Ever since our last visit to Jedediah Smith Redwoods National State Park, I’ve felt a pull to return. The redwoods we visited in Stout Grove were breathtaking, and Smith River calls for me to kayak or raft it.
So in considering my options for celebrating my 38th birthday weekend, I chose the redwoods. While there are a number of other state and national parks preserving old growth redwood forests, but for some reason I wanted to go back to Jed Smith, despite the fact that it’s the furthest away in the far northwest corner of California.
I did a bit of research on the internet to see what else we might see if we were to return. Stout Grove is lovely but is not enough to merit a 6+ hour drive. A glance at the park map made me wonder if the Mill Creek Trail might be a good option for me. A bit more research led me to learn about the Grove of Titans. From there, I was hooked.
To become more knowledgeable and to get more psyched, I devoured Richard Preston’s The Wild Trees in about a week. I also went to the library and photocopied the redwood section of Robert Van Pelt’s Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast for easy reference while on the trail.
In the meantime, I developed pregnancy-induced sciatica at 17 weeks (two weeks before the trip). Suddenly, a 5 mile hike with potential bushwhacking was looking fairly doubtful.
Thankfully, by the time we headed out of town on March 21st, I was able to walk approximately half a mile at a reasonable pace without major pain on a regular basis, so I was determined to do this trip.
So we drove up California’s beautiful North Coast and made it to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park mid-day on a Saturday. We came in via Highway 199 and parked near Stout Grove.
We faced a hurdle right away after we exited Stout Grove at the confluence of Mill Creek and the Smith River. It’s such an amazingly beautiful spot – on a warmer day, I could spend hours just hanging out there. But I was determined to hike the Mill Creek Trail. Unfortunately, the bridge that crosses Mill Creek during the summer is not there during the off-season. We had to take our shoes off and wade through a frigid, up to knee-deep, surprisingly powerful fast-flowing creek to get across to where the trailhead could be found. (The picture Dave took doesn’t do it justice.)
It was a little risky because we couldn’t quite tell from that side where the trailhead actually was. Once we caught our breath and put our shoes back on our damp and slightly sandy feet, we followed the footsteps of earlier hikers across the sand toward the edge of the woods, and found a short set of steps up to the trailhead.
The Mill Creek Trail was the perfect choice. Even without the treasure hunt involved in seeking the Grove of Titans, the trail was lovely. It’s such a joy walking through several miles of a complete redwood grove ecosystem, including sword ferns, wood sorrel, the occasional trillium sprouting out of nowhere, and a variety of other types of trees as well.
Along the trail is a wide variety of redwoods of all ages, as well as interesting botanical sculptures formed by lichen, stumps, and fallen trees. My slow pace created all the more opportunity to take it all in.
Before long, the quest drew nigh. If you Google “grove of titans” you’ll learn that the exact location is intended to be a secret. The internet gives enough hints, though, to indicate that the grove is relatively easily found off the Mill Creek Trail.
We weren’t sure, though, quite how far we would have to go, or just how obvious the side trail would be. So after hiking for about an hour and a half – at a pace that grew slower and slower in half-mile intervals – we started glancing off to the side of the trail to see if we could locate the Grove of Titans.
We did end up bushwhacking a couple of times for a good 10-15 minutes each. I’m still a little surprised that I was able to pull it off, physically. Hopefully we didn’t do too much damage to the underbrush. It must have been very comical, had anyone been watching.
Dave was pretty convinced we hadn’t gone far enough, so once we were back on the trail, Dave sped on ahead to see if he could spot a more obvious side trail, while I poked along.
Finally he came back and described the spot where he thought we might strike gold, but then went ahead again just to see what else might be further down the trail. I came to the spot he described, and it was pretty obvious that it was the right spot. It was even more obvious when a group of 4-5 people plus two dogs (one a fluffy white dog in a backpack) took the turn off the main trail and headed off on the side trail I was standing next to.
Dave came back and it was not long before we got the amazing view we’d been seeking: Lost Monarch and El Viejo del Norte, the third and sixth coast redwoods alive. Our quest was successful!
The trail in the grove was a true trail – unlike the false trails that had led to our bushwhacking – though it was a bit overgrown. The folks we followed into the grove got a bit turned around, especially because the larger dog on leash decided she was going to get around however she wanted, trails be damned. We helped them find the trail again, and continued admiring the enormous trees before us.
Lost Monarch is truly the more regal of the two largest Titans we found. Enormous but elegant, it’s not really possible to walk all the way around it. Looking up, about a third of the tree is really visible before a cloud of the lower branches obstructs views of the rest of its 320 foot height. I gave the Monarch a hug as requested by Renae.
As we walked toward El Viejo del Norte, we discovered a network of small paths around the rest of the grove, including what was likely Screaming Titans. (Keep in mind this grove is not on any maps, so the trees aren’t conveniently labeled like, say, the General Sherman in Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest.)
Dave and I lost each other for a bit, as he wandered around taking photos and I stood staring up into the immense trees. Although I had my photocopies from the library, they only described the few largest trees, so they were little help in identifying the others I knew to be named trees in the grove. However, I was able to provide a bit of information to our fellow travelers (one of whom was referring to El Viejo as “El Diablo”). I laid down for a while on a fallen redwood for a while staring up at the intricacies of El Viejo del Norte… and then had a really, really hard time getting back up. Stupid sciatica.
Once we finally found each other, we spent a few minutes trying to find the Del Norte Titan, the largest living coast redwood and supposedly “nearby” in the Grove. We didn’t know what direction to look, though, so we weren’t able to find it. Good reason to go back some day!
We spent a bit more time admiring El Viejo del Norte, the sixth largest living coast redwood and perhaps the gnarliest redwood you’ll ever see. As Robert Van Pelt describes it in Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast, it has a LOT of character.
At that point, I was just about done, but there was still a lot of walking left to do. Dave had also twisted his ankle during our adventure, so we shuffled along the trail for another 30-45 minutes – along trail that continued to be breathtakingly beautiful – until we got to Howland Hill Road.
I could go no further, but the car was parked about 1.5 miles north of where we were, back at Stout Grove. It probably would have taken me about an hour and a half to poke along up the road back to the car, but thankfully Dave had enough energy to power-walk back to the car. I sat on a fallen redwood and flipped through my Birds of California book for 45 minutes while I waited for Dave to come back for me.
We had come full circle. We drove south out of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park along the road that had entranced us the first time we visited in July 2009, again listening to Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”.
Check out the rest of Dave’s photos here.