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A Tree You Can Drive Through ... Literally

January 5, 2012
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When I think of family vacations, I remember long road trips in the car with my siblings when we were younger. We would play lots of games. We'd search for each letter of the alphabet (in order) on drivers' passing license plates. We'd play "I Spy" for hours while singing along to the over-played tunes on the radio to the point of annoying our parents.

But one thing I remember most vividly is the fascination that overcame me as we drove through tunnels in the Appalachian Mountains. One second we saw sunshine and the next we were enveloped by semi-darkness that seemed to continue forever. We incessantly asked our parents simple questions like: "When will the radio turn back on?" "Where are we?" "Why is it so dark?"

Just another long stretch of highway for my dad turned into a lot of fun for the 8-year-old me. My heart raced as we neared the end - would we make it out safely? And then the sunshine would peer into the car windows again - like magic.

Another one of our favorite road trips was our vacation out West to visit the redwood forests in California. One specific redwood we visited sticks out in my mind - the Chandelier Tree.

It turns out that drive-thrus are not only a part of fast food restaurants but tree trunks as well. Located 175 miles north of San Francisco on U.S. Highway 101 in Leggett, Calif., the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree stands among 250 acres of wilderness. The dirt roads - "nature's speed bumps" - lead visitors to the unique drive-thru attraction in Underwood Park.

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The Chandelier Tree derives its name from its enormous branches balanced on either side of the trunk. Its branches resemble the arms of a candelabrum or intricate chandelier. The tree is so large, its branches are the size of small trees. However, my tiny eyes had to squint up into the tree to notice the "chandelier effect," for the branches don't begin until about 100 feet up the trunk.

I specifically remember my father indicating a spot on the "In-Road" where you can see an opening in the tree canopy that creates filtered sunlight. He told me the sunlight benefits the plants lining the brook beneath the tree.

The Chandelier Tree, a Coast redwood, is one of four giant, drive-thru California redwoods located near U.S. 101. Approximately 200 acres of redwoods comprise the grove where the Chandelier Tree resides.

The tree's tunnel has existed for more than 70 years. Hazel and Charlie Underwood decided to carve the cavity in the Chandelier Tree, which resided on their property, during the 1930s. Since then, the tree's unique structure has attracted a large number of tourists to Leggett for the thrill of not only admiring the size of the giant redwoods but also to drive through one.

At 315 feet tall and 21 feet in diameter, the tree lends itself to a 6-foot-wide, 6-foot-9-inch-tall cavity to accommodate tourists' vehicles that pass through during vacations, as did my family's car. As kids, my siblings and I worried our car wasn't small enough to make it through. But we were surprised to find the family sedan managed to fit the space quite comfortably.

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My memories of that one family vacation out West are overwhelmed by the amazement I felt when I first encountered the Chandelier Tree. As we stood in the picnic area under the tree's canopy, I stared up for what seemed like miles and miles of long, elaborate branches blocking the steady stream of sun rays that bounced off the lenses of our sunglasses.

And as we took that slow, gradual drive through the Chandelier Tree, I quickly tried counting the trunk's internal rings before our windows lost view of the tree and the car entered the other side of the wilderness.

Now, as an arborist, I appreciate the fact that families drive to Leggett to visit - and marvel at - this special tree. The Chandelier Tree has shared its beauty and fascinating structure with thousands of visitors throughout the years. For decades, the tree has provided, and will continue to provide, those visitors and their children with their own interesting stories to share.

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