Travel

This Ancient National Park Is Home to Some of the Tallest Trees on Earth

Skyscrapers have nothing on California redwoods.

YayaErnst/iStock/Getty Images
YayaErnst/iStock/Getty Images
YayaErnst/iStock/Getty Images

Human beings could stand to learn a little humility, and what better way than by gawking at trees so tall they make the Statue of Liberty look like a mannequin? There’s something awe-inspiring and humbling about traipsing through a forest of titans in Redwood National and State Parks, a mossy, 139,000-acre maze of sky-scraping flora along California’s northern coast. This old-growth forest is home to some of the tallest and oldest trees on Earth-some ascending upwards of 370 feet, some older than Christ-and about 45% of all remaining coastal redwoods on the planet.

Par for the course, Native Americans once lived here in peace before the early 20th century, when the timber gold rush forced them out so lumberjacks could treat the woods like an all-you-can-eat buffet; during this time, the forest dwindled from 2 million acres in the 1800s to the alarming 39,000 acres of old-growth that remain today. In 1918, the Save the Redwoods League was formed to preserve the rest, leading to the establishment of the three state parks, followed by Redwood National Park in 1968. To more wholly protect and administer these vulnerable forests-as well as the endangered wildlife, craggy coasts, meandering rivers, and grassland prairies within-all four parks combined in 1994, now operating as a joint network.

In a world of calamity, variants, political division, tax seasons, and bickering about the Sex & the City reboot, the mighty trees are a reprieve, forcing you to slow down, marvel at the majesty of Mother Nature, and just breathe. While the immense forest is now but a whisper of its once-widespread swath, visiting this important park is a reminder of the delicacy of life and the soaring beauty of it all, if we just let it be. Here’s how to best soak in the grandeur of this national treasure.

Esteban Martinena Guerrero/iStock/Getty Images
Esteban Martinena Guerrero/iStock/Getty Images
Esteban Martinena Guerrero/iStock/Getty Images

Hit the trails, rivers, and tide pools

All the requisite national park goodies are up for grabs in Redwood National and State Parks, from leisurely hiking trails, kayaking, cycling to scenic drives so distractingly beautiful you’ll need to actively remind yourself not to focus on the road. No matter your fitness level or time constraints, the park has a trail for everyone. The Stout Memorial Grove Trail packs a wallop of wow in half a mile, with its 44-acre grove of redwoods along the shimmering Smith River, which makes for a dazzling picnic destination. For something a bit heftier, the 5.5-mile Boy Scout Trail weaves through tall trees, over streams, and past fern-clad waterfalls in the northern section of the park, near Crescent City.

More fern action can be experienced in Fern Canyon, a mile-long loop trail through a canyon so leafy-green it practically glows. One of the more popular trails in the park, it’s well worth the crowds and the inevitable fact that your shoes will get wet. Just be mindful that a herd of Roosevelt elk often resides here, and it’s important to maintain substantial distance, lest you find out what it feels like to get throttled by antlers.

Another quintessential trek is the 1.5-mile loop through Lady Bird Johnson Grove, a striking stretch of ridge-top trees that looks even lusher thanks to the higher elevation and greater precipitation. Looking to work up a sweat? The toughest trail in the park is Tall Trees Grove, a four-mile backcountry hike with 1,600 feet of elevation gain that requires a permit reserved at least 48 hours in advance.Beyond the trails, there’s much to explore on and in water as well. Tidepooling is an immersive pastime along the rugged, rocky coast at places like Endert’s Beach or False Klamath Cove, where visitors can wade through icy water during low tide to marvel at multi-colored sea stars and watch for whales and seals. Due to the merciless unpredictability of the ocean, it’s advised that tide poolers only visit right before the lowest tide and wear water shoes with a firm grip, since algae can be as slippery as a cartoon banana peel. If you do pick up a sea star (not encouraged, but not forbidden either!), be sure and place it back exactly where you found it.

Further inland, kayaking is another aquatic adventure all its own. The Smith River, so pristine you can clearly see the bottom, is the largest free-flowing river system in California, accessible for paddlers on ranger-led tours or with area rentals and guides. Kayaking is typically permitted during the summer months when the white water is mild and the river isn’t so cold that you’ll immediately succumb to hypothermia in the likely event that you get soaked.

Ian Dagnall/Alamy Stock Photo
Ian Dagnall/Alamy Stock Photo
Ian Dagnall/Alamy Stock Photo

Follow in the footsteps of Bigfoot, dinosaurs, and Ewoks

With its larger-than-life atmosphere, billowing fog, and trees so massive they look like vertical blue whales, it’s no wonder that the coastal redwood forests have become a magnet for cinephiles. In addition to 1,200-pound elk, river otters, and beavers, the park has played host to many a fictional critter: This is where the forest scenes in Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World were filmed (apparently, national parks and Jurassic Park are more alike than you’d think). Ditto the speeder chase sequence with Ewoks in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Outbreak, the Dustin Hoffman-starring movie about a much-too-relevant viral contagion, was also filmed in the park.

Perhaps the most prominent piece of mythos, though, belongs to Bigfoot. Whether you believe in it or not, the North American Sasquatch has become quite the cottage industry for the region: Not only are Bigfoot signs and Bigfoot-themed businesses abundant, but there’s a full-fledged Bigfoot Scenic Byway that winds through the region just east of the national park. It starts in Willow Creek, nicknamed the “Gateway to Big Country” for the numerous purported sightings in the area during the oddly specific year of 1958; the town also hosts the annual Bigfoot Daze festival with parades, vendors, and activities.

From Willow Creek, the Bigfoot shenanigans continue north for 153 miles, passing by countless Bigfoot-themed attractions along the way, from Bigfoot Steakhouse to the Bluff Creek Historic Trail in Orleans, where two filmmakers famously captured vague, hazy footage of a hairy beast in 1967. Plenty of regions and parks across the country lay claim to Bigfoot sightings, but if the behemoth creature is real, it only makes sense they’d reside amongst the world’s biggest trees.

The Inn at 2nd & C
The Inn at 2nd & C
The Inn at 2nd & C

Where to stay near Redwood National and State Parks

If you’re undeterred by potential Bigfoot encounters and you’d like to stay the night in or around Redwood National and State Parks, you’re in luck! The park has four developed campgrounds, all managed by California State Parks, and all of which can accommodate tents and small RVs or camper vans. They’re all quite popular in the summer, and reservations are encouraged.

For something a bit more furnished, you’ll need to leave the park to book a room in a nearby town like Crescent City, Klamath, or Eureka. There are plenty of chain motels and hotels, but The Historic Eagle House, outfitted with ornate Victorian rooms at The Inn at 2nd & C, is a stunning alternative and a blast from the past. Here, you can get a locally sourced meal and a masterfully mixed cocktail at Phatsy Kline’s Parlor Lounge, and who would say no to a place called Phatsy Kline’s?Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on IG @matt_kirouac.

Travel

Take a Submarine to the Bottom of the Great Lakes

You too can sink down to the watery grave-er, depths.

Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images

When the waves of Lake Huron closed over my head as I sank down to the bottom of the Great Lake, I admit I was a little panicky. I definitely thought about drowning. After all, I’d nearly drowned three times in my life.

Though the first two times I was too young to now recall, the third time was in Wisconsin and the sensation has stuck with me. I remember how, as a middle schooler, I got pulled deeper and deeper into a wave pool until every wave sucked me underneath just long enough to choke on a gurgly mouthful of water. Despite kicking and fighting to swim back to safety, I could feel the water overtaking me, bubbling up over my head as I sank down. The pool was choking me, I was suffocating, and the fear of death was right in my face. As you can probably guess, I was eventually saved. Someone noticed and pulled me out of the pool, and that relief was enormous.

But here I was again, as an adult, watching sediment from the bottom of the lake swirl up around me. But this time I wasn’t drowning. This time I was perfectly safe. This time I was in a submarine.

My small group and I were passengers on one of Viking Cruises’ newest itineraries, the Great Lakes Explorer. The expedition allows guests on the Viking Octantis ship to see one of the great lakes from the other side of the surface. Though guests can participate in science-research activities like microplastics research, bird-watching, and weather balloon launches, it’s also just really cool to dive in a submarine. Whether you’re overcoming your own childhood experiences or you’re just an adventurer at heart, here’s what to know about going on a submarine expedition in the Great Lakes.

Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises

Boarding a submarine

These are-of course-yellow submarines. Can you guess their names? If you picked John, Paul, George, and Ringo… you’re absolutely right.

The Beatles can go down to about 1,000 feet and stay underwater for eight hours. Each side of the submarine has three very comfortable seats for passengers, surrounded by glass domes that allow optimal viewing at the dive site. It’s a small space (you can’t stand up straight), but you can hardly tell once you’re in the water. The seat platforms swivel so you can look out over the lake floor instead of staring at the pilot and other passengers.

The submarines are equipped with lights, cameras, and some handy claws to pick up anything valuable the pilot sees on the lakebed. They’re typically used as research vessels to take information back to the Octantis’ science program, which works in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA eventually plans to tack instruments to the bottoms of the submarines to get more detailed information about the water, the lakes, and the lakebed.

If you’re like me (that is, both claustrophobic and afraid of drowning), you’ll be happy to know that the subs are awash with safety features. Onboard, you’ll find directions on what to do if the pilot goes unconscious, supplemental oxygen hoods, a big green button to push if the sub needs to surface immediately, and a program that tells the submarine to surface if it doesn’t detect any activity from the pilot. Up above you, the sub is followed by a safety boat with a team that ensures the surrounding waters stay clear and everyone is safe beneath the surface. (So even when the safety boat radioed our pilot, Peppe from Sweden, and said, “You’re a little close to the rocks, but that’s as good a dive site as any,” I decided to trust the marine scientist.)

Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock

Sinking down to the depths

Here’s how the dive works. You take Viking-owned Zodiacs (military-grade rigid inflatable boats) to a predetermined dive site that the scientists onboard the ship picked out that morning. For now, the sites will always be in Canadian waters-because Viking is Norwegian, the Jones Act disallows them from deploying subs in the United States. To transfer from the Zodiac to the submarine, you have to hold onto a metal bar, climb out of the Zodiac, and sit down on the edge of the submarine hatch. You swing your legs into the hatch, then climb down a three-rung ladder into the middle of the sub to find your assigned seat.

Once everyone is in the sub, the pilot climbs in, closes the hatch, and then radios to the safety boat to make sure you’re clear to sink. With the all-clear, air is released from outside tanks on the submarine, and thrusters push the entire thing underwater.

For our dive, we went down about fifty feet to the floor of the lake. It had been raining all morning, which stirred up the sediment around us, making everything a mossy green colour that spotlights sparkled through to highlight the lakebed. I saw a few tiny fish and a ton of invasive zebra mussel shells. Depending on the weather and your dive site, you’re likely to see more. But even just exploring the floor of the Great Lakes, something almost no one in history has done before, is an amazing thing.

Sign me up!

If you want to take a submarine dive into the Great Lakes yourself, you have to be a passenger on the Viking Octantis or sister ship, Viking Polaris. As of this writing, no other companies offer passenger submarine trips down into the lakes-especially not in a military-grade exploration submarine that is worth $6 million each. The Great Lakes expedition itineraries start at about $6,500 and can be booked on the Viking website.

Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

Hike, kayak, or get yourself a cinnamon roll afterwards

What you can see nearby depends on your dive site. On Octantis, the subs went down in Lake Huron and Lake Superior-my dive was in Lake Huron, surrounded by the stunning Georgian Bay UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Canada. Here, you can kayak in the bay, hike through the surrounding landscape, and enjoy a Zodiac nature cruise.

Or if you can, try to take your submarine dive at Silver Islet in Ontario’s slice of Lake Superior. The small community is historic and completely off the grid, and the general store has some of the best cinnamon rolls you can find around the Great Lakes.

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Jennifer Billock is a freelance writer and author, usually focusing on some combination of culinary travel, culture, sex, and history. Check her out at JenniferBillock.com and follow her on Twitter.

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