by Lyse McGilvery
Thirty-story-high redwoods in your backyard. The San Lorenzo Valley features some of the finest parks in Central California, home to the tallest living things on earth: Sequoia Sempervirens, which means “ever-living producers of cones”. Two of the the most famous parks for wandering to see these impressive redwoods are Henry Cowell Redwoods and Big Basin State Parks.
Located less than 1 mile south of Felton on Highway 9 in the San Lorenzo Valley, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park has walks for people of any age, in addition to more challenging hikes. The best introduction to the trees is the Redwood Loop. Only a 4/5ths of a mile, the Loop passes the famous cross-section of an approximately 1800-year-old tree known as the Redwood Round, which shows dates marked on the rings of such notable events as when Christopher Columbus arrived in America and when Jesus walked the earth.
One of my favorite memories of this trail was when a couple of dozen English-language students from my school came here on a field trip from San Jose. I showed them a well-known secret of the park: you can crawl into a burned-out tree, shine your flashlights upward, and see the inside has been burned up to the height of a house. We looked straight up into the heart of the tree. Called the Fremont Tree, local legend has it that the explorer used it for his entire party to spend the night. However, volunteer docent Joel Hill says that’s a myth. Ages ago, a forest fire crept in through a six-foot high burned section of the tree, and then burned the interior without more damage to the exterior. Now the trees has partially grown back and you have to almost crawl to get inside the tree. This didn’t stop over eighty people from getting inside the tree in the past, according to Joel. He said a few years ago students wanted to break the world record for the number of people in a given structure, which the Guiness’ Book of World Records had listed as seventy-nine. Joel thrives on being a docent in “one of the parks which is very special because it has old-growth trees right next to the walkways, and three rare Albino Redwoods.”
On another field trip, we went to the eastern side of Henry Cowell, where we took the Roaring Camp Railroad Train. The track was originally built in 1912, and its old steam locomotives now take visitors at five miles an hour through the 1,100-year-old trees while the conductor tells of the history of the trees and the valley. One of the most surprising facts I learned on this trip was that a mother redwood, whose higher branches block the sun and water from her own babies, spreads the water of the morning dew through her root system to her seedlings, so essential to the towering trees which get little rain in our California climate.
One of my favorite places to view redwoods is lying down on the trunk of an old-growth mother redwood and looking straight up at the sky, with her baby trees towering like protective centurions in a circle around her. It’s as though you have a direct liaison to the sky.
A much larger park, Big Basin State Park is located over 12 miles north of Boulder Creek on Highway 236, with dozens of trails meandering through some of the oldest trees in the area. Another “Redwood Loop” passes the tallest tree in the park, the “Mother of the Forest,” whose top was hit by lightning, and her nearby partner, “The Father of the Forest,” with its enormous circumference.
Both parks offer far more challenging hikes up into the mountains (even over the hills to the Coast from Big Basin), with glorious vistas. Visitors have to be careful not to allow human foods from their snacks (even orange peels!) from ending up on the ground, or scavenger species that threaten other wildlife reproduce at untenable rates.
Both parks are full of wonder, and worthy of a visit when you’re in the San Lorenzo Valley – and rewarding to return to again and again to experience true amazement in nature.