As much as one might abhor the thoughtless touristy tradition of driving through a hole that’s been hacked into a majestic redwood tree, one has to admit that the iconic photo of a car doing just that has planted the redwoods into the psyche of generations of Americans who probably wouldn’t to this day know just what they are.
So on a road trip this summer in northern California, seeing the redwoods up close and personal was right up there on my to-do list. Hey, I remember those postcards from the ’50s.
But oddly enough, the photo that’s stuck in my mind from childhood of an old car driving through a tree isn’t even of a redwood. It’s called the Wawona Tree, and is a giant sequoia located in the Mariposa Grove over in Yosemite National Park, about 500 miles southeast of Redwood National Park.
The Wawona tree was cut in 1881, enlarging an existing fire scar. Two men, the Scribner brothers, were paid $75 for the job. Created by the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company as a tourist attraction, the tunnel became immensely popular. Visitors were often photographed driving through or standing in the tunnel. Its construction was part of an effort by the Park Service to increase tourism in the age of the automobile.
It stood, 227 feet tall and 26 feet in diameter at the base, until 1969, when it was toppled by heavy snow load. It remains where it fell and today is known as The Fallen Tunnel Tree. No kidding.
Giant sequoias and redwoods are closely related, but differences are notable. Sequoias grow singly or in scattered groups along about 250 miles on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada in central California and the redwoods are found near the Pacific Ocean along the northern California coast in a more or less continuous belt about 450 miles long and 15 miles wide. The giant sequoia is the largest tree in the world in volume and has an immense trunk with very slight taper, while the redwood is the world’s tallest tree and has a slender trunk.
I didn’t go see the sequoias. There wasn’t enough time to make that kind of massive detour on this road trip.
But I did see some redwoods along the aptly named Avenue of the Giants, and of course visited the three existing drive-through-the-redwood tourist attractions (plan on $5 a carload).
The first one I came across is about 180 miles north of San Francisco in the Drive-Thru Tree Park, a privately-owned redwood grove that has been operated by the same family since 1922. In 1937, a tunnel was carved in one of the larger trees, a massive 315-foot tall, 21-foot diameter, 2,400-year-old specimen, and the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree was born. It’s in Leggett, CA, where Route 1 joins Route 101 after swinging inland a bit from the coast.
Next up was the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree in Myers Flat, CA, about 40 miles up the road. This is a ‘chimney’ tree. The trunk’s been hollowed out, probably by fire from a lightning strike more than a century ago. Spared from logging likely because it didn’t have any useful wood, it has survived as a tourist attraction, with heavy cables (installed in 1942) to keep it precariously upright and a widened hole in the natural split in the trunk to accommodate cars. According to one source, it is 78 feet shorter, 3.8 feet narrower, and more than 490 years younger than the sign next to it states.
A little more than 100 miles further north, near Klamath, CA, was the third tunnel tree I visited. Called the Tour Thru Tree, it is the youngest, at about 725 years old, and it’s pretty battered. Scared by fire and its top the victim of storms, it is not unlike lots of other survivors in redwood land. But this one had a tunnel bored through it in 1976.
The absolute best part of my trip through redwoods territory was a slow lazy trip along the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile, meandering two-lane road that goes through the densest portion of the old redwood forest and is completely within the Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Stretching from Garberville up nearly to Fortuna, it parallels Route 101 and winds along the Eel River. Even without the surrounding 50,000 acres of redwoods it would be a nice scenic drive. With the redwoods it is just spectacular. All those who want to go through the area in a hurry are over on freeway-like Route 101, leaving the ‘Avenue’ for those who want to travel slowly, stopping often to just stroll among the huge trees and even do a U-Turn once in a while to drive twice through a particularly nice section.
Stopping places abound and if you need a coffee or a snack there are several small towns along the way, complete with some interesting shops to browse as well.
Here’s a slide show of some of what I saw along the ‘Avenue:’
The history of the redwoods is not unlike the history of many of our country’s natural places: Somebody wakes up one day and says, ‘Hey, maybe we better do something before all of this is gone!’
Logging hit the redwoods hard in the 1800’s. In just 60 years, over two million acres of old growth redwood forest had been reduced to a few hundred thousand acres. By the 1890s nearly all the redwoods were in private hands.
Fortunately, folks did start waking up—the Save the Redwoods League was formed in 1918—but it still took decades to stop the lumbering juggernaut.
The League was formed to buy redwood tracts for preservation and it bought over 100,000 acres between 1920 and 1960. The majority of these were North Coast redwood groves and the California Department of Parks and Recreation created state parks with these lands.
By the 1960s, logging had consumed nearly 90 percent of all the original redwoods. Redwood National Park was established in 1968, securing some of the few remaining stands of uncut trees. Expansion of the park since then has included restoration of logged-over land and protection of Redwood Creek.
In 1994, the federal and state governments agreed to jointly manage all the parks for the best resource protection possible and today they are designated a World Heritage Site and are part of the California Coast Range Biosphere Reserve, designations that reflect worldwide recognition of the parks’ natural resources as irreplaceable.
There is still lumbering in the area of course. I drove past the Humboldt Redwood Company in Scotia, CA, with its piles of cut wood and unmilled lumber. Makes one wonder at what it would have been like to see the massiveness of the historical full-tilt lumbering industry in its heyday in the area.