Because all park visitor centers are closed, Tall Trees permits must now be obtained online between 2 and 7 days before your visit.
The popular Tall Trees Grove is best known as the location of the Libbey Tree, which at one time was the world’s tallest known living thing. Although taller redwoods have since been found, the Libbey Tree is still interesting because it’s the only one of the former Tallest Trees that you can actually see. The locations of the other tallest trees have been kept secret. Typically for an exceptionally tall redwood, the Libbey Tree itself is completely unremarkable when seen from the ground, a double trunk so small that you probably won’t believe you’re looking at the right tree.
Of all the major attractions in Redwood National and State Parks, the Tall Trees Grove is the most difficult to reach. To protect the grove, no more than 50 cars per day are allowed access; free permits must be obtained at one of the nearby park visitor centers (they don't usually run out of permits, but on a recent Labor Day weekend, about 10 groups were waiting for permits at Kuchel Visitor Center when they opened at 9:00 am). Once you get a permit, it’s a 45-minute drive to the trailhead, starting with a long climb up Bald Hills Road. You have to open a locked gate using the secret combination on your permit, then it’s a 6-mile drive down a dusty (or muddy) gravel logging road. Finally, you have to walk 1.3 miles with a considerable elevation change to reach the grove.
Of course, the difficulty of getting there only adds to the grove’s mystique; it feels like you’re entering some secret hideout. The whole experience wouldn’t be quite so special if the grove were right next to the highway. There’s also a serenity that’s hard to find in old-growth groves, with no traffic noise at all intruding on the peacefulness.
The grove itself, located on a thin strip of flat land alongside Redwood Creek, is rather small and narrow. In fact, there’s only about a quarter-mile of big-tree scenery, and the grove’s edge is always in sight. It’s an exceptionally beautiful place, though, with its own unique look: a reserved magnificence, with dark-trunked monster redwoods set among 5-foot-tall ferns and a dense understory of hazelnut and other small trees. A large break in the canopy over the nearby creek makes the grove unusually bright and cheerful. It’s much different from the extravagant lushness of Prairie Creek or the expansive brilliance of Jedediah Smith.
After passing through the heart of the grove, the trail loops back through a layer of huge maple trees between the grove and Redwood Creek.
Several side trails lead out of the grove to Redwood Creek. The broad, glittering creek, with its gravel banks and expansive views of the surrounding redwood-covered hillsides, is quite scenic. Many visitors hike down to the grove and spend some time relaxing by the creek and among the redwoods. With a backcountry camping permit, you can even camp anywhere along the creek banks a quarter-mile or more from the grove.
Another nice thing about the grove is that it’s much further inland than the old-growth groves in the state redwood parks. If it’s one of those cold, foggy summer days on the coast, there’s a good chance that the Tall Trees Grove will be sunny and warm.
The grove is a popular destination for first-time visitors to the park and is highly recommended by a lot of guidebooks. Be aware, though, that you’ll spend half a day getting there and back, and in return you’ll only get about 10 minutes of hiking through the big trees. If you only have a day to see the redwoods, unless you have a special interest in the Tall Trees Grove it would make a whole lot more sense to hike, say, the Boy Scout Tree Trail or the Prairie Creek Trail, both of which have much more impressive scenery and are also much easier to reach. If you plan to spend two or more days in the redwoods, the Tall Trees Grove might be worthwhile since it’s refreshingly different from the other big-tree groves.
If you’re visiting in the summer and think you might enjoy wading through Redwood Creek, consider the Emerald Ridge and Tall Trees Loop, which is a really enjoyable variation of this hike and a nice change of pace from the other redwood trails.
Here’s the trailhead location in Google Maps.
To visit the grove you first have to get a free permit from any of the Redwood National and State Parks visitor centers; Prairie Creek and Kuchel are the closest. The permit includes a parking pass and a gate combination. Only 50 permits are available each day, but it’s unusual for them to run out.
To reach the grove, drive up Bald Hills Road and look for the Tall Trees access road, which starts just after the Redwood Creek overlook. You have to get out of your car to unlock a gate, which happens to be in the most mosquito-infested spot in the entire park. From there the six-mile-long “C-Line” dirt road descends through logged woodlands to a trailhead parking lot. The road is generally in good condition with the exception of some potholes.
From the parking lot, the access trail descends steeply, almost immediately entering old-growth redwood uplands. Some attractive redwoods, bleached white and rising tall and straight from the steep hillside, can be seen both alongside the trail and in the distance, but overall the access trail isn’t very exciting. A dense understory of huckleberry, rhododendron, and small redwoods screens the view, and a dense layer of ferns covers the ground.
Just before the access trail reaches the grove, the understory opens up and there’s a nice view of a cluster of huge redwoods set among a dense lawn of ferns. As the trail bottoms out it passes through this cluster, which is one of the more impressive parts of the Tall Trees grove. The path then turns right and branches. Keeping right, you’ll pass a number of monster trees, but most of the redwoods are smaller and the understory is dense. A hillside rises up just a few yards to your right, marking the edge of the grove and giving it an enclosed feeling.
At the north end of the grove, the Redwood Creek Trail branches off to the right. A superb collection of big trees grows around this spot, which is perhaps the most scenic part of the grove. The main trail then turns left and skirts the edge of the redwoods. The trail then leaves the redwoods altogether, winding among the big twisted maples that grow alongside the creek. The maples are furry with moss and even have ferns growing out of their trunks. The trail re-enters the redwoods, passing by the incongruously small Libbey Tree before re-joining the access trail.
It’s a surprisingly difficult climb back to the parking lot, with a steep and prolonged grade.
© 2007, 2010, 2015, 2019 David Baselt