Redwood Forest Style Guide

Recently I've been working on a garden design which is to be set within a redwood forest. One of the first questions I had was how to stay true to the nature of the place while making changes such as: expanding a trail, adding a small foot bridge and introducing new planting. What I needed was something like a visual style guide for redwood forests but unsurprisingly that proved hard to find.

Trail in Armstrong Woods State Park CA

The time seemed right to go to the source via a road trip! Luckily there are a few pockets of old growth redwood left within driving distance which could serve as a living style guide.

I drove to Armstrong Woods in Northern California to document some the elements of a redwood forest and the state park that has grown up around it over the last 100 years.


Typical Forest Floor

Strong vertical lines emerging from a carpet of green set in low light makes for a unique environment. Redwood forests have a fairly simple plant palette compared to other ecosystems which contributes to their beauty.

Redwood Sorrel

As a gardener walking through this coastal redwood forest one of the first things you might notice is the dry shade. Yes, the bane of gardening - low light and little water. Officially this area gets > 50 inches of rain but over the last decade it's always been dry when I've visited during the Summer.

Western Sword Fern

Western Sword Ferns manage to the thrive in the dry shade of this redwood forest.

Ferns grow anywhere and everywhere

Looks like Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum)?

No redwood forest is complete without a Banana Slug

The frequent, seasonal creeks were crossed with redwood pedestrian bridges.

Foot bridge

Bridge abutment constructed from Redwood

This simple style of bridge construction (decking on a few stringers) was common along the path as it criss-crossed seasonal creeks.

Another foot bridge

Fallen trees become fixtures of the trail

Grand old Redwoods that fell in long forgotten storms occasionally protrude into the trail.

No post holes required for this split rail fence

Keeping us hikers on the trail helps preserve the environment - a lot of effort is devoted to fencing. I imagine avoiding thousands of post holes filled with concrete was a factor when choosing this style of barrier. It's easy to put up, aesthetic and low impact.

Dimensional lumber on top of logs

To help mitigate slight grade changes, trail edges were often defined by nailing dimensional lumber to the tops of logs.

Fallen trees are often used to define trail edges

I wonder if they had to move this tree very far or it just conveniently fell along the edge of the trail? More likely the trail is here because the tree fell first!

Big Leaf Maple - a typical under-story tree

Scattered among the Redwoods is an under-story of California Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica) and Big Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum). Along with the Sequoia, these trees contribute to an environment of filtered light. The dappling of light and shadow create a unique sense of place.

Stumps, fallen trees and burnt trees dot the landscape

Smaller logs and branches sit for years as if arranged

The vignette above gets to the heart of the garden I'm designing which is known loosely as a "Stumpery" or perhaps also as a "Fernery".

Recently burned Sequoia

The 2020 Walbridge fire burnt portions of the park and left it closed for a year. Most Redwoods are able to survive fire so this type of scarring is not an uncommon sight.

Tree burnt years after it fell

A decade prior to the 2020 fire my kids were climbing on this fallen tree. Fallen trees, stumps and logs stay a part of the forest for a long time.

The seasonal creeks come in varying sizes

As the width of the creek crossing increases so does the scale and complexity of the bridges.


This redwood forest remains dry for much of the year although Winter storms do fill the creeks on a regular basis.

Vehicular bridge with concrete abutments

When vehicles need to cross a creek then it's time to leave behind the wooden abutments. I love these massively oversized redwood posts that look a hundred years old!

New'ish pedestrian bridge

Joinery is massive, simple, and clean

Wide path leading to the Redwood Theater

This is the only wide path on the site. I believe the extra width is meant to accommodate the occasionally heavy traffic going to and from a small, outdoor theater. The scale of the path still feels natural as it winds between the mature Sequoia.

Redwood Theater

Older section of bridge along the main road


Moss patina covers much of the older construction giving it a rustic appearance.

Mortise and tenon joinery revealed

Another section of trail holds a modern version of a timber truss bridge used by hikers to cross a larger creek.

Timber truss pedestrian bridge


Note the cut logs scattered near the bridge abutment which may also serve the very practical purpose of erosion control or maybe to just dissuade hikers from exploring the creek.

Timber truss bridge viewed from opposite bank

Truss bridge abutment

This was the only bridge of it's kind in the park. It looks to be using a pressure treated "glulam" beams which don't fit the otherwise rustic appearance of construction throughout the park. I was surprised to see this relatively large bridge using dimensional redwood lumber as an abutment.

Most likely an effort was made to keep all construction within the park as low impact as possible which would explain the choice of materials for this bridge.

All the railing has an appearance of having been hewn

Hewn railing closeup

The hewn look helps create a timeless atmosphere. Other than the occasional car and modern signage there is not much to indicate we are in the 21st century.

Redwood lumber retaining wall

This wooden retaining wall helps to create space for a trail along a steep hillside. What caught my eye was the use of what looks like "deadman anchors" which are the pieces of lumber sticking out perpendicularly from the wall. It is also a nice touch that the wall materials are consistent with other sections of the park.

Ferns growing along a creek bank

The scattered placement of ferns tumbling into a creek bed along with the occasional log or fallen tree is very typical of this forest.

I plan on incorporating a few of the simpler elements found during my trip into a garden design. From what I've seen on this trip, in natural spaces that are already beautiful small changes are enough.

Until next time - Happy Garden Designing!


  1. That's a nice way to do "homework." Thanks for the tour - I haven't seen scenery like that in person for a long time. Best wishes with your project!


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