A good friend of mine is considering taking his family on a vacation to the redwoods. I spoke with him on the phone for a little while, discussing the logistics of getting to the North Coast and giving him options for the family to do while here. I tried to give him a description of what the redwoods are like, but in the few minutes I spoke with him on the phone, I felt like I fell far short of giving justice to one of my favorite places on earth. After having a little bit of time to think about the redwoods, here are my notes on a redwood forest.
A redwood forest is actually a temperate rain forest. One of a rain forest’s characteristics is the canopy. A redwood forest really does have a canopy, a green ceiling well above the ground clutter. As you look around from a trail, it almost seems like you’re in the world’s largest building. For one thing, you’re hardly ever on flat ground in a redwood forest. Redwoods grow in some of the most rugged, vertical country you’ll ever see. Trails switchback up and down ridges, or follow the ridgelines or the bottoms. Most of the time when you look around off a trail, you’re looking from a height out into the empty space above the ground cover but below the canopy. This looks especially awesome when a mist is rising up from the forest floor, or when the fog is rolling in from the west.
A redwood forest is a quiet place. Besides the towering redwood skyscrapers, a redwood forest is filled with understory. Ferns. Flowers. Blackberries. Salmonberries. Brush. Natural sound dampeners. You can hear your buddy next to you, but it sounds like you’re talking in a room with carpeted walls. You might not hear a herd of people around the next bend in the trail.
It is never bright in a redwood forest. The skyscraper trees see to that. Standing right in front of one these trees is like standing in front of a wall. You look straight ahead at the deeply furrowed bark. As you move your eyes up the tree, you can actually see what the wood grain pattern inside the tree is like. If the furrows go straight up, the grain will be straight. More often, the furrows will spiral to one side. Sometimes the spiral is gentle and a furrow takes about fifty feet to go around the tree and be back on the same side it started. Sometimes the spiral is sharper and it only takes eight or ten feet to go all the way around. The wood in this tree will be gnarled and twisted and could be used to make some very interesting furniture.
As you look up the tree, you will probably see the trees friend, ‘burl’. Redwood burl starts out as a knot on the side of a tree. Eventually, another tree will sprout from it and start to grow up alongside the parent. This is just one of several ways a redwood tree can reproduce.
As you look up the tree from any burl you see, you soon see the lowest layer of branches. These lowest branches are probably thicker and longer than most adult trees you’ve seen back home. These layers of branches continue up as far as you can see, and you cannot see the top of a redwood tree when you’re standing right underneath.
You are almost never standing in direct sunlight in a redwood forest. You need to find a big clearing in the forest for that, and something as insignificant as a trail right-of-way isn’t nearly big enough. You might be able to see direct sunlight way, way up near the tree tops, but you will be in the shade. This perpetual shade seems to give everything around you a blue or gray cast. Everything actually looks cooler, as opposed to warmer as it would be with reds or yellows in the light.
Even when it’s not raining in the redwoods, it feels like it could. Perpetual shade. Damp. The thick understory of ferns, blackberries, and other jungle brush holds moisture like a sponge. When it’s not raining, the vegetation breathes that moisture back out. This helps everything stay green year round and trends to keep the air just a little bit clammy. Foliage drips water every morning even when it hasn’t been raining.
Northern California has two seasons – hot and dry, and cool and wet. Things are a little bit different right along the coast in the redwoods. There will be a short spell of nice, sunny, non-rain weather in the spring and another in the fall. However, summertime on the coast typically sees a lot of fog. While our friends in Redding or even in Willow Creek are melting and baking in 100°+, people in the redwood forest are putting on and peeling off layers. Fog helps to keep everything clammy and cool. Average humidity in Del Norte County in July is about 90%. With the cooler coastal temperatures, that means fog.
So in a redwood forest, a person will be in the cool, quiet shade with water dripping from leaves and branches all around. There is also a particular conifer smell. Not quite pine. Not quite spruce. Redwood. And ferns. And damp dirt. And rhododendrons. And rotten logs. And water. And pollen.
Once my friend Doug came up to visit from southern California. He had been living for years around the Mojave Desert, in Yucca Valley and Needles. As we road tripped through Jed Smith State Park, I actually saw the light go on over his head, and he said, “So when you think of California, this is what you’re seeing?”
Yup. This is my California.