SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Two jovial women bounded down a soggy trail with a question: "Where's the Big Tree?"
"Look up," I suggested.
They barely concealed smirks. The hikers wanted to see the featured tree in the ancient California forest of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. It's all about branding. Label something "Big Tree" and wait for them to come.
The women didn't realize they stood in the shadow of the tree famously featured in a National Geographic photo spread. Almost everyone traversing the labyrinth of trails here has no clue when blowing past one of the world's most legendary groves, and that's the way botanists, park rangers and others in the know like it.
They worry that too much human traffic could damage the shallow root system that keeps the redwoods upright for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. No one knows what the fallout might be from such disruption.
"The science keeps changing," said Grant Roden, a Redwood Adventures guide who leads tours that explain the forest's ecology. "There's still so much to learn."
Redwoods reside in a narrow swath of coastland from the northern fringes of Big Sur to just inside the Oregon border. They stand within 30 miles of the Pacific, thriving on heavy annual rainfall and thick, coastal summertime fog.
For some travelers, redwoods are nothing more than a quick, scenic detour along U.S. Highway 101. For me, they're a destination. Coast redwoods have been a fascination since childhood because they personify California's ethereal, mysterious beauty.
During the last week of April I met friends from Washington to explore the world's densest old-growth redwood forests, in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. It's about a 300-mile, 5 1/2-hour journey from San Francisco.
I arrived at Redwood National and State Parks with insider information on where to see some magnificent specimens not on the map but romanticized in Richard Preston's book "The Wild Trees." (I won't share the exact locations of those unmarked trees in order to preserve their fragile ecosystems.)
None was more impressive than those in Atlas Grove, where the women scurried away in pursuit of the "Big Tree."
This 2 1/2-acre grove of 1,500- to 2,000-year-old trees is among the tiny percentage of the world's great redwood forests that have not been logged. The small group of coast redwoods here have been climbed and studied extensively by Humboldt State University botanists led by world-renowned expert Stephen C. Sillett. In the past 15 years, experts have discovered previously unknown habitats thriving in the loft of the 30-story trees.
One of the grove's features is a tree called Illuvatar, a name Sillett borrowed from a J.R.R. Tolkien character. Botanists often name the big trees they discover, a practice Sillett apparently regrets because it has fostered growing interest in trying to find them.
Illuvatar is the third-largest coast redwood known, 20 feet in diameter and standing 320 feet tall. It reportedly contains up to 220 reiterated trunks -- one of the most intricate tree structures known. Illuvatar seems to sprout a secondary forest from its long limbs when visitors look straight up its massive trunk. It's no wonder the tree became the source of a digitally stitched National Geographic photo in the magazine's October 2009 edition.
While Preston glamorizes the trees he describes, it's understandable why a collective effort has been made to not publicize their whereabouts. Just look at the carvings on some fallen giants along the path. One of the worst examples of defacement can be found in the parking lot at Redwood National Park. A living tree in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove has the scars of a chain saw slash from 1994 -- believed to be a logger's act of protest.
People also are protective because only a fraction of the old-growth forests survived the onslaught of 20th century logging. In an apt but depressing analogy, coast redwoods have gone the way of the buffalo, living among native peoples for hundreds of years before succumbing to a mechanized world within generations.
Visitors don't need to know the trees' names to enjoy the ones that remain. One great aspect of coast redwoods -- Sequoia sempervirens -- is how accessible they are.
Tree hunters don't even need to leave their cars to see some behemoths. But passers-by who have little time can reap big rewards by taking a half-hour stroll on any of the flat, marked trails just off Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway in Prairie Creek park. (Stop in the visitor center at the park's south end for information.)
The best specimens grow in low-lying alluvial flats: gullies, notch valleys and creek beds, wherever it is richly moist with fertile soil. They usually don't grow above an elevation of 2,000 feet so it doesn't necessarily take a huge effort to see the largest and oldest living species on the planet.
The world's tallest tree, however, is accessible only on foot and not easy to find with no signpost drawing attention to it. I didn't spend time looking for the 379-foot Hyperion in Redwood National Park east of Orick.
I didn't feel the urge after bearing witness to so many other giants. Big trees, bold trees, lots of beautiful trees.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY: There are several inns and cabins in the area, as well as private and public campgrounds in or near Redwood National and State Parks. www.redwood.national-park.com/camping.htm.
SCENIC REDWOOD DRIVES: Avenue of the Giants from Miranda to north entrance, with side trip along Mattole Road at Bull Creek; http://avenueofthegiants.net. Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park; http://tinyurl.com/4xxsyrz. Howland Hill Road (unpaved) to the Stout Grove in Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park; http://tinyurl.com/3htgmh6.
EASY TO MODERATE HIKES IN REDWOODS: Big Tree Loop in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park; moderate; http://tinyurl.com/3b5xnu6. Stout Grove in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park; easy; http://tinyurl.com/dylqj3. Lady Bird Johnson Grove in Redwood National Park; easy; www.redwoodhikes.com/RNP/LBJ.html.
OTHER ACTIVITIES: Forest canopy tours and sea kayaking from North Coast Adventure Centers, Arcata; 800-808-2836; www.northcoastadventurecenters.com.