Up The Road: Staying Cool In The Redwoods

Aug 7, 2019

Coast redwoods once blanketed the Northern Hemisphere, and now make their last stand on a sliver of the California-Oregon coast.
Credit Michael Balint / Flickr


It’s August, hot and sure to get hotter. We head up the road this week in search of natural air conditioning, starting with the coast. The redwood coast, to get specific, one of the most unique environments on earth—moist, mild-mannered forest where old-growth coast redwood communities are making their last stand. Again. 

Once millions strong, California’s native population of coast redwoods has been whittled down through logging and agriculture. Only isolated groves survive, along a strip of foggy coast now reaching from Big Sur up into southern Oregon. Ancestors of these Sequoia sempervirens, or ever-living sequoia trees—quite different from the Sierra big trees honored at Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks—were well established here, and throughout the Northern Hemisphere, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Isolated a million years ago from the rest of their kind by thick ice sheets, the ancient redwoods survived here and evolved further. As recently as 10,000 years ago, they even thrived in and around Los Angeles.

Now coast redwoods are making another last stand. Thanks to climate change, much of their range will be warmer even if rainfall remains normal. No one is sure what that means. But the specific bioclimate these trees need—foggy spots protected from storms, with high winter rainfall and mild temperatures year-round—will expand north into coastal Oregon.

Which means humans in search of cool summer days, decades from now, will also have a place to go.

So: Just how long has it been since you and the family visited Redwood National Park and its three entwined state parks? Some 45 percent of existing old growth redwoods are protected here, along the far northern coast. Surely it’s time to go again. Time for serious, almost silent hikes and maybe even some tree-hugging. Some of the lush terrain here is so strange that filmmaker George Lucas convinced the world it was extraterrestrial in his Return of the Jedi. There are other reasons this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first on the Pacific coast, and also an international Man in the Biosphere Reserve.

Each of Redwood National Park’s associated state parks seems more appealing than the last. Magnificent Roosevelt elk graze placidly, like dairy cattle posing for the Got Milk? cameras, in the meadows at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, where you can also hike Fern Canyon and Gold Bluffs Beach.

Imagine Howland Hill Road in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park before it was graveled, when motorists instead thumped across redwood planks, to marvel at the big trees and banana-sized slugs. Then go fish and kayak Smith River, California’s last undamed river system.

Appreciate the old growth trees at deep, dark Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and explore the tidepools at Wilson Beach.

The all but invisible magician throughout these parks is the fog, which keeps things cool, and allows moisture-loving redwoods to survive long dry periods. Water from fog collects on needle-like redwood leaves then drips down the trunk or directly onto the ground—the equivalent of up to 50 inches of rainfall annually, absorbed by hundreds of square feet of surface roots.

If that’s not magic, what is?