Southern Redwoods: Avenue of the Giants

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The final stop on our three-part tour of the redwoods was the iconic Avenue of the Giants. The Avenue is a 33 mile scenic drive through an area of particularly large giant trees. Some of the tallest redwoods have been found in these groves, so naturally, it was worth a stop.

We stayed at the Giant Redwoods RV Park in Myers Flat, a tiny little town right on the Avenue, nestled into the bank of the Eel River. When we checked into our campsite the camp host gave us two warnings.

First, don’t swim in the river. The river is full of an algae that contains a neurotoxin. For humans, the toxin is just a skin irritant, but for dogs it can be deadly. She said that most dogs die within an hour of drinking from the river. We had not seen any stray dogs in Myers Flat and I think we know why.

Second, don’t give anyone the bathroom code. This area of California (Humboldt County) is widely known for growing marijuana. Some of it may be grown legally as part of the medical marijuana program, but I suspect much of it is not. Marijuana growers were using these forests to hide their plants long before legal medical marijuana was even introduced as a concept. Well, when harvest time comes around, the growers need extra help to trim all of the plants. We happened to visit during harvest and all of these tiny towns were suddenly full of migrant workers here to trim the pot plants. Our camp host called them “trimigrants”. The migrant workers didn’t really bother us, but our camp host was sick and tired of the trimigrants using her campground bathrooms without paying the camp fee. We agreed not to give out the bathroom code and got a good laugh out of the whole situation. Honestly, the trimigrants are probably a nice boost to the local economy. The restaurants were doing a steady business and the tiny local bar was overflowing with people playing guitar and singing along to Hootie and the Blowfish songs.

But we were here for the trees. 

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The Avenue of the Giants is home to some of the largest redwood groves, many of which are easily accessible from the main road. Most of the individual record-breaking trees, however, are well hidden and unmarked to protect them from excessive foot traffic. Something we found particularly interesting about this section of redwoods was the number of fallen trees. A fallen redwood allows you to really grasp the size of these giants. You can understand their immense height by walking the length of the fallen tree and, in some cases, see inside their root structure. The fallen tree below did not have a name but it was one of our favorite finds.

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The Avenue is a narrow two-lane road but it is well-maintained and we didn’t encounter much traffic.

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Along the way we stopped at the Visitors Center which had a number of nice exhibits, including this funny motorized log cabin.

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We also stopped at the Founders Grove, a special section of redwoods dedicated to the founders of the Save-the-Redwoods League. Their brochure gives the following description:

In 1917, several prominent men traveled to Humboldt and Del Norte counties to view these magnificent redwood groves. When they found these trees were not protected, they formed the Save-the-Redwoods League to preserve representative areas of primeval forests. By 1921, the first grove was purchased by the League in what is now Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Since then, the League has contributed over 57 million dollars to protect 170,000 acres of redwood land in the 35 California State Parks, Redwoods National Park and Sequoia National Park.

I find this bit of history really fascinating because it shows how effective a group of people can be when they really care about something. Nearly 100 years later, the Save-the-Redwoods League still exists and is still active in the protection and care of the redwood forests.

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Redwood trees have a number of defense mechanisms that help them to live so long and therefore grow so big. They produce a large amount of tannin, a bitter substance that insects don’t like. They are also resistant to fire due to their thick bark and lack of resin. Trees like the one below can burn into a hollow cavity yet continue to live and grow.

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Redwoods have a surprisingly shallow root structure. They only grow a few feet down into the soil but can grow laterally through the soil for over a hundred feet. Roots of neighboring trees have also been found intertwining and grafting onto one another, helping to keep each other standing.

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Founders Grove is home to the Dyerville Giant. Before falling during a storm on March 24, 1991, the Dyerville Giant was larger than any other tree in this grove. It was 362 feet tall and 52 feet in circumference, probably weighing over a million pounds. To put that in perspective, it was 200 feet taller than Niagara Falls and about as tall as a 30-story building.

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No one saw the Giant fall, but nearby residents heard the sound and thought a train had crashed.

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It now lies on the forest floor, along with multiple other trees that fell during the same storm. Unless a forest fire consumes the downed tree, it could lie here for hundreds of years, contributing to the natural decay and growth process of the forest.

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As much as we love the redwoods, we’ve seen a lot of them recently. Consequently, we were pretty excited to find this drivable section of the Eel River bank just waiting to be explored. It was nice to get out of the forest and warm up in the sunshine for a while.

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We could see the algae bloom up close and decided that neither of us would get too close to the water. The river is still gorgeous, just not ideal for swimming. Also, the algae bloom does not mean that this river is devoid of life. The neurotoxin’s effects are species specific. It does not seem to affect the river otters, fish, or the local stray cat population. However, I  would be hesitant to eat any fish caught here.

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Our final touristy stop along the Avenue of the Giants was a bit of a let down. The Eternal Tree House is advertised as a one room house built inside of a living redwood tree. In reality, it is just a tiny damp burrow dug into the root structure of a redwood. There is no light inside and nothing that really makes it look like a “house”. But it was free and they had a public restroom.

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All of the tiny towns along the Avenue are dependent on the tourists. You won’t find much in terms of services, mostly just small shops selling redwood crafts and souvenirs or tourist traps like the drive-thru trees and the Eternal Tree House. Our hands-down favorite town was Miranda, which has a friendly post office, small but decent grocery store, and an excellent pizza place (The Avenue Cafe). However, from here we’re making our way to the bay area and the metropolis of San Francisco. So who knows, in about a week we may find ourselves missing the peace and solitude of these sleepy little towns among the redwoods. We’ll see, it’s all part of the adventure!

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