Nick & Sara’s Tour de West – 13

Thur, 17 Sep 09

Woke up this morning in Brookings, OR – not too far from the Oregon/California state border. At least we’ll make it into California on this trip – though not very far into it. The plan now is to spend today visiting the giant redwoods, then drive down to Eureka, spend the night in Eureka, and finally, start heading east on Friday – I still have a long drive ahead of me if I’m going to get to work on Mon.

But first I have to *find* the redwoods.. you wouldn’t think that it would be hard to find a forest of giant trees but for some reason I’m having difficulty navigating, and Sara and I miss the turn up CA Highway 197 that leads to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park – which, according to the guide books, is one of the better places to see the big trees. We end up going a bit further south into Crescent City, then turning up CA 199 – which gets us there nonetheless. Already on the highway you can see the trees getting bigger , the forest more primeval, and there’s that lovely filtered sunlight that you get beneath a forest canopy. I bypass the parking area for the “Simpson-Reed Grove” and go on to the main visitors entrance. At the entrance to the park there’s the usual guard booth, a sign that says parking for a car is $8, and a bored looking state park ranger/attendent in the booth. I pull up to her window:



“Beautiful morning”

“Yeah, I guess. Can I help you with something?”

“The sign says I have to pay $8 to park – can I pay you?”

“Well, sure, if you want to.”

Huh? Well, no I don’t really *want* to pay $8 to park, but if I have to, I have to. So I pay my $8, and in return am given a brochure describing the park and a somewhat undecipherable map of the campground and trails around the visitor center. Umm.. thanks, I think..

Sara and I drive into the park, and find that right here at the entrance, it’s mostly a campground. A sign points to the visitors center – so I park and walk in – at first blush it appears to be chiefly a store selling maps, guidebooks, posters, etc. A slightly nerdy looking woman sits behind the counter, talking to another couple that are buying a poster. After they’ve left, she looks at me and asks if she can help.

“Well, I just got here, and I’m kinda lost – just trying to orient myself – I’m heading down south on 101 to Eureka tonight – what’s the best way to see the park?”

She immediately starts pulling out maps and a big yellow marker – “Well, here’s what you do, you go back here to the Simpson-Reed Grove, because that’s my favorite, and I don’t think it should be missed. Then you go up here to the Howland Hill Road and take a walk through the Stout Grove – you can continue on the unpaved Howland Hill Road back onto 101 if you’d like after that, or backtrack on 199.” All the while using her highlighter to draw great yellow slashes on the map, following the roads.

“Umm.. unpaved? I don’t have a 4 wheel drive.” (Well, technically, I do, as Sara’s an all-wheel drive car – but she’s not exactly built for off-roading adventure, and doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot of ground clearance)

“Oh, don’t worry, it’s unpaved, but they grade it every spring – it doesn’t get rutted until the rain comes later in the year.. right now it’s drivable in pretty much anything.”

OK, well.. she was definitely more useful than the lady at the entrance. Sara and I head back down the road to the “Simpson Reed Grove Trail,” which we’d passed by before.

The trailhead is not much more than a wide spot on the highway with a few places to pull off and park. I pull Sara in next to a small pickup truck with a camper on the back, and get out. While I’m fussing with my camera and lenses, preparing to go for a walk, a couple of young women get out of the pickup truck.

“Nice car! – I thought about buying one of those myself,” says one of the women.

“Thanks. It’s a fun toy – though the pickup truck is probably a heckuva lot more practical.”

“Yeah, easier to sleep in, too.”

With that I start off down the trailhead, as they continue to make ready by the back of their pickup truck.

The trail leads into a pleasant, leafy woods, with dappled sunlight streaming down from the tree canopy above. Just a short distance from the road the sounds of cars passing by gets muffled, out and you’re left with that peaceful hushed quiet that only comes in certain places and times. It’s not too long before I start coming upon the real giants – the big old-growth redwoods that are the reason people come here.

And what a sight they are. Words really fail to describe the sheer size and majesty of these incredible trees. There is a palpable sense of time in here.. or actually, a sense of timelessness – like these giant trees have been standing forever and will be standing here long after we’re all gone.

I amble, slowly, through the great trees – this is not a place you rush. It’s not you even a place you want to talk too loudly, for fear you’ll disturb the peace – two trails cross paths at one point, and I come across the two young women I’d met in the parking lot earlier – they’re walking along, side-by-side, holding hands and talking in low tones between themselves. We greet each other in hushed tones – they’re friendly enough, but I can tell without them saying that they recent my intrusion into their little bit of peace and quiet, and I must, say, I kinda feel the same way. By mutual unspoken understanding we wander off on separate parts of the trail to be alone with our thoughts, and the natural world around us.

At some point I come across a fallen tree – a behemoth that must have been an awesome sight when standing.. laying down on the forest floor, the trunk is so massive it literally makes a wooden wall on the trail. I can’t resist propping my camera on a convenient rock and taking a self-portrait for perspective.

The sun and shadow, the quiet, the green forest floor, the massive giants overhead – the sense of *peace* is overwhelming. I can feel all the stress of modern life – work issues, questions about personal relationships, other concerns… all become insignificant in this timeless place. If I could take one moment in time, one feeling, one place – and bottle it up to savor again and again, this would be it – walking quietly amongst these trees.

Sigh.. all things must end. I linger for quite a while, but eventually come back to the trailhead, and make my way back up the road, past the visitors center entrance, on around to the Howland Hill Rd to visit the “Stout Memorial Grove.” True to what the lady had said earlier, the road does stop being paved a mile or two before the trailhead – but it’s a smooth, well packed dirt road and Sara handles it with aplomb.

Did you ever have an experience so nice you’re almost afraid to try to repeat it because you figure it won’t be quite as magical the second time around? I had a little bit of that feeling going onto the Stout Grove trailhead – how could I top what I’d already seen? The first part of the trail did nothing to allay those fears – it was a pleasant enough walk down by the Smith river, but nothing spectacular in the way the old growth redwoods were.

And then you turn a corner, and you’re back in the big trees once again. The difference here is that there seems to be less understory – more space between the trees.. which if anything gives them more grandeur, more majesty. There’s more people here – a few different groups, all wandering around at a leisurely pace – and we all greet each other in those hushed, damped voices most of us save for church services on a Sunday morning. It’s that kind of place.

As much as I’d like to stay here all day the road is calling. Back at the trailhead, it’s time for a decision – trust the nerdy looking woman that the unpaved road ahead is really going to stay smooth and passable for Sara, or go back around the long way on the paved road.

Well, she’d been right so far, and it the road ahead looked pretty good, so – Sara and I are going 4 wheelin’ ! It turns out the road *is* pretty smooth all the way back, and save for a tight spots and one or two mildly rough patches where Sara and I pick our way with a little extra care, it’s no big deal.

We hit Crescent City about 4 PM, and by then I’m pretty hungry since I didn’t bother with lunch earlier. Right where 199 hits 101 again on the south end there is what has to to be a truly iconic scene: a broad, sweeping, blue-green bay with a nice rolling surf and several dozen surfers on it, overlooked by a parking lot with a classic little outdoor burger joint with a picnic table out front. Sitting in the sun, eating a burger, watching the surfers do their thing on the bay – I begin to seriously consider taking another week off and just staying on the road. If I’m going to get to work on Monday, tomorrow’s the day Sara and I have to start heading east.

We roll into Eureka about 5 PM. Eureka is an interesting town – known for it’s victorian architecture in the downtown area – but you’d never know it from 101. Here it’s all strip malls, fast food joints, and hotels. I ask the clerk at the hotel as I’m registering how far it is to the downtown and whether it’s walkable – and I again get that “Are you from Mars?” look again:

“Well, you could walk it, but it would take you about 15 minutes to get there.’

That’s all right, after driving the last 2 hours, a 15 minute walk sounds just about perfect.