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Cycling the Tallest Redwoods in Northern California

Cycling in Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California. Photo by Hank Cunningham
Cycling in Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California. Photo by Hank Cunningham

By Grace Lichtenstein

We started riding north from Santa Rosa toward the Redwoods Monday, but it wasn’t until Friday that we started singing about them.

Everyone knew “This Land is Your Land,” with its line “from the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters.” From three Canadians among us, I learned that you could substitute “…to the Great Lakes waters.” Didn’t matter. Once you have pedaled a bicycle amid the tallest, oldest trees in the world, you really feel the urge to shout the Woodie Guthrie anthem.

It had taken us several days by van and bicycle to reach northern California’s Avenue of the Giants and Humboldt Redwoods State Park, home of legends in the redwood empire. I was among five riders and a guide for Bicycle Adventures, the Issaquah, Washington-based touring company, one of the very few commercial cycling operators that ventures into this wide, wild region.

I had longed to visit the area ever since reading The Wild Trees by Richard Preston. The book was full of stories about daredevils who explored this “vertical Eden” filled with what Preston called “the dreadnoughts of trees, the blue whales of the plant kingdom.”  He made clear they were far more imposing than the smaller redwoods at Muir Woods, a popular destination in Marin County.

We warmed up riding around Sonoma County’s vinyards, then made our way north with stops at inns in Healdsburg (the luxurious Hotel Healdsburg), Vichy Springs (a spa old enough for Ulysses S. Grant to have soaked in its tubs), and Garberville (a Tudor manse called the Benbow Inn).

As a New Yorker accustomed to getting anywhere in 20 minutes by foot or subway, I am always amazed by how huge California is. But after wine-tasting, traffic and some amusing sights (Curl Up and Dye, a hair salon in on Highway 101) we finally entered the Avenue of the Giants on day four.

At first, I was disappointed. Only a few miles in we hit a roadblock. Backtracking, we hit rampant commercialism.

The first “drive-through” tree we came upon had garish signs, gift shop and entrance fee – $6 for cars. I pedaled past the guard shack, assuming that bicycles were exempt. Silly me! A big fellow in an undershirt shouted at me as I watched a car motoring through the base of a tree.

“Hey, it’s $3. This is private property!” he stormed. He was getting red in the face. I wondered if he had a gun.

I retreated. It seems all three drive-through trees in the region are privately owned. All charge a few bucks.

Soon, commerce receded and we were enveloped by a forest like no other. The sun shined spotlights through a canopy of branches high above us; we had to crane our necks to see it. Giddy at first, we all posed in front of, inside and next to trees. The Avenue was paved, and there were frequent turnouts.

Cycling Avenue of the Giants in California. Photo by Hank Cunningham
Cycling Avenue of the Giants in California. Photo by Hank Cunningham

The splendor didn’t take hold until I slowed down, alone, breathing the piney scent. This is what bicycle touring is all about – breaking through the windshield barrier and entering a majestic landscape at 12 miles an hour. Ground level was a vast floor of red-brown pine needles and florescent green ferns. The trees were so lofty their foliage would be at eye level on the balcony of my thirtieth floor apartment in Manhattan, making the trees in Central Park below me look like shrubs.

Our valiant guide Ginger had driven ahead to lay out another of her tasty lunches (today’s was red beans and quinoa salad) on a picnic table near the park’s Visitor’s Center. After a look at the park’s interpretive museum, we rode farther.

For the next two days, we made our way in and out of the immense stands of redwoods. It felt like an alternative universe; the temperature dropped about 20 degrees the minute the road left sunny clear-cut spots behind and entered the shaded groves.

Timber companies had logged redwoods nearly to extinction before benefactors began saving them. So it’s appropriate that the Dyerville Giant lay in the Founders Grove – named for the men and women whose crusading led to the establishment of the state park in 1921. Preston calls the Dyerville Giant “a skyscraper.” It was thought perhaps to be the tallest tree in the region before it came crashing down after a storm on March 25, 1991. Nearby, a local man was awakened by a roar, then a boom that shook his entire house. He thought a freight train has derailed.  Today, a surprisingly shallow crater lies at the foot of its “root mass,” which is an astonishing 40 feet high.

I had just reached the Dyerville Giant when I was called to the van for our drive to Ferndale, where we would stay for two nights. “But I’ve come 3,000 miles to see this tree!” I cried. Ginger assured me we would return the next morning.

And we did. The ride from sunlight into shadow that morning was mind-altering, as if I had smoked the region’s (and the nation’s) largest cash crop. Humboldt is home to the world’s largest continuous virgin old growth redwood forest. They are taller, narrower and spookier than their cousins, the Sequoiadendron giganteum in the Sierra Nevada.

Some of these trees were thousands of years old – approaching middle age when Christopher Columbus sailed to America. All the time I had spent in the Colorado Rockies among pine, spruce and fir did not prepare me for the unique gravitas of these grand evergreens. I felt not just humbled but reverent in the presence of noble elders.

In Rockefeller Forest, we dined sitting on camp chairs, a bit less formal than the Save the Redwoods League’s white-tablecloth lunch for John D and family in 1926. (He eventually donated $2-million). As we ascended on the road west it began to mist, then rain. Soon everyone was in the van but Vida, a cheerful kindergarten teacher, mother of three and recreational rower who was an amazingly strong novice cyclist. Only when the rain came in sheets did Ginger convince her to not to finish the 20-mile twisting blacktop to the apex of Panther Gap.

Along California's Lost Coast. Photo by Grace Lichtenstein.
Along California’s Lost Coast. Photo by Grace Lichtenstein.

We were content to remain passengers until – hello, Pacific! – we were staring at surf pummeling the rocks of the Lost Coast, so named because its rugged cliffs and earthquake-prone shore make it among the most secluded areas in the lower 48. By comparison, Mendocino is a metropolis.

Our van-plus-equipment trailer was the only vehicle in sight. We tumbled out of our seats to snap photos.  An uneven curtain of mist was draped over the ocean, changing shape in gusts of wind. It was desolate, magnificent… and a helluva place to get a flat tire. When the van finally lumbered up the incline marked “The Wall” on our cue sheets, we saw two brave (or crazy) cyclists with panniers riding downhill. I was thrilled to be lodged that night in my Ferndale hotel room rather than a tent on the Lost Coast.

A downpour the next morning forced cancellation of a hike through Rockefeller Forest. Instead, Ginger drove us south to Santa Rosa, where we said our goodbyes.

To myself, I quoted a former governor’s most famous line: “I’ll be back.”


Bicycle Adventures

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Humboldt Redwoods Interpretive Association

Avenue of the Giants

Richard Preston’s The Wild Trees

My Washington Post review of The Wild Trees


2013 Grace Lichtenstein hedshot for EPTR  Grace Lichtenstein, a former New York Times reporter and bureau chief, is an avid cyclist and skier based in New York City who writes for many publications about travel, books and music.


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