The Avenue of the Giants
By Jordan Venema
In the Land of the GiantsApril 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photo: Jennifer Stephan
Nothing against the miniscule and dainty, which are beautiful in their own way, but the more immense, the more ancient things – these demand our attention. It’s magnetism. The greater the mass, the greater the gravitational pull. Creatures like Bigfoot and Loch Ness loom large in the imagination, and linger on the fringes of our vision; never caught, they live on as myths. We create stories where dinosaurs still roam the earth, because we desire to stand in the presence of giants.
What if such a place existed, a land of living giants? A hidden forest where time stood still, a grove where the noontime sun never touched the ground? Such a place does exist, and much closer than you might think.
The Avenue of the Giants isn’t fiction, but a 31-mile drive through Humboldt Redwoods State Park, home to the largest contiguous old-growth redwood forest in the world. State Route 254, a former stretch of Highway 101, meanders through some of the world’s oldest trees, so dense and tall their tops disappear from view. David Stockton, the former executive director for the Humboldt Redwoods Interpretive Association (which owns and operates the Visitor Center), says these redwoods are part of deep time. “Even some of the early people who saw it,” he says, “wouldn’t have been surprised if a dinosaur came of these trees.”
In 1931, these living giants attracted a different kind of giant: Business magnate John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The Save-The-Redwoods League asked Rockefeller to help purchase 10,000 acres from the Pacific Lumber Company to preserve these living relics. “The story goes,” Stockton retells, “that Rockefeller asked to think about it, then walked down a trail and came back and wrote a check for $1 million.” Now the “keystone” of this redwood preservation, the 10,000-acre Rockefeller forest is home to “an area with the most biomass ever measured on the planet,” says Stockton. “That’s living material below and above ground, on a two-and-a-half-acre spot that’s like seven times more than the thickest jungle in the Amazon.” Hard to believe, perhaps, “but when you’ve got a tree that weighs half a million pounds,” says Stockton, “that’s a good start.”
Thanks to the foresight of Rockefeller and the Save-The-Redwoods League, these redwoods were saved. But some of these formidable trees suggest that nothing – not an axe, not even nature – could fell these giants without their permission. At 950 years, the “Immortal Tree” isn’t the oldest redwood in the park, but it survived the great flood of ’64, a 1908 logging attempt, and a lightning strike that shortened its top by 45 feet. The tree still bears floodwater marks and notches from loggers’ axes, like hieroglyphs, the story of its victories, the signs of its namesake.
The Avenue of the Giants provides road access through 17,000 acres of old-growth redwoods that, despite their size, remain of one of nature’s best-kept secrets. “The Giant Tree was kept a secret for years and years, and a young boy that lived out there would take people to see it for a dollar,” Stockton says. “It wasn’t the largest tree, but it was really majestic, and a leaner to boot.” Stockton recalls the first time he saw the Giant Tree. “I was 8 years old … and I just had this feeling that there’s something way, way more here than what I’m looking at.” That feeling, says Stockton, has never left him.
With more than 100 miles of trails throughout the park, redwoods like the Immortal and Giant Tree are more accessible than ever, and the Avenue of the Giants is a drive unlike any other. Thomas Valterria, the park’s supervising ranger, says, “You won’t find another drive like it in the world. These trees only exist where I work and live. And the size that they cover here in the park, you’re not going to find that anywhere else. It just doesn’t even exist anymore.”
While the 30-story redwoods make the Avenue of the Giants a destination, the park also offers much more. This scenic highway connects small communities – Phillipsville, Miranda, Myers Flat, Burlington, and Weott – that offer motels and inns, cafes and restaurants, art galleries and even wine tasting. Three drive-through trees are interspersed along the highway, as well as access to camping and RV sites and the Visitor Center.
There are also miles of trails, and Lower Bull Creek Flat trail “is an absolute must,” Stockton says. “This will give you the feeling of being in the deep forest.” That’s the real allure, because when standing under those trees, “you kind of get this feeling of euphoria,” says Stockton, who used to give guided walks in the park. “I talked to so many people from all over the world, and they would say that they had always promised themselves they would see the redwoods before they died, and that they were always better than they had anticipated.”
Stockton’s advice: “Come to the Visitor Center, tell them you want to do Lower Bull Creek Flat and that you want to see the Giant Tree. And you see those two and you’ll really get the bug,” he says. “As a human being, as a member of the community of living things, you owe it to yourself to see the redwoods.”