Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Day hike first grove of giant sequoias discovered by white settlers

Fallen giant sequoia on Big Trees Trail at California's Big
Tree State Park. Photo courtesy California Dept. of Parks
and Recreation.

Loop heads through tree,
alongside trout stream

Families can like through the first grove of giant sequoias found by white settlers, on the Big Trees Trail in California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

The 1.5-mile loop hits most of the highlights of the park’s north grove. East Coast explorers and pioneers “discovered” the grove during the mid-1800s, and their reports led to the trees becoming a tourist attraction as early as 1852.

While the trees here are neither as numerous nor as large as at Yosemite or Sequoia national parks, Calaveras is much closer to the cities of Sacramento and Stockton, making this an easier drive.

To reach the north grove, from Arnold, Calif., take the Walter W. Smith Memorial Parkway (Calif. Hwy. 4) north. In about four miles, exit to Calaveras’ visitor center and park there.

Pioneer Cabin Tree
The trailhead is at the lot’s southeast corner. When the trail splits, go left.

The first major sight is the Three Graces on the trail’s right. A grouping of three giant sequoias, it was named for the figures of Greek mythology. The giant sequoia is one of two types of redwood trees native to California; the coastal redwood grows from San Francisco north to the Oregon border while the giant sequoia prefers the Sierra Nevada.

The next major sight is the Pioneer Cabin Tree, which the trail cuts right through. It gives you a good sense of the size of a giant sequoia, which looks like it belongs in the Age of Dinosaurs. That’s not far from the truth; while giant sequoias appeared about 15-18 million years ago, long after the dinosaurs died off, their family of trees can be traced to the Triassic some 200-230 million years ago, just when dinos were getting their start on the planet.

After that comes the Abraham Lincoln Tree on the trail’s left. Like the former president, sequoias are tall with the highest ones reaching 325 feet. That would equal 51.5 Abraham Lincolns stacked head to foot.

Killed Mother of the Forest tree
Next comes the Father of the Forest Tree and the remains of the Mother of the Forest trees, both on the right. Of the latter tree, early settlers stripped the bark – which ran two feet deep at spots – to send back East all to convince people that these giants actually existed. Without any bark, the tree quickly died and was burned in a 1908 fire. When alive, it was the tallest tree in the grove and estimated to be 2,520 years old.

Following the Mother of the Forest Tree, the trail crosses Big Tree Creek. While the creek is small, native trout live in it; if children are with you, they’ll enjoy trying to spot one of the fish from the bridge.

You’re now heading back on the loop and will pass a fallen tree on the right then head between fallen trees.

Next comes the Mother and Son Trees on the trail’s right. They’re so named because of their respective sizes, which look like a parent and child.

From there, a footbridge again crosses Big Tree Creek. This brings the trail to the Old Bachelor tree on the left.

After passing three fallen trees on the left, you’ll reach a junction with a connecting trail; go right. This brings you to a third footbridge over Big Tree Creek. A fallen tree hangs over the creek to the bridge’s left.

Discovery Tree stump
Take the short Three Senses Trail loop to the right. The trail aims to have visitors experience smell, hear and touch the sequoia grove.

Returning to the main trail, take the Discovery Stump loop to the left. After Augustus T. Dowd discovered the giant sequoia grove in 1852 (He was chasing a wounded grizzly bear when the massive trees stopped him in his tracks.), he had this tree cut the following year to send back East to prove the grove’s existence. Today, all that remains of the Discovery Tree is the 24-foot wide stump.

Sequoias aren’t the only trees that grow here. Incense cedar, ponderosa and sugar pines, and white fir thrive beneath the canopy. During spring when mountain dogwoods bloom, the grove is particularly spectacular to hike through.

The trail next passes the amphitheater and returns to the parking lot.

Find out about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.