Day Two, Saturday:
Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree
Drive Time: 4 1/2 hrs
I woke up early at the Santa Cruz Hostel and tiptoed my way out so as not to wake up the other girls in the dorm. I wanted to be on the road by 6:00AM to utilize as many daylight hours as possible at the Avenue of the Giants, 4 1/2 hours north of Santa Cruz. Some of the main attractions were a part of the plan, but I also wanted time to hike among the Redwoods before it got dark. It’d be best to find my campsite before the sun went down, too, because the directions mentioned I’d be likely to lose cell service and unable to fall back on my phone's map.
This is when I began to fall in love with early morning drives, and knew I could easily keep up this schedule for the next few days. The sky was still dark, the streets barren and quiet, the air cool, and after I stopped to fill up on gas and grab a hot coffee, I drove on through winding roads that twisted and turned through dense trees wrapped in mist. This must be my favorite kind of landscape, as I’m noticing a pattern about the scenery that impresses me - mist in Monteverde, mist in Seward, and now mist north of Santa Cruz. It’d take my breath away again on Day 3, in the Bay Area.
But day was breaking as I traveled through San Jose and Oakland today, and my focus was on the overwhelming bright blue of the bay. It was a different perspective, prettier and more natural than I remembered it being when I visited Fisherman’s Wharf years ago.
The farmland north of San Francisco was lush, making the white-and-black spotted cows look happier than the ones corralled along El Camino Real. While the hills here have the same soft, rolling quality of those along the Central Coast, they’re grassier and more alive than that dry equivalent just a few hours south. Everything felt sunny and bright.
My favorite small town to drive through prior to Legget and Laytonville was Hopland. There are places to pull off to check out antiques, pick strawberries, and grab a bite to eat at local cafes. I put a pin in that for my return trip, but unfortunately most places would be closed when I drove back through on the following early morning. I always end a trip with a longer bucket list than when I started!
The final stretch before reaching the Avenue of the Giants is all scenic mountain highway. I sped along listening to The Tallest Man On Earth, feeling like the “King Of Spain”, and before long I was in a corridor leading to the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree, enveloped by the forest I had come all this way to see.
Before you can drive through the Chandelier Tree you must pass through a gate to pay $10, which is a bit of a gyp. Inside the gate is only the tree and a gift shop, and when I asked if there were any hikes, the attendant told me people had worn paths into the forest that I could technically follow, but they weren’t designated and he never goes too far for fear of getting lost. I told him I was going to the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree afterwards, and he advised I’d find hikes in that area. I also asked if he thought my truck would fit, and he said he’d seen big cars go through and I probably could, but ultimately it would be my choice once I got there and sized up the dimensions.
When I arrived, about 8-10 cars had just pulled in ahead of me, but the short wait in line was tolerable. Unfortunately, when it was my turn to drive through, it did look too close for comfort. Even with my mirrors pulled in I thought I had a good chance of scraping up the side of my truck, so I pulled off the path and parked in the gift shop parking lot to wander the “trails” for a moment and watch others drive through the tree. It was still a fun stop, but between this and Shrine, I would advise people to go with Shrine.
Shrine Drive-Thru Tree
Drive Time: 45 min
Onward and upward. The Shrine Tree is about 45 minutes north of the Chandelier Tree, and the sheer scale of the Avenue of the Giants started to mess with my head. I didn’t realize there are different towns along the route - Garberville, Phillipsville, Benbow, Redcrest, Pepperwood, Scotia, etc - and it felt like a million years to arrive in Myers Flat where the Shrine Tree is. This time I paid $8, and, drumroll please - the truck fit! It was about as close as anyone could possibly manage, and when I lingered for a moment inside to get pictures a couple people poked their heads around to investigate whether I was stuck or not. Mind your own business, plebs, I’m a pro.
They also have two literal treehouses you can climb inside of (I wish smellvision was a thing so you guys could experience the amazing scent), and some educational information about the age and size of nearby Redwoods. The woman inside the gift shop (and their little welcome dog!) was super helpful. She directed me to her favorite hiking area, Flat Iron, explaining that it’s right next to the Giant Tree trail but goes much further back into the forest.
Eternal Tree House
Drive Time: should have been 15 min, ended up being 30 or 40 min
By this time, I was getting hangry. I decided to skip forward to the Eternal Tree House. It was going to be the final stop on my route after hiking, but it has a cafe, and I figured I would kill two birds with one stone by heading there now. Because of my experience finding the Shrine Tree, and because Google Maps says it’s in Scotia, I thought the Eternal Tree House would be another trek. I drove all the way to Scotia before I finally realized it's actually back in Redcrest, only 15 minutes from the Shrine Tree. Go figure. I’m glad I did the drive though so I could get a feel for the Avenue of the Giants as a whole (I wish I had continued even further north to Ferndale, which I later learned is a Victorian-style village), and Scotia made an impression on me because it was so weird. It was a larger town than the others, with old train artifacts and an impressive portion of a Redwood trunk on outdoor display, but I never saw anyone walking around - just one little boy riding on his bike. It was kind of creepy.
When I finally arrived at the Eternal Tree House Cafe I scarfed an average burger that was fine but not really worth the quest. The tree house in the backyard was cool enough:
Flat Iron Hike
Drive Time: 20 minutes
Finally I would get to hike! Flat Iron turned out to be an A+ recommendation. I drove down Mattole Road towards Honeydew until I started to wonder if I missed it, but finally I came upon the parking lot for both the Giant Tree and Flat Iron. I checked out the Giant Tree first, which struck me as primordial. Imagine everything it's seen. I thought about how much longer this tree had been there than I have been alive, than my parents have been alive. I placed my hand on the trunk hoping that it would take my essence into the next few hundred years after I’m gone.
Then I turned back for the Flat Iron trail, which begins with a loop meant to show hikers some fallen trees before continuing on to the quintessential Redwoods hike I was hoping for. Once I broke away from everyone sticking to the main loop, I even tried some trail running! The air was crisp and cool, and I was all alone for awhile. Mission accomplished.
The Ridgetop Camp (Rusty Shovel Ranch)
Drive Time: 30 min
I found my campsite for the night on HipCamp, which is quickly becoming one of the most helpful tools I use (it’s also how I found my campsite in Cuyama Valley). When all the state park campgrounds were taken and suggestions on freecampsites.net were too far away, I searched on HipCamp and immediately found a handful of potential options. Some cost more per night than I wanted to spend, some were more like “glamping”, and some seemed like they’d be difficult to find, but the Ridgetop Camp at The Rusty Shovel Ranch was incredibly close (only about 15/20 minutes from the Chandelier Tree) and ticked all my boxes.
On the way there I stopped briefly at a souvenir shop called “Legend of Bigfoot” (I couldn’t help myself, I’m obsessed with Bigfoot stuff. This is the best TV show of all time - please investigate their theories on orange peels and "wood slaps") and The Peg House where a sign for homemade brownies ensnared me like a siren's song. I wished I’d gotten lunch here - the menu looked awesome, and at the moment there was live music!
To get to the camp you drive up switchbacks curling up, up, up around a mountain for four slow, rocky miles. Not a problem for the truck. As I approached the property, the view opened up to my left, and my breath caught in my throat. I had no idea it would be this stunning. I’ll let the pictures do the talking:
A friendly man named Kevin greeted me in the driveway, explained the layout of the campsite, and introduced me to their dog Collie (“if you play fetch with her she’ll love you forever!” - don’t mind if I do). There were two camp spots and I had my pick; the one I chose had enough room to park the truck and then a wooden platform with a carpet on it for tent camping, so I wouldn’t need to set up my footprint. Nearby was a fire pit, outhouse, and leftover decorations from a unique wedding they’d had recently, including a cocktail bar, hula hoops, and a sign that read “Death From Above” in reference to some kind of acrobatic show. There was an old fire truck, too, inexplicably. I was especially excited about the chickens, turkeys, and alpacas! Based on the online description I hoped I might meet horses too, but he didn’t bring them up when I asked about animals so I didn’t push it in case they keep their stables separate.
As night fell I set up my tent and tried to get photos of the setup - just your neighborhood nerd, back at it again with the headlamp. It was incredibly windy, so I put rocks down to anchor my tent (no stakes since I was on the wooden platform) and gave it a shot, but my heart wasn’t in the photography game at the moment - I was ready to turn in!
I got settled for the night, and then it happened - just as I was about to fall asleep, I heard a vicious screeching sound followed by two hisses, all of which sounded like some kind of cat (or two) right outside my tent. Then it happened again. And then, nothing. I never heard any cats prior to or following that moment, even in the distance - it was only right next to my head for five seconds total. They were probably just domestic farm cats, but I’d read that this was bobcat territory and of course my imagination ran wild for the rest of the night. What was that? Why was it hissing at me? Where was it now? Did my weary brain dream it up? I was blown away by this campsite, but I was looking forward to rolling out at 6:00AM, with a hot coffee in hand and another full (cat-less) day ahead of me.
*Update from Kevin! - “We do have a semi-feral cat that showed up a few months ago. No name - just cat. He’s normally pretty friendly and curious. Great hunter of field mice and gophers. We do have bobcats in the area - and indeed have lost many chickens to them in the past before we learned to fully enclose their sleeping area . No prob with them for a few years. Sightings near the house primarily during the winter.”