A walk through the world's tallest trees in Northern California's Yurok Country will set the spirit right.
Standing there, still and quiet amid the ferns and the sorrel and the massive ancient trees, I listened to the dampened sounds of the forest. Faint drippings from the canopy of branches and leaves overhead. A slight rustle in some unseen brush. The distant song of a winter wren. No people. No cars. And unfortunately, no majestic waterfall either.
I’d been hiking through the Redwood National and State Parks in Northern California for a few hours by then. The trails cut a path through the towering coast redwoods, the largest continuous swath of old-growth redwoods in the world. Many of them are 300 feet tall — the length of a football field — and some have diameters that measure more than 25 feet across. They are so tall, so much bigger and more densely packed than the trees most people are used to, that photography struggles to capture the true scope of their magnificence.
A series of switchbacks took me zigging and zagging, up and down the forest hills, past mossy rocks and bright flowers and hardened, thick trees that are hundreds or even thousands of years old. There was a creek and a meadow and groves of redwoods that seemed to shoot into the misty sky, their trunks like the fantastical knobby arms and legs of giants.
I was looking for the Trillium Falls, a natural spring waterfall I’d been told I couldn’t miss, but I’d somehow taken a wrong turn on the paths and ended up on a different, unmarked trail. With each turn, with every new crest in the soft red pathway, I was hoping I’d hear the collision of water on rocks, or that I’d see the ethereal castoff spray of spring water floating through the forest. It was hard to be disappointed or frustrated with these incredible views, though, or the glorious scents in the fresh, clean air. There’s something about the redwoods that feels both mysterious and safe.
At some point I came around a turn near a steep drop, and I saw something. Not the falls — I was beginning to doubt their existence — but an image that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Downed trees in the forest aren’t rare, but this one was so massive, and still so full of color. From a distance, the glistening red trunk looked almost velvety.
As it fell, it must have hit the rocky incline below and broken into three enormous pieces. It looked like the remnants of a train wreck, with the once crisply aligned boxcars now jostled and askew. I also noticed that there wasn’t much moss collected on the shallow, upturned roots — meaning the tree likely fell relatively recently. I imagined those initial cracking sounds ripping through the forest when it began to go. And then the thunderous final impact that would have shaken the earth.
For a moment, the sight was a little overwhelming. If something so big, so grand, could fall — well, the tree was a stark reminder of both the immense beauty that life offers and our universal mortality.
There was a time when the only people living in this area were the Yurok. Many tribes lived in and around the forests of Northern California, especially along the coast. But on old maps, this territory was labeled “Yurok.”
They hunted in these woods and fished in these rivers. They made canoes and houses out of the trees. They collected acorns, cracked them, dried them, and either ground them into flour or made them into a soup cooked with heated stones in baskets wound so tightly that not a drop of the soup would seep through. This was before the Gold Rush. Before the lumber companies.
The day before I went looking for the falls, I had ventured up the coast from San Francisco. Along the way I took the Avenue of the Giants, a scenic 32-mile stretch where at times the redwoods block out the sky over the road. I saw the redwood dubbed the “Immortal Tree,” a 950-year-old specimen that’s survived lightning, a logging attempt, and a massive flood. I also stopped at a rocky beach full of crashing waves. On the steps down to the water, I had to dodge the banana slugs — which is to say I had to watch where I put my feet to make sure I didn’t step on them, because they were everywhere.
I eventually made it up to the Trees of Mystery attraction in Klamath, about 35 miles from the Oregon border. In the parking lot, there are a giant wooden Paul Bunyan and a matching Babe the Blue Ox. I paid a few bucks and was allowed to walk through the property. (This is a private enterprise stationed between state and national parks.) Part of the attraction is a number of trees that, for one reason or another, grow into odd shapes. Six trees bunched together resemble a candelabra. A group of nine trees sharing the same root structure has grown to look something like a tall cathedral. (Apparently it’s popular for weddings.) A slice of another tree has been labeled with various historical events — ostensibly to show people via tree rings how wide the tree would have been at notable points in history: the beginning of the Crusades, the drafting of the Magna Carta, Columbus crossing the Atlantic, the landing of the Mayflower.
I stopped in at the museum attached to the gift shop. The End of the Trail Museum, as it’s called, is said to be one of the largest private collections of Native American artifacts: room after room filled with old black-and-white photos, colorful jewelry, tightly woven bowls, weapons made from rock and bone. There are a variety of animal skins and a row of cradleboards from various tribes.
The museum includes material from and about tribes from all across the continent, with a large room focused on those from this region of Northern California. A map on the wall vaguely outlines each local tribe’s territory. There are the Pomo, the Hupa, the Karok, the Chilula, the Wintu, and of course the Yurok. Some of the tribes documented here still exist. But for some depicted in the exhibits, this is almost all that’s left.
Driving back down, I took U.S. Highway 101, also called Redwood Highway, through the parks. I pulled off to watch a few young deer hopping across a field, and then again to watch a herd of Roosevelt elk crossing the road. Some were the size of moose, many with wide mantles of antlers. Before sunset, they strolled across the highway, coming within feet of the cars and curious humans, then slowly disappeared into the tree line.
That night — the night before my hike to the waterfall — I stayed in Ferndale. From the balcony of the bed-and-breakfast, my fiancée and I saw a deer and a fox trotting down the quiet road together, like friends on a late-night adventure. The next morning I knew I wanted to walk through the woods where these tribes had lived for centuries, where they’d turned the trees and everything else nature had provided into a sustaining culture.
Some members of the Yurok tribe are still trying to do this today. A few years ago the tribe — the largest remaining tribe in this part of California — bought 22,000 acres, part of which was historically Yurok territory, from a logging company. “The tribe has long sought the return of ancestral land to create a salmon sanctuary and restore tribal cultural management practices, which benefit fish, wildlife, and the ecosystem as a whole,” a tribal spokesman told newspapers at the time.
I’d been told about the brilliance of Fern Canyon, a half-mile loop through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, an unbelievable path with 30- to 50-foot walls on both sides covered in ferns. The location has been used to film parts of The Lost World: Jurassic Park — and a movie title has never matched a setting so well. Unfortunately, the first time I tried to get there, the road was blocked, and a park ranger explained that the narrow canyon and the road to it were closed thanks to flooding the night before.
But I’d still have the chance to see the misty little waterfall in the middle of the giant trees. So I parked by the trailhead and set off for Trillium Falls. As I hiked through, looking and listening for the falls, I noticed the shift: There’s something about the wide-diameter trees and all the vegetation that’s quieting and calming. Apart from a small group of college kids and a young family, the trails were empty. The soft buildup of wet leaves on the path hushed even the sound of my own steps.
Every once in a while, I could hear some rustling in the forest. I was a little excited by the prospect of seeing a bear or a big cat, but I knew the chances were slim. I did see plenty of blackberries and huckleberries, though. And I saw some gigantic acorns, too — the kind that’d probably make good traditional Yurok bread, mush, and soup.
After a few hours in the woods, I finally found the falls. (The wrong turn had been less than 100 yards from the trailhead.) When I got there, it was well-worth the convoluted journey. The spot was amazing. There were more ferns, more magnificent trees, more mystical fog creeping through the forest, and plenty of the delicate white trillium flowers for which the falls are named (and which you must not pick lest you kill the plant).
A bridge takes you right to the falls. It’s not even a very big cascade as far as waterfalls go. But there in the light spray of the tumbling clear water, with ferns and maples and redwoods all around, it struck me that experiences like this are as close to religion as some people will ever come.
I walked around, struck again by the beauty of nature. It’s a soothing and awe-inspiring place. Amid the trees, human life feels brief. You can’t help but think of all the things that have come before you and the things that will be here long after you’re gone. I took photos and video, though neither do the place justice. Then, when I was done, I stood there, still and quiet again. I listened to the sounds of the forest, to the water crashing on the rocks the way it did when these mighty trees were just sticks in the ground. The way it will after the next giant tree falls.
From the July 2015 issue.