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 six-foot-wide and seven-foot-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 neighboring 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, 45 miles north of Leggett in Myers Flat, and the Klamath Tour-Thru Tree, 150 miles 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 315 feet high and 70 feet 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 miles north of Leggett to Smithe Redwoods Natural Reserve, where massive trees grow alongside the Eel River, or head 30 miles 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.