CRESCENT CITY, Calif. —

The most impressive natural sight in the greater Pacific Northwest region is not a mountain peak wearing its winter cap of snow, nor a rocky beach enduring the crash of surf, nor a volcanic lake or rushing river or painted desertscape.

Don’t get me wrong. I love them all.

But first, give me trees. Specifically, give me the giant coastal redwoods of Stout Memorial Grove in northwestern California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Located a couple of miles off U.S. Highway 199 near Hiouchi, on the south bank of the Smith River near the unpaved (but all-season) Howland Hill Road, the Stout Grove is a rare cathedral-like sanctuary where the modern world seems a thousand years and a million miles away.

The majesty of these colossal trees cannot be understated. Germinated about the time a man named Jesus walked the plains of distant Palestine, they have been buffeted by centuries of rain and wind, fire and vermin. They have sheltered centuries of Native American tribes and, in the past 200 years, witnessed the proliferation of Western civilization.

Yet they persist, rising high above every other living thing. Coast redwoods grow to more than 350 feet, higher than a 30-story building. Even so, their range is as restricted as their life is long. Prolific over much of the Northern Hemisphere at the time of the dinosaurs, redwoods today are found only on the western slopes of the Coast Ranges, in a 450-mile-long strip from the southwestern Oregon border to the Monterey Peninsula.

I feel awed and insignificant when I wander among these ancient giants. In Stout Grove, although the loop trail is a mere half-mile around, I circled it three times on a recent visit. The spring of the sod beneath my feet, the sunlight peeking through the green boughs, the twitter of songbirds from a thicket of rhododendron bushes, made the short hike a multisensory experience.

Where trees had fallen and were cut through to clear the path, their cross-sections were as wide as I am tall. Some trees harbored small caves, probably a home to some creature, beneath their roots. Others, shrouded by sword ferns as high as my waist, leaned into one another in a manner that evoked visions of an otherworldly wonderland.

Jed Smith’s legacy

A remarkable man gave his name to this state park — a division of the Redwoods National and State Parks — and to the river that flows through it.

Jedediah Smith (1799-1831) packed more into his short life than most people can dream about. As a fur trader and explorer, he was the first white American to travel overland across the Great Basin to the Sierra Nevada and California. During pioneering travels up the California coast to the Oregon Country in 1828, he was the first to comment on the great redwood forests. He died on the Santa Fe Trail, killed in a Comanche ambush, after surviving three massacres and a grizzly-bear mauling through his twenties.

In the late 19th century and into the 20th, California’s redwood forests were heavily logged, primarily to build homes for the throngs of Easterners moving to the Pacific Coast. In 1918, a group of conservationists alarmed by the rapid depletion of the unique forests formed the Save-the-Redwoods League.

When the 44-acre Frank D. Stout Memorial Grove was donated to the league in 1929 by the widow of a timber baron, it became the cornerstone for Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. The park now covers about 10,000 acres along the Smith River and tributary creeks.

Abutting Smith Park to the east is the Smith River National Recreation Area. Embracing all three forks of the wild and scenic (and completely undammed) Smith River, the recreation area extends across 450 square miles from the Oregon border south. It’s cut neatly in two by winding U.S. Highway 199, a 77-mile route that links Oregon’s Grants Pass with Crescent City, the northernmost town of size on the California coast.

U.S. Highway 199 follows the Smith River Scenic Byway for 27 miles from just past the border crossing. Depending on the season, salmon and steelhead fishermen, kayakers and whitewater rafters may be seen in the rapids and canyons readily visible from the road. There’s a visitor center at Gasquet (pronounced “GAS-key”), along with rare facilities for travelers.

Ten miles farther at Hiouchi (“hi-oh-OO-chee”), the highway enters the national park. About two miles east of here, travelers can keep an eye out for the Howland Hill Road turnoff. It’s a two-way road, but is only about 1 1/2 lanes wide, and larger vehicles — including trailers and motor homes — are discouraged from traveling it. But the eight-mile road, which ends on the east side of Crescent City, is worthy of a long detour off U.S. 199, for Stout Grove as well as other trails and diversions.

Other groves in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park are good second choices for travelers unwilling or unable to take the Howland Hill Road. The best alternative is the Simpson-Reed Grove, with a ¾-mile trail beginning about three miles west of Hiouchi.

Crescent City

Redwood national and state parks — which embraces Jedediah Smith and two other parks further south, Del Norte and Prairie Creek — have been jointly operated under a cooperative management plan since 1994. Headquarters are in downtown Crescent City, a town of about 7,500 people 18 miles south of the Oregon state line.

No one, it seems, can talk about Crescent City without a long mention of the series of Good Friday tsunamis that swept over the town on March 27-28, 1964.

Touched off by a major earthquake in Alaska, the quartet of tidal waves inundated the community and reduced 56 square blocks to rubble. Beachfront businesses suffered most, but the entire downtown area was destroyed, along with 289 homes and businesses. Remarkably, despite this being the worst tsunami disaster on the West Coast in recorded history, the death toll was only 11 people.

But Crescent City has never been the same since. The entire town was rebuilt, of course, and the great number of buildings dating from the late 1960s and 1970s is in sharp contrast to other California coastal communities, where 19th-century structures are not uncommon.

A two-block-wide greensward along the north and west sides of Crescent Harbor has been turned into a broad park with playgrounds and paths for walking and bicycling. The Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, a rescue and rehabilitation facility for stranded seals and sea lions, is now located here.

Facing Front Street, and a half-block from the national park headquarters, is the Crescent City/Del Norte County Visitor Center, a good source of information for new arrivals.

The Del Norte County Historical Society Museum is several blocks distant, at Sixth and H streets, in a 1926 building that did survive the great wave. Open weekdays from May to September, it has worthy exhibits on Native American culture and 19th-century shipwrecks, but most visitors come to see photographs of the tsunami damage.

Battery Point Lighthouse has been a Crescent City landmark since 1856. High on a rock at the head of the harbor, its keepers watched in abject horror during the 1964 tsunami as the waves crashed past their refuge and upon the adjacent city. Today the building is a seasonal museum (April to October, tides permitting) with numerous historical displays and a continually operating light in its tower, to which visitors are welcome to climb.

Crescent City has a small but pleasant harbor area with several good seafood restaurants around its piers. Sea lions often roost on the jetties. A small aquarium and gift shop, Ocean World, is just off U.S. Highway 101 near Anchor Way, the main road into the harbor. The town’s best hotels are also along this stretch of the highway.

Down the coast

Immediately south of the Crescent City, U.S. Highway 101 enters a 40-mile stretch of continual big-tree landscape. As local tourism authorities trumpet, this is “where the redwoods meet the sea.”

Whale watchers often make a roost on an overlook on Enderts Beach Road. The bluff here offers a memorable view north along the Crescent Beach strand toward Crescent City itself.

A popular tourist stop, 16 miles south of Crescent City, is Trees of Mystery. Schlocky statues of Paul Bunyan (“nearly five stories tall!”) and Babe the Blue Ox stand outside this roadside attraction, but they shouldn’t deter you from taking a look inside.

A new six-passenger gondola carries visitors through the forest to a trailhead; paths that return to the terminal lead past lofty trees and fanciful carvings. The End of the Trail Museum has an outstanding collection of Native American art from all over North America.

A short detour at Requa, just north of the Yurok Indian Reservation village of Klamath, leads to an overlook with a bird’s-eye view of the mouth of the Klamath River, its source in Oregon. Sea lions often sun themselves on the broad sand bar easily visible here.

Across the Klamath River, look for a turnoff from U.S. Highway 101 onto the nine-mile Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. This is the best route for discovering Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Pause anywhere en route, but don’t miss the Big Tree Wayside, with a series of loop trails that afford great forest-viewing opportunities and continue down small streams directly to the Pacific coastline.

Between Prairie Creek and the small service town of Orick, I stayed a night in a cabin at Elk Meadow. The name is not falsely advertised. When I awoke soon after dawn, a morning mist rising from the dew of the surrounding glen, two herds of elk were contesting grazing rights. A couple of young bulls, each believing itself stronger than the other, locked horns; there was no apparent winner.

I love every rival elk herd, every forested grove and every fern-enveloped glade of the redwood country. Stout Grove is my personal favorite, but there are many other special places that might touch some visitors the way that Stout touches me.

But I encourage every traveler not to fall too much in love with mountain or sea scapes until they’ve had a chance to hug a giant coastal redwood.

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