Ten of the world’s largest trees lie deep within Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Bearing names like Lost Monarch, El Viejo Del Norte and Screaming Titans, the trees in the Grove of Titans stretch more than 300 feet into the air, are more than 23 feet in diameter and contain more than 35,000 cubic feet of wood.
But despite their size, the public’s desire to get close to these giants may be contributing to shortening the lifespan of trees that can live 2,000 years, said Brett Silver, acting superintendent of California State Parks’ Redwood Coast sector.
“It’s like bagging big game if you’re a trophy hunter,” Silver said. “It’s like a mystery, and for a lot of people the mystery is the cool part.”
Visitors to the park have blazed their own network of trails off the Mill Creek Trail to access the Grove of Titans, compressing the trees’ root systems and destroying the surrounding vegetation Silver said. People standing on the trees for photos can also cause injury.
The situation has prompted park officials to re-think their approach to protecting these redwoods. Calling the Grove of Titans “the worst kept secret” at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Silver said park rangers would install interpretive signs warning visitors of the injury they can do to these massive trees by leaving the trail.
Meanwhile, the Redwood Parks Conservancy — Redwood National and State Parks’ nonprofit partner — is endeavoring to raise $1 million for an elevated trail system into the grove itself.
“We’ve never tried to raise this much; it’ s a tall order,” said Joanna Di Tommaso, the conservancy’s development director. “We’re really excited. For us it’s a place we’re all passionate about. The Grove of Titans is an impressive grove.”
According to Silver, park officials had their eyes opened to just how many hikers left the main trail to access the Grove of Titans thanks to a graduate thesis Humboldt State University student Claudia Voigt published last year.
Voigt, who was pursuing a master’s degree in environmental and natural resources, studied the impacts of social, or informal, trails around old-growth redwoods. Her thesis focused on Tall Trees Grove, Stout Grove and the Grove of Titans.
In Tall Trees Grove, which is off Bald Hills Road near Orick and is accessible via a National Park Service permit, Voigt counted visitors on nine days during June 2015, comparing her tallies to the number of permits. Voigt counted visitors to Stout Grove on 10 days between May 25, 2015 and June 4.
To count the number of people visiting the Grove of Titans, Voigt installed seven motion-activated trail cameras at the entrances to the bootleg trails and in the grove itself. The cameras were active from April 4 to Aug. 22, 2015. In her thesis, Voigt said she analyzed 22,000 pictures to estimate how many people use the social trails at the Grove of Titans and where visitor use was concentrated.
During her study period, Voigt counted 768 visitors to the Grove of Titans. The average number of daily visitors was 10. Thirty-seven people walked into the Grove of Titans on July 14, 2015 and on July 25, 44 people walked into the grove, according to Voigt’s thesis.
Of 234 groups that accessed the Grove of Titans, the sizes ranged from one to 14 people with an average of three people, Voigt wrote.
“Many visitors did not just take pictures and pass through the Grove of Titans but stayed for extended amounts of time, some of them returning multiple times to the same spot within the course of hours,” Voigt wrote.
According to Silver, so many people have stepped on the trees’ roots that their protective covering is gone, leaving them exposed. On some of the trees, so many hands have touched them the bark has worn away, he said. Silver pointed out that the large number of visitors also degrades the overall experience for others.
For a long time, the parks have relied on secrecy to protect its most unique trees, but Silver said he thinks this approach has backfired. Part of the grove’s allure may be its name, he said. Its aura of mystery may also entice people to leave the main trail.
In addition to installing new interpretive signs, Silver said the plan is to put in an elevated boardwalk system that would allow hikers to visit the grove without traipsing over the trees’ roots. However, Redwood National and State Parks don’t have the money to build it.
“We would have to bring all the supplies to build the trail by hand,” Silver said, adding that constructing a trail starts with a fiberglass base that’s brought in on a pulley system. “They armor it so it can withstand a lot of use. It would be like a boardwalk, down to an armored trail and back to a boardwalk. It won’t be a continuous platform.”
Silver noted that by their actions people can let you know what they want. Park officials addressed a problem with visitors leaving toilet paper and human feces behind near the Boy Scout Tree trail by putting in a vault toilet. Building the elevated trail system at the Grove of Titans wouldn’t be as simple as adding a restroom but Silver said he thinks it would be worth it.
“We wanted the trees to have platforms so people could get up close, feel its grandeur, get a picture without stepping off of those areas,” he said.
The Redwood Parks Conservancy has taken to Facebook and is hoping to tap into its membership base to drum up excitement, and donations, for the trail project, Di Tommaso said. An article in Salem, Oregon’s Statesman Journal, published Feb. 23, is also helping get the word out.
A few donations have trickled in. Di Tommaso said the conservancy has raised a little more than $300 so far.
“We’re developing incentives like stickers and I’ve already talked to Brett Silver about the possibility of acknowledgment at the grove,” she said. “If we find someone we can create a plaque to put at the grove. It would take a thousand $1,000 donations to get this going. We’re hoping there’s a couple really generous people out there.”
Even though park rangers can’t ask for donations, Silver noted that with the number of visitors Jed Smith gets each year, between 400,000 and 500,000 people, raising enough money for the elevated trail system could be a relatively quick endeavor.
“I figure if anyone who’s ever hiked in Jed Smith, if they would donate $1 or $2, we would have that pretty quick,” he said. “When you think of how many people come and want to see the Grove of Titans or want to see Jed Smith and experience Redwood, if they just kicked in $2...”