A Complete Guide to the Tallest Trees on Earth: The Redwoods of Northern California

The trees in the Redwood National Forest along the Humboldt Coast are world renown for their size and age. Looking up and noticing that 300-foot tall, thousand-year-old trees shelter you is a grounding experience.

Comprised of the Redwood State Park, California’s Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks, the Redwood National Forest contains 139,000 acres of amazing forests with giant trees and unlimited adventures.

Located entirely within Del Norte and Humboldt Counties, the four parks, together, protect 45% of all remaining coast redwood old-growth forests, totaling at least 38,982 acres. These trees are the tallest and one of the most massive tree species on Earth.

In 1850, old-growth redwood forest covered more than 2,000,000 acres of the California coast. The northern portion of that area, originally inhabited by Native Americans, attracted many lumbermen and others turned gold miners when a minor gold rush brought them to the region. Failing in efforts to strike it rich in gold, these men turned toward harvesting the giant trees for booming development in San Francisco and other places on the West Coast.

After many decades of unrestricted clear-cut logging, serious efforts toward conservation began. By the 1920s the work of the Save-the-Redwoods League, founded in 1918 to preserve remaining old-growth redwoods, resulted in the establishment of Prairie Creek, Del Norte Coast, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Parks. Now the area is protected.

Though we often simply refer to the world’s tallest living trees on California’s North Coast as “redwoods,” there are in fact three distinct redwood species: dawn redwood, giant sequoia, and coast redwood. Much like the members of your family, the species in this subfamily share a common ancestry and many similar characteristics while maintaining their own unique identities.

Fossil evidence suggests that redwoods descended from a group of conifers that thrived across Europe, Asia, and North America when dinosaurs roamed the Earth in the Jurassic period more than 145 million years ago. As Earth’s climate gradually and generally became cooler and drier, redwoods became restricted to three distinct geographic regions and evolved into the three species we know today.

All redwoods are cone-bearing trees and get their common name from their reddish-brown bark and heartwood. And, by whatever name, these magnificent trees have the uncanny ability to inspire awe and mystery:

DAWN REDWOOD

Thought to have been extinct for millions of years, the dawn redwood was rediscovered in 1944 by a forester in the Sichuan-Hubei region of China. Also popular as an ornamental today, the tree is easily distinguished from its California relatives by its smaller size and deciduous leaves. Distribution: Central China.

Height: To 140 feet (43 m).

Diameter: To 6 feet (2 m).

Age: Indeterminate.

Leaves: Deciduous; needle-like with small stalk, arranged opposite each other.

Cone size: Like a large olive; shed yearly.

Seed size: Like a tomato seed.

Reproduction: By seed only.

Habitat/climate: Indeterminate

GIANT SEQUOIA

Quick-growing and long-lived (some over 3,000 years), no tree is more massive than the giant sequoia. The General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park is the most massive living thing on Earth, with an estimated total volume of over 50,000 cubic feet.

Distribution: Western slopes of Sierra Nevada Mountains in Central California.

Height: To 314 feet (96 m).

Diameter (DBH): To 30 feet (9 m).

Age: To more than 3,000 years.

Leaves: Evergreen; awl-shaped, attached at base.

Cone size: Like a chicken egg; can stay on tree for two decades.

Seed size: Like an oat flake.

Reproduction: By seed only.

Habitat/climate: Seedlings require abundant light, are frost tolerant, and drought resistant.

COAST REDWOOD

Coast redwoods are the tallest trees in the world. Dense forest stands grow on nutrient-rich river bars and flood plains, protected from the wind. Heavy winter rains and fog from the Pacific Ocean keeps the trees continually damp, even during summer droughts.

Distribution: Northern California coast, and into southernmost coastal Oregon.

Height: To 379 feet (115 m).

Diameter (DBH): To 26 feet (8 m).

Age: To more than 2,000 years.

Leaves: Evergreen; both needle- and awl shaped, attached at base.

Cone size: Like a large olive; shed after 1-2 years.

Seed Size: Like a tomato seed.

Reproduction: By seed or sprout.

Habitat/climate: Seedlings are shade tolerant but frost sensitive; require abundant moisture.

While the beautiful redwoods of NorCal are protected by government agencies, they are also under severe danger.

David Milarch’s near-death experience inspired a personal quest: to archive the genetics of the world’s largest trees before they’re gone. This short film from The Story Group documents his effort to save the redwood champions of Northern California from the effects of climate change:

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California

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