Carlyle Stout is dwarfed amid redwoods on the Boy Scout Trail in Northern California. The path, with its ancient trees, is a look at an earlier time. - Photos courtesy of Barb and Carlyle Stout

Boy Scout Trail — into the forest primeval

Redwood National and State Parks contain 45 percent of all remaining old-growth redwoods in the world. These magnificent trees are the tallest in the world, grow to a height of 300 feet and live up to 2,000 years.

Located in the very northwestern corner of the California coast, just across the Oregon border, redwoods thrive in a unique microclimate that provides the perfect blend of rain (60 to 120 inches per year), constant summer fog, a temperate climate and rich, alluvial soil.

The forest contains more than 60 hiking trails, ranging from a half-mile to 61/2 miles, and perhaps the most spectacular is the Boy Scout Trail.

This is no ordinary hike, taking the hiker on a physical and spiritual journey back in time, to a primordial world where plants reigned supreme and dinosaurs roamed the earth. It is an extraordinary place where you can walk among giants.

The trail meanders through redwoods whose average age is 700 years. Access to the trailhead is off Howland Hill Road between Stout Grove and Crescent City. The trail's name is derived from a Scoutmaster who discovered a tree that he named, of course, the Boy Scout Tree, in the 1930s. No pets or mountain bikes are allowed, so you will encounter only other hikers.

My wife, Barb, and I hiked the Boy Scout Trail recently at the recommendation of a park ranger. It was a weekday, and we were the only people on the trail that morning, so we literally had a national park all to ourselves.

The path starts out level and then climbs gradually. We were shrouded in the ever-present fog, which provides one-fourth of the water necessary for these marvelous trees to survive. The rainy season from October to April supplies the rest of the massive amounts of precipitation they need to flourish.

Shortly after leaving the trailhead, but without being conscious of the transition, we crossed an intangible threshold and entered a prehistoric world, one that existed during the Miocene Epoch, 20 million years ago, when redwoods first appeared on our planet. It is an ethereal feeling: mysterious, sublime and spiritual.

Our senses of sight, smell and hearing were amplified as we literally stopped in our tracks and gazed in disbelief at nature's greatest cathedral. We were walking through a landscape so fantastic it defies reality. The scale is astounding; we felt small, humble and overwhelmed amid the majesty of these trees.

In death, these trees sow life for the next generation. The fallen giants become nursery logs sustaining new growth and nourishing small seedlings whose offspring will compete for a home in the forest. The ranger told us it takes almost 1,000 years for a fallen redwood to completely biodegrade and decompose.

A redwood cone is the size of an olive. Each cone contains 60 to 120 seeds. One tree may produce 10 million seeds, but only a few will reach maturity. If a seed settles in just the right place, it may grow into a tree that will live more than two millennia.

At one place, the trail winds through a living gorge of colossal trees, towering columns on either side, as though crossing through a portal to another world. It felt like walking on hallowed ground, and with each step our veneration for these exalted conifers increased. There are places off the trail where the huge trees, cloaked in a mysterious mist, seemed to recede into infinity: an endless forest expanding in all directions.

It was eerily quiet on the trail. Sometimes we could hear the gurgle of a small brook or the wind sighing in the branches, but mostly the silence was so serene, it was as if time itself had stopped.

The girth of the redwoods is staggering. Most of the trees are 15 feet in diameter. Half the time, we had our necks craned as our eyes followed the massive trunks up to the heavens. Entire ecosystems thrive in the upper canopy: plants, amphibians, mammals and birds.

National Geographic did an article in November 2009 about the trees and the different ecosystems that thrive in the upper branches and canopy. Each tree is a vertical neighborhood that supports diverse life forms.

The trees live so long that many eventually get struck by lightning, but they are so tough they survive. We saw several ravaged veterans whose lower trunks were blackened and fire-scarred, but the crowns were healthy.

The deeper into the forest we ventured, the more magical it became, until it was like Middle Earth. It took us five hours to complete the 5.6-mile loop out and back because we were constantly stopping to admire the trees. The trunks grow straight as a ruler for the length of a football field.

At the end of the trail is Fern Falls, a perfect spot to relax, have lunch and listen to the soothing, mellifluous rhythm of water flowing through the forest.

The Boy Scout Tree is a short distance off the trail and easily reached although there is no sign, just a narrow path twisting up the slope. The tree is really two trees that grew so close together they fused, producing a leviathan. The size and scale of this tree is truly amazing. We sat down and simply gaped at this tree, which started growing about the same time Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

The trail reverses itself back to the trailhead, but it seemed like we were seeing everything for the first time, as if we were on a different path. The depth of emotion I felt in the presence of these trees was so stirring and passionate, it permeated my soul. There were scenes so mesmerizing that I was tempted to wander off the trail and walk into infinity.

This was one of the most inspirational hikes we have ever done; it was a trip through time into a window of the Earth's past that is rarely seen. It made us glad to be alive and infused us with a sense of wonder.

Late in the afternoon, as we approached the trailhead, a shaft of sunlight pierced through the forest and gilded the west-facing trunks, transforming their bark into a shining, luminous red: Nature's tribute to herself.

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