What California icon is 2,400 years old and has cars driving through it every summer day? If you guessed the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree in Leggett—an hour’s drive north of Willits and three hours from the San Francisco Bay Area—you know your redwoods. For more than 80 years, road-trippers have been capturing photos of their cars squeezing through the Chandelier Tree’s 180-centimetre-wide and two-metre-tall tunnel, which was carved into its trunk in 1937.
By today’s standards, cutting a hole in an ancient redwood is definitely not okay, but when the Chandelier Tree was hollowed out, everybody thought it was a grand idea. Big-tree tourism was gaining momentum, and the Stephenson family, whose descendants still own the Chandelier Tree and its neighbouring redwood-themed gift shop and picnic area, weren’t the only ones cashing in on the redwood wow-factor. In the early 20th century, even government-owned parks advertised their tunneled trees, encouraging visitors to pay a fee, drive through, and get a souvenir photo. Many of these drive-through giants, like Yosemite’s Wawona Tree and Calaveras Big Trees’ Pioneer Cabin Tree, eventually toppled.
The Chandelier Tree is one of Northern California’s three remaining drive-through redwoods, joined by the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree, 72 kilometres north of Leggett in Myers Flat, and the Klamath Tour-Thru Tree, 240 kilometres north in Klamath. You’ll pay about five bucks to drive through each tree. Sure, it’s kitschy, but how often do you get to drive through a tree?
On summer days, about 500 cars a day putter through the Chandelier, whose name refers to the huge branches protruding from opposite sides of its trunk, making it look like a candelabra. At 96 metres high and 21 metres in circumference, this sequoia sempervirens is huge by any standard (even so, don't forget to fold in the mirrors of your SUV as you head inside).
If you want to see redwoods in their unaltered state, drive a few kilometres north of Leggett to Smithe Redwoods Natural Reserve, where massive trees grow alongside the Eel River, or head 50 kilmetres north to the southern end of the Avenue of the Giants driving route, then steer your way through cathedral-like groves so tall and dense, they block out the sun.
Romance finds a home in this idyllic coastal region, where ocean fog rolls in from the ocean to blanket hushed redwood forests, and whales spout offshore. Along the coast, artists set up their easels to paint scenes of crashing surf and whitewashed cottages wrapped in rose filled gardens.
Each year, December through May, look to the sea to witness roughly 15,000 gray whales swimming south for the summer.
It is also a place where a new generation of farmers and wine makers focus on preserving the land as well as producing amazing food and wine. Favourite escapes include the romantic hamlet of Mendocino, roughly a 3-hour drive up the coast from San Francisco, and Eureka, a former logging town 2 hours further north, and the gateway to breathtaking Redwoods National and State Parks.
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