'A place of reverence and awe': New trail into Grove of Titans showcases mythic redwoods

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  • Stephen C. Sillett
    Botanist
An elevated boardwalk style trail on Mill Creek Trail allows visitors to explore the Grove of the Titans — a grove of some of the largest redwoods trees on earth — without trampling the trees' root systems.
An elevated boardwalk style trail on Mill Creek Trail allows visitors to explore the Grove of the Titans — a grove of some of the largest redwoods trees on earth — without trampling the trees' root systems.

In a patch of forest just south of the Oregon and California state line, some of the largest trees on earth live together in a setting that offers a window into the ancient world.

The Grove of Titans, recently reopened by a new boardwalk trail system, is home to titanic redwoods over 1,500 years old and with so much gnarled personality you half expect them to awake and start tromping around Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

“It’s impossible to come here and not feel reverence and awe,” said Erin Gates, deputy superintendent of the Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP) system. “To have an opportunity that allows more visitors to connect with such a powerful place is very exciting for us.

“At the same time, the story of the Titans — and the story we want to share as well — is about how easily we can damage the very places we love.”

New project partly completed

The $3.5 million Grove of the Titans project, which is half-finished and should be completed by early summer, was born of an all-too-familiar story of the Internet age.

Discovered in 1998 by Steve Sillett and Michael Taylor — and featured in the 2007 book “The Wild Trees” by Richard Preston — the grove became a sought-after spot for big-tree hunters before skyrocketing online fame brought hordes of people off-trail in the park’s backcountry.

Because of how shallow the root systems of redwood trees are, the trampling began damaging how the trees took in oxygen and nutrients, as well as flattening large swaths of forest around the Titans.

A newly created trailhead, which includes a new bathroom and parking spaces, along Mill Creek Trail provides access to the Grove of Titans off Howland Hill Road in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.
A newly created trailhead, which includes a new bathroom and parking spaces, along Mill Creek Trail provides access to the Grove of Titans off Howland Hill Road in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

“It’s supposed to look like virgin forest passed down from prehistory, but instead, it’s starting to look like the Los Angeles freeway system,” Brett Silver, a now-retired deputy superintendent for California’s northern state parks, told the Statesman Journal in a 2017 story on the plight of the Titans.

Parks officials closed access to the Titans and began planning a multi-million dollar project to reroute existing trails and build elevated boardwalks to protect the trees' roots.

The Save the Redwoods League contributed $1.7 million toward the project.

The project was also funded by California agencies, Proposition 68 and Redwood Parks Conservancy donors.

Construction began in 2019.

Currently open route to Grove of Titans

The first phase of the project was completed last September — allowing access to the Titans. The full reroute of Mill Creek Trail should be completed in early summer, parks officials said.

The current stretch is short but spectacular. A new trailhead and bathroom begins on Howland Hills Road — the dirt road through the heart of the park.

From there, newly refurbished Mill Creek Trail takes off, crossing bridges, dropping through forested tunnels and climbing stairs through redwoods that are gigantic in and of themselves.

But the best comes at the end, when you climb onto a 1,300-foot-long elevated boardwalk and head into the official Grove of Titans.

The Titans don't include the world’s tallest trees — they're a bit shorter than Hyperion, generally known as the world's tallest tree at 380 feet. The tallest Titan is around 320 feet.

What sets Titans apart is their massive trunks, with some 30 feet in diameter, which is larger than the famous General Sherman tree of Sequoia National Park. It’s also the Titan’s personalities, with massive burls and branches stretching out like horns and arms that call out to visitors.

At one point, Sillett and Taylor gave specific names to the trees, but parks officials have decided to deemphasize the names.

“It was naming the trees that partly brought on the problems, so we’ve decided to remove the celebrity status of individual trees so people can connect with the whole forest,” Gates said.

All totaled, there are about 10 particularly giant redwoods among the Titans — many among the largest by volume ever documented.

The boardwalk trail weaves between them, with views out onto Mill Creek, on an elegant design surrounded on every side by giant sword ferns.

“They did an amazing job,” said Steve Harvey, who was visiting from Grants Pass on a recent Saturday. “The boardwalk and trail is just beautiful.”

For now, the trail closes beyond the Grove of Titans, meaning what’s open now is about a 1.5 mile out and back hike.

So far, visitors have been good about staying on the boardwalk trail and packing out trash, Gates said.

The second half of Mill Creek Trail, beyond the Grove of the Titans, is currently closed until around the start of next summer.
The second half of Mill Creek Trail, beyond the Grove of the Titans, is currently closed until around the start of next summer.

Connection to Strout Grove and campgrounds coming this summer

The second phase of the project should be finished by early summer, in advance of the peak recreation season.

The finished project will include a fully rerouted and improved three miles of Mill Creek Trail that connects to other trailheads, including Stout Grove, Hiouchi Trailhead and even the main campground along the Smith River.

The multiple access points should spread out visitors, Gates said, and allow for longer hikes that string together multiple groves of famed redwoods in one trek.

The park will also have volunteers called “Titaneers” who will walk the trail and connect with guests, encouraging them to stay on the boardwalks while telling the story of the area.

(See bottom of page for project map).

Discovery of Grove of the Titans

The backstory of how the Titans were discovered is a fascinating tale itself, beginning with Sillett, one of the world's foremost redwood botanists and a celebrity of sorts in the big tree world.

The first scientist to enter and study the redwood canopy, Sillett pioneered new methods for climbing tall trees with ropes, harnesses and pulleys. He studied the plants and animals that live hundreds of feet above ground in the redwood's botanical islands.

Despite the scientific accomplishments — and profiles in The New Yorker and National Geographic — it's the story of how he and Taylor discovered the Grove of Titans that's become almost mythic in big tree circles.

Steve Sillett, left, a professor at Humboldt State University, and a California state parks ranger look at a map.
Steve Sillett, left, a professor at Humboldt State University, and a California state parks ranger look at a map.

In May 1998, the two decided to explore the unmapped valleys in Jedediah Smith's old-growth jungles for the big trees they thought might be growing there.

"For the first quarter of a mile, they had to crawl through underbrush on their hands and knees, sometimes lying flat on their stomachs and belly-crawling," Preston wrote in "The Wild Trees." "They wormed under tight masses of huckleberry bushes, or they turned their bodies sideways and rammed through them."

The two ended up crawling down a creek, becoming cold and soaked and exhausted. They yelled at each other for committing such a “heinous bushwhack.”

As darkness came on, Taylor reached a fallen redwood trunk and climbed atop it. In front of him was something almost beyond imagination.

"It was the largest redwood trunk he had seen in all his years of exploring the North Coast," wrote Preston.

That day became known as the "day of discovery."

Sillett spent countless hours in the grove doing research, but it remained a blank spot on the map until 2007.

That began to change with publication of “Wild Trees.”

Damage comes to the Grove

Mario Vaden, an arborist from Southern Oregon, was one of the first explorers to seek out the Grove of Titans, he told the Statesman Journal in 2017.

He was already exploring redwoods off-trail when “Wild Trees” was published. Using maps, compasses and satellite imagery, he located the Titans in 2008. But he made sure to keep the location secret, he said.

“It was this pristine oasis — it looked basically untouched by humans,” Vaden said of the grove.

Park officials denied knowledge of the grove despite growing interest from the public.

“In the beginning, management policy was not to tell people where it was, so they wouldn’t go looking for it,” Silver said. “What ended up happening was that people went looking anyway."

And the location slowly leaked out.

Websites were established that showcased pictures of the trees and told of epic adventures to find them. Around 2011, a website posted GPS coordinates of the grove, Vaden said. By 2012, human impact in the grove was noticeable.

“It was still beautiful but you would no longer recognize it as being some hidden nook,” Vaden said.

It was the rise of social media — spreading the location to an even larger audience — that forced parks officials to change policy.

An elevated boardwalk style trail on Mill Creek Trail allows visitors to explore the Grove of the Titans — a grove of some of the largest redwoods trees on earth — without trampling the trees' root systems.
An elevated boardwalk style trail on Mill Creek Trail allows visitors to explore the Grove of the Titans — a grove of some of the largest redwoods trees on earth — without trampling the trees' root systems.

“Just a couple people searching off-trail is one thing,” Silver said. “But when it’s 50 to 60 people every single day, that’s entirely different. We knew we had to do something.”

Four years later, that something is a remarkable new trail system almost certain to make the Grove of the Titans among the most visited and beloved redwood trails in the West.

“I’ve been out there a lot since the trail has opened and the reaction we’ve been seeing from visitors has just been overwhelming,” Gates said. “It’s a really nice to see more visitors able to access and connect to this area. It's through that connection that they'll be inspired to help protect it."

Grove of the Titans

To expand the map, click here.

A map showing the location of the new trailhead and which routes to the Grove of the Titans are open.
A map showing the location of the new trailhead and which routes to the Grove of the Titans are open.

In a nutshell: Currently a short hike in Jed Smith Redwood State Park to the Grove of the Titans. By next summer, the trail will be longer and include much of Mill Creek Trail.

How to hike it: Currently, you can hike from a small new trailhead along Howland Hills Road to the Grove of Titans, about 1.5 miles out and back.

More information: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=413

Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 13 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.

This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Grove of Titans trail showcases 1,500-year-old redwoods

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