Life Outside the Textbook

Dispelling misconceptions is a major portion of my day job. I’m not a fan of arguing, confronting, or telling someone their long-held notions are not necessarily the truth, so some days I find more difficult than others, depending on how many people I run into with obscured views of the natural world. One of the most common things I have to straighten out on a daily basis is where the tallest tree is [not in the Tall Trees Grove]; another is that the scenic road to the south does not have the bigger trees, it just looks that way. Often, too, I find myself explaining that Coast Redwoods and Giant Sequoias are not the same, frequently to the bummed General Sherman seeker.

Some of this informational confusion comes from long-held views passed along from previous generations through tales [like Grandpa drove his car through the largest tree in the world]. Other sources of half-truths and bent facts are second-hand stories, the internet, and–believe it or not, textbooks! Not that textbooks are wrong [although they can be once and a while], they are usually just too general to fit every single scenario.

Roosevelt Elk by the Pacific

Take the Roosevelt elk that lives in this part of California for an example. They are the largest subspecies of elk, although, I usually hear folks from Montana claim theirs are larger. Another thing that doesn’t quite add up to most people is that these elk don’t move to higher ground during the Summer around here, contrary to what the below textbook states:

“Elk also exhibit a circannual behavior pattern. Summers tend to be spent at high elevations, even above the timberline [the highest altitude at which trees can grow in a particular area]. Winters are spent at lower elevations that are warmer and provide more access to food.” Introduction to Wildlife and Fisheries: An Integrated Approach p.129

This Spring’s calves of the Lower Redwood Creek herd


A Cow by Driftwood

The Herd and Gyon Bluffs


Around here, elk pretty much hang around their favorite field for the summer. There are different herds around, and each will move around a few square miles, going in and out of the trees based on whether the sun is out or not. If they were to leave the cool coast for the highlands, they’d go from 65 degree weather to 90+ temperatures in the inland hills. When winter rolls around, they take cover in the trees more often, but will still be found sitting in the rain in the middle of fields every now and then.

Explaining the patterns of ‘atypical’ elk migration to visitors can be a challenge, especially when explaining the exception to the rule of Sunny and Warm California comes into play. Imagine how your world would come crashing down if you just arrived to your destination vacation spot and you learn it’s one of the foggiest places on the planet [especially during the Summer], Summer temperatures never arrive thanks to the cold Pacific, and to top it off, the elk don’t exhibit textbook behavior! Reality in this part of the world is brutal. Boy howdy, do I have my work cut out for me!

Five Things to Know Before Coming to Redwood National Park

I preface this list with the disclaimer that this is, of course, not official. For that, please see There is also a nice site, that has information on the many redwood parks and their miles and miles of hiking trails.

Alrighty, let’s get on with the list:

1. The Tallest Tree

The tallest tree in the world is indeed a coast redwood [Sequoia sempervirens] and it just so happens to be in Redwood National Park, but don’t be fooled, it is not in the Tall Trees area. There is no trail out to Hyperion, the tallest tree on the planet at 379 feet and some inches. But, please, don’t be too disappointed. This tree likely won’t hold the record forever. Not to mention, standing at the base of it, it would be impossible to see the top; its base isn’t the widest of the trees either and one could likely walk past it never knowing which tree it was.

So why hide the tallest tree? Aside from the facts stated above, it is likely that increased foot traffic around the base of these tall trees does significant damage to their shallow root systems. When the roots are damaged, the tree starts to die. The top that fell off the top of the world’s former record holder could likely be attributed to adoring fans walking on the roots.

One other note: I mentioned the Tall Trees Trail above. If you are in a hurry, or don’t feel like walking a 4 mile round trip trail that goes down an 800 foot hill and back up, there are *plenty* of other options to see tall trees, ancient trees, you name it. In fact, there are only a dozen or so redwoods on that trail, so if you want to see many, many redwoods, check at the visitor centers for other options that are shorter, or even longer, whatever you prefer.

Tall, Tall Redwoods on Trillium Falls Trail

2. State and National Parks

When you look at a map of Redwood National and State Parks, you are going to see a narrow, but very long park that stretches from Crescent City to South of Orick. The National Park boundary goes around three different state parks, due to the fact that the National Park was created in the late 60s, enlarged in the late 70s, with the idea of absorbing the state parks. Popular opinion at the time stopped that and today the State and National Parks are run in cooperation. You’ll find state park rangers in the National Park and national park rangers in the State Parks. In terms of who has the best redwoods, it’s hard to judge, but the state parks do have the most easily accessible forests as well as the most trails. That brings me to the third point:

3. Take the Parkway!

Often, I meet people travelling South that drove the 40 some miles from Crescent City and didn’t know to take the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. This parkway cuts through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and if you came to see the redwoods when you were a child, you most likely drove this road since it is old Highway 101. While the speed limit is slower, continuing on Highway 101 will take you up a large hill [requiring more gas] and add a few more miles, plus you’ll miss out on all the redwoods!  Along the Scenic Parkway, there are many places to pull over, even hike a trail, and a very nice CCC-era visitor center tucked in Elk Prairie awaits you at the southern end of the parkway.

A Looming Redwood on the Boy Scout Tree Trail

4. Expect Fog

If you are visiting during the peak season [summer], expect fog [technically, it’s stratus], but don’t let that ruin your trip! Some of the best redwood photographs are taken on foggy days when the sun breaks through and sends shafts of light into the canopy [I haven’t been that lucky yet!]. It is an extremely beautiful scene. When there are no clouds, the sun makes it very difficult for even the best cameras out there to deal with the dark shade of the redwoods and the brightness of the sky. The photos will likely end up very dark. Either flash or a tripod are the best ways to cope with the darkness of the redwoods.

”]Related to the fog, the climate here is very cool. Sweatshirts or even coats are a must for most visitors, some of which opt to buy a sweatshirt just for their visit!

5. Play Safe!

Of course no one wants their vacation to become a medical emergency, but there are a fair number of things to watch out for in the redwoods [no, not Sasquatch!].

Windy days can send branches from the canopy to the ground with amazing force–enough to send the branch 5 feet into the ground. Best to find some other activity on extremely windy days. Luckily, they don’t happen too often in the summer!

Roosevelt Elk are a popular attraction in the redwoods. They gracefully graze in many parts of the park, but they can show their ugly sides without warning. Make sure to give elk a generous distance, especially the females in Spring and the males in the Fall.  Their tempers seem to flair the worst at those times, but the presence of RVs, dogs, bicycles and who knows what else can set them off. The mass of 1000 lbs charging at you probably isn’t the best way to spend your vacation…

Roosevelt Elk in Elk Prairie

And finally, although it does not occur too often in the summer, sneaker waves are always a concern. The Pacific Ocean here is cold, around 40 to 50 degrees, and the waves are often large. Every now and then, one larger wave will run up the beach higher than any of the other waves, sometimes surpassing the rest by dozens of feet.  It creates a dangerous, and at the very least, unpleasant, situation for anyone too close to the surf. The force of the waves is hard to escape, and if pulled out to sea, heaven forbid, belly crawling while catching breaths after a wave passes is the best way to survive.

On a lighter note, if you do happen to see Sasquatch, some cryptobiologists are looking for him. Someone needs to give him the message!

Subtle Changes in the Seasons

When we moved here to north of Northern California, also known as the North Coast, we were told that there aren’t seasons here, just rain during the winter and fog during the summer. The temperature only fluctuates by about 20 or 30 degrees, so that seasonal indicator isn’t of much help, either.

While there aren’t traditional seasons right here on the coast, you can go 20 or 30 miles inland and find them, complete with snow or scorching temperatures! But, if you keep your eyes peeled and pay attention to nature, you’ll notice that the seasons are in fact here, even if the temperature is the same every day.

For example, the flowers here on the North Coast go through a seasonal succession. They progress, just like other places with more ‘typical’ weather, from the Spring beauties to the final blooms of Fall.

Animals, too, follow the  subtle seasonal rhythms.  The Roosevelt Elk are starting to bugle and compete with each other, marking the start of the rut that most elk herd ritualistically participate in during the month of September.

Birds have come and gone, and others have arrived. Varied and Swainsons thrushes have migrated elsewhere, leaving the Redwood forests nearly silent, but others, like the Band-tailed Pigeon have come crashing into the cascara and alder thickets.  Swallows, both Cliff and Barn,  as well as Marbled Murrelets, hit their peak mid-summer while raising their young, and most have now completed the task and are enjoying their time “off”.

During the Spring, it was hard to find a spider anywhere, but now, especially early in the morning, you find them everywhere.  You know you are the first one to walk a trail when you walk through webs every 4 feet!

So even though we don’t get feet of snow and hot weather, Nature is still marching on and changing to the “invisible” seasons that are controlled by the Earth’s tilt and rotation around the Sun.  The breezes carry only the smell of the Pacific Ocean and its kelp, but Autumn and its sunshine are seeping in through the fog!

Big and Small: It’s All Here!

Just like the people here, there is a lovely eclectic mix of natural wonders here. Of course, there are Redwoods, frozen giants that watch as we busily scurry below their towering tops. While they are marvels in and of themselves, there is much to see on and near them.

A gray whale with her calf have been swimming in the Klamath River now for 15 days. No one is quite sure if she can get out on her own. I’ve heard she might be there for safety, to remove parasites, or she just got lost. I’m not sure if anyone knows for sure, but hopefully she will leave when she feels like she needs to. She is about the size of a school bus and feeds on bottom-dwelling invertebrates by stirring them up with her nose and then sucking in the food-filled water and filtering it with her baleen.

Not so large, but the largest subspecies of elk and the largest land mammal around, the Roosevelt elk are gearing up for their rut. Males are starting to lose their velvet from their antlers. The bachelor herd has been seen in Elk Prairie in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park frequently recently!

Even smaller, the Barn and Cliff swallows have been busy raising their chicks and keeping the crows and ravens from their nests.  Amazing how small their eggs are! This swallow was taking a break from insect collecting to catch its breath.

It seems the Yellow-spotted millipede [the ones that smell like almonds!] have stopped hatching out in such large numbers and have sought out their summer hide-outs in nooks and crannies on the forest floor.

The Redwood Sorrel, a clover-looking Oxalis, still has some blooms, but there are lots of new leaves popping up. These young leaves have yet to mature to the dark purple that the older ones have.

Lots of lichen abounds in this area. The redwoods are essentially the start of the Pacific Northwest Rainforests. From lungwort to old man’s beard–variety is the spice of life [or lichen]. Entwined in a symbiotic relationship, fungus and algae grow together in odd shapes and patterns.

Largely looming or sheepishly small, there is a lot of life in these quiet, ancient relict forests.

“See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the
moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to
touch souls.” –Mother Teresa