Encounter With Coastal Giants

Redwood National Park

Condé Nast Traveler China

Photographer: Raymond Patrick


Part of the conservation efforts of the Save the Redwoods League has been to cultivate second growth forests to complement old growth ones like this one. But the trees themselves are biologically equipped with ways to ensure their survival. Ranger Carey reveals where certain trees have cloned themselves—a process called reiteration. When pieces of redwoods break off, they shoot out new trunks which fuse onto and continue to grow out of the trees’ larger limbs—making the forest canopy an entire ecosystem of living wood that stores water, accumulates and develops soils, and provides habitat for a range of mammals, birds, amphibians, and insects. Big bumps, known as burls, that look like deformities growing out of the trunks also provide the trees with plenty of reproductive potential. Instead of relying on seeds to drop to the forest floor and grow where there is minimal light, new trees can grow out of the burls, which have been able to absorb nutrients and water from the parent plant.

On the way to Prairie Creek State Park, north on the 101, we spot a herd of elk grazing in Elk Meadow. Once we hit the ground on Prairie Creek Trail, we cross the creek where salmon and steelhead trout will soon be swimming through the winter and into early spring. This trail is highly recommended by Ranger Carey, and rightfully so—it’s as fairytale-like as forests get. It’s home to iluvatar trees, including the one made famous on an iconic cover of National Geographic.

Iluvatars are known for their astronomical number of reiterations, as well as the fact that they’re the tallest and biggest coast redwoods in existence. While it’s a common question for tourists to inquire where and how to find the ultimate iluvatar—one family flags down Ranger Carey to ask that precisely—rangers remain hush-hush on exact coordinates in order to protect the integrity of all the trees from potential vandalism. Once you see an iluvatar, though, it’s hard to miss. But while I walk through the woods marveling at their stature and their amazing reiterations, the mossy big leaf maple trees aren’t too shabby either. Ranger Carey pulls a leaf from a bay tree, tears it open and prompts me to take a whiff. It’s so fragrant that I’m reminded of the sheer force of nature—how even the most gigantic trees on the planet can seem humble among the abundance of life in a forest, down to the tiniest leaves.

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