The Rockefeller Forest

The World-Famous Rockefeller Forest

[Rockefeller Forest]
[Bull Creek]
[Restoration Work in Bull Creek]
[Historic Structures of the Bull Creek Area]
[Fall colors]
[Mattole Road]

Rockefeller Forest

The Rockefeller Forest is the largest remaining contiguous old-growth coast redwood forest in the world. This 10,000 acre ancient forest is one of the crown jewels of the California State Park system. Walking through these forests is like taking a step back in time. Here, it is easy to imagine what this area must have looked like when the first explorers came upon it.

The oldest tree found in this park is 2200 years old. The tallest tree in the Rockefeller Forest is 362 feet high. Although there may be taller trees here, none have been measured and confirmed. When you walk through the forest however, measurements don't seem very important.

Here among the giants, you can watch the sun's rays dapple the bark of ancient trees and illuminate the intense green of the understory. You may hear a raven or a winter wren. The wind will send showers of redwood leaves down on the trail. You will hear a nearby creek gurgling on its way to the river. Animal tracks on the trail will tell you who has been here before you. You may wonder how these forests looked when the first explorers encountered them.

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This area was first discovered by the L. K. Wood party in 1850. The party had set out with the Josiah Gregg party to find a route from the Trinity gold fields to the Bay Area. They came to Humboldt Bay near Eureka in January 1850. They headed south and came to the junction of the Eel and Van Duzen rivers on Jan. 29, 1850. The Van Duzen River was named for a member of the group. They named the other river the Eel River because they saw the local Indians fishing for what they thought were eels. These were not eels, but lampreys. (A lamprey is an eel-like fish.) They traded the Indians some strips of metal from a frying pan for some of the fish.

At the junction of the two rivers, the party has a dispute about which route to take. The group broke up with four heading south with L. K. Wood and the others heading west with Gregg.

The group with Wood came to what is now Salmon Creek and there they encountered a group of about 8 grizzly bears. They began shooting at the bears and two of the grizzlies attacked them. L. K. Wood was mauled by the bears. The group made it to the Mark West Ranch, north of Sonoma, where Wood recovered. The battle site is now known as the Bear Buttes.

Travel in those days was not as easy as it is now. There were no trails through the dense forest. The travelers had to scramble around or over huge fallen trees. They traveled in the river bed when they could. Travel here was easier than on the brushy hillsides and flats above the river. Downed trees and dense undergrowth prevented easy travel. Travelers were forced to climb over downed logs or find a way around them. In some areas travel was so difficult that, if they were able to advance a mile a day, they were doing good. In those days, the river channel was narrow and the watercourse was lined with boulders. The banks and river bars provided the easiest routes, but at some points, the travelers were forced back up onto the hillsides. Today, due to extensive erosion, the river bed is a wide swath of gravel.

When news of Humboldt Bay reached the Bay Area, there was a large influx of settlers to this area. They came first to farm and raise cattle and sheep. Due to the difficulty of transporting products from this area, logging didn't become a big business here until after the railroad reached the county in the 1920s.

In 1859, there was only one settler on the South Fork of the Eel River. By 1865, there were a dozen settlers. People settled the areas above the Rockefeller Forest and raised sheep. Later, the area became well-known for its delicious apples. Many of the historic apple orchards that can still be seen today were planted by these pioneers. Other trees planted on the homesteads included plums, chestnuts, almonds, English walnuts, black walnuts and pears.

In 1917, several prominent men traveled to Humboldt County to see these trees. When they found that these trees were not protected, they founded the Save-the-Redwoods League to preserve examples of these forests. In 1921, the first grove was purchased in what was to become Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Since that time, the League has contributed over $57 million to protect 170,000 acres of redwood land.

The Rockefeller Forest was purchased from the Pacific Lumber Company in 1931. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had taken a tour of the area with Save-the-Redwoods League officials and was impressed. The Save-the-Redwoods League purchased the land with a pair of million-dollar donations from Rockefeller and matching funds from the state.

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Bull Creek

Bull Creek runs through the Rockefeller Forest. This 13 mile long creek has been the scene of much restoration work following destructive floods in 1955 and 1964. Before it was damaged, Bull Creek was a narrow tree-lined channel with a healthy population of steelhead and salmon. In the years preceding the flood, the slopes above the creek were logged and experienced several wildfires. Logging began around 1947 and the logs were taken to the Bee River Mill in the town of Bull Creek. A large fire occurred in 1955, leaving the hillsides exposed and barren. Rain water which used to be trapped by the roots of plants and soak into the ground, was now free to run off the surface quickly, carrying soil with it. During the winter of 1955, the heavy rains caused failures of slopes and hillsides came crashing down into the creek bed. These slides brought tons of gravel into the creek.

The flood of 1964 was even more destructive than the one nine years before. There had been snow in the higher elevations, followed by a warm rain that melted the snow. The heavy rainfall continued for days, inundating the creek. The widened and gravel-filled channel was unable to handle the increased run-off. The floodwaters washed away the log deck at the mill and sent the logs downstream where they piled up and created a huge log jam. The flood waters backed up into the town. Then, the log jam broke free and the water rushed through, carrying away most of the town. The roiling surging river of mud and gravel descended on the ancient trees of the Rockefeller Forest. The gravel and debris undermined the streambanks, toppling over 500 of the giant trees into the creek. As the floodwaters subsided, gravel and heavier material settled out of the water, leaving behind a creekbed that was no less than 200 to 300 feet wide along its entire length. Before the flood, the creek was 40 to 50 feet wide along its whole length. The influx of gravel had eaten into the banks, carrying away the soil and widening the channel.

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Restoration Work in Bull Creek

Cleanup after the flood began as soon as the rain stopped and the floodwaters receded. Much of the fine silt carried downriver had to be removed from the towns and campgrounds where it was deposited. One campground on the south fork of the Eel River was buried under three feet of silt. Many bridges and roads were washed out. The community of Bull Creek was isolated when the only road into it washed out.

The park hired a team of loggers to clear log jams out of the creek, probably the first time loggers worked in a State Park. The logs were cut into smaller pieces. The wood was used if it wasn't damaged. If it was unusable, it was burned.

Heavy equipment was used to rebuild the stream channel. Bridges and roads were rebuilt. Downstream, where scouring gravel had undercut river banks in the Rockefeller Forest, rock gabions were installed. Gabions are rocks in wire enclosures placed along the banks to stop erosion. When another high water event damaged these structures, rock rip-rap was installed. Rip-rap is large rocks piled against the banks to protect them.

California Conservation Corps crews planted trees, mainly alders, to hold the banks. Today, these trees have grown to full size and provide shade for the stream, which keeps the water temperature tolerable for fish. The fish are coming back. After the flood, few steelhead were seen in the Bull Creek and its tributaries. Now, hikers can see steelhead in many of the tributaries.

To prevent further destructive activities on the slopes of the upper Bull Creek watershed, the state and the Save-the-Redwoods League began acquiring the land for inclusion in the park. Today, the entire watershed of Bull Creek is part of park.

Restoration work continues today. Large boulders and redwood logs are placed in the channel of Cuneo Creek, downstream from the Devil's Elbow landslide, to slow and direct the flow of water. This landslide sent much gravel and sediment roaring downstream in the flood. This gravel buried the old bridge over Bull Creek. If one stops on the present bridge and looks down, the old bridge can be seen about 15 feet below it.

The wide, rock and gravel strewn creekbed of Cuneo Creek was re-channeled with heavy equipment. Steelhead are seen in Cuneo Creek today.

The watershed of Bull Creek is slowly recovering from the floods of 1955 and 1964, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

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The Rockefeller Forest supports an abundance of wildlife, including several endangered species. The forest canopy is home to the red tree vole and the northern flying squirrel. Several species of birds nest in the dead snag trees, including ospreys and spotted owls. Further down, under the canopy, animals such as bats and birds find shelter in the bark of the trees. You may hear the whistling call of a varied thrush, the shriek of a Steller's jay or the hoarse croak of a raven. In the understory, winter wrens and small mammals make their homes. Gray squirrels search for acorns around the tanoak trees. Along the edges, where the dark forest meets the river, you will find abundant wildlife. These areas get more sunlight and support plants that many of the animals use for food. You may see a black bear dining on blackberries, or a blacktail deer nibbling on tender willow leaves. The edges also support a healthy population of small mammals such as brush rabbits and deer mice. These become prey for the predators, such as the gray fox and bobcat. Raccoons search the edges of the streams for amphibians, such as the Pacific tree frog or the yellow-legged frog. In the water, river otters hunt for fish. Fish, such as steelhead (sea-run rainbow trout), salmon (Coho and Chinook), California roach and the non-native Sacramento squawfish, eat the many insects in the water.

On first glance, the forest seems quiet and devoid of animal life. But, if you know where to look, you can see signs of the inhabitants.

For species lists, see the Natural History page.

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Historic Structures of the Bull Creek Area

Although most buildings were torn down when the area was acquired for the park, several historic structures still remain. Several old barns remain in this area. These include the Upper and Lower Gould barns. The Look Prairie Barn, built in the 1930s, burned to the ground on October 5, 1996. Evidence of a tie camp can be seen at Johnson Prairie. There are three old cabins here which were used by the tie hacks, men who made railroad ties and grape stakes and shingles out of redwood. Another big business in the woods was tanbarking. The bark was peeled from tan oak trees and tannic acid was extracted from the bark and shipped to San Francisco.

The orchards planted by the pioneers are another historical feature of the area. Many visitors to Albee Creek Campground appreciate the apples that ripen late in the summer.

Native American sites in this area are few. Most of the villages were on the river bars and were moved seasonally. Floods long ago wiped away all traces of these sites.

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Fall colors

The fall colors in the park are best during late October and November. The Bigleaf maples turn wonderful shades of yellow and brown. Poison oak leaves turn bright red and the plants become very visible. This is a good time to visit the park because most of the summer crowds are gone and the weather is pleasant. It can get cold at night, but days are usually warm.

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Mattole Road

The Mattole Road passes through the Rockefeller Forest for about six miles. It begins at Highway 101 and goes all the way to the coast. This is the only road through the Rockefeller Forest. The Mattole Road eventually ends up in the historic town of Ferndale, a Victorian village. In the park, several trailheads are accessible from parking areas just off the road. You can hike year-round on most of these trails.

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Return to Natural History page.

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Revised: 8 October 1996
Copyright © 1996 Humboldt Redwoods Interpretive Association