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Driving Under Giants

Redwood National Park, California

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Everyone knows that America is big. It has big plains, big mountains, big cities – nothing that can be done a grand scale is ever done small. This seeming unconscious preference the wildlife and geography have for size is perfect – and grandly – encapsulated in the giant redwood trees of the western seaboard states.

Redwood National Park in northern California is the place you need to come if you want to admire these giants of nature. Sequoia Sempervirens certainly does seem big the first time you see one up close and personal. With a lifespan of around two thousand years, and growing to a height up to three hundred and fifty feet, these are the largest and longest lived life forms anyone on earth has ever discovered. In case the redwoods are just a little too much for you to take in, there are also plenty of Douglas Firs in the park, which grow to a slightly more comprehensible three hundred feet.

The National Park stretches south down the coast from Crescent City, and includes some fantastic beaches and rocky coastline. Although the climate is hospitable, this isn’t the warmest part of the world, or the driest. Owing to the closeness of the Pacific Ocean the summer temperature rarely rises above the sixties. During the winter it rarely dips below the forties, but it does rain an awful lot, and the atmosphere can be damp all year around: the redwoods in this part of California depend on the moisture of the thick coastal fogs that regularly envelop the Park. Although there are forests of redwoods all along the coast as far south as San Francisco and large groves on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada to the east, the trees in this part of the state achieve the highest growth in large part because of the favorably damp conditions. So it’s a good idea to take a jacket and plenty of warm clothes! The moist environment is also a perfect home for hundreds of species of biting insects. You can avoid these pretty effectively during the day, but be prepared to cover up and apply repellant if you happen to be among the trees around dusk, which is prime mosquito time. Likewise, the rainforest-like conditions can cause the going to be a little slippery underfoot: good walking shoes or boots are advised.

There’s a lot more to do in Redwood National Park than just get a crick in your neck staring at trees, though. Although the part is a UN World Heritage Site, it isn’t treated like some fusty museum. There are plenty of activities on offer, organized by the Park authorities. Many of these can be booked online, or by visiting a park visitor center or the Park headquarters in Crescent City. Some of the most interesting activities to Park newcomers are Ranger-led nature walks, during the course of which you can find out all about the redwoods themselves or the flora and fauna that survive in the eco-system that the presence of the giant trees has fostered.

Another popular pastime in the Park is driving the many miles of backwoods roads. There are several demarcated routes. It’s a good idea to check the exact nature of the route you’re proposing to take, as some of them disappear into quite remote areas of the forest. On some routes trailers are banned, and on still others it is strongly recommended that you don’t take them. It’s vital that your vehicle is in good condition and you have at least one spare tire: not all the roads are paved, and gravel surfaces can cause difficulties for vehicles that are more used to driving around suburban streets!

A couple of the shorter unpaved routes – the Howland Hill Road and the Davison Road – are excellent short excursions. Each takes in a variety of forest scenery, and allows you to admire the damp grandeur of the redwoods from the comfort and convenience of your own car. If you really want to enjoy the wonders of nature, you should drive the two-hour length of the Coastal Drive. This route offers great views of the Pacific Ocean, the Klamath River and its estuary. A lot of large-scale marine wildlife, including whales, sea lions and pelicans are often seen from this route.

Redwood National Park is proof that if you’re an American you don’t have to travel outside your native country to witness nature at its most spectacular and beautiful; it’s the kind of place that can be visited all year round, and is great for kids and adults alike. You’re never going to climb a redwood, but simply standing at the bottom looking upwards is one of the most awe-inspiring things you ever do.

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