Tour Thru Tree.

Big Tree Drive-Thru

Avenue of the Giants, California

They are the biggest trees in the world: the giant redwoods of Northern California. Unlike your own local oaks, these wizened sentinels -- many living when Columbus found the New World -- are big enough to drive through. That is, if a car-sized hole has been bored in the center of them first.

Shrine Drive-Thru Tree.
Shrine Drive-Thru Tree.

There's no stronger symbol of the feud between Progress and Nature than the Drive-Thru Tree. Early Redwood promoters arrived one step ahead of the conservationists, and tunneled through the base of select giants, charging tourists for the privilege of making the twenty foot journey from one side of a tree to the other without having to go around it. Modern environmentalists have made sure that there will be no new drive-thru trees, so the remaining few are tenaciously preserved.

Four of these legendary tourist magnets stand near US 101. We tried them all. Leggett's Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree is typical. You pay your money, drive over a mile on a bumpy, dusty road just to get to it, then discover that your SUV is too wide to go through anyway. At the northern end of the Redwood Country near Klamath, the Tour-Thru Tree (named to avoid legal entanglements with the Drive-Thru Tree) offers a picnic table so that you can eat while watching others join the club you just joined.

Apparently no one thought much about the long-term effects of a tunnel on a tree's health, and now extraordinary efforts are made to keep them in drivable condition.

Frosties Sold Inside.

At the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree in Myers Flat, the star attraction offers passage through a tight tunnel carved into a naturally angled opening in the trunk. Steel cables securely anchor the tree; the owners told us they hadn't detected any measurable movement in their monolith, or anything that would discourage tourists from coming to Myers Flat. As enticing bonuses, the Shrine Tree park features the Step-Thru Stump and the Drive-On Tree, a fallen giant with a partially paved ramp up, so you can photograph your vehicle in off-road triumph. Kids love the attraction's intricately carved "treehouses."

Big Tree density is high all along The Avenue Of The Giants (also called The Redwood Highway), which runs beside US 101 for some forty miles from Garberville to Pepperwood. Opportunistic pavement curves between massive redwood pillars, while motes of light blind the driver, and the goal is to find a pull-off that isn't already jammed with RVs and minivans. Any Big Tree aberration (even mundane marvels like "Upside-Down Root" or "L-Shaped Branch") is an excuse for a parking lot and gift shop.

Famous Tree House.

A sign for the Immortal Tree lures three-quarters of all Avenue of the Giants traffic to stop and look at this chewed-by-fire-lightning-and-flood-but-lives-still monolith, then visit Burl N' Drift Novelty Gifts. The Immortal Tree is not to be confused with the Eternal Tree House and its gift shop, nor the Grandfather Tree (which also has, for some unknown reason, a Viking Ship on site).

In Piercy, the World Famous Tree House is a hollow rotted lower portion of a still-living giant redwood that also holds the title "the world's tallest single room." An appliance bulb suspended from a wire has glowed at the top of the rot --the "ceiling" of the room -- for decades, to the appreciative ooohs and aaahs of visitors.

Gollem in Hobbiton.

Nearby is Confusion Hill, which was a combination mystery spot/big tree attraction that once offered a miniature train ride through a big tree. But that tree was felled in a storm, and now there seems no point to riding around in those little train cars with your knees up to your nose.

Garberville features the promising-sounding Legend of Bigfoot -- but this turns out to be an overcrowded ("Dad! Bigfoot! Staaapp!!") come-on for a chainsaw sculpture and burl store. A single life-size redwood Bigfoot barely suppresses our banshee howl of fraud.

We move on and head to Phillipsville for a look at "Living" Chimney Tree. Chimney Tree is very similar to the World Famous Tree House, except it's missing the little appliance bulb.

Chimney Tree's owners decided to pep up their attraction by adding Hobbiton, USA, to the neighboring property. Officially endorsed by the San Francisco Hobbit Club, Hobbiton is a steep hillside nature walk that winds past concrete recreations of scenes from Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Prerecorded explanations of these scenes are narrated by an unidentified Hobbit fan, who sounds as if he's spent the majority of his life playing Dungeons and Dragons and attending science fiction conventions.

Hobbiton is in some disrepair, though the stolen Bilbo has been replaced, and we suggest you do the whole trail while you can. An employee warned us that the woman who masterminded the place had passed on and that her heirs were considering new themes, but, "It's like pulling teeth to get people off that interstate."

One Log House.

Phillipsville's Famous One Log House has been moved to Bear Valley, near Richardson Grove State Park, and remodeled. In case you haven't already guessed, this is a giant redwood log that's been hollowed out and furnished with a second-hand bedroom set. Since it's mounted on wheels, Famous One Log RV might be a more appropriate title.

A staple of Big Tree attractions is the Cross-Section of Time, a big log slab standing on one end, its growth rings helpfully marked to indicate when Christ was born and when loggers came to California. The last ring, obviously, reveals the year that loggers came to this particular Cross-Section of Time (More Cross-Sections of Time can be found at Muir Woods and other tree National Parks, but the Redwood Highway has the biggest concentration).

Beyond the Land of the Avenue of the Giants

More tree thrills stand further north along the coast highway. There was another hollowed-out log home, the Stump House in Eureka -- beat to splinters, and for sale when we visited; it later burned down and was removed. There are plenty of chainsaw sculpture gardens and souvenir burl wonderlands in Orick and Trinidad. But the big payoff is at Trees of Mystery, in Klamath.

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October 22, 2014

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