California, US: Where to find the tallest trees in the world

Any idea what the largest coastal city is between San Francisco and Portland? How about the place that supplies two-thirds of California's oysters? Or that's home to the tallest trees on the planet?

Don't worry, I didn't have a clue either until I stumbled across the aptly-named Eureka on California's far north coast. Located 435 kilometres north of San Francisco, the city has a long list of noteworthy attributes, yet few international tourists venture this far up Highway 101.

Founded in 1850 after gold was found in nearby Trinity, Eureka soon morphed into a lumber centre when prospectors discovered the quality of the timber in the surrounding redwood forests. Within five years, hundreds of schooners were ferrying this precious commodity up and down the coast to satisfy the building boom fuelled by the California gold rush.

The industry brought considerable prosperity, evidence of which can still be seen today in the city's extraordinary array of Victorian homes. A stroll around Eureka's Old Town reveals dozens of beautiful pastel-hued properties, in styles ranging from Queen Anne to Greek Revival to Italianate. The most impressive is Carson Mansion, a fairytale riot of turrets, gables and columns that was built in 1886 by lumber magnate William Carson. Sadly, it's now a private members' club with no public access but you can still gaze admiringly through the wrought iron fence.Thanks to Eureka's listing on the National Register of Historic Places, its commercial centre has been thoughtfully and tastefully preserved. Buildings that once hummed with the commerce of the lumber industry are now home to tourist-friendly antique shops, boutiques and cafes. Strolling around the city's manicured centre today, it's hard to picture it as a 19th-century industrial powerhouse, with dozens of narrow gauge railways ferrying enormous redwood logs to the wharf for transportation.

Fortunately, there are several places that can help with that imaginative leap. The Logging Museum at the Fort Humboldt State Historic Park has several steam locomotives and an original steam donkey winch. Over at the Blue Ox Millworks Historic Park, you'll find a fully functioning sawmill plus a recreation of a mobile logging camp.

For an authentic taste of that era, head to the Samoa Cookhouse, which claims to be "the last surviving cookhouse in the West". Opened in 1890, it was one of many family-style restaurants that catered to the region's army of ravenous lumber men, who would often work 12 hours a day, six days a week. Today, it still serves three hearty meals a day on communal tables draped in red-and-white checked tablecloths. The menu changes daily but typical offerings include mountainous portions of French toast, meatloaf and southern fried chicken.

Sadly, 95 per cent of California's old growth redwoods have been cut down but almost half of what remains are in Humboldt County (of which Eureka is the capital). The biggest trees are located an hour's drive north of the city in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, one of four parks that comprise the Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP).

From the Prairie Creek Visitor Centre, we take the Prairie Creek Trail, a flat, easily accessible path that passes some of the park's tallest specimens. From the outset the trail is lined with towering redwoods, their fibrous rust-coloured trunks soaring skyward. It's impossible to overstate how awe-inspiring these magnificent trees are. Studies have found that they're some of the densest biomass on the planet and walking beneath them is a truly humbling experience.

Adding to the cathedral-like atmosphere is an eerie lack of insect and birdlife. In fact, the only wildlife we spot is a herd of male elk feeding in the dense undergrowth.

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The RNSP claim to be home to the tallest redwood in the world, Hyperion, which measured 115 metres when it was discovered in 2006. There's debate as to whether it's still the tallest but to be honest, it doesn't really matter. These trees are all so ridiculously lofty, their upper reaches vanishing into a distant blur of green canopy, that it's impossible to judge from the ground.

Eventually we reach Big Tree, one of the few redwoods that are clearly signposted. Gazing up in awe at this 92-metre-high, 1500-year-old miracle of nature is a feeling I'll never forget.

Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of United, Brand USA and the Eureka-Humboldt Visitors Bureau.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/usa

visitredwoods.com

visittheusa.com.au

FLY

United flies to San Francisco from Sydney and Melbourne. Upgrade to Economy Plus for more leg room and  faster disembarkation. See united.com

STAY

Carter House Inns' main property is an upmarket 23-room hotel in Eureka's Old Town  that also offers self-contained accommodation in four other, stylish Victorian homes. See carterhouse.com

EAT

One of the livelier spots in town, Lost Coast Brewery has a good menu of pub classics plus a wide range of craft beers on tap. See lostcoast.com

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