Thursday, July 28, 2016

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

With only a few days before I fly out to Boston, I realized with sudden bittersweetness that I will be leaving the American West, and California the gem of it, with no idea if/when I will live here again. Lush greenery of the East Coast v. yellow grass and chaparral scrubland of the San Francisco Bay Area notwithstanding, road trips to state and national parks in California and other western states were an integral part of my childhood. In recent years, I have not gone into the great outdoors as often as I wanted, and now, I am uprooting myself from California.

I told my father I wanted to see redwoods before I left for Massachusetts. There are no redwoods in Massachusetts. In fact, there coastal redwoods grow only on the Pacific coast in northern California and southern Oregon.

I kind of took redwoods for granted. My apartment in Berkeley was in an oak and redwood grove, with more redwoods than oaks. Campus was covered with redwoods, and there used to be another grove of them by the computer science building before the design building was built. Not to mention, there were groves and groves of them in the hills, and an easy drive away in Muir Woods National Monument, Big Sur, etc.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park was the closest. We went there last weekend.

The coast/coastal/California redwood, Sequoia sempervirens (semper = always, virens = flourishing/green), is a member of the Sequoioideae subfamily which includes Sequoiadendron (giant sequoias) and Metasequoia (dawn redwoods). These are all exceptionally tall and long-lived species; giant sequoias are found in the Sierra Nevada and number among them some of the tallest and the oldest trees in the world. While much of the old growth forest is gone, some is preserved in Big Basin, among tanoaks, Douglas firs, madrones, pines, and coastal chaparral communities.

I say all this stuff, but the truth is, we only had time for a short hike and didn’t get to see many of the parks landmarks. No waterfalls, no Pacific Ocean, and not even the famous trees on the short and sweet Redwood Loop Trail from the parking lot. We took the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail north and looped back on the Meteor trail, for a total of ~6 miles and 2.5 hours. Elevation gain was a modest ~300 ft, and we did get a nice view from the Ocean's View summit. I tried to keep the pictures in chronological order, but some did get shuffled for aesthetic purposes.

At the beginning of the hike, the redwoods are younger and smaller, and tanoaks make up a larger portion of the forest. A personal anecdote: in fifth grade, our class took a three-day trip to an outdoor education program in the Santa Cruz mountains by Big Basin. In that time, we were assigned nature names. Mine was "Sword Fern" and there are plenty of those in the understory.

I took many tall-tree pictures as panoramas, which is both annoying and vertigo-inducing. It's not so clear in the leftmost photo, but redwoods often grown in rings. Coast redwoods are capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction: in the latter, new growths can sprout from tree stumps or branches or fallen trees themselves. These "fairy rings" are pretty common features of a redwood grove.

California is extremely prone to fire, and the native ecosystem is highly adapted to frequent burning. While the tree on the far right is basically kindling at this point, the tree in the middle photo is very much alive. The thick bark is rich in tannins and water, and is excellent at withstanding fire. Also note that S. sempervirens has minimal lateral branching, with leaves starting very high up the tree. In a fire, foliage close to the ground will burn, the redwood may char, but it lives on -- an apt name indeed.

I don't have good photos of this, but the leaves closer to the ground and on young trees are very different from those in the canopy. Consider the requirements of sun exposure and water retention. Leaves closer to the ground and on young, short trees/saplings are long, flat needles with enough surface area to capture the meager sunlight that makes it that far down. Leaves higher up are shorter and clustered together, sort of resembling a dragon's tail. These leaves are well-illuminated and capture fog moisture. Abundant fog is essential for the survival of these very tall trees.

Note that hikers should never go off trail, and that interacting with great, old trees is not a good idea. In the pictures I have of myself standing in the hollows of trees, they are with trees that are either clearly "part" of the trail or "designated" photo-op spots.

Trees in rings again. It's incredible to imagine the size of the tree that these ones sprouted from.

Our trail spit us out of the redwoods and into some good old coastal chaparral. Here, short shrubs and pines dominate, evergreen and adapted for water retention and durability. I glimpsed the Pacific Ocean, but it's not that great of a view.

The hiking group: parents and their friends.

These trees with red wood in the foreground are not redwoods, but rather California madrone. Their red, wallpaper-like bark and long oval leaves are very distinctive.

It was a short trip, but I had a good time. I'm hoping to visit the Muir Woods National Monument this week for more redwood groves later this week. Though I used Wikipedia for a bit of help with specific names and terms, I am proud of my knowledge of northern Californian ecology and natural history, and hope to spend more time in the great outdoors. I do feel sad to leave this beautiful place and go somewhere with unfamiliar plants, animals, and terrain, but that's part of the adventure. What California lacks in common greenery we (almost) make up for it with awe-inspiring natural cathedrals and some of the greatest trees on Earth.

As a final note...

Dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, is very impressive when it comes to Sequoia sempervirens. One such stump on UC Berkeley campus only about 1.5 ft in diameter had a few dates marked on it, but even this specimen can be young. It had not reached its maximum lifespan when it was felled in 1936, but is nonetheless impressive. Another matter of California pride (and of course, my own sadness in leaving) is that most of the oldest or tallest trees are bristlecone pines, sequoias, or coastal redwoods in California. Anyhow, here are the dates marked on the stump:

1936 Tree cut down - 1902 Big Basin established as a park - 1848 Gold discovered at Coloma - 1791 Santa Cruz Mission founded - 1776 Declaration of Independence signed - 1653 Taj Mahal completed - 1579 Drake lands in California - 1508 Michelangelo begins painting Sistine Chapel - 1492 Columbus reaches America -  1288 Eyeglasses invented - 1215 Magna Carta signed - 1066 Anasazi build cliff dwellings - 960 Gunpowder discovered in Ancient China - 800 Coronation of Charlemagne - 600 - Height of Mayan Civilization - 570 Birth of Mohammed - 544 Tree sprouted in N. California, chess first played in India

Our trail in yellow. It's probably less than 6 miles now that I think about it.


  1. Is that why redwoods are called what they are? (charring at the bottom but living on) That was a cool fact :D Also loving the vertical panoramas! I rarely ever take panoramas, but when I did, I'd always take them horizontally. Will definitely play around with it some more. Ahh all these big beautiful trees :) I love how they juxtapose us tiny lil human beans -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey's

    1. Redwoods are evergreen and live a very long time, and are very resilient to damage that can wreck other plants. Sempervirens is an apt name whichever way you look at it.

      I actually did go to Muir Woods yesterday, so looking at these Big Basin photos is a little embarrassing. National monument > state park, I guess. It's a pretty moving place to visit.

  2. Redwoods are so amazing and majestic! It's crazy to see how tall they grow, and to think about how old some are (especially when you mark the rings with dates).

    It's time for your move to Boston already! Good luck with everything.

    1. These are truly amazing organisms that are an integral part of a very unique ecosystem. IIRC some coastal regions of Australia have similar climates and ecosystems.

      I can't believe I'm actually going to medical school (and moving across the country to do it). It's pretty overwhelming now.

  3. Love the photos and very interesting facts! I never actually knew redwoods were called redwoods until now, for me they're all just woods (can you smell the big city in me? Haha).

    Good luck in Boston! How exciting (and scary!) the whole thing must be.

    1. Thank you!

      They're the best woods in the world (very biased). Up close, their bark can be very striking.

  4. These photos are absolutely breathtaking! I grew up on the east coast, and we also have a lot of beautiful nature there, but having the Redwoods on the west coast is just something altogether different. Hope the switch from the West Coast to Boston won't be too jarring for you!

    Rae | Love from Berlin

    1. That's a high compliment for my iPhone photography, but it just goes to show that the trees are breathtaking regardless of medium (or amateur photographer).

      So far, I haven't seen much of New England's great outdoors. I'm going on a hike in NH this weekend so hopefully I can get a good eyeful of it. Love your blog, by the way! I'm a longtime reader!