Highway 101 to get here. Take Exit 663 for Honeydew/Rockefeller Forest regardless of the direction that you're coming from. If coming northbound, the exit ramp leads to an intersection with the Avenue of the Giants; turn left on the Avenue of the Giants and then follow it north across a bridge over the Eel River and then turn left onto Mattole Road. If exiting southbound from Highway 101, the exit ramp leads directly to Mattole Road, so it's easier to simply turn right onto Mattole Road. Follow Mattole Road for 1.5 miles to a wide right bend in the road; here, turn left onto a narrow road that drops steeply downhill to the trailhead for the Rockefeller Loop. The turnoff markings are not clearly visible from the road and is easy to miss, although once you make the turn there will be signage telling you that you're in the right place. 

The trailhead parking is already in the heart of this tremendous redwood forest. From the parking area, a flat and wide trail led through the redwood sorrel and fern groundcover into the grove, quickly reaching a split in the trail where the two directions of the loop broke off. I hiked the loop clockwise by following the left hand fork at this junction. The loop was a half mile through the shadows of the massive redwoods of the Rockefeller Forest, turning back around after it neared the banks of Bull Creek. There are few obvious landmarks to point out on this hike, as it is generally more of a mood than a collection of specific things to see.

Coast redwoods of Rockefeller Forest
In summer, it is possible to cross Bull Creek via a seasonal bridge and then hike along either the west bank of the Eel River or the south bank of Bull Creek, both less-visited areas with great trees; in winter, however, creek crossing is not possible (or at least extremely inadvisable) without the bridge and those areas of the park are not easily accessible.

Redwood sorrel and great-girthed redwoods

Soaring redwoods
Redwood groves tend to be prettiest when beams of sunlight shine down through the canopy; at the Rockefeller Forest, that means visiting closer to midday. Due to the grove's setting at the foot of steeply rising mountain slopes to the west, the sun is often blocked out of the grove by late afternoon, making the forest darker and gloomier.

Rockefeller Loop
This forest- and this trail- are so named because of John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s financial contribution to secure their protection. In the 1920s, the newly formed Save the Redwoods League was battling to preserve the old growth redwood forests of Humboldt and Del Norte Counties from encroaching logging. In need of financial help to acquire and protect the forest along Bull Creek, they appealed to Rockefeller Jr., the scion of the Standard Oil fortune who had a passion for conservation philanthropy. Rockefeller traveled to Humboldt County and stood in this forest at the confluence of Bull Creek and the Eel River and was sufficiently moved that he donated a million dollars to the cause, the largest of the many contributions that helped save these trees. 

Trail through the redwood sorrel of Rockefeller Forest
With Rockefeller's largesse, Save the Redwoods League acquired the land covering this old growth forest and donated it to the State of California for Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Rockefeller sought no recognition at the time, but later a decision was made to name this largest and perhaps most spectacular of all coast redwood forests after him. His contribution had a significant effect here: 95% of old growth redwood forests present upon the arrival of European Americans in California have since been logged. This one forest makes up nearly ten percent of all remaining acreage of old growth redwood forests today. As a human, John D. Rockefeller has a complicated legacy- his use of force to counter the American labor movement was surely a crime- yet here it is possible to appreciate the actions that he took to save these trees.

Rockefeller Forest
Somewhere in the heart of this loop rises the Paradox Tree, the tallest tree in the Lower Bull Creek Flats region of Rockfeller Forest and the fifth tallest tree in the world at nearly 372 feet; Paradox is so named for being quite thin despite its height. The tree was not marked and there's no way from ground level to distinguish the relative heights of trees that are all fifty feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.

Rockefeller Forest
Towards the end of the loop, the trail passed through a cut in the trunk of an enormous fallen redwood. This tree was at least 12 feet in diameter. Walking through a cut in the fallen tree gave me a better appreciation of the tree's size; it was humbling to look at the thousands of tree rings that had accrued to this giant over the centuries.

Cross-section of a fallen giant
The Rockefeller Loop was not too busy on the day of my visit, but that's most likely because I came on a weekday in January. It is somewhat less well known that the Founders Grove and Big Tree areas in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, both of which are just a short drive from this trailhead; I have seen those other trailheads in a busier state on a summer weekend, although in general this park doesn't get as crowded as popular national parks in the Sierra Nevada or popular weekend hiking destinations around the Bay Area. If you're visiting the Humboldt Redwoods area, this short hike is one that you simply have to do.

No comments:

Post a Comment