Explore Geology
geology fieldnotes title


National Park


cover of park brochure

park geology subheading
redwood trees
Redwood National Park, California

Campaign for a Park
Almost from their discovery, coast redwoods inspired people to seek their preservation. Success first came in 1902 with creation of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in a campaign led by the Sempervirens Club. National protection for redwoods was won in 1908 when President Theodore Roosevelt set aside Muir Woods National Monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Those lands were bought by Congressman William Kent for donation to the Federal Government for their preservation.

The Save-the-Redwoods League was organized in 1918. Deeply concerned by the rapidly diminishing old growth redwoods, the group pressed the preservation cause. Within two years it purchased four pieces of redwoods land. The League sought and won formation of the California State Park System and its State Park Commission. Equally important, it secured a state system of matching private parkland acquisition funds with state bond issues. The League and countless concerned citizens helped establish more than 280 memorial groves, a public-spirited practice which continues to the present time.

Nearly 90 years of spirited advocacy finally bore fruit in 1968 when Congress created Redwood National Park.

    Its boundaries include three state parks:
  • Jedediah Smith,
  • Del Norte Coast, and
  • Prairie Creek.
The national park was enlarged in 1978 to its present 42,900 hectares (106,000 acres), about 70 percent Federal land.

Redwood National Park
California boasts more people than any other state, but you wouldn't guess that by its rugged North Coast. Nature drives hard bargains in this region, which has been historically isolated by harsh weather and precipitous shorelines. The terrain here is so rough it is no wonder that it took Jedediah Smith, the first European to trek here overland, ten days just to cover the last few kilometers to the coast in 1828. This forbidding character helped protect magnificent coast redwood groves until gold fever 20 years later brought eventual settlement. After 1850, red (wood) "gold" lured loggers away from depleted eastern forests. Logging remains the major industry today. Although many giant trees have been cut, some are under the protection of Redwood National Park, which stretches for 80 kilometers (50 miles) in northern California almost to Oregon.

Winds off the vast Pacific, still bearing its fragrance, become landbound here. They drive the surf that pummels beach and sea-cliffs. They bear rains, too. Near here 442 centimeters (174 inches) of rain were recorded over one winter; 117 centimeters (46 inches) in one month. The rain can transorm rivers into raging torrents. In 1964 the Klamath River, normally 0.6 meters (2 feet) deep in summer, raged to 27 meters (90 feet) in December and completely destroyed the town of Klamath.

The rains support an astounding richness in the park's myriad habitats. The Pacific Fly-way brings birds during spring and fall migrations; the park boasts 300 species, about half associated with water. Off shore, marine mammals migrate, particularly gray whales. You can also watch for other whales, porpoises, seals, and sea lions. Roosevelt elk are the most commonly seen mammals, and mountain lions, the most elusive of predators, stalk blacktail deer. Rare and endangered species include gray whales, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, and the Aleutian Canada goose. Richness? The intertidal zone alone boasts 168 invertebrate species. River otters, mink, and beaver frequent freshwater habitats. Fifteen of western North America's 22 salamander species are found here-but just one poisonous snake. The Northern Pacific rattlesnake is rare and occurs only inland.

Many votes for most popular creatures go to five game fish. Sport and commercial fishermen ply freshwater and saltwater for silver and king salmon, and rainbow, coast cut-throat, and ste head trout. There is far more to Redwood National Park than its spectacular trees.

The Coast Redwood
The coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) towers over all other trees in the world. At 112.1 meters (367.8 feet) the coast redwood discovered on the banks of Redwood Creek by the National Geographic Society in 1963 was the tallest known tree and played an important role as a rallying point for the park's establishment in 1968 and expansion in 1978. The giant sequoias, cousins to the coast redwoods, grow larger in diameter and bulk, but not as tall. Coast redwoods survive to be about 2,000 years old-perhaps half the age of giant sequoias-and average probably 500-700 years. The living tree has no known killing diseases, and the insects associated with it cause no significant damage. Fire is the worst natural foe, but usually to young trees which lack the thick bark protection. As with most conifers, redwoods lack a taproot, and their broad shallow root system sometimes provides inadequate support for the massive trunk. Wind topples many mature trees.

The first record of the redwood was written by Fray Juan Crespi in 1769. Its botanical discoverer was Archibald Menzies, whose collections are dated 1794. The name "redwood" comes from the first, Spanish, description of the huge trees, Palo Colorado, meaning "red trees."

conesProlific Producers
Cones form on the tips of upper branches. Mature cones are reddish brown, woody, and slightly oval. Seeds are about three times the size of a pinhead; 125,000 form one pound. Sprouts bear cones at 20 years because they draw on the parent root system. Seedlings take longer to bear cones. Cones mature in one year and ripen in August and September to release seeds. Only 1 out of 10 seeds will germinate.

The Role of Fog
In the Age of Dinosaurs, redwood species were dominant over much of the Northern Hemisphere, including what is now the Arctic. The climate was then humid and mild over a much larger region than today. Over millenia climate change reduced redwood habitat.

The abundant moisture and moderate temperatures of coastal northern California and extreme southern Oregon allow the redwood to flourish. This ocean-moderated climate is very humid; average yearly rainfall measures between 63 and 310 centimeters (25 to 122 inches). But annual precipitation seems less important than the frequent summer fog.

The passage of warm, moist marine air over the cold surface waters of the Pacific creates fog here almost daily in summer. It frequently lasts until afternoon, when it burns off. Another fog bank may move in before sunset.

The fog decreases the trees' loss of water through evaporation and transpiration and adds moisture to the soil. So the coast redwood is generally restricted to this coastal fog belt.

ringsThick Bark
Redwood bark, soft and stringy-fibrous, varies in color from red-brown to grayish. On mature trees it grows to 30 centimeters (1 foot) in thickness. The thick bark protects the tree from fire damage. Repeated hot fires can burn through the bark, and the tree's core may then rot out. These hollowed-out trees are called "goose pens" because early settlers kept poultry in them.

Growing New Trees
Air-borne on narrow, lateral wings, a redwood seed only 3 millimeters long (1/8 inch) drops to the ground from a ripe cone. It will fall within 60-120 meters (200 to 400 feet) of the parent tree. Within a month, warm, moist soils may stimulate it to germinate. If it is on suitable, fresh, mineral soil it will root itself. After its first leaves appear it begins to manufacture its own food. Under optimum conditions the seedling may grow 5 to 7.5 centimeters (2-3 inches) the first year.

growing new trees

Coast redwoods also reproduce by stump sprouting. This gives them a great reproductive advantage over species that reproduce only by seeds. If a redwood is felled or badly burned, a ring of new trees sprouts from burls around the base of the trunk. Burls develop from buds which do not elongate into shoots. These dormant buds grow into a wart-like mass which may sprout if the tree is damaged. If they sprout, the parent tree's roots are used by the saplings.

park maps subheading

The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.

For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.

photo album subheading

A general photo album for this park can be found here.

For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.

books, videos, cds subheading

Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.

Please visit the Geology Books and Media webpage for additional sources such as text books, theme books, CD ROMs, and technical reports.

Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
ISBN 0-393-92407-6
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout

The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!

Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.

geologic research subheading

The designation of Special Ecological Areas in the Redwood National and State Parks was based on the representativeness and/or rarity of vegetation, vegetation integrity, plant species diversity, manageabilility, presence of rare flora and, to the extent known, rare fauna, interior to edge ratio / preserve design criteria, degree of immediacy of threats of exotic biota, and research and interpretive value.

Information about the park's research program is available on the park's SEA webpage.

For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.

The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.

A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.

selected links subheading

NPS Geology and Soils Partners

NRCS logoAssociation of American State Geologists
NRCS logoGeological Society of America
NRCS logoNatural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
USGS logo U.S. Geological Survey

teacher feature subheading

General information about the park's education and intrepretive programs is available on the park's education webpage.

For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.
updated on 01/04/2005  I   http://www.nature.nps.gov/geology/parks/redw/index.cfm   I  Email: Webmaster
This site is best viewed in Internet Explorer 6.0 or Netscape 7.0