It seemed mythical when I was a child: There were actually trees in California that people could drive a car through. I couldn’t help but envision a busy freeway running through the forest, occasionally sending commuters tunneling through the trunks of trees the size of buildings. The legend rivaled the tales of Paul Bunyan, equaled the immensity of the Grand Canyon, and was something I could only loosely believe.
Of course, I later learned that these trees were real, and in fact, they came in two varieties: Giant Sequoias are found in Yosemite and Coastal Redwoods in the coastal areas of northern California. Unfortunately, there are only three remaining drive-thru trees still open to the public, all of them along Highway 101 near the famous Avenue of Giants. So, it came to pass that, in the spring of my thirty-third year, I was finally road-tripping my way along the west coast.
In Your Bucket List Because…
- First and foremost, you get to drive through a thousand year-old tree. Even if you are a grumpy lumberjack, that is pretty remarkable.
- You are visiting the redwood forests, striding amongst the largest and oldest trees in the world, so it seems wise to take the diversion for the chance to drive through one. It’s now illegal to make more, so these three will be the last of a true (perhaps sad) piece of Americana.
- I would love to have made it as a kid but was probably equally amazed as a tree-hugging adult. I can’t really imagine anyone being disappointed with this experience. It’s one of kind nature, steeped in history, and seasoned with kitsch—a perfect vacation endeavor.
Tree Driving 101
I was heading up the 101 en route to the Avenue of Giants and had started seeing road signs for the Chandelier Tree in Leggett. In the privately-owned Drive-Thru Tree Park (all of the remaining drive-thrus are privately owned), the Chandelier Tree is the nearest to San Francisco, a mere 180 miles of worthwhile traveling. With the utmost in impatience, and despite being a little behind schedule for arriving at a campground in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, I jerked the car onto the off-ramp to do something I’d been waiting all my life to do.
Unlike the massive highway swallowing tree I’d envision, the Chandelier Tree had a hole, something akin to the front doors of cartoon mice homes, carved through the center. The tree, of course, was enormous, but only so much so as to allow one car to pass at a time, and should you be at the helm of a Hummer or Suburban, forget it. As a driver, and especially a driver of my step-father’s beloved Rav 4, I idled up to the opening and concerned myself with fitting the mini-SUV through without causing a scratch. It was no time to speed.
For the Photo
A few minutes later, after backing up to let my wife out to take a photo of me driving through, the deed was done. We pulled up to the park’s souvenir shop, a building filled with geological trinkets, faux-vintage postcards, and bear-themed statues. We milled around for a few minutes, went outside, took pictures in the hollowed out base of a fallen tree, and loaded back up. We needed to get to Humboldt before dark, which we did just barely. I think I smiled the entire way.
- The Rav-4 barely fit through the Chandelier Tree, so if you drive something bigger, keep this in mind. Maybe one of the other trees will be more accommodating.
- There is a toll of a few dollars for the trip through any of the trees. Perhaps that’s highway robbery, so to pun, but how many chances does one get to do it? Three, in the entire world.
- The other two drive-thru trees are Shrine Drive Thru Tree near Myers Flat, CA, and Klamath Tour Thru Tree in the town of Klamath.
- We camped in Humboldt Redwoods State Park and actually got to sleep inside the trunk of a tree. The campsite was just next door to the welcome center. It was equally smile-inducing.