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Trail to the Titans

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HIOUCHI, Calif. — Diego Hernandez scrambles out of the forest duff beneath a massive coastal redwood tree, covered in dew.

He’s working with crewmates to create an elevated walkway through some of the most majestic redwoods ever seen, but only recently acknowledged by their overseers at California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Where big-tree hunters once trampled, Hernandez is helping create a runway of sorts that will bring these big trees and the people who adore them together in a way that’s better for both of them.

Not a bad gig in the COVID-19 world, for sure.

“We’re trying to build something for the public to enjoy our beautiful office without damaging our beautiful redwoods,” Hernandez says.

Hernandez is part of the crew creating the ambitious and difficult 1,300-foot raised walkway through the Grove of Titans, which is home to three of the 10 largest coastal redwoods known to exist.

The elevated platform will allow the adoring public to walk into this sensitive grove without setting foot on the forest duff and the shallow root systems of these trees, some of which are more than 300 feet tall and 2,000 years old.

So far, about half of the steel, rail-less walkway has been built by hand in the grove, which has been off-limits to the public since trail construction began 13 months ago.

When completed by the fall of 2021, the trail to the Grove of Titans will become one of the new bucket-list hikes for big-tree lovers of the Pacific Northwest without worries of potentially loving these big redwoods to death.

The elevated trail will replace the illegal “social” trails carved into the ferns and duff by hikers — routes that have threatened the redwoods since they were discovered by accident 21 years ago.

“The social trails are already starting to grow back,” says Brett Silver, deputy district superintendent for the North Coast Redwoods District of the California State Parks Department. “It’s pretty cool.”

The Grove of Titans off the park’s Mill Creek Trail is one of the coolest things to be discovered locally in recent memory.

While the trees date well back in time, their public life didn’t begin until May 11, 1998, when botanist Stephen Sillett and big-tree hunter Michael Taylor stumbled upon the grove while studying redwoods.

Though growing right off the Mill Creek Trail in the park just south of Highway 199 in Northern California, they had existed undetected with no trails to them.

The grove is home to three of the 10 largest coastal redwoods by volume, including Lost Monarch, which is the largest multi-stem coastal redwood ever found — 321 feet tall and 26 feet wide, with a wood volume of 42,500 cubic feet. That’s enough wood to build 40 2,000-square-foot houses.

Not only are the trees mammoth, they’re uniquely clustered in this relatively small grove.

The trees, near the northernmost range of coastal redwoods, are dependent upon the coastal fog belt, and they take advantage of this area, which gets the heaviest annual rainfall of anywhere in California.

Also, coastal soil-type shifts near the Oregon/California border start to allow other conifers to out-compete these slow-growing leviathans that now cover just 5% of their natural range, with Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park a rare stronghold.

The trees are fire- and insect-resistant and thrive in the wet confines of the Northern California coast.

And they thrived in anonymity until 2011, when someone in Oregon published the GPS coordinates and directions to the grove on the Internet. The race to see them was on.

“You could actually go to Google Maps, type in “Grove of Titans,” and it would tell you exactly where it was,” Silver says.

That’s when tree lovers began to put the grove in peril.

The grove had no trail, but it could be found by bushwhacking off the Mill Creek Trail off Howland Hill Road. Visitors slogged through the ferns and duff, making tracks to find the grove.

Visitors routinely scrambled up the bark bases to get pictures with the huge trees, and over time they killed off many of the ferns that cloaked the bases and trampled the duff enough to expose the trees’ shallow root systems.

When denial of the grove’s existence stopped becoming a viable option, the tactic shifted to acknowledgment and protection.

“We didn’t see an alternative to it,” Silver says. “We realized there really wasn’t any alternative for us.”

State and federal parks officials joined with the Save the Redwoods League and the Redwood Parks Conservancy to raise the $3.5 million needed for the walkways and trail rejuvenation.

Already the trailhead has a new vault toilet and some parking.

Once it opens, hikers will walk about three-fourths of a mile up the improved trail through impressive redwoods. The trek includes walking through a redwood tunnel that was kept from the original trail.

“It’s almost like you’re walking through this and into an entirely different place in this world,” Silver says.

And that will lead you to the elevated walkway, which is the centerpiece in this project funded from grants large and small — down to revenues from bake sales in California grade schools.

“That level of support, to me, makes this whole project so amazing,” Silver says.

But translating dollars from cupcakes to the realities of a trail through massive redwoods isn’t so simple.

The work is arduous and slow.

Crews have to carry all of their tools and materials in by hand, including the heavy suspension beams and 7-foot-long steel walkway plates that each weigh 200 pounds.

Hernandez says crews have to craft the trail on the fly, choosing the route over logs and roots that makes the best sense.

“Sometimes you dig down a few inches and find a root that’s bigger than you are,” Hernandez says. “It’s amazing.”

The platform is about 6 feet wide, so people coming and going can pass each other easily.

The footings are all plastic or Fiberglas, so they won’t rot, Silver says. The steel walkway has quickly oxidized to the same color as the forest duff, and it is as quiet to walk on as the real forest floor.

The effort should last at least two decades, Silver says.

“We wanted a trail to last a long time as a tribute to these redwoods,” Silver says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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Jamie Lusch/Mail TribuneWorkers construct a walkway at the Grove of Titans at Fedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.