Calaveras Big Trees

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.

Giant Sequoia

Giant Sequoia

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.

Roots of a Fallen Tree

Roots of a Fallen Tree

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.

Fallen Trunk

Fallen Trunk

“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.”

Pioneer Cabin Tree

Pio­neer Cabin Tree

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.

A Quartet

A Quar­tet

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.

Next to a Sequoia

Next to a Sequoia

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.

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One Response to Calaveras Big Trees

  1. Dad says:

    Excel­lent report, and great pics! I’d love to visit this park some time when I come out to see you. My only expe­ri­ence with Cal­i­for­nia big trees has been at Muir Woods.