Sunday, October 3, 2010

Tall Trees Grove

And Dolason Prairie

The other grove that we really wanted to see within Redwood National Park is called Tall Trees Grove. This grove is more remote than Lady Bird Johnson. It's managed almost as though it were a wilderness area. There are several hiking routes which can be used to get there, which is usually the best way to really enjoy the area. But there is also a limited access unpaved road which can take you within about 1.5 miles of the grove. If you want to drive this road you must obtain a pass from the park service by driving to the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Information Center. Located on the coast along highway 101 about a mile south of the town of Orick, this visitor’s center serves as park headquarters. The pass is free, but they limit them to 50 per day during the peak season. This time of year they don’t hand out nearly that many, but you still need to register and obtain a pass. They will provide the combination to the locked gate at the entrance to the road, which is changed every day. Normally we would have wanted to hike in, but on this trip we thought about how great it would be to hike the grove completely on our own, with no one else around at all. In order to beat the crowds, which are very low this time of year anyway, we persuaded the rangers to grant us a pass for the next day so we could get an early start. They usually don’t begin handing out the passes until 9:00am at the visitor’s center. They provided us with the combinations for both days just in case we got there before it got changed. So we planned on hiking the grove early, having it to ourselves, and then hiking the Emerald Ridge and Dolason Prairie Trails as an out-and-back, rather than an entrance route to the grove. Normally it would be a 6 mile hike one way from Bald Hills Road to get to Tall Trees Grove by way of the Dolason route. The other hiking route along Redwood Creek Trail is nearly 8 miles one way.

We were up early the next day and were ready to go by sunup. We drove the 7 miles up Bald Hills Road to the gated Tall Trees access road. Then 6 miles, and about 1200 feet back down to a trailhead and dirt parking area in the heart of the park. The road is a little bumpy, the surface being gravel, dust, and hard pack dirt. It’s also quite narrow in places with lots of bends. We took it slow, but didn’t have any problems with our normal car and tires. On the drive in I spotted some late season redwood orchids on the side of the road. They were already turning back to seed, but I stopped to take some photos anyway because some of them were as much as 7 or 8 feet tall. The tallest ones I’ve ever seen in the Santa Cruz Mountains are maybe 3 or 4 feet tall. We were the only people at the trailhead just like we planned. The trail is in good repair and has good markers in place.

This grove is as close to wild and pristine as possible. The single track trail has some rudimentary markers, but apart from that there are no human influences. The trail meanders through the forest residing on an alluvial flat directly adjacent to Redwood Creek. This location is perfect habitat for the redwoods. The climate is not too cold in winter, nor too hot or arid in summer. The area is not directly exposed to the ocean or the interior valley heat, but has plenty of water, and a channel that ushers in the coastal fog to nourish the trees in summer. The leaf structure of the redwoods functions like a drip system. They also have the ability to assimilate some moisture directly through their leaf system. The alluvial soil has just the right nutrients and qualities for sustenance. The trail makes a loop of about a mile through the glorious forest and thick green undergrowth. There is also access to Redwood Creek and it's rocky sandbars. The trails out near the creek are lined with Big Leaf Maples with their braches covered with thick green mosses. There is a trail section that loops back toward the Emerald Creek junction that uses the rocks and sandbars as an obscure use trail, which requires multiple fording of the creek. We decided not to use that section this time because we were keen to keep our boots as dry as possible. The damp air was making it really hard to dry certain things out once wet. We spotted a flock of common mergansers swimming along the creek foraging for food. They were all females in their non-mating season plumage. We also saw plenty of little toads along the trails, which are a good sign of a healthy ecosystem. It’s hard to adequately describe the ambiance of an old growth forest like this, and adjectives can get well-used when trying to write up hikes of this type. You really need to be there to experience the “spirit” of a place like this, and we especially enjoyed having this time here with all this grandeur to ourselves. We did not see any other people until we were leaving; exactly like we had planned.

After enjoying our time at Tall Trees, we made our way back to the junction with Emerald Creek Trail, and headed toward Dolason Prairie. Emerald Creek is another section of beautiful, deep green, redwood country. The trail descends down to the footbridge at the primordial creek, before beginning to climb back up the ridge on the other side. The trail climbs higher and higher until the woods begin to show more spruce and fir trees. Soon you emerge out into one of the grassy meadows, and you begin to get views out over the coastal mountains. The trail begins switching back into the forest and back out to enjoy a higher perspective on the same basic view. We passed through one section of thick ancient Sitka spruce which finally brought us out for another view to the ridge system to the west. If you study it, you can spot the checkerboard pattern of the legacy clear cutting that lead to the massive 1964 flood. Square patches of much shorter trees are surrounded by a gridwork of very tall older growth as the area slowly recovers. A lot was learned from that disaster. They would never have done that type of clear cutting today. Finally you reach the open meadows of Dolason Prairie, and the remnants of the old Dolason barn. This old barn is listed in the National Register of Historic Places due to the sheep ranching history it represents. We enjoyed the sweeping vistas while imagining thousands of sheep grazing before pristine vistas of wild forested hillsides as they would have been then, around 1914. With rain threatening we heading back down the trail to get back to our car. It never did rain though. On the way back out we spotted a very large owl which flew from a tree down the road ahead of us landing high in another tree along the road. I tried to get a photo, but it took off again before I could get my camera out again. Judging from the size of it, I think it must have been a Great Horned Owl, but that's really just a guess. The wing span was huge.

Click here to see my pictures on flickr.

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