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Tour Thru Tree.
Tour Thru Tree.

Big Tree Drive-Thru

Avenue of the Giants, California

Once you embark on a Redwood Highway journey, the voices in your head will mutter in disappointment every time you roar past another tourist-optimized marvel of nature.

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

The giant redwoods of Northern California are the biggest trees in the world. Unlike your own local oaks, these wizened sentinels may have been alive 4,000 years ago. And some are big enough to drive through (courtesy of car-sized bore holes).

There's no better metaphor for the conflict 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. Modern environmentalists have made sure that there will be no new drive-thru trees, so the remaining few are tenaciously preserved.

Three 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 behind the gift shop 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 attractions can be found along California's Redwood Highway, but density is highest along The Avenue Of The Giants, which runs as the "scenic route" alongside US 101 for 31 miles from Garberville to Pepperwood. Opportunistic pavement snakes 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.

Trees That Live Forever

Famous Tree House.
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. The Immortal Tree is not to be confused with the stoic Eternal Tree House and its gift shop, nor the patient Grandfather Tree.

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.

Nearby is Confusion Hill, a combination mystery spot/big tree attraction that offered a miniature train ride through a big tree. That tree was felled in a storm, and now there seems less reason to ride in those little train cars with your knees up to your nose. Confusion Hill is fun regardless, with gravity defying illusions and more signs than we've ever seen at one attraction.

Gollem in Hobbiton.
Gollem in Hobbiton.

Garberville features the promising-sounding Legend of Bigfoot -- which turns out to be an overcrowded ("Dad! Bigfoot! Staaapp!!") come-on for a chainsaw sculpture and burl store on a bend along US 101.

A single life-size redwood Bigfoot barely suppresses our banshee howl of fraud (over the years they've added gnomes and prospector sculptures, and it's free, so we probably shouldn't complain too loudly).

Heading north onto the official Avenue of the Giants, Phillipsville offers ample parking for the "Living" Chimney Tree. Chimney Tree is very similar to the World Famous Tree House, except it's missing the little appliance bulb. The Chimney Tree Grill dispenses ice cream and burgers while you sit and brood over this next disappointment....

Hobbiton USA

Decades ago, 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 was a steep hillside nature walk winding past concrete recreations of scenes from Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Prerecorded scene explanations were narrated by an unidentified Hobbit fan who sounded as if he'd spent the majority of his life playing Dungeons and Dragons and attending science fiction conventions.

Famous One Log House.
Famous One Log House.

Hobbiton limped along into the 2000s, then closed just as the Lord of the Rings movies were blazing on screens around the world. A few statue fragments remain visible on the hillside, but the attraction is long shuttered.

Famous One Log House

Phillipsville's Famous One Log House moved to Bear Valley, near Richardson Grove State Park. 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.

Eternal Tree House.
Eternal Tree House.

The One Log House appears to be permanently parked as an eyecatcher in front of a strip of stores. Visitors pay a small admission fee to obtain the daily secret access code for the lock on the log door.

Charles Kellogg's Travel Log

A display at the Humboldt State Park Visitor Center, deep among the redwoods, features Charles Kellogg's Travel Log, a one-of-a-kind vehicle carved from a fallen tree and used to tour the nation 1917-1921, spreading a message of forest conservation. Between the visitor center and the parking lot, we found a redwood Log of History.

Cross-Sections of Time

A staple of Big Tree attractions is the Cross-Section of Time, a big log slab standing on one edge, its growth rings helpfully marked with historic milestones to indicate when Christ was born, or 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 and state parks; the Redwood Highway offers 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. The big Redwood Highway payoff is at Trees of Mystery in Klamath.

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