“You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.” (Paul Theroux)
It was always about seeing the trees – the big ones – I mean the really big ones in California. There were other places and things we wanted to see and do but, if we were not going to see those trees, then we probably weren’t going to go at all. We had wanted to see the Giant Sequoia Redwoods for as long as I can remember. We had been close some years ago when we went to San Francisco on a business trip but just hadn’t made it to Sequoia National Park. We had promised that we, like McArthur, would someday return. (For those readers who are too young to remember General Douglas McArthur….or hearing about him in History class, here’s a link to give you more information about him and why he would want to return….to the Philippines, not to the California coast to see Redwood trees.)
And so, we did return to California to see the Big Trees. Our original plans had been to circle the Sierra Nevada mountains beginning with Yosemite, then moving down to King’s Canyon and then to Sequoia. So far, we were on track. We flew into Sacramento, spent a couple days making our way to Yosemite where we spent four marvelous, albeit crowded, days roaming around that park, then took a recovery (laundry, plan, and rest) day in Fresno, and then headed east to Kings Canyon National Park where we had our first encounter with the giant trees.
The Giant Sequoias are also known as Giant Redwoods, Sierra Redwoods, Wellingtonian Redwoods, or, as we think of them, simply as the “Big Trees”. Their range is a narrow band along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. These trees are not the more familiar Coastal Redwoods that many think of when one thinks of Redwoods. That’s a different tree although in the same botanical family (just another tree in the old family tree, I suppose?). Coastal Redwoods are known for being the tallest trees in the world; Sequoia Redwoods for being the biggest, by volume….although they can be pretty tall too.
We had seen Coastal Redwoods in Oregon….well, near the coast. But Sequoia Redwoods only grow at high altitudes – 5000-8000 feet above sea level….you know, up where I have trouble walking and breathing at the same time. There are currently between 65 and 75 groves of the big trees. The groves range from groups with hundreds of trees to the smallest grove with only six living specimens remaining.
There are Sequoias in Yosemite too. In case you’re wondering why we didn’t see them there, there’s a simple explanation. There are three groves in Yosemite – Tuolumne, Merced, and Mariposa Groves. Mariposa Grove is, perhaps, the most well-known grove to visitors to the area since they are relatively easily accessible and a big part of the Yosemite attractions. But they were not accessible at all this year. About a year ago, Mariposa Grove was closed to visitors to refurbish the area near the grove for the protection of the trees and to re-do the parking lot such that most visitors will be required to park personal vehicles off-site in the future and be shuttled into the site.
We had looked forward to seeing Mariposa Grove because that was the one that used to have the “tunnel tree” that a car could be driven through…before the tree fell. After all, carving out the middle of a tree cannot be good for it and it is bound to fall at some point. I have read that the tree was still there…on the ground….so you could still see it and marvel at its huge-ness…even in death.
So, the grove was scheduled to be opened again in spring 2017…..and that became summer 2017…and finally, autumn 2017. I’m not sure when the grove is scheduled to be opened again at this point. All I know is that we missed the opportunity to see it on this trip.
We considered going to Tuolumne Grove but when the ranger advised that the hike down (approximately a mile) wasn’t too bad but the hike back up to the parking area was not for the faint-hearted. He didn’t say much but he looked at my poor ole out-of-shape body with a knowing eye. I took the hint….after all, I wasn’t born yesterday. He was right as I was later to discover – hiking a trail that runs pretty much straight up at high altitudes is not for me….and I discovered that almost all of the trails in the Sierra Nevada’s run on an incline…going down is okay, going up is misery. Lastly, I never quite figured out where Merced Grove was, so we decided to focus our exploration of the big trees on those in Sequoia National Park.
We entered Sequoia from the north by way of Kings Canyon. Highway 180 out of Fresno runs due east and right into the mountains and Kings Canyon National Park (KCNP) which is where, as noted above, we first saw the Big Trees. Inside Kings Canyon you can continue on 180 to visit that NP or you can take a turn south on General’s Highway (198) to drive straight down through Sequoia NP. We took this route several times – each time entering in the north and driving south all the way down through the park.
I have to say that everywhere we drove in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was a white-knuckle experience. Jerry focused on the forty feet on the road directly in front of him and I tried to see as much as I could while trying not to look straight down off the edge of the road on my side of the van…where there were few, if any, guardrails. We found it amusing that the highway department (I suppose) had dumped small mounds of gravel at some points on the edges of the roads right along the curves like that was supposed to stop a car from driving right off the road! I mean, seriously, I could have kicked those mounds of gravel off the road with one foot tied behind my back. But we survived and, by the end of the trip, I had gained a whole new appreciation for and an understanding of those people who are afraid of heights.
But back to the trees and our first stop at Grant’s Grove in Kings Canyon. Oh my! The trees were everything we had expected them to be…and so much bigger than we had imagined them to be.
Sequoidendron giganteum – the scientific name is very appropriate. Let’s see – giganteum sounds about right – giants. They are indeed giants. Dendron comes from the Greek word for tree – δένδρον – which I immediately recognize as being a part of rhododendrons’ name also. Now, Sequoia has been said to relate to the Cherokee Indian Chief – Sequoyah – who is noted for being the individual who recorded and documented the Cherokee alphabet, one of the very few languages of Native Americans that was documented and recorded. However, it seems that the first part of the name – Sequoi – just might have been taken from the Latin word “Sequi” which means “to follow” and has to do with the number of seeds in the cones following a mathematical sequence with other species being discovered and identified at the time (mid-1800’s)….or something like that according to Wikipedia. But doesn’t that sound so terribly scientific and boring? Hey, I’m sticking with the Indian Chief story – he was a really big guy to his people – standing tall as a tree perhaps, maybe even a giant.
We noticed right off that many of the trees are fenced in to protect them…from us. I guess their biggest enemy might be people who try to “enjoy” them to death. At first we were a bit disappointed because we had been saving up for a long time to grab ahold of one of those trees and give it a big ole hug. Yes, we are both tree-huggers and have done lots of hugging in the past and plan to do lots more in the future. Fortunately, not all the trees were corralled off and protected…just mainly the bigger and older named ones so we did find great opportunities to show a little love to those trees.
General Grant is the second largest tree in the world…after General Sherman. You will note that most of these named trees seem to be named after Civil War generals. That’s because many of the trees were discovered in the years after the Civil War when the west was being explored and settled….and being many of the explorers were military and part of the Union Army, most of the trees have names commemorating Union Generals.
But back to size and records…..as noted, the General Sherman is the biggest of the big in terms of volume coming in at 274.9 feet tall, 79 feet in girth at breast high and 1026 feet around at ground level. The first branch of the General Sherman is at 130 feet.
There were trees taller than the General Sherman – the biggest are not always the tallest. The tallest tree on earth – one of the Coastal Redwoods – is about 50% taller than the General Sherman. Oh, when they calculate the volume of the tree they do not count the branches…so Sherman is the biggest without its branches. It is estimated to weigh in at about 2.5 million pounds or 2500 tons give or take a few hundred pounds.
The tree is about 2000 years old but there are some trees in the area that are estimated to be about 4000 years old. We found a slice of tree (smaller) that had been placed on end so you could see the rings but I was having trouble getting a good photo because a couple of little girls were busy counting the rings. So we waited…and waited….and waited but then decided to just take the picture and move on down the trail. We came back about 30 minutes later and the girls were still at it counting away.
Something else I found out when doing a little research on the trees….and there is a very good website for the Big Trees (see below for the link)… is that in the late 1800’s Giant Sequoia seeds (saplings?) were taken to Europe and planted there and they are thriving there. The tallest is now about 177 feet tall; the thickest is about 35 feet in girth. The largest grove of about 50 trees was planted in 1863 and is in a botanical garden in Benmore Argyll (like the socks) in Scotland. Now that gives me another place to add to my bucket list of places to visit.
We noticed right away that the trees have reddish brown bark….once you have seen one tree, you begin to be able to pick them out in the forest because of that red bark. The bark is soft and when you knock on it, a hollow sound is produced. It actually sounds and feels like the bark is not totally attached to the tree’s core. The trees seemingly live forever. What kills them? Drought and shading and sometimes fire although you can see the burn marks on quite a few trees that are still standing and surviving. The tree’s resin makes them pest proof and somewhat fireproof. I think maybe we (humans) have killed them more than any other single thing in the past.
The wood quality is rather low so the trees were not logged as much as you would think. Most of the Sequoias are in National or State Parks (Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Calaveras, etc.) now and are protected. Some were logged in the past but since logging the Sequoias is now prohibited by law in the US, even those outside the parks are mostly protected. God protect us and the trees though from loonies who want to destroy something just because they can.
The last big grove of trees we visited was at Crescent Meadows. We walked into the area in late afternoon when most of the people were gone for the day. We found a bench where we could just sit and admire the trees circling the meadow. There was a nice trail around the meadow that would have been lovely and given us more close up views of the trees but, at this time, we were just content to sit and marvel at the trees knowing we were at the lower end of the park and seeing the last big grove that we would see before making our way out of the area for good. We knew that we probably wouldn’t be back to this park to see these trees again in our lifetimes….maybe…but most likely not.
So we sat in the stillness of the evening in quiet solitude and admired the trees…some young and some very old. The impact of seeing and touching the trees had been so amazing…words just cannot express the emotions I felt at being in the presence of living entities that had been alive since the time that Jesus had walked on earth and may still be here standing on his return. I found that, sitting there, I could understand why ancient peoples would have marveled at the majestic trees and worshipped them as divine entities that could seemingly live forever.
But how then can we worship the creation without remembering the creator?
I saw Paul Theroux’s quote and said, “Exactly!” Every trip we have taken has been an adventure and the memories we have made are simply amazing. But nothing prepared us for the experience we had in those few days we spent in Sequoia National Park with the Giant Sequoia Trees. And it is true that, indeed, we did not come all the way back……for we left a small part of us there with those big trees but we did bring back something with us that was even more beautiful in return.
Sources for Factual Information:
Monumental Trees https://www.monumentaltrees.com/en/trees/giantsequoia/california/