Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree.
Vintage postcard shows the tree soon after it opened as an attraction.

Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree

Field review by the editors.

Leggett, California

John Stephenson is intimately connected to the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree. He was conceived, he said, while his dad and mom were parked within the tree one evening; an option not available to most, since the tree property -- Underwood Park -- is off-limits to the public after dark.

Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree.
Even in the 1930s the "Drive Thru Tree" was spelled that way.

John is a fourth-generation member of the family that owns this protected grove of redwoods. He said that the effect of a full moon at night on the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree is magical.

In 1937 John's great-grandfather, Charlie Underwood, tunneled through the tree, which stands along northern California's Avenue of the Giants. It replaced an older drive-thru tree on the property -- the Coolidge Tree -- that was taken down. This one, the Chandelier Tree, was chosen for a hole because it was bigger, and stood in a meadow on a nice patch of flat ground -- a design choice for snapshots and vehicle access.

Illustrated sign at the entrance to the park.
Illustrated sign at the entrance to the park.

Although it's difficult to imagine now, back then a drive-thru tree was no big deal. "The Park had a motor court, a gas station, a bar, a restaurant," said John. "The tree was something for people to do that were here already. It was never meant to be the main attraction."

All those other things, once considered more important, are gone now -- but the tree remains. Everyone hopes that it remains for a long time.

A lot of people are surprised to learn that cutting a hole through a giant coastal redwood, although rude from an environmentally-aware, Mother-Nature POV, isn't necessarily lethal. Most of what is removed is the dead heartwood, leaving intact much of the protective bark and vascular tissues that deliver nutrients from the root system to the leaves and branches. "With redwoods, walking on the roots probably does more harm than anything." said John. "We've fenced them off so that people can't walk on them."

Some visitors, said John, are shocked to drive into the park and see that there is a legitimate drive-thru tree -- believing that the illustrated sign out by the highway is a scam, or that a "drive-thru tree" is just a myth, or that any tree with a hole through it must have fallen down long ago. "Parts of it have actually filled in since when I was a kid in the 1960s," said John, proud of the tree's continued growth. Compared to its total age -- estimated at over 2,400 years -- the 85-year-old hole is a blip in time.

Queueing for tree time.
Queueing for tree time.

John said that the family pays an arborist to give the tree regular pruning and check-ups. They see themselves as stewards of the tree as well as of the park, which covers several hundred acres. It takes work and expense to maintain but, as John noted, if the tree falls down, everybody goes home.

Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree.

The tree is open year-round. John said that the best time for a relaxed drive-thru encounter is in January and February, when the park is least crowded. During the summer months there's always a line, with 500+ vehicles a day nudging each other to crawl through the hole. We visited in August 2021, and although the summer crowds were thinned a bit by the pandemic, a line of vehicles patiently cued for their snapshot moments.

The drive-thru experience yields a small percentage of scraped car panels and snapped-off side mirrors. The tree always wins such encounters. "You'd be surprised at the number of people that shouldn't be driving through redwood trees," said John. And even though the park provides a drive-around for nervous visitors, or for vehicles too big to fit through, some drivers insist on making the attempt anyway, with predictable results. Once, said John, a van arrived that was too tall, so its three occupants got out, climbed on top, and stomped on the roof until it was low enough to fit. "To them, I'm sure it was worth every penny."

After navigating through (or around) the tree, visitors park at the gift shop, which is fully stocked with redwood merchandise -- burls, slab clocks, wise quotes etched on wood -- a pressed penny machine; and t-shirts, hats, and mugs illustrated with vintage cars poking out of the tree hole.

According to Stephenson there are only three living drive-thru trees in the world. All of them are privately owned, and stand along this stretch of Highway 101. "I always tell our visitors to see all three," said John. "Because there aren't going to be any more of them."

Also see: Shrine Drive-Thru Tree | Tour-Thru Tree

Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree

Address:
67500 CA-271, Leggett, CA
Directions:
US-101 exit 614. Turn west onto CA-271, then north toward Leggett. Drive 1.5 miles. You'll see the Drive-Thru Tree entrance on the left.
Hours:
Summer 8:30-8; off-season 8:30-5. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
707-925-6363
Admission:
$10 per car
RA Rates:
The Best
Save to My Sights

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