Thursday, November 14, 2013

Hike past survivors from era of dinosaurs

Sentinel Tree and Giant Forest Museum.
Topo map, Big Trees Trail.
Families can hike among the planet’s largest trees – a survivor from the age of dinosaurs – on the Big Trees Trail at Sequoia National Park.

The 1.2-mile loop includes a museum about the giant sequoias, which can grow 26 stories high and live more than 18 centuries. Summer marks the best time to hike the trail as temperatures at the 6000-feet elevation will be pleasant, and wildflowers will be abloom in the meadow that the sequoias encircle.

To reach the trailhead, from Three Rivers, Calif., take Calif. Hwy. 198 (aka the Generals Highway) northeast into the national park. The trail is in the Lodgepole/Giant Forest Area. Park at the Giant Forest Museum on the south side of the Generals Highway.

The trail heads northeast from the museum, first passing the Sentinel Tree. Kids will love following the ruler on the trail used to show just how large sequoias are.

Upon reaching the hub for several Giant Forest trails, go counterclockwise by heading east on the Big Trees Trail. The walkway parallels Generals Highway, staying on its south side. A scent similar to pine and cedar fills the air across this section of the southern Sierra Nevada.

In short order, the trail veers north, crossing the highway, so be careful of oncoming vehicles.

The first major sight is the Clara Barton Tree, named after the founder of the American Red Cross. From there, take the trail going east.

The trail skirts the edge of Round Meadow, where black bears often feed. Don’t be alarmed by the bears – they’ll keep to themselves so long as you don’t approach or antagonize them.

A group of young giant sequoia trees mark the top of the loop. These young trees owe their lives to a forest fire. Fire clears duff from the ground, exposing soil so sequoia seeds can take root. In fact, the giant sequoia relies on fire to reproduce.

Coming off the loop’s top onto its west side provides a fantastic view of the tall, red-hued sequoias you just passed. They loom majestically over the good-sized meadow before it.

Despite the sequoia’s size, their root system is extremely shallow, averaging only about 3-6 feet in depth. The tree requires extreme balance to remain standing, which explains why their trunks are so straight.

A sequoia’s growth rate is phenomenal, with it annually adding about 40 cubic feet of wood. That’s equal to a tree one-foot in diameter sprouting 50 feet high in the space of a year. The sequoia makes for lousy wood, though – it’s light, brittle and shatters easily.

Sequoia tree fossils have been dated to 200 million years, or the dawn of the age of dinosaurs. They dominated the North American and European landscape during much of the dinos’ time on Earth. About 65 million years ago, though, as the Earth began to dry and cool, the sequoia's habitat shrunk dramatically.

Upon returning to the Clara Barton Tree, take the trail west. It parallels the north side of the Generals Highway. You’ll then cross the highway again and enter the Giant Forest Museum parking lot.

The museum definitely is worth a stop. It offers educational displays about the giant sequoia ecosystem and has a small bookstore whose titles nicely complement the trailside signs. During the 1990s, the park service removed more than 300 buildings from the Giant Forest, and the museum is one of the few survivors.

The paved Big Trees Trail is handicapped accessible with 60 feet in elevation change.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.