Pondering Old Growth Forests at the Trees of Mystery in Klamath, California

Inspiration for conservation (Photo MCArnott)

Inspiration for conservation at the Trees of Mystery in Klamath, California (Photo MCArnott)

I am looking at the top of a tree that is so tall, I have to hug it to keep my balance. Let’s do the math: It was a seedling around the time Christopher Columbus discovered America.

Before the 1800s, the American Northwest was still a dangerous frontier, with uncharted coastlines that became graveyards for ships. But in the 1840s, gold miners made their way by land, and turned into lumberjacks when they discovered that the giant redwoods (a type of sequoia) were a better way to strike it rich than gold was. Entire forests were logged to feed the building frenzy of San Francisco. By the time naturalists raised the first red flags, 90 percent of the old-growths had been cut.

The Trees of Mystery are an easy way to experience a little of what’s left of an original Northwest forest. Themed trails highlight unusual redwoods, the outcome of nature’s artistry — and of carvers. Odd specimens can be found in wild forests, but here, they are conveniently accessible to casual walkers.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Redwoods are the oldest and tallest living things on Earth.
  • You will discover a UNESCO Heritage Site.
  • For families and walkers; can be navigated by people with some physical limitations.

Getting to the Trees of Mystery in Klamath, California

A hollowed redwood tree stands strong on its resilient bark (Photo: MCArnott)

A hollowed redwood tree stands strong on its resilient bark (Photo: MCArnott)

I’m in search of redwoods, sequoias, and old growth forests, and to find them, I head north from San Francisco, toward Klamath, some 350 miles away. Scenic Highway 101 is a coiling drive, sometimes a bit inland, sometimes following along the California Redwood Coast. I can’t be looking for redwoods; I have to keep my eyes on the road, alert to the dangers of cliffs that rise above me on the inland side, and drop away toward the ocean.

Highway 101 is also called the Redwood Highway, an appropriate nickname: In Humboldt County, I stop at Humboldt Redwood State Park and follow the sign to the Avenue of the Giants. The famous 31-mile-long forest-drive lies in one of only three ecosystems in the world where sequoias still thrive. The two others are a strip in the Sierra Nevada and one in China.

The narrow flat road meanders gently among trunks that shoot up to the forest canopy some 300 feet up. I feel protected by the shield they form along the road, but I also feel like a bit of an intruder in this outsized, mystical world.

Continuing on, I finally arrive in Klamath, just 40 miles south of the Oregon border. A giant sculpture of the fictitious lumberjack Paul Bunyan, and his ox, reminds me that I am on private land, and for a moment, I wonder if I’ve driven all this way to find myself at some whimsical attraction.

But no, it’s a real forest, and once I enter, I am captivated by the green undergrowth of this temperate rainforest ecosystem: ferns, grasses, vine maples, and other branches clad in moss. The reddish-brown and furrowed redwood trunks stand out along Sitka spruces and Douglas firs, some of these awesome specimens deepen my awareness of conservation, and my sense of both scale and time.

On the Kingdom of the Trees Trail, I witness the survival skills of the Candelabra Tree: Several redwoods grow on a fallen trunk. On the Forest Experience Trail, I can see how it takes at least a dozen persons holding hands to embrace the Brotherhood Tree. I am in awe at the Cathedral Tree, formed by nine trees growing in a semi-circle from a single root system. And I am amused by the so-called Elephant Tree: It looks more like a jellyfish to me. As for the Trail of Tall Tales it is, well, based on tales. By each tree an interpretive sign indicates surprising facts.

Learning about Redwood Trees

These trees are still growing, but the tallest redwood so far rises to 379.1 feet high (Photo: MCArnott)

These trees are still growing, but the tallest redwood so far rises to 379.1 feet high (Photo: MCArnott)

The redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are one of three genera of sequoia. I ponder the fact that 80 percent of the redwoods I see are clones (the others grew from seeds). In other words, a redwood never dies. Instead, it springs back to life from its roots, stump, or fallen limb or trunk. Over the centuries, some have grown on a root system that descends seven levels deep. I fantasize that a dinosaur might even have brushed against the very “same” tree, genetically speaking.

I ponder other facts: Since redwoods are the tallest, widest and oldest trees on Earth, how do they survive what destroys other species?

  • What about the fires that ravage millions of forested acres every year? Heat turns the one-foot-wide bark of the redwoods into a shield.
  • What about insects such as the decimating (pine) beetle? Nature “vaccinated” the redwoods with an unappealing taste and a poison.
  • Floods? No problem, redwoods can survive in flood plains. In fact, if you like unusual houseplants, place a redwood burl in water, and wait for your Lilliputian forest to grow!

Ah, but there is one weak link in the redwood mightiness: It needs the fog to quench its thirsty top – ground moisture will not go that high.

It seems that I have been on a journey longer than the 0.8-mile trail (1.3 kilometers). I am briefly tempted by the Sky Trail gondola that glides through the forest canopy, but I walk back instead.

The Redwood Forests: From Early Conservationists to Modern Eco-Activists to UNESCO World Heritage Site

The trip reminds me of my first exposure to a redwood forest – The John Muir Woods outside San Francisco – and of how small I felt among these giants. Yet, man can be the redwoods’ worst enemy. Even early naturalists – today we called them environmentalists – warned about the exploitation of natural resources and of the fragility of the natural environment.

Clear-cutting scars the landscape of a Northwest forest (Photo: MCArnott)

Clear-cutting scars the landscape of a Northwest forest (Photo: MCArnott)

In the late 1800s, John Muir created the Sierra Club because “the wilderness is a place to play in and pray in.” Aldo Leopold devised the first ecological science code. Meanwhile, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s eloquent prose drew a more ethical view of nature and of its relation with the human spirit.

As time went by, the irrational practices of logging companies continued. President Ronald Reagan didn’t see the forest for the trees. “Seeing one is seeing them all,” he said. Fortunately, activists were relentless.

Who can forget Julia Butterfly Hill who spent two years on Luna, a 1000-year-old redwood standing in a grove to be logged? She believed, as

Redwood trees show nature's artistry (Photo: MCArnott)

Redwood trees show nature’s artistry (Photo: MCArnott)

Thoreau did, that “a single man (a woman here) can bend the will of government.” Indeed: She managed to save Luna and brought world attention to the plight of the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest. (Julia confirms that Luna is still standing — it was attacked shortly after her “civic disobedience” ended).

In the early 1980s, the Redwood National and State Parks were designated as a World Heritage Site and their rare ecosystem as an International Biosphere Reserve. Today, according to Save the Redwoods League, 95 percent of the original redwood forests have been cut. Half of the remaining five percent is protected — The other half is in danger of being logged.

I ponder one last fact: An article I read about children losing connection with the natural world. Not every child has access to a forest, but with a little guidance, even a park in a city can plant a seed of awareness on an impressionable mind.


  • The Trees of Mystery consists of four interconnecting trails. Plan on spending half a day and include the Wilderness Trail if you are an experience walker with proper footwear.
  • You can walk one way, and ride the gondola back. A shuttle is available to the gondola station, uphill.
  • Also available: Benches, railings, walking sticks, audio-guides, pet friendly, audio-interaction with “Paul Bunyan.”
  • Don’t miss the (free) End of Trail Museum and its extraordinary exhibits of artifacts and History of American Indians.
  • Accessing Highway 101 anywhere from Highway 5 takes longer that it looks on a map: two-lane roads with limited speed.
  • Let Julia Butterfly Hill tell you more about Luna.
  • Learn more about saving the redwood forests of the Northwest.

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