As I mentioned in my previous post, there have been lots of metaphorically big events in my life lately. I’ll get around to posting more about them eventually. But now, I’m going to focus on some literally big things: giant sequoias.
A couple of months ago, we went with friends Monika and Derrick to Calaveras Big Trees State Park. The park lies about eighty miles east-northeast of Stockton in the Sierra Nevadas. The area has served as a tourist attraction for a surprisingly long time (although native peoples like the Miwok have, of course, known about the giant trees for a very long time). A white hunter named Augustus Dowd happened upon what is now known as the Discovery Tree in the spring of 1852, and people soon started looking for ways to make money from the behemoths. Some early schemes involved taking the trees to the people; the tree Dowd first saw was cut down and sections of its trunk and bark were shipped to New York (by way of San Francisco and Cape Horn) and put on display. Another tree was left standing but stripped completely of its bark. But once the Mammoth Grove Hotel was built nearby in 1861, the public began to travel to see the giants in their natural state.
There are two types of huge trees in California: the Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), which is the sort found in Redwood National Park and Muir Woods, and the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), which is found in the western Sierras. Redwoods are the tallest living trees, with the current record holder at 379 feet tall. But giant sequoias are the largest, with diameters up to 32 feet or more. Redwoods live up to 1,800 years or so, but the oldest living giant sequoias are more than 3,000 years old. When these elders of the forest first sprouted, the iron age was just getting under way in Eurasia, King Tut was relatively fresh in his grave, and the Olmec culture was flourishing in Mesoamerica.
“Big Trees” is a truly apt name for the park, and not just because it accurately describes the place’s draw. The name’s succinct simplicity is a reflection of the effect the giant sequoias have on the visitor. For the first few trees spotted, my mind was awash with florid language: colossal, gargantuan, Brobdingnagian; majestic, regal, magnificent; ancient, venerable, primordial. But, my mind seemed to regard these initial sightings as flukes. The more trees I encountered, the less I was able to comprehend the combination of sheer size and sheer numbers – to accept that this wasn’t just a few genetic freaks, but an entire population of giants. Pretty soon, my internal monologue was reduced to a troglodytic “Big. Trees.”
The park contains two clusters of giant sequoias. The North Grove is the more often visited group, and contains the trees that first drew tourists to the area. This section of the park is right off Highway 4 and has short, wide, and level trail that makes many trees very accessible. When we were there, it was packed – a parking lot full of cars and the almost constant presence of others along the path. The North Grove contains a hundred or so large trees, many with names like the Pioneer Cabin Tree, the Abraham Lincoln tree, the Father of the Forest, and the Siamese Twins. But the main concentration of trees – and the real draw of the park, as far as I’m concerned – lies an eight-mile drive away (three as the crow flies) in the South Grove.
The South Grove’s four-mile loop trail is pretty well developed, but is a far cry from the wheelchair-accessible North Grove path. This, along with its distance from the highway, keeps the South Grove much less busy. We only met a few people on the trail, and mostly were alone with the birds, small woodland mammals, and the trees. The South Grove has about a thousand large giant sequoias, and contains the park’s largest specimens. The experience of walking amongst the trees isn’t quite one of having been shrunk to the size of an ant. In a way it is more jarring, because the arboreal titans are interspersed with other species of “normal” trees and, of course, smaller immature sequoias.
We ended up spending quite a bit of time at the South Grove. Without the crush of crowds like at the North Grove, we were inclined to spend more time investigating and simply contemplating individual trees. We sat for awhile at the Agassiz Tree, which at almost 250 feet tall and 22 feet in diameter is the largest in the park. In addition to the hikes at the two groves, we stopped for a nice picnic lunch on the banks of the Stanislaus River. The trip as a whole was quite fun, and I look forward to seeing big trees elsewhere – especially the Coast Redwoods. I took quite a few pictures, mainly of the trees but also some of wildlife we happened upon. Click any of the photos above to see the whole gallery.