“The redwoods seem to be out of time and out of our ordinary thinking… The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”
~John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley In Search of America, 1962
The towering coastal redwood trees of the Santa Cruz County mountains carry an awe-inspiring majesty that words can never quite capture and photography fails to reproduce. A comforting silence weighs on visitors as they stare straight up into the canopy of these looming giants with starry eyes and hearts full of wonder. Standing among these giants is both humbling and exhilarating. These enormous ancient trees that call the Santa Cruz County mountains home create a wonderfully diverse ecosystem full of unique flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. Whether you experience the coastal redwood trees on an enchanting foggy day when the mist envelops the tree-tops or on a sunny day when the sunbeams break through the canopy of branches in cascades of golden light, your visit to these transcending redwoods in Santa Cruz County are beyond your wildest dreams.
The coastal redwood tree, known as Sequoia sempervirens, is the world’s tallest tree, reaching heights of over 300 feet (equivalent to a 30-floor skyscraper) with widths of roughly 20 feet. Not only is the coastal redwood the tallest tree species, but it can live to be over 2,000 years old! The ancient redwoods referred to as “old growth”, denote mature trees that are centuries old with characteristics such as plate-like bark, larger branches, and reiterated tops or multiple trunks growing in habitats undisturbed by human impact. The coastal redwoods in the Santa Cruz County mountains represent the southernmost section of the world’s largest temperate rainforest. Redwoods get their name from their eponymous bark, a deep red or brown color that is soft, fibrous, and rich in tannins that protect the trees from insect damage, rot, and fire.
The moderate temperatures that grace the Santa Cruz area year-round mean the coast redwoods cannot rely on heavy rainfall for their growth. Instead, redwoods get most of their water by absorbing moisture directly from the air through the fog. Coast redwoods have the ability to pass that moisture downward, creating their own “rain” by capturing moisture in their leaves and condensing it into water droplets that rain down on the under-canopy below to soak their roots. As a result, coast redwoods provide beauty and majesty to the Santa Cruz County and serve a crucial role in the water cycle that allows lush flora to flourish despite a lack of heavy rains.
The tallest tree in the Santa Cruz area, the “Mother of the Forest,” which stands only 50 feet shorter than the world’s tallest tree, is located within Big Basin Redwoods State Park. During the CZU fires in 2020, Big Basin lost all standing structures within the park to the fire and seemingly endless acres of redwood forests. Despite the devastation, the “Mother of the Forest” remains standing and acts as a living monument to the resilience and strength that coast redwoods represent. The relationship between coast redwoods and fire is an ancient symbiotic cycle, where damage from fire makes way for entirely new life. Fires clear the ground of fallen debris and make space for new young redwoods to grow. Without fire, the vibrant redwood forests actually can not grow.
The features of coast redwoods, like their natural resistance to rot and fire damage, made them a highly sought-after tree for lumber in the 1800s when the population of California boomed. When the Gold Rush hit California, extensive logging and destruction of the coastal redwoods occurred. The human impact caused by clear-cutting and logging devastated the expansive coastal redwood forests that once stretched an estimated 2 million acres from southern Big Sur to Oregon. Today, only 5% of old-growth redwood trees remain in a 450-mile strip of forest on the coast. The forests here in Santa Cruz County occupy the southern end of that remaining stretch of old-growth redwood trees.
Today, the majority of surviving redwoods that we enjoy in Santa Cruz County are “second-growth” trees that are about 50-150 years old. These young trees represent a growing future forest that can live for thousands of years if properly protected and conserved. Coast redwoods capture more carbon dioxide (CO2) from our cars, trucks, and power plants than any other tree on Earth. In them, we have a powerful force in positively supporting the world’s climate. Preserving these trees leads directly to creating a habitable future for our planet. While the old-growth redwoods that perished in the name of “progress” or natural disasters cannot be restored, we can, by working to preserve the forests and restore the natural conditions in which these giants thrive, work together to create future old-growth redwood forests for generations to come.
To experience the enchanting mystery of coast redwoods here in Santa Cruz County, visitors have several state parks in the area to explore. The two largest redwood state parks are Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, which spans from Felton to Santa Cruz, and The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in Aptos. Both parks offer extensive trail systems that weave through different microclimates, including redwood forests. Henry Cowell offers visitors a chance to explore 40-acres of old-growth redwood forests. Big Basin Redwoods State Park reopened after rebuilding from the CZU fires in 2020. Visiting Big Basin provides visitors with unique insight into the effects and life-cycle of the forest in relation to fire. Other parks with redwood groves include Wilder Ranch State Park, Loch Lomond, Pogonip, Castle Rock State Park, and Glenwood Open Space Preserve.
Header image by Ben Ingram