States in the Pacific Northwest are famous for their big trees. In Oregon, the nation’s largest ponderosa pine (191 feet tall) grows at La Pine State Park, and the nation’s largest black cottonwood (155 feet tall) is at Willamette Mission State Park. Washington’s Quinault Valley boasts six champion conifers— the world’s largest western red cedar (174 feet tall), Sitka spruce (191 tall) and Douglas fir (302 feet tall) to name just a few. While these record-breakers are quite impressive on their own, it’s even more dramatic when you can walk through an entire grove of giant trees. A lesser-known location to do just that is in California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park, where you can walk among the world’s largest living trees— giant sequoias.
Although not the tallest tree in the world (coast redwoods are taller), giant sequoias are the world’s biggest living organism in terms of volume. They grow on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, with an average height range of 165–280 feet, and 18–24 feet in diameter. The North Grove in Calaveras Big Trees State Park showcases about 100 mature giant sequoias, which you can admire along a gentle, well-marked 1.5-mile trail. Varieties of pines, firs, and cedars, plus many plant species, are also found along the path. Pick up a brochure at the trailhead and follow the 26 numbered stops. Each stop provides a bit of history and interesting trivia about what you’re seeing.
The historically significant North Grove is home to the famed “Discovery Tree” found in 1852 by a grizzly bear hunter, Augustus T. Dowd. Almost from the moment of discovery, word spread like wildfire, and visitors began traveling to see the giant trees. Unfortunately, so did ambitious speculators who were eager to make a buck. Within a year, the tree was felled and striped of its bark, leaving only a giant stump. You can pose for a picture on top now, but had you been a visitor in the 1850s, you would have found a dance floor and a bar! When felled, the mammoth tree measured over 25 feet in diameter, was over 280 feet tall, and a count of its rings determined it was 1,244 years old. The North Grove is also home to a majestic old tree known at the Empire State. Its base diameter is 30 feet. There are taller trees in the grove, but the Empire has the greatest mass.
The Father of the Forest fell long before the grove was discovered. Decomposition occurs very slowly in sequoias because of the tannin in their heartwood. Walk inside this tree and you’ll see what caused it to be hollow.
As the roads to Yosemite National Park improved, visitors began to flock to Yosemite Valley to see giant sequoias there instead. When the Wawona tunnel Tree in Yosemite was carved out in the last 1880s, the owners of the North Grove, not to be outdone, did the same to this tree pictured above.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park, located 4 miles northeast of Arnold on Highway 4, became a state park in 1931 with the purpose of preserving the North Calaveras grove of giant sequoias. Because it has been a major tourist attraction since 1852, it is considered to be the longest continuously operated tourist facility in the Golden State. The park also has a South Grove, over 120 campsites, six picnic areas, and hundreds of miles of trails. It’s a lovely place to walk in the shadow of giant sequoias, without battling the crowds.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park Visitor Center phone: 209-795-3840Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith is also a treasure hunter and loves a good latté. She and her husband own an online gold prospecting and metal detecting equipment store found at GoldRushTradingPost.com