On April 16, 2021, we drove to Calaveras Big Trees State Park to see the giant sequoias. These redwoods are 2,000 to 3,000 years old and considered the largest trees in the world.
The first thing we noted as we pulled into the parking lot were the piles of snow here and there. During a normal precipitation year, I would expect lots of snow at Big Trees in mid-April. Although rain reached less than 40% of normal in the San Francisco Bay Area, at least the Sierra Mountains collected a bit of snow. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep the entire State of California out of a drought. Again.
Visitors have two groves of giant sequoias to explore in Big Trees. The North Grove, at the visitor’s center, became a state park in 1931, and the state added South Grove in 1954. The five-mile South Grove trail travels along Big Trees Creek and passes by the Agassiz Tree and Palace Hotel Tree, the two largest trees in the park.
We selected the 1.5-mile self-guided trail in the North Grove to get up close and intimate with these magnificent specimens. For an immersive exploration, be sure to grab a trail guide for a $0.50 donation. Then watch for the markers along the trail. The numbered markers match up to the guide, which provides information about the sites.
The trail wound through the forest populated with sugar pines, white fir, incense cedar, and ponderosa pines, along with the Sequoias. Sadly, we were a few weeks early to catch the blooming dogwoods, one of my favorite tree flowers.
We had the right idea when we opted for the 1.5-mile trail over the 5-mile hike at South Grove. The 4,700-foot altitude was enough to steal our breaths, making it difficult to read after walking the few steps between markers on the mostly flat surface.
Although the root system of a giant sequoia is shallow—only six to eight feet underground—compared to its height, roots spread out up to an acre in diameter to provide the support these trees need to reach their height of 164–279 ft (50–85 m). So important to their survival, seedlings first develop a strong root system before expending energy to development above ground.
The trees below are named the Siamese Twins. They grew so close together, their trunks merged for the first 50 feet, making them look like one tree that branched off into two.
The Father of the Forest fell way before 1850 when explorers made their discovery known. The slow process of decomposition continues, providing nutrients for mosses, shrubs, and dogwoods to grow.
A fire from an earlier time hollowed out the log.
Early photographers took advantage of the specimen as a brass band, and then a cavalry troop, posed for photos on top of the trunk as did many other people visiting before and after the property became a park.
The gnarly lump at the foot of the tree below is a burl, which forms when the tree experiences an injury or disease. Injured by fire, the burl grew around the burn scar.
Want to feel insignificant? Stand next to one of these trees.
Now think about the hundreds and thousands of years the tree has grown in that spot, how many fires have raged through the forest, how many unthinking people tried to destroy the trees. Then think about the hundreds and thousands of years it will continue to expand in girth and height after you no longer walk the earth.
Unthinking humans out to make a buck thought it was a good idea to strip The Mother of the Forest of her bark. They stripped it off in eight-foot sections, shipped it east and displayed the reassembled bark at exhibitions in New York City and London. Their senseless act deprived the tree of its natural fire retardant to ward off fire damage and set off a firestorm of protest and an awareness of the need to save the trees.
Skinning this tree alive is as sensible a scheme as skinning
our great men would be to prove their greatness.
There are other more challenging hikes that take off from the visitor’s center. Taking the Grove Overlook Trail can add 1.6 miles to the North Grove Trail. And the River Canyon Trail leads hikers on a 6.7-mile strenuous out and back trek.
Next up: We wrap up our visit to Angels Camp with another hike at New Melones Lake, a walk through the City of Angels Camp historic district, and a visit to the cabin where Mark Twain stayed while visiting the area.