The Race to 400 Feet

1      July 1 2006

July 1 2006 did not dawn clear along California’s far northern coast, contrary to what you may have read about Helios’ discovery.   In the summer, it is never sunny in the morning in Eureka, Arcata, Orick, Klamath, and Crescent City.  Instead a marine layer of fog settles in, as the interior of California is very hot in the summer, and that temperature contrast versus the Alaska current induced cool Pacific Ocean creates convective forces that lead to fog development.

In fact, you can go onto Weather Underground and check the hourly observations at Crescent City’s McNamara Airport for that particular date, there was only a peep of sun in the later afternoon when the fog dissipated.  I am sure it was the same in Orick, forty miles to the south.

However, just a little inland, over the first hills or mountains adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, it was assuredly sunny by midday.   Redwood Creek flows into the Pacific in the south part of Orick area, and upstream winds its way south between the first ridge adjacent to the Pacific Ocean and the next ridge to the east which Bald Hills Road and the Tall Trees Grove road run along.   This positioning allows fog to enter Redwood Creek valley in the evening all summer long, but then since there is some distance and a ridge between the valley and the Pacific Ocean the fog retreats downstream along Redwood Creek by late morning, until it meets up with the persistent marine layer on the bend north of McArthur Creek.

So the trees growing along Redwood Creek and the many creeks that flow into Redwood creek receive a decent dose of fog drip all summer long to support the leaves in their upper canopies.   However they also get a lot of sunshine as well since that fog retreats for most of the day.

Redwood Creek and its tributaries have many bends and in some places flow in an orientation that protects trees from the highest winter winds, which are usually from the south.  If the tree grows along a creek with an east west orientation, such as the bend in Redwood Creek at Tall Trees Grove or along Tom McDonald Creek, and if the tree has hillside protection, that strong southern wind from the winter “Pineapple Express” storms can whistle along mostly above the tops of the tallest redwoods.

For these reasons – summer fog and sun, wind protection, and also soil condition, the redwood trees along Redwood Creek and its tributaries can get very tall.  And not just right along the creeks, but on the terraced steppes above the creeks, on steep hillsides.

Redwood Creek overlook looking downstream

2      The Discovery of Helios and Hyperion


Helios and Hyperion were discovered on July 1 and August 25, 2006, respectively.  Both trees were found growing on steep hillsides above tributaries of Redwood Creek.    Both were found by Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor using a newer technology which involved a hand held laser beam with some internal machine ware that returned distance and angle to reflective target.  Using this information geometry can be used to find tree height, as the opposite angle (angle to reflective target) and hypotenuse (distance to reflective target) are used to determine target height (using sine table).   Typically the machine ware will also do this calculation.

However it is almost never quite that easy as the top and bottom cannot usually be captured in the same measurement, so a series of incremental measurements are made.  Throw in a forest and rough terrain and this becomes pretty tough and exacting work.

Then one other issue is where ground level is on wide hillside trees, where the upslope side of the trunk can be twelve feet higher than the downslope side of the trunk.  So the height is calculated as the average of downslope and upslope height.

Helios’ height was measured at 374.3 feet, which was about four feet taller than the previous tallest measured tree, Stratosphere Giant in Humboldt Redwoods, and about three feet taller than Icarus, another tall tree in the Helios area also discovered on July 1, 2006.

Then Hyperion was discovered in August and measured at 379.1 feet in September.   That was almost five feet taller than Helios.

Since Hyperion and Helios stood so much further ahead than other trees in height, especially Hyperion, and since so many tributaries of Redwood Creek were logged before being incorporated into Redwood National Park in 1964 and 1978, it is probably true there were other tall trees of similar height that were cut down in the 1960’s and 1970’s.   Looking at the winding creeks and Redwood Creek itself, incorporating altitude, soil conditions, distance above creek, and wind protection there were maybe a half dozen redwoods in the area above 375 feet tall in 1960.   Hyperion at the time was probably around 370 feet tall.  How tall the tallest one was, it will never be known, but it could have been 390-400 feet tall.   Maybe it was along Forty Four creek.

3      The Race to Number One


Helios’ height is increasing faster than Hyperion’s. This is probably due to the fact Helios is growing back toward its maximum height.  About a hundred years ago the top broke off of Helios and it went from a 400 foot redwood to a 350 redwood in a couple seconds.   So Helios’ height growth is based on branch reiterations.  Hyperion’s crown does not include reiterated branches, its crown height has to increase as a general push upward of the intertwined canonical canopy.  So Hyperion is presently at its historical maximum height.

Another very tall tree in Humboldt, the Stratosphere Giant, is growing in the Rockefeller Forest just a little ways from Bull Creek in a general area that has supported trees that were possibly 400 foot redwoods before their tops broke off (Giant Tree and Bull Creek Giant).    The Humboldt locations are on flats versus on hillsides, with summer nightly fog flowing up the Eel River and into Bull Creek and with good protection from high winds due to Grasshopper Mountain as well as an east-west valley orientation.

Here are some recent actual heights for the tallest redwoods, along with growth rates.  As is apparent, barring a wind event or substantial change in relative growth rates, Hyperion will remain the tallest tree on earth for some time.

Tree Hyperion Helios Strat Giant
Height 2000 unknown unknown 368.60
Height 2006 379.10 374.30 unknown
Height 2013 379.65 376.54 372.30
Height 2015 379.84 377.01 373.49
Height 2017 380.33 unknown unknown


Growth inches/year Hyperion Helios Strat Giant
2000-2013 3.42
2000-2015 3.91
2006-2013 0.94 3.84
2006-2015 0.99 3.61
2006-2017 1.34
2013-2015 1.14 2.82 7.14
2013-2017 2.04
2015-2017 2.94




Scenario One Hyperion Helios Strat Giant
Growth Rate Inch/Year 2.0 3.5 4.5
Act/Est Height 2017 380.3 377.6 374.2
Est Height 2020 380.8 378.5 375.4
Est Height 2025 381.7 379.9 377.2
Est Height 2030 382.5 381.4 379.1
Est Height 2035 383.3 382.8 381.0
Est Height 2040 384.2 384.3 382.9
Est Height 2050 385.8 387.2 386.6
Est Height 2075 390.0 394.5 396.0
Est Height 2100 392.5 398.9 401.6



Scenario Two Hyperion Helios Strat Giant
Growth Rate Inch/Year 3.0 3.0 6.0
Act/Est Height 2017 380.3 377.5 374.5
Est Height 2020 381.1 378.3 376.0
Est Height 2025 382.3 379.5 378.5
Est Height 2030 383.6 380.8 381.0
Est Height 2035 384.8 382.0 383.5
Est Height 2040 386.1 383.3 386.0
Est Height 2050 388.6 385.8 391.0
Est Height 2075 394.8 392.0 403.5
Est Height 2100 398.6 395.8 411.0


It would be exciting to see a 400 foot redwood, and it will probably happen.  But it will take another 50 years for a tree to get there.  I would guess that tree will either be Helios or Stratosphere Giant.

But it is amazing enough there is a 380 foot redwood growing in Redwood National Park right now, Hyperion.

The tallest tree