Let’s start by cutting the snobbery. Dendrophile is just a fancy word for tree lovers – and what’s not to love? Trees provide countless life-sustaining benefits to humanity – they produce oxygen, absorb greenhouse gasses, prevent soil erosion, provide shade, and on a shallower note, are really, really beautiful.
Nonetheless, there are many reasons to admire trees beyond their good looks and benefits to people. Under the right circumstances, many species of trees can live up to 5,000 years – the oldest precisely measured living being on Earth is, in fact, a tree. Trees have thrived through many generations of humanity, watching (or perhaps ignoring) the turbulence of human history. And like humans, trees are, in their way, social beings. The trees of a forest care for one another and communicate through networks of fungi that connect their roots, which are called mycorrhizal networks.
In this writer’s humble opinion, trees are some of the most magnificent beings on this planet and as such, are worthy of the attention given to attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Eiffel Tower. That said, the following list offers a profile of transcendent trees in California – home to the oldest and tallest trees in the world. Yes, they are mostly redwoods, and yes, a few of them are superlative (tallest, largest, oldest). However, a couple of them simply have a unique story highlighting the importance of conservation and the resilience of nature.
The “Grandfather” or “Old Survivor”
This first tree sits in an unexpected place: among the residential hills of the city of Oakland – across the bay from San Francisco. Many fans of the Coast Redwood are familiar with Humboldt State Park or Redwood National Forest, but what they might not know is that the Oakland hills used to be home to some of the largest ancient coastal redwoods of the area, but they were nearly cut to extinction during the Gold Rush to build San Francisco. Today, Oakland’s redwoods are all second-growth, save for the Grandfather, also known as Old Survivor.
All old-growth redwoods were thought to have been cut, until Old Survivor was rediscovered by naturalist Paul Covel and a core ring count at the time dated the tree to approximately 415-429 years old. In 2019, Old Survivor received renewed attention in Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Odell draws attention to the fact that Old Survivor is not particularly majestic (as redwoods go), nor easy to spot – it’s unassuming uselessness is a form of “resistance in place” and it now stands as a witness to the ravages of the Gold Rush on redwood forest ecosystems.
Old Survivor can be seen from a few vantage points on trails in Oakland’s Leona Heights Park.
The Shady Dell Candelabra Redwoods near Fort Bragg are neither the oldest nor tallest coastal redwoods of northern California, but their striking, curved branches make them well worth the trek to their remote corner of Northern California coastline. Sculpted from years of gales and salt spray, the Candelabra Redwoods’ branches, which round sharply upward from a single trunk, are like something out of a surrealist painting.
Prior to 2016, the Candelabra Redwoods were located on a private property, known and hidden from the public for over a century. Luckily for tree huggers, the nonprofit organization, Save the Redwoods, purchased the property in 2011. After some restoration work, with help from partners like the Mendocino Land Trust, Save the Redwoods opened the Peter Douglas Coastal Trail, allowing the public the opportunity to see these unique trees in person.
In the White Mountains of Inyo National Forest, about an hour’s drive from the Eastern Californian town of Bishop (alleged birthplace of the climbing style known as bouldering), resides the oldest scientifically confirmed single living being on the planet. At the ripe age of 4,853 years old, the Methuselah Tree – an ancient bristlecone pine named for the oldest man in the Bible, was “born” in 2831 BCE and is “non-clonal.” In other words, its root systems are as old as its trunks, and it is a single being that has not reproduced asexually. The distinction is important to make as some of the oldest living clonal beings (think: beds of kelp or seagrass) are up to 16 to 20,000 years old.
The twisted, gnarled branches of an ancient bristlecone pine may not inspire the same kind of visual awe as a proud redwood, but a visit to the Methuselah Grove can certainly prompt a thoughtful traveler to ponder the transience of human existence. The grove is located on a four mile loop, but the exact bristlecone that is the Methuselah Tree remains undisclosed due to conservation concerns. Just knowing that you’re in the presence of an ancient being and its old friends will have to suffice.
Three Rivers, CA
General Sherman is the world’s largest known tree specimen by volume alive today. It is a redwood, but unlike Old Survivor and the Candelabra Redwoods of Shady Dell, General Sherman is not a coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), but a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). Don’t be fooled by the titles – “giant” sequoias are not always more, well, giant. In fact, the largest redwood by volume in written record was the Lindsey Creek Tree – a coastal redwood toppled by a storm in 1905.
Still, tree enthusiasts looking to commune with the living heavyweight tree champion can visit General Sherman in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park. Legend has it that the tree was named by naturalist John Wolverton in 1879, who had served under Union General Sherman during the Civil War. There is little documentation to support this story. However, it is documented that in the 1880s, a utopian group from San Francisco who settled in the Giant Forest, had identified and named the tree Karl Marx.
General Sherman is easily accessible, only a short half-mile trail from main roads in Sequoia National Park.
Dawn Redwood of Willard Park
The story of the dawn redwood, or the dinosaur tree, is like Jurassic Park with an arboreal twist. Metasequoia glyptostroboides is thought of as a living fossil, because it was one of the most ubiquitous tree species at the “dawn” of time, or around 66 to 150 million years ago. Although today it thrives in many parts of the US, UK, China, and Japan, it was once thought to be extinct. That is until 1944 when Wang Zhan, a Chinese forester, discovered one in the Valley of the Tiger in China’s Sichuan province.
Following Wang Zhan’s discovery, prominent US universities led expeditions into the Valley of the Tiger, including one in 1948 which included UC Berkeley professor and paleobotanist, Ralph Chaney. The work of Chaney’s expedition, which brought seedlings back to the United States, is responsible for the dawn redwoods now thriving in California and other arboretums and botanical gardens across the country.
The Willard Park Dawn Redwood is only one of a few in Berkeley and one of many across the United States. This particular dawn redwood stands unassumingly next to a children’s playground. It’s funny to think that millions of years ago, it could have been standing beside a herd of dinosaurs and not packs of children.
Honoring Trees for Earth Day
Truthfully, this is a rather short list of the many amazing trees and forests of California. However, each of these trees tells a story of conservation, discovery, and/or sheer endurance. For conscious travelers, a visit to these trees – with their stories in mind – might dismantle our anthropocentric perspective of the world’s threatened natural ecosystem. In other words, in the face of climate change, it’s not only ourselves we need to protect.
With that in mind, these trees are all worth the pilgrimage, but visit with care – a forest is a community of social beings. Respect them the way you would a new community of people, with a kind heart and open mind. After all, they already give us so much.
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Want to learn more?
Meet the Rare Dawn Redwood at a Bay Area Park – Bay Nature
New Oakland Exhibit Reveals History of Area’s Once-Ancient Forest – Save the Redwoods League
History of Redwoods and Save the Redwoods League – Save the Redwoods League
A Unique Tree on California’s North Coast – North of Ordinary
Ten Must-See Redwood Trees – Visit Redwoods
Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park & Development – Crescent Bay Council
Uselessness as Survival – The Dew Drop
Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens – California Native Plant Society
Sequoiadendron giganteum – The Gymnosperm Database