Thursday, May 29, 2008
The tree was living before the Civil War, before Columbus sailed to the New World– even before the signing of the Magna Carta (that was 1215). This particular tree, called the Colonial Tree, sits in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and is estimated to be between 1,100 and 1,200 years old. For having a birthday in the 800s or 900s, it’s looking good: Its bark, which can reach 10 inches thick and protects it from the ravages of fire and insects, is a gorgeous reddish-brown. It would be taller had it not been severed by lightning; its circumference is 27 feet.
The Colonial Tree resides in one of the southernmost stands of Sequoia Sempervirens, commonly known as the coast or California redwood, which occur in an approximately 500-mile stretch running from southern Oregon to the southern tip of Monterey County. This resilient species can live to be 2,200 years old, and some specimens rank among the tallest trees in the world– in fact, the tallest recorded living tree is a California redwood that hangs out in Humboldt County. It’s 367 feet tall (or 112 meters)– 62 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.
Down here our county contains many of its own very tall and very old survivors of natural competition from neighboring plant and animal species, climate changes, fires and the affairs of area humans. In experiencing these trees, comparatively temporary life forms like us can gain a sense of their grandeur– and, most likely, a greater appreciation for the natural world and our place in it.
There are many places to commune with the coast’s elder statesmen– as one impatient ranger phrased it, “There are redwoods all over Big Sur.” Here are five particularly nice places to do it.
JULIA PFEIFFER BURNS STATE PARK
Within this sparkling South Coast park, Ewoldsen Trail moves through a range of beautiful microclimates, including the first part of its 4.3-mile roundtrip trek. It’s there that massive redwoods linger alongside the upstream section of McWay Creek (the path continues to climb up, clearing the redwood treeline to reveal superb coastal views). It is said that the trees were not harvested when the area was being logged due to their anomalies– to see them is to understand. Another great trail in this park is a 2-mile drive north of the park entrance at a large turnout at Partington Cove, called the Tan Bark Trail. From the posted trailhead, a brief inland hike of maybe a quarter mile reaches more majestic redwoods, and up the trail by the creek, still more stand in striking contrast to neighboring boulders and rock formations.
37 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1, Big Sur. 667-2315.
PFEIFFER BIG SUR STATE PARK
Pfeiffer Falls Trail, the most popular path in Big Sur’s most popular park, stars a proud family of redwoods dotting a 1.4-mile roundtrip. Here a cross-section of an old, fallen tree marks events of the centuries gone by with the annual growth rings of the tree. Nearby, a few redwoods have been worked over by wildfires, allowing hikers to wander into their hollowed-out bases and stare up in their dark chimney-like insides. After this hike, a walk up the road to the park’s softball field leads to the aforementioned Colonial Tree.
26 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1, Big Sur. 667-2315.
VINCENTE FLAT CAMPGROUND
These redwoods can be enjoyed in the peace guarded by the steep 5.3-mile Vincente Flat Trail. Spacious, level campsites, some with fire rings– all right next to the redwoods– allow for extended redwood communion and a chance to continue up the trail with a daypack to Cone Peak, the highest coastal mountain in the continental U.S.; many other redwoods make cameos along the way.
Los Padres National Forest, 81.4 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1, Big Sur. 385-5434. The posted trail is just across the street from Kirk Creek Campground on the inland side of the road, just before Nacimiento-Fergusson Road.
The southernmost stands of California redwoods are in the Silver Peak Wilderness at the very southwestern corner of Monterey County. Possibly the largest of these last stands is the Nathaniel Owens Memorial Redwood Grove in a magical, narrow gorge named Redwood Gulch. This grove is only two-tenths of a mile or so from Highway 1 and can be reached after a beautiful and moderately challenging hike past a cascading stream with small waterfalls, huge boulders and myriad ferns.
Los Padres National Forest, 108 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1, Big Sur. 385-5434. The trailhead is at a horseshoe shaped bend in the road on the inland side of the road where there is a small turn-out for parking. Ragged Point Inn (805-927-4502) is 7 miles further south.
This 1,057-acre expanse of wild lands is located in Carmel Valley, stewarded by the Big Sur Land Trust and home to the largest redwood in Monterey County. Public access to the two dozen redwoods that lurk in the river-carved canyon is restricted, however, which makes the upcoming National Trails Day on Saturday, June 7– featuring guided hikes– a special opportunity. (For more on the public access day and the protected area itself, see next week’s profile of Mittledorf Preserve in this section.)
Call The Big Sur Land Trust for access times and exact location, 625-5523 x1.