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How is Armstrong Redwoods State Park recovering?

It’s a familiar theme: the larger-than-life superheroes stand together facing repeated attacks, drawing on amazing abilities to survive against all odds. Then, after regrowing limbs and regenerating entire bodies, they live nearly as long as immortals.

No, it’s not the fictional Marvel Universe. It’s happening, live, in our backyard: the saga of California’s immense coast redwoods, on display in the newly reopened Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.

In the last six years, they’ve been hammered by record drought, devastating wildfire, surging floodwater and hurricane-force winds. And now they’re healing.

“It seems impossible that a giant wooden structure could survive intense wildfire, but redwoods are incredibly resilient. They’ve evolved over tens of millions of years to survive,” Laura McLendon said.

McLendon is the director of land conservation at Sempervirens Fund, which protects and studies the sequoia forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains, including those within Big Basin Redwoods State Park, 97% of which burned in the firestorm of 2020, old-growth groves and all.

So how do coast redwoods manage to shrug off immense damage, lethal enough to kill other trees growing in the same forests?

Brendan O’Neil, senior environmental scientist at Sonoma-Mendocino Coast District California State Parks, credits their unique biology, adapted over millennia to meet the harsh challenges of their California environment.

Unlike hardwoods or giant Douglas firs, which can die outright in intense burns, redwood contains very little flammable resin or sap. In addition to a thick, fibrous, flame-resistant bark, redwoods hold relatively more water in their dense wood. Combined with their huge mass, this helps protect living tissue from heat.

Even after losing limbs and leaves, the barren charred trunk of a redwood can remarkably recover and even regrow an entirely new branch structure. The trees are equipped with specialized tissues beneath their bark, which can lay dormant for centuries but burst into rapid growth when the tree is grievously injured or stressed.

In the grey ash and aftermath of fire, redwood trees appear to be lifeless. But within several weeks, they will become covered in what looks like green fur, new sprouts pushing their way out through the blackened bark.

This epicormic growth is unique to redwoods among conifers, O’Neil said. And it lets the redwoods rapidly rebuild lost leaves and branches, which they need to make food from sunlight.

“They’re uniquely regenerative,” McLendon said. “In time, redwoods can restore their entire canopy and limbs.”

In seven to 10 years, a single tree can regrow nearly an acre or more of leaf surface.

That’s not their only special ability.

“Even when fire burns into the core of the tree, where it can smolder for as much as a year,” O’Neil said, “as long as enough of the base remains intact, the tree can survive and keep on growing.”

About the only way to kill to a redwood tree is to have such intense heat that its root system is destroyed, or so much structural loss at its base that it collapses and topples over.

In that case, even if the tree is lost, as long as roots have survived, they can resprout entirely new trees from the stump’s base.

Damage at Armstrong

Out on the fire-swept slopes of Armstrong and Austin Creek parks, O’Neil has been hard at work the past year assessing and dealing with the damage, alongside State Park staff and volunteers and staff from Stewards of the Redwoods.

Thousands of dead fir, madrone, bay laurel and tanbark oak trees have had to be removed or cut down, to reduce hazards in the burned zones.

Although no official survey has been completed yet, O’Neil estimated that somewhere between 2 - 5% of the redwoods in Armstrong / Austin Creek were killed in the Walbridge fire in 2020. While that doesn’t seem like a lot, in relation to the small number of sequoias remaining in the state, it’s a significant loss, he said.

The giants grove on the valley floor at Armstrong is now open to a relieved public, but the upland Pool Ridge and East Ridge trails on either side of the canyon are not.

Fire leaves behind dead standing trees and weakened limbs that could come crashing down unpredictably. And sections of the trails, bridges and embankments were destroyed or have slid out. The combination could result in fatalities or serious injury to hikers.

The Austin Creek property is closed entirely and suffered most in the intense firestorm.

But it could have been much worse. O’Neil said the ancient giant redwoods in the Armstrong grove escaped serious harm because there was little wind when the fire began backing downslope into the valley floor. That allowed fire crews to make a stand and accomplish the near impossible, protecting most of the old-growth trees there from harm.

Now that the public has been allowed back into the park, O’Neil said, it’s gratifying.

“There’s a lot of relief in people’s faces, to find it’s much better than their worst fears.”

Visitors will see burnt trees and blackened trunks around the edges of the valley, and new fencing along stretches of trail that replaces fencing that burned to cinders.

At the top of the valley, buildings, bridges and other structures were destroyed, and have yet to be rebuilt.

But there’s also new growth on the hillsides. Ferns have rebounded rapidly, bay trees have launched new basal sprouts and some redwoods that faced fire have new green shoots.

Recent rains have helped with the record drought, although the redwoods are prepared to survive drought, too. They will shut down growth and drop leaves to conserve water. Their remaining green leaves have the remarkable ability to absorb water directly from fog or raindrops. Studies have found mature trees can absorb as much as 12 gallons of water per hour and use that water to repair drought-damaged leaves.

The redwoods are not only capable of healing themselves, it seems, but can have a healing effect on human visitors as well.

“There’s been a real pent-up desire to get back in, back to the redwoods,” O’Neil said.

Perhaps it’s the grandeur and peaceful glades of the towering forest, or simply the human experience of standing alongside a resilient, remarkable creature with a life span of thousands of years.

Where else to see redwoods

Of course, Armstrong isn’t the only place to see redwoods. While Big Basin Redwoods State Park and other old-growth groves south of the Bay Area remain closed after last year’s catastrophic fires, there are still opportunities for locals and visitors to walk among the giants in and around Sonoma County.

Here are 10 other particularly enjoyable redwood destinations, to the north, east, west and south of Santa Rosa, from tiny stands of younger trees to massive ancient groves.

NORTH

Hendy Woods State Park

Like Armstrong, Hendy holds groves of old-growth giant redwoods in a relatively flat, fern-filled alluvial valley. Crisscrossed by easily walked trails, including some that are wheelchair accessible, Hendy has open views of towering giants, some 1,000 years old, growing along the Navarro River, with a seasonal campground.

If you have time for it, the drive along the Navarro River to the sea has miles of dark, giant redwoods crowding the roadway.

Where: About 70 miles north from Santa Rosa, via highways 101 and 128, in the Alexander Valley, Mendocino County.

Gualala Point Regional Park

Gualala Point has a lovely, small second-growth redwood forest along the Gualala River. It also has one of the rare campgrounds in the redwoods in the county.

Put a kayak in the river and ride it to the Pacific Ocean nearby. With trails connecting to the coastal bluffs and river, it’s a good location for a seacoast outing with a redwood stop.

Where: About 70 miles northwest of Santa Rosa, via highways 116 and 1.

Riverfront Regional Park

Along the Russian River west of Windsor, Riverfront has a well-watered grove of stout second-growth redwoods, with a half-mile forest walk. There’s also an inspiringly picturesque stand of tall, healthy redwoods in the picnic area near the park entrance.

Where: About 15 miles north of Santa Rosa, via Highway 101, in Healdsburg.

EAST

Jack London State Historic Park

The original redwoods here were logged, but you can find stands of second-growth trees growing along the hiking trails and upland ridges. This is a drier environment and mixed forest.

London also holds Grandmother Tree, a gnarled ancient estimated to be 1,800 years old, that may have escaped the saw because it is neither tall nor straight. The round-trip walk to the Grandmother Tree is about 4 miles, with a moderate climb.

Where: 17 miles east of Santa Rosa, via Bennett Valley Road, near Kenwood.

Bothe-Napa Valley State Park

This park in the Napa Valley holds the farthest-inland redwood forest of any state park. This far away from the ocean fog, the trees aren’t as lush, but there’s a lovely shaded Redwood Trail along Ritchey Creek that meanders among large and impressive second-growth redwoods.

The trail is 3 miles out and back through maples and oaks, but few expect redwoods right next to vineyards.

Where: 20 miles northeast of Santa Rosa, via Calistoga from the north.

North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve

There is a small but almost magical grove of second-growth redwoods here, a short hike out from the parking area along Ridge Trail. The redwoods and ferns are watered by the south fork of Matanzas Creek and are a surprise to discover here, where the mixed hardwood trees dominate.

Where: 10 miles southeast from Santa Rosa, via Bennett Valley and Sonoma Mountain roads.

WEST

Highway 116 between Guerneville and Duncans Mills

Not a destination but a drive, this route takes a winding path along the Russian River, much of it among tall, stately trees that grow close along the road and between residences. These second-growth towers are tall and lush enough to create cool shade and provide a sense of what the original forest may have felt like here.

The canyon and hillsides are dense redwood forest now, regrown after being heavily lumbered 150 years ago, when Guerneville was appropriately known as Stumptown.

Where: 20 miles west of Santa Rosa.

Grove of Old Trees

The Grove is a privately owned but publicly open old-growth redwood forest, standing tall on a ridge near Occidental. Recently reopened, the trails provide a quiet walk, and some are wheelchair and stroller accessible. Parking can be limited, and access is via a small country lane, but the soaring trees here are a popular destination for locals.

Where: About 18 miles directly west of Santa Rosa.

SOUTH

Samuel P. Taylor State Park

Samuel P. Taylor has second-growth redwood forest and an impressive but small old-growth grove, which can be reached by the Pioneer Trail. The park stretches across steep rolling hills and fairly lush ridges on the western side of Marin County, and has camping, too.

Redwoods, maples and bay laurel trees shade Lagunitas Creek, which has spawning salmon in the season.

Where: 38 miles south of Santa Rosa, via Highway 101 and Pt. Reyes-Petaluma Road. It’s closer than Muir Woods, and less busy, with a more wild natural environment, but it’s not as impressive, either.

Muir Woods

Among California’s redwood parks, Muir offers the best cathedral-like experience of old-growth trees, with easily walkable and accessible trails. The giants here are as old as those in Armstrong and Hendy, but the park is an international destination and tends to be busy. Parking reservations are always required, and you can make them online at nps.gov/muwo.

Where: About 58 miles south of Santa Rosa, via Highway 101.

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at snett@findingcalifornia.com

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