Helios Was a 400 Foot Redwood Not So Long Ago


1      Hyperion and Helios

Disclaimer:  This analysis is based on my own interpretation of published redwood study information, primarily from this source:

How do tree structure and old age affect growth potential of California redwoods?

Stephen C. Sillett, Robert Van Pelt, Allyson L. Carroll, Russell D. Kramer, Anthony R. Ambrose, D’Arcy Trask

Ecological Monographs 2015 Vol: 85 (2) :181-212.
doi: 10.1890/14-1016.1

So here we go ….

Hyperion and Helios are remarkably similar redwoods in some ways. They both grow on steep slopes above Redwood Creek tributaries.  Their diameters and heights are very similar.  But there is one big difference – Helios is 2040 years old versus Hyperion is a sprightly 1260 years old.   Then also Helios has reiterations in its crown versus Hyperion does not.  A reiteration is regrowth after breakage.

I started to think, I wonder what the height of Helios was before its top broke off and grew back.  Was it once taller than its current height of 377 feet or so?

Well, I think it was taller, a little over 400 feet tall, and that was not so long ago.

2      Helios Height Estimate Before Reiteration


The idea is to review diameter at 80 meters in height for Helios and Hyperion, then for calculation purposes adjust Helios’ diameter at 80 meters downward a bit due to its greater age.

Then, take the amount of growth in Hyperion above 80 meters as a function of its trunk diameter at 80 meters.   This is then applied to the Helios diameter at 80 meters to arrive at a Helios height before reiteration.   Remember Hyperion has no reiteration in its crown.

Then to get the approximate date of the Helios reiteration take the Helios average change in height per year and apply this to the amount of height that is above the reiteration.

So we start with this table:

Tree Name Age Study Year Height Diameter cm at 80 meter height (est) Ring Width cm at 80 meter height (est) Diameter cm at 80 meter height age adjustment cm growth above 80 / cm diam at 80
Hyperion 1260 2010 115.62 163 0.065 0 21.9
Helios 2040 2013 114.82 198 0.048 -4

And from there do this set of calculations:

Hyperion cm growth above 80 m / cm diameter at 80 m 21.9
Helios original growth above 80 m based on Hyperion 4236
Helios height pre reiteration in meters (est) 122.36
Helios height pre reiteration in feet (est) 401.5
Helios reiteration point height meters 106.5
Helios actual reiterated growth meters 8.32
Helios growth rate per year centimeters (past 10 yrs) 9.2
Helios estimated age of reiteration in years 90.4

So it can be inferred there was at least one 400 foot redwood in the past, it was Helios.  The top was probably blown out during a major windstorm between 1900 and 1925.

Helios may be a 400 foot redwood once more, but that will take another 70 years or so.

If there is a 400 foot redwood again it will probably be Helios, Hyperion, or some other redwood growing on a bench on a steep hillside with relative protection from high winds.  Trees growing on flats along Bull Creek or Redwood Creek are probably too exposed to high winds to avoid breakage once they get a lot taller than the rest of the surrounding redwoods.

Then the other factor is the timing of the next Cascadia earthquake.  That will snap off a lot of the tops.

Thanks for reading.

29 thoughts on “Helios Was a 400 Foot Redwood Not So Long Ago”

  1. Interesting thoughts on the very tallest redwood. Guess we will never know for sure…and will have to keep visiting and measuring!

  2. Very exciting possibilities here! Great info. This may actually be the second 400 foot Redwood hypothesized from trunk thickness / taper, for extant coast Redwoods studied in the past 20 or 30 years anyways.

    The late Dr. Al Carder had speculated that “Giant Tree” in Rockerfeller Forest, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, may too have once been a 400 footer. The tree was approx. 363 feet in 1995, and Original crown broken off at 339 feet, where the trunk is still 3.5 feet diameter in thickness. Dr. Al Carder speculated the tree’s original height may have once exceeded 400 feet. (See Forest Giants, A. C. Carder 1995 pg 33 reference 10, personal Correspondence between Al Carder and big tree expert Ron Hildebrandt from 1991-1992.)

    Stories, and lumber reports of fallen Redwood and Douglas-fir 350 to 400 feet and more, appeared in many news blurbs, timber magazines, and some private diaries and survey reports back in the late 19th to early 20th century heyday, and it seems the more I attempt to verify with primary documents, the more old new stories and blurbs I turn up, all very hard to verify. Almost more of an exercise in American Folk lore than science (chuckles) , and yet the anecdotes do pile up after a while. I think fallen trees are a better proxy than old antique theodilite and clinometer estimates from timber cruisers, which perhaps were accurate to within 5% or 10% of standing height if the tree was straight trunked, and measurement carefully conducted– But fallen lengths seem to be the majority of what was reported. Even these themselves might have inflated the tree height some dozen feet or so, when hitting the ground, or fracturing. Still that would indicate a some trees approaching 350 and 400 feet in the past, even if we subtract 2, or 5% for inflation.

    I think this sort of scientific work on tree height maximum potential, and estimates from trunk taper and growth rates are the answer to solving the question of whether we had any 400 foot and above conifers. And who knows, maybe a tree approaching 390, or 400 feet has already been found in the last 3 years? I’m certainly skeptical, but M.D. Vaden, who I regard as a reliable authority on the tallest living Redwood and Douglas fir, has written on his website that in 2013 a taller tree than Hyperion has been found. Indeed, by 2014 Redwood National Park no longer contained the top 3 tallest specimen of redwoods. Interesting possibilities anyways.

    Great web page here! Cheers.

    1. Good points, all of them. In addition to the Giant Tree, maybe the Bull Creek Giant was way up there in height before the crown snapped a few hundred years ago.

      What I tried to do was determine how much height is on Hyperion at the point in the trunk that has the same circumference as the Helios reiteration point. Then add this height to Helios at the reiteration point. In the study I referred to take a look at the figures in Appendix K, they are all to scale. Helios has reiterated, Hyperion has not.

      I don’t have their data, I did everything with the scale drawings and line segment lengths. I think it is a pretty solid analysis.

      I don’t know if there is currently a taller redwood than Hyperion.

      1. Excellent work there! Yeah, I believe your work here on Helios is very solid, the most robust I have seen yet on a probable 400 footer! Would you mind if I link up this page to my blog? I may just write a little addendum to Helios, saying “May have once been 401 ft tall a century ago” and link to your page. 🙂

        I agree about Hyperion, I sort of jumped to some conclusions based off a few quotes I found on Vaden’s page. I guess if there is a taller one, time will tell! Thanks again for this amazing page, it is top of the line!

      2. There is most definitely a taller one.
        Apparently one is approaching 390 feet. Did you ever think about finding Icarus or Daedalus? They have unusual tops. Especially Daedalus.

        1. Hello.

          Agree on that Daedalus top, kind of a small head with two long spiked horns. Somewhat diabolical ….
          For Icarus, stepping back it is pretty impressive, more like an Apollo program Saturn 5 rocket on the launch pad rather than a darning needle.
          I would be very surprised if there is a redwood right now closer to 390 feet than 380 feet, at least via measurement using mid-slope as ground level.

    2. Here’s a link to Vaden’s post on Hyperion: http://www.mdvaden.com/redwood_hyperion.shtml

      These are some selected quotes I wanted to highlight. Either the new record allegedly found in 2013 was simply the fact that Hyperion had reached 380 feet, or indeed one, or more new trees exceeding that height had been found in new.

      …”By 2013, heights of the tallest redwoods shuffled the deck and Redwood National Park did not hold claim to the “three tallest” as of 2014.”

      “Hyperion Coast Redwood was the tallest known of all plant species in the world from 2006 to 2013.”

      “…Post-2013 the real tallest and largest coast redwoods are only known among a few researchers and discoverers.”

      “…Tallest redwoods have been found in the LiDAR zone which were undetected. That basically opened up all parks flown-over for LiDAR to re-exploration, and of course, we returned. A new discovery occured between 2013 and 2016, surpassing the 379.1 ft. world record of Hyperion in 2006.”

      Regardless of what new finds have or have not been found, I do agree Hyperion and Helios are the best candidates of reaching 400 feet from present known specimen.

      1. I would say it is remotely possible there could be a new tallest redwood given the very tallest redwoods seem to be on steep hillsides, protected by terrain from the wind. The LiDAR returns were accurate for level ground, less so on steep hillsides.

          1. I haven’t been able to find it, it certainly would be fascinating to review, particularly for Redwood National Park.

          2. I can guess that it is not available because it would give away what Helios, Icarus and Daedalus look like and where they are located. If the data was publicly available in the 3D map of the forest then the location secrets of all the trees would be blown. The forms of Helios and Icarus are already blown far enough without the help of the LiDAR data.

          3. There is a little bit of LiDAR and tree height information published in 2016 for RNP. These are for the two RCCI plots, which are 1000 meter by 10 meter snippets anchored by two tall trees at either end. As far as I can tell the tallest tree in the upslope plot is Orion at 369.4 feet and the tallest tree in the low plot is Emerald Giant at 356.3 feet. This does not come from the LiDAR, but from the accompanying plot level information. The other tall tree involved in the study plots is Paradox in Humboldt, at 369.2 feet. All these heights are from 2016, as those three plots and a couple more were remeasured in 2016.

            As far as I know there is still no publicly available park level LiDAR information.

        1. By what I have recently read, Helios is literally “on fire” (I use that to describe very fast growth). It has not died, has it? I think it will soon overtake Hyperion and will regain it’s former glory as world’s tallest tree. And what about Icarus? How long do you think if will take for it to grow a dead top? Have you ever seen those magnificent redwoods? You speak as if you were there. Icarus and Daedalus have most unusual tops. Helios has a top shaped like an exploding firework, apparently. Have you seen them

          1. Hello. You could be right and Hyperion and Helios will battle it out for the tallest tree for decades to come. I know for a fact Hyperion was taller in 2016, and assume that will continue for a while since Hyperion had such a head start.

            For Icarus to start reiterating, it would probably have to drop some of its top then start from there. So it will probably only get shorter for quite a few decades.

            I have not been to the trunks of the RNP trees you are mentioning except for Hyperion.

            Did you get to the northern redwood parks last weekend? They were busy.
            Along the Navarro I noted a 5.5 foot diameter second growth redwood that was already 275 feet tall. It grows in an area that was timbered 150 years ago. Amazing.

  3. Some of the big historic Douglas fir were/are large diameter snags. Queets fir is about 6 ft 8 diameter, at the broken top, 200 feet above ground. Red Creek fir, almost 3 feet diameter 239 feet above ground, the old tree at Mineral, Washington measured between 1905 and 1930’s still retained 6 feet diameter, at it’s 225 foot wind busted top. Dr Carder’s rule of thumb was that some of the big trees had 20 to 30 lineal feet, for ever 1 feet of trunk thickness. Obviously there are more variables to factor in, when estimating original height i.e. thickening as the snag ages etc.

  4. Yeah, I think Bull creek Giant and Giant Tree both may have been contenders. If I apply a really rough approximation of say, 20 to 1 height to diameter ratio:

    Bull Creek Giant, at 310′ high still 5 ft diam. 5 x 20 =100 ft + 310 = 410 ft tall
    Giant Tree, at 339 ft high still 3.5′ diam. 3.5 x 20 = 70ft+339 = 409 ft tall
    Helios, at 262 ft high, still 6.5 diam. 6.5 x 20 = 392 ft

    In the case of Helios, the height is conservative. But fun to speculate with the others! They all must have been amazingly tall in their prime.

    1. There you go. Those Bull Creek redwoods have some wind protection due to Bull Creek valley as well as Grasshopper Mountain between Bull Creek and the Pacific Ocean.

      Maybe regular fog plays another role in allowing a redwood tree to reach 400 feet. I read where the leaves can absorb the fog drip and that would keep the high tops from drying out since they would be stressed to get water from osmotic pressure. The fog rolls up the Eel River South Fork and Redwood Creek on a daily basis, all year round. Especially in the summer, when it is real hot in the interior, the temperature differential really pulls the fog inland.

  5. Very interesting read, and follow up comments. It would seem with break/regrowth cycle that ~400ft is close to maximum height for these trees-which is truly amazing!

    1. Yeah! It truly is astounding they could potential reach ~400 ft. M.D. Vaden has a good article on his page: http://www.mdvaden.com/redwood_tallest.shtml

      And great articles on this website. Seems the Wind, root rot, earthquakes, and lightning, even woodpecker damage, limit most of them from exceeding that 380 -400 ft window, but those few that squeaked past 400 -410′ , must have been a sight to behold. 400-426 ft was one theoretical maximum, for redwoods in 2004. A study in 2008, had a slightly higher maximum theory for Douglas fir height, (and quoted historic anecdotes as a supplementary support), 357-453 ft was one range, using limbs and trunks… so maybe a few Dougs did squeeze into that range.

      The fragility of Doug-fir in the wind, does make me ponder that however, a recent windstorm in my neighborhood, with 50 mph gusts, only seemed to blow branches off the old firs, and a few old rotted maples. The Cedars, and other trees were unscathed. I’ve plotted about 150 historic alleged big firs, on google earth, and I’d say in most of the cases they grew along river valleys, on ridges, or valley bottoms. Wind protecion – a key element. Seems to be the similar variables for the super tall redwoods.

  6. I found some cruiser reports in Humboldt Co from the 1890’s, where heights of 400 feet were estimated along Russian river. Probably crude estimates using triangulation. the 367 ft Guernerville tree was listed in the report.

    But also found a report of a 375 feet long tree, from Sonoma Co. in 1877, Murphy bros. saw mill. I find a new report like this every weekend sleuthing old journals and newspapers for doug fir and redwood. I’m guessing that heights could have been within 5 to 10% accurate using crude measures, if the timber folks back then passed basic Math. I add data to the Wikipedia entry if I find it valuable. Great clean up on the Redwood page BTW. Good to see the heights are all up-to-date based on current knowledge. cheerz -M.E.

    1. Hello Micah

      Good to hear about those height reports. Have you seen anything about a 400 foot redwood cut down in the Wilson Creek drainage about 50 years ago?


      1. Hey Mark! I haven’t checked the Wilson Creek area for reports, but now you got me curious! I’ll try digging into that report. I’ve heard tales of 380 to 400 foot trees being taken out of redwood creek by Georgia Pacific in the 1960’s, I’m trying to track down. Lot of chatter of big trees in online logging / arborist forums, I created several pseudonyms on various boards over the years to try and get stories from lumbermen on any giant trees….usually just more unsubstantiated tales, but fun to read. One guy claimed his pa chopped down a 480 foot Douglas….I think that one along with the Nooksack giants are more Ripley’s Believe it Or Not material, than Guinness Book… but then again, I found even more stories of 400 footers along Nooksack, so the legends never die. I’ll keep you updated on what I find.


  7. And looks like M D Vaden’s updated page on Hyperion, now says a new taller tree, inching towards 390 feet does exist. I wonder if this includes the lowest end of the trunk (total or maximum height) or not? In any case, this is now approaching 400 foot class territory, something I may see in my lifetime if growth rate is healthy! Really exciting stuff.


  8. Wow! The forest is most definitely regenerating in time. Such a shame though, that the trees such as the Whatcom fir and the Ferguson tree have been lumbered. I would definitely like to see a 142m skyscraper of a douglas fir, if the record is true. No, I haven’t been there, I am in England right now. Nipped off to California for a holiday and located Hyperion. I kind of payed a “entrance price” there by smashing my camera to pieces (I am seriously not joking, I slipped on the logjam and it smashed in 3 pieces on the logs. Currently trying to get it looked at.) What was going on? Was there more redwood thunder?

    1. Hi Jake

      Sorry to hear about your camera. I haven’t broken a camera yet, my biggest fear is dropping my smart phone into the water. I have heard of people losing GPS devices and range finders in the redwood forest.

      I didn’t see any fresh tree fall, though I heard one was across the Avenue of the Giants in the Founders Grove area a few weeks ago, a big one. On the Boy Scout Tree Trail there was a large depression in the trail where a tree had fallen, that looked to be a 12 footer, and there were a lot of debris astride the trail.

      There were a lot of people in the parks as this was a warm and sunny weekend after a wet start to Spring.


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