Leap Into the Redwoods, Limp Back Out

Boy Scout Tree Trail in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Bob Janiskee photo.

You can’t walk more than half way into the woods, and sometimes you can’t even get that far. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride and face up to your limitations. Sometimes the experience can be rewarding

It was the second and final day of our visit to Redwood National and State Parks, and my two hiking companions and I were ready for the grand finale. We had been down on the beaches and up on the cliffs, and now it was time to hike among the forest giants.

We were in the far northern part of RNSP, and that eased the task of finding a suitable trail. RNSP has quite a few redwood groves with many miles of scenic trails, but most of the old growth is in the northern section of the park – or to be more precise, in the northern section of the administrative unit called Redwood National and State Parks. RNSP was created in 1994 to facilitate the cooperative management of Redwood National Park and three coterminous state parks – Jedediah Smith Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods, and Prairie Creek Redwoods.

We had overnighted in Crescent City, and later in the day we would be heading north on Highway 199 en route to Crater Lake. This narrowed our choice to Jedediah Smith, the northernmost of RNSP’s three state parks.

Packed and breakfasted, we headed east out of Crescent City on Elk Valley Road, bore right onto Howland Hill Road, and were soon among redwoods growing thick and close to the narrow, winding gravel road. We could have reached out of an open window and touched them. (Don’t even think about taking a motor home or travel trailer on that road!) A few miles further we arrived at the little trailhead parking area we were looking for. A few minutes after that we were on the Boy Scout Tree Trail, one of only a handful of trails in the world that lets you walk through old-growth redwoods without hearing traffic noise or seeing cultural artifacts.

Named for the Boy Scout Tree, a big double-trunk tree that puts you in mind of the two-fingered Boy Scout salute, the trail we had chosen winds through a nearly pure redwood forest and ends at Fern Falls, a small cascade that doesn’t amount to much by summer’s end. It’s a 5.3-mile round trip with about 750 feet of elevation change. You need to watch where you put your feet because there are roots, roots, and yet more roots waiting to trip you. Other than that, and a few fairly steep ups and downs, the Boy Scout Tree Trail is an easy-to-moderate hike. Or so I thought.

The twinges started on the downhills about two-thirds of the way in. First my right calf, then my left, and then both thighs. You know that feeling you get just before a major muscle goes into spasm? The one that’s followed by a cramp so painful you have to grit your teeth? I had that, times four. Maybe I hadn’t drunk enough water, or maybe I was low on potassium, or maybe I just wasn’t used to long, steep downhills. Whatever. It was getting worse by the minute.

When I started down a set of steps, gingerly lifting first one leg and then the other, I realized that that it was folly to go any further. So I did something I never expected to do. Telling my companions that I’d see them back at the car, I turned and began to make my way back to the trailhead. I would have to go slowly.

What a gift that turned out to be. If you are going to be defeated by a trail, this is where you want it to happen. If you are compelled to walk slowly, and by yourself, this is where you want to do it. Walking at a snail’s pace, and pausing often, I was forced to experience the redwoods in a new and different way. Until then I hadn’t noticed that the forest was deathly quiet in the still morning air. I hadn’t noticed that no two redwoods look quite the same. I hadn't wondered how trees that big can grow so close together. I hadn’t noticed or enjoyed a lot of things that I should have. I had been walking too fast and paying too little heed to my surroundings.

I made it back to the car in due course, and by lunchtime I was fully hydrated, free of cramps, and hiking too fast again. I am, it seems, a very slow learner.