Photos and Story by Elliott AlmondMONTGOMERY WOODS STATE RESERVE, California -- Spoilers.
This is not the space to discover the secret location of the Mendocino Tree, a 367 ½-foot redwood spire that rises out of this scenic forest like a head-turning monolith with a cute headdress. It’s in there, growing quietly in the same mound of spongy soil for at least a thousand years, if not many centuries more.
State park rangers and knowledgeable locals have made a pact to keep the natural skyscraper private in order to spare it from the hordes, who no doubt would trample over the delicate roots of this hidden California treasure to gawk upward at a wooden pole that seems like a stairway to the heavens.
We have empirical evidence showing just what would happen were the state to broadcast its exact location. This all but happened in 1998, two years after experts confirmed the tree as then the world’s tallest. A park ranger agreed to show a Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reporter the spot. The subsequent front-page story led to an overnight doubling of visitors although the woods are located off a remote, serpentine byway that traverses the golden mountains west of Ukiah. The park has limited parking at its entrance off Orr Springs Road and one stinky outhouse. In other words, it’s not equipped to handle an invasion of curiosity seekers.
Fortunately, the newspaper story didn’t detail the tree’s exact whereabouts. It remains an elusive vision for most visitors. Redwood experts from Humboldt State University eventually discovered taller trees in the mid-2000s, downgrading the Mendocino to ninth on their list. The change in status has lessened the interest is such a remote stretch of woods. Most people have little reason to come here now, well, except for the wonderment of some splendid old-growth trees.
Furthermore, 367 feet doesn’t sound that impressive with five known coast redwoods rising to at least 370 feet, the tallest being 379-foot Hyperion in Redwood National Park east of Orick. Hyperion’s location is known to scant few as national park rangers guard its whereabouts to allow it to grow in relative solitude. Time and again bloggers boast about finding the big one because we humans are hardscrabble tree baggers like it or not.
Although most of the significant trees can be found in public parks, state and federal officials are justified in their policy to not advertise the locations. Firstly, redwoods’ root systems are fragile. For practical matters, we have to be careful about disturbing them by having thousands encroach the ground where they lie. Secondly, we can’t trust ourselves to leave the big trees be. Just look at the carvings in these forests. People are wont to deface nature by leaving a mark in what I call "peeing dog syndrome."
Alas, Montgomery Woods has more or less returned to a peaceful state since the “world’s
One curious oddity. State officials have erected signs at the entrance bragging about the Mendocino Tree in something of a tease. They offer no explanation as to why they announce its presence or why they decline to reveal its location. It’s a bureaucratic conundrum. In the grove where the Mendocino resides another sign boasts that some of the world’s tallest trees are there for all to see, but leaves it at that. If the idea is to stop people from bagging big trees, why encourage them with signage?
I was attracted to the Montgomery forest for a handful of reasons, mostly because of its accessibility from my home. Equally interesting is the fact such tall redwoods could be found so far south of Humboldt and Del Norte counties, where a majority of the champion trees -- those reaching at least 350 feet in height -- are located. Furthermore, Montgomery's groves sit on the eastern edge of the redwood boundary, usually no more than 25 miles from the coast. The world’s best specimens, such as the Grove of the Titans and the Atlas Grove, are located much closer to the sea, thriving in rich, verdant rainforests. Montgomery Woods, on the other hand, is higher in elevation and in a much drier climate. As I negotiated the turns on Orr Springs Road while crossing the blond rolling hillside I wondered how a serious grove of redwoods could exist there.
But Montgomery’s trees have grown tall because of a narrow stream creating alluvial soil perfect to nurture big trees. The forest also is cooled by Mendocino coastal fog providing the temperate climate these ancient treasures need.
It doesn’t take much sweat to hike into the valley where glorious redwoods live. I spent four hours roaming the grove inspecting each giant to enjoy its splendor. Deep in Montgomery Flats where that second sign extols the virtues of this amazing forest, I found two significant trees. One caught my eye from a ridge. I wended my way to its base and upon inspection found climbing ropes and a numerical marker, indicating it was one of the trees redwood scientists had identified. That was the Norman J. Hendry tree, at 366 feet, the second tallest in the park. Further in the grove, I found another marker on a big tree. However, plenty of other giants seemingly as regal as the two marked trees were untouched, a reminder of just how difficult it is to measure the beasts without requisite expertise.
The problem with eyeballing supremely talltrees from the base is they don’t look that special. The Titans are easier to find in that regard because of their remarkable girth. They are some of the largest by cubic feet, and not by height. But the tall ones don’t necessarily have 20-plus feet diameters from breast height, or DBH. Also, it’s all but impossible to sit underneath a giant and determine its height in the canopy. They all look huge.
For example, I stumbled upon a stroller from Ukiah who seemed rather unimpressed with his local wonder. He spoke rapturously of Muir Woods below Mount Tamalpais in Marin. Muir Woods is a lush, almost museum-like stand that gives San Francisco visitors a sample of what a redwood forest might be like. It’s pretty, to be sure. But none of its trees can match the beauties of Montgomery. Not by anyone’s imagination. It’s the reason the reserve remains so special. It has more than a dozen giants to enjoy. It’s never going to resemble fairy tale Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek State Park or the Stout Grove in Jed Smith. It lies too far inland to present jungle-like lushness.
Montgomery also suffered a tremendous blow in 2008 when a devastating fire scorched the arid landscape surrounding it. Six years later, the forest has returned to its natural state, but residue of the destruction is found deep in the woods withblackened trunks.
Redwoods live so long because they are fire resistant and not prone to destructive insects. They also are efficient in regeneration. Their worst enemy has been loggers as 96 percent of old growth forests have been sawed into oblivion. In other words, virtually all the real champion trees, trees probably well beyond 400 feet, are part of the human fabric serving as tables and house frames. It is a major reason some visionaries set out to save the remaining forests, and why they deserve our vigilant protection.