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June 2007

Above & Beyond

The world's tallest tree towers above a secret location deep within the lush, tangled backcountry of Redwood National Park. Determined to find this giant, our correspondent discovers something more incredible than he ever imagined.

According to the rangers and tree researchers, Hyperion’s location needed to
remain secret for the tree’s own protection. In the past, vandals and over-adoring
fans had injured other champion trees whose locations had been publicized. In
the early 1960s, rangers signposted what was then believed to be the world’s
tallest tree, making it the centerpiece of the park’s Tall Trees Grove. Ten
years and thousands of visitors later, names had been carved in the trunk and
the top of the tree had died–an outcome attributed, by at least one scientist,
to soil compaction around the roots. Researchers found damage in the crown of
another champion redwood, the Mendocino Tree, that suggested it had been clandestinely
climbed. Even Luna, the redwood made famous by Julia Butterfly Hill, was deeply
gouged by a chain saw a year after Hill had saved it from loggers.

But those trees are near roads and populated areas. Hyperion, by contrast, is
far off-trail. Along the Redwood Highway, motorists will happily pay to drive
through a tree, but only a small percentage will actually get out of the car
and hike more than a few yards from a road, no matter what the attraction. Still,
I reiterated to Wheeler that Hyperion’s secret would remain safe with us, if
we managed to find it.

"You won’t," he said. Jim Wheeler, still boyish at 51, came up to this
area in 1978, "looking for Bigfoot," he jokes. He has worked at Redwood
National Park for 20 years, long enough to be known as a "homesteader"
among the service’s mostly itinerant staff. Wheeler offered to take us out to
some of the park’s representative areas. We drove up Bald Hills Road, then walked
down a steep trail to the Tall Trees Grove.

"The old-growth redwood forest in Humboldt County is the tallest tree canopy
in the world," Wheeler said, beginning what sounded like a well-practiced
spiel. Even though all but four percent of that old growth has been logged,
the 39 state and national parks in redwood country retain much of the diversity
of the original forest. In deep valleys and hidden ravines that the loggers’
machines couldn’t reach, there remain thousands of acres of undisturbed old

Set inside a hairpin turn on Redwood Creek, Tall Trees Grove is a treasure of
the national park system. Below the top canopy of mature redwoods are subcanopies
of moss-draped western hemlocks, Douglas firs, big-leaf maples, and tan oaks–many
of which would be considered massive if they were anywhere else. The spot has
a timeless quality that’s reinforced by the sweet smell of California laurel

Industrial logging started in far-northern California as early as the 1820s.
Using axes and crosscut saws, it took the first lumberjacks nearly a week to
bring down a giant redwood. But with the introduction of chain saws, bulldozers,
and skidders, the pace of harvesting increased. The opening of the Redwood Highway
(CA 101) made it easier to ship the lumber out, and towns like Orick boomed.

In 1917, a few prominent conservationists traveled to Humboldt and Del Norte
Counties along a highway littered with felled giants. It wasn’t until they reached
the area that is now Redwoods State Park that they stood in pristine forests.
Realizing that all the big trees could be lost in the not-so-distant future,
they founded the Save-the-Redwoods League to fund land acquisition, education,
and research.

We followed Wheeler onto a gravel bar in the middle of Redwood Creek and dug
our lunches out of our packs. It was here that a National Geographic Society
naturalist named Paul Zahl wandered in 1963, following rumors of "great
timber" in this still-unlogged part of the valley. Zahl recalled that he
walked out onto the gravel bar for a rest.

"While catching my breath," Zahl wrote, "I scanned the treetops
before me and suddenly started. One particular redwood rose above the others
like a giant candle."

At 367.8 feet high, the tree–at first called the Libbey Tree, then
simply the Tall Tree–would hold the record from 1963 until the late
’80s. More importantly, its discovery would energize conservationists’ effort
to establish a national park.

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