07/24/2014 11:19AM ● Published by Jon Lewis
The Trees of Mystery in Klamath
The 49-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan looming near the redwoods practically demands that drivers exit Highway 101 and investigate the Trees of Mystery. A touristy gimmick? Maybe, but the kids love it and it does get people out of their cars and into nature—and that makes John Thompson happy.
Truth be told, the Trees of Mystery are well worth a visit, even if the huge lumberjack and Babe, his trusty blue ox, were not beckoning. It’s a tourist attraction, but it’s far from a trap.
Thompson, the general manager who proudly notes his family has been involved with Trees of Mystery for three generations, says it’s actually an environmentally friendly business that provides some stability to Klamath’s fragile economy while providing excellent access to the North State’s famous coastal redwoods.
As advertised, the trees are the stars at this attraction and they appear on cue shortly after starting a leisurely hike on the roughly mile-long interpretive trail that winds through the 40-acre grove. The initial section is called The Kingdom of the Trees and it quickly brings visitors up close to several examples of quirky redwoods.
There’s the Family Tree, a 300-foot-tall redwood with 12 trees growing from its limbs; the Elephant Tree with its massive root structure; the Fallen Giant, a huge redwood that toppled thousands of years ago and sprouted a 10-foot-diameter tree from its roots; and the trademark Cathedral Tree, a semi-circular cluster of nine trees growing from the burls and seeds of a large tree that fell but refused to die.
Farther along is the Brotherhood Tree, a magnificent coastal redwood standing 300 feet tall and 19 feet in diameter at its base. Dedicated to “the brotherhood of man,” it is more than 2,000 years old.
Simply walking amid trees that are among the oldest living things on the planet is an exhilarating, almost mystical experience; learning about the adaptability and inherent tenaciousness of these towering giants is life-affirming. That might explain why dozens of couples each year choose to hold their weddings at the Cathedral Tree, Thompson says.
Carl Bruno got a sense of the trees’ power back in 1931 when, after following up on stories he’d heard of unusual trees in the area, he purchased the 40-acre grove and started what he hoped would become a tourist attraction.
Thompson's family entered the picture in 1936 when his grandparents and parents teamed up to purchase the Trees of Mystery. At the time, the attraction was little more than “a log-cabin gift shop and a muddy trail.”
The Thompson clan went to work and scratched its way through the lean years of World War II. One of the first additions after the war was the construction of a large papier-mâché Paul Bunyan statue. “He lasted one year and melted in the rain,” Thompson says.
“They had to build a concrete one.”
The big lumberjack proved to be an eye-catcher and with the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle only three years away, the Thompson men set to work on an even bigger Paul Bunyan. The goal was to take advantage of the extra Highway 101 traffic, since the coast highway was the main north-south route prior to construction of Interstate 5.
With help from a local boat repairman who had experience building movie props in Hollywood, the statue was fabricated in pieces, which were then hoisted into place with a big crane. “It was an amazing project,” Thompson says.
Even more amazing, especially for kids, is Paul Bunyan’s ability to speak. “Paul has always had the ability to talk. The kids love him and it’s really fun for me, watching Paul interact with people,” Thompson says. Babe was fashioned from a metal framework covered with chicken wire and light concrete.
The colorful statues tie in nicely with the Trail of Tall Tales, a path that treats visitors to some 50 oversized chainsaw carvings depicting various stories and lore involving Paul Bunyan and other forest characters.
Trees of Mystery experienced another upgrade in 2001 with the opening of the Sky Trail, an aerial tramway that whisks visitors along on a treetop journey to an observation deck for panoramic views of the redwood forest and the Pacific Ocean. The 10-minute ride in a comfortable gondola covers a third of a mile and is included with the cost of admission.
A visit to Trees of Mystery isn’t complete without taking in the End of the Trail Museum, a world-class collection of American Indian artifacts collected over a 40-year period by Thompson’s mother, Marylee.
Trees of Mystery, 15500 U.S. 101, Klamath
Costs: $15, adults; $11, seniors 60 and older;
$8, children aged 7 to 12; free, kids 6 and younger