Tall Trees

Tall Trees

Coast redwoods tower over California state park.


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Biology, Experiential Learning, Geography, Physical Geography

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In 1991, the Dyerville Giant, a tree taller than the Statue of Liberty, fell to earth.

The Dyerville Giant was a 110-meter (362-foot) coast coast redwood tree in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California, United States. The crash was so loud that people in the closest towns thought it was the noise of a big train accident. The redwood's fall moved the earth so much that it registered on a nearby seismograph, a device scientists use to measure earthquakes.

Dave Stockton, who runs the Humboldt Redwoods Interpretive Association, remembered visiting the downed redwood the day after it fell. He walked alongside the tree past its base, where its unburied roots stick up from the ground like a giant antler, and pointed into the distance.

Stockton explained he found pieces of the redwood tree about 152 meters (500 feet) away, on the other side of the avenue.

The toppled Dyerville Giant is one of the many amazing trees that Stockton showed me while walking around the park in 2010. Redwood trees are the tallest trees in the world, and the 21,448-hectare (53,000-acre) park is home to trees that rise more than 107 meters (350 feet) into the air.

The park's redwood trees are called coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), and their range stretches along the coast of California from Big Sur in the south to the Oregon state border in the north. There are two other types of redwood trees in the world: China's dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and California's giant giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), a shorter, wider tree located in the western Sierra Nevada Mountains. The tallest coast redwood is in Redwood National Park, nicknamed the Hyperion Tree. The previous record-holder was the Stratosphere Tree, found in Redwoods State Park.

Rockefeller Forest

One of Humboldt Redwoods State Park's finest features is the 2,833-hectare (7,000-acre) Rockefeller Forest, a collection of redwoods that were never cut down by the area's logging companies. Before Stockton and I began walking the 1.1-kilometer (0.7-mile) Rockefeller Loop Trail through the forest, we looked at the giant trees, whose twisted bark makes the redwoods look like oversize strands of braided rope.

The Rockefeller Forest is known as one of the finest groves of redwoods in the world. Rockefeller Forest is widely known for having trees of all ages. There are "dog hairs," young, thin redwood trees that cover the ground in patches. Older redwoods have so-called goose pens, which are burnt-out caverns in the base of the trees that are as big as playhouses. Oldest of all are the decaying stumps that stick out from the earth like giant teeth.

Stockton says redwood trees grow and thrive within the park for several reasons. The trees like the area's mild temperatures and coastal fog. (The trees collect moisture from fog.) Floods from the Eel River, which flows through the park also help create ideal conditions for redwoods and other unique plants.

Some of the redwood trees in the Rockefeller Forest are covered with spiderwebs that almost look like beards. This is appropriate because the redwoods here are very old. The average redwoods in Rockefeller Forest are estimated to be 600 to 800 years old; other redwood trees in Rockefeller are up to 2,000 years old. Redwoods are able to grow to such impressive ages because of high amounts of tannin, a compound that keeps insects away, and low amounts of resin, which helps the trees survive forest fires.

Threats to Redwoods

Stockton believes the greatest natural danger to redwood trees is high wind. Even though redwoods can grow hundreds of feet into the sky, the giant trees have a shallow root system, which grows less than three meters (9.8 feet) into the ground. In a windstorm, the redwoods can sway dramatically.

Humans have long prized the wood of redwood trees because of its rich color and ability to resist rotting. Some local Native American peoples built canoes and sweathouses out of the tree trunks and used the roots of the trees to make baskets. In the 1850s, loggers harvested redwoods for buildings and railroad ties, among other things.

Even though large sections of Northern California's redwood forests have been cut down by loggers, regions like Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Redwood National Park have preserved the majestic stands of trees.

The forests are important to the many plant and animal species that consider the redwood forests home. Bats frequently live within redwood trunks that have been hollowed out by fire. The endangered marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus), a small seabird, builds its nests on the wide branches of redwood trees.

Stockton says that when a redwood falls, the number of species taking up residence on the trees doubles. The fallen tree has more contact with the ground and allows more animals and plants access to water that is stored within it. Downed redwoods frequently host a large number of insects and create dens for animals, including skunks and foxes.

The Rockefeller Loop Trail passes through a section of forest called Cathedral Grove, which featured the most imposing redwoods of the hike. Sunlight filtered down through redwood branches as Stockton, who grew up in a logging family, described what he finds most impressive about redwood forests. "It's so quiet," he said. "It's deafening."

Fast Fact

Movie Magic
Scenes for Return of the Jedi and The Lost World: Jurassic Park were shot in California's Redwoods National and State Parks. In The Lost World, the parks stand in for the fictional Isla Sorna, a tropical island where dinosaurs roam free. In Return of the Jedi, the parks stand in for the forest moon of Endor, where ewoks roam free.

Media Credits

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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