Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hike beneath some of world’s largest trees

California Tunnel Tree
Topo map, Mariposa Grove.

Walk heads through grove
of more than 500 sequoias

Day hikers can see some of the world’s largest trees – a few towering more than 20 stories high – during a walk through the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park.

Mariposa marks Yosemite’s largest grove of sequoias with more than 500 of the trees and so is a popular destination among park visitors. The park’s tallest and most voluminous tree both reside here. The Columbia Tree tops out at 285 feet high. The Washington Tree takes up 35,950 cubic feet; in the same space, you could dump 269,298 gallon containers of milk.

The best time to visit the grove is summer; the trees look gorgeous against a blue sky. In any case, Mariposa Grove Road is closed at least from December to March.

To reach the trailhead, from Fresno take Calif. Hwy. 41 into the park. After passing the Fish Camp area, Hwy. 41 splits; going left (or continuing on Wawona Road), heads north to Wawona, Glacier Point Road, and Yosemite Valley; going right/east goes to Mariposa Grove.

In about 2.1 miles, the road reaches a parking lot on the left/north side. Beyond the lot, the road is limited to trams. Two trailheads run from the parking lot into the grove; take the one at the lot’s northeastern corner.

An array of day hiking trails crisscross the grove. The amoebic figure 8 loop described here – running about 4.5 miles total – passes most of Mariposa’s major sights.

Fallen Monarch
Before hitting the trail, walk over to the parking lot’s southeast side for a look at the Fallen Monarch. The tree toppled some 300 years ago yet looks like it just fell yesterday. Giant sequoias are quite resistant to decay, and as trees later on the trail will evidence, are able to survive great disasters.

Heading out on the trail, the pathway crosses the tram road, so keep an eye out for traffic, especially when children are with you. From there, the route heads through the Lower Grove (Mariposa is divided into two groves, a lower and an upper).

The trail soon crosses the tram road again. Watch for the trail junction here, as you’ll want to go right/northeast. If you do, to the trail’s left is the Bachelor and Three Graces, a group of four sequoias growing close together. Their roots are so entwined that when the first of these falls centuries from now, it’ll take the other three with it like dominoes.

In about half-mile from the trailhead is the Grizzly Giant, the grove’s oldest tree at an estimated 1900-2400 years old. About 210 feet high and 30 feet round at the base, it’s the world’s 25th largest tree.

No more than 0.1 miles later, the trail passes the California Tunnel Tree. This is the park’s only living tree with a tunnel through it, which was cut in 1895. Watch the trail junction at the tree, as you’ll want to go right/north.

Wawona Tunnel Tree
The trail crosses the tram road once more and as rising in elevation, intersects with trails. At the first junction, go right/northeast, but at the second one go left/northwest.

After hiking straight through a third trail intersection, you’ll arrive in the Upper Grove. The first stop is the Mariposa Grove Museum, which in 1.2 miles from the California Tunnel Tree. Built in 1930, the museum contains exhibits about sequoias and is on the National Register of Historic Places. This is a good place for a bathroom break, too, with restrooms on the trail before reaching the museum.

From the museum, the trail crosses the tram road then the grove as heading east for a quarter mile to the Fallen Wawona Tunnel Tree. This is the famous tree “that you can drive through” that most people ask about, as it was featured in everything from postcards to View-Master reels about Yosemite.

Unfortunately, the tunnel is no more; the tree toppled in 1969 during a storm. The tunnel cut during the 1800s had considerably weakened the tree’s base.

The tunnel tree is 2.1 miles from the trailhead at an elevation of 6600 feet. Crossing the tram road to the tunnel tree, go beyond/east of it; at the trail junction, turn right/south. The trail then parallels Mariposa Grove Road as heading south and then west.

Telescope Tree
In 0.75 miles and past the next trail intersection, you’ll come to the Telescope Tree. Repeated fires have largely hollowed out this still living tree; you can even walk inside it and look up at the sky. Don’t go inside during a heavy wind, though; park officials believe the tree could fall at any time.

At the next trail intersection, go straight/west. The pathway meanders to the Clothespin Tree. As with the Telescope Tree that was 0.75 miles back, several fires have burned a hole in the trunk, this one large enough to drive a minivan through. This tree also is expected to fall soon.

Continuing southwest, the trail once more crosses the tram road and then comes to the Faithful Couple. This pair of trees grew so close together that the base of their trunks have fused into one.

From there the trail continues heading southwest back into the Lower Grove. At the next trail junction, go straight/southwest. The trail ends at the northern side of parking lot. There are restrooms on the lot’s far side.

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