The Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park
Having safely established our base in King’s Canyon National Park, it was time to go see the other and more heavily visited side of this fabulous complex of protected lands…that being Sequoia National Park.
Sequoia is smaller than Kings Canyon, but owing to the fact that it’s most singular landmarks lie close to the road, it easily sees twice the visitation. And no landmark in the park is more singular than the Giant Forest. Needless to say, none is more visited either.
Named by none other than John Muir himself, The Giant Forest is described by the park website as ‘Like no Other Place on Earth.” Apart from perhaps coastal California’s Redwood National Park, we don’t see how there could be anything else like it. Most of the largest trees on earth, as measured by volume of wood, live here.
You could in fact get a very lively argument going in biological circles as to whether the sequoia’s are in fact the largest living things on earth. Unfortunately, like most such arguments about the biggest or tallest whatever, the entire debate boils down to how you define and then how you measure the thing in question.
A sequoia is MANY times larger than the largest living animal, the blue whale. But then the great barrier reef is thousands of times larger than any sequoia; and there are similar arguments involving other communal or colonial organisms such as banyan trees, quaking aspens, and certain types of fungi. Pretty soon, you’ll regret having even asked the question and settle for saying simply that the giant sequoia is a pretty damned big tree.
For those of you who have not yet tired of this debate, here’s an interesting take on whether a tree is strictly speaking a “living thing.”
Sequoia trees grow up to 300 feet tall, are up to 100 feet around at the base, and can weigh almost three million pounds. They can also live over 2000 years. Interestingly, both taller (Redwood) and longer living (Bristlecone Pine) species of trees not only exist, but grow in the state of California. The sequoia is however the BIGGEST tree by volume of biomass.
Sylvia and I wanted to see some of these giants close up, and the place to do so is the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park. We were not disappointed.
The thing that surprised us most is how many of these giants are actually preserved. While many trees were felled by logging (some as recently as the 1980s,) perhaps the biggest reason so many were saved is that sequoia wood has very little monetary value in and of itself. It was largely used to make singles and fence posts. There is simply far more commercial utility in preserving them alive.
We were both astonished and pleased to find out that over 8000 Sequoia trees grow just in the Giant Forest alone. And perhaps even more astonishing, the Giant Forest is NOT the largest or even second largest grove of living Sequoias. The Redwood Mountain Grove, which contains mostly immature trees, has almost twice as many specimens as the Giant Forest.
But make no mistake, the Giant Forest is a special place. Half of the largest living Sequoias are located here, including the General Sherman, the current record holder. Also, its highly developed recreational trail system (over 40 miles of trail) and proximity to the road make it very visitor friendly. We are amazed at how many giants grow right along the roadside, with the park road zigzagging in and around them!
The Grove’s singular nature does attract crowds, as evidenced by the gargantuan complex of parking lots that surround the epicenter of the Grove, the General Sherman Tree. Brian has visited this grove twice, and it is the only place in either Park which he found to be so crowded that it detracted from the experience. But the General Sherman is nonetheless well worth seeing, as are many of the other giants in the area. And if you don’t like the crowds it is entirely possible to walk a few hundred yards off the crowded paths and be almost entirely rid of them.
(Note that the General Grant Grove of Kings Canyon, though much less impressive, is virtually deserted by comparison.)
The General Sherman, named for General William T. Sherman of ‘let’s march to the sea burning everything in sight’ fame, obviously has its multitude of well-deserved admirers.
Almost as impressive as the living giants are the fallen ones. When a Sequoia tree dies, its bark – which is like concrete – scales off and collapses like the aftermath of an avalanche to lie in a huge heap of rubble. The massive, apartment building sized trunk will fall in time, with a crash that can only be imagined. The resulting chaos looks like the aftermath of a train wreck. Hundreds of tons of wood, armor-plated bark, uprooted boulders and any unfortunate objects that happened to be in the way lay strewn over an area that might cover an acre in size. We saw many examples of such ‘tree wrecks.’
When these trees fall in the forest they must hear it in LA.
Another interesting note is that Sequoia wood decays very slowly, sometimes over the course of centuries. Therefore, many of these ‘tree wrecks’ date from before the Sierra Nevada was explored. It is entirely possible that only Native Americans saw today’s dead trees when they were standing.
There is also a Giant Forest Museum, too, but Sylvia and I did not spend a lot of time there because, while it might have some fine exhibits, basically it’s a gigantic and overcrowded gift shop. The most interesting things to see here are definitely those outside.
Oh…there is a tremendous and oft overlooked viewpoint just minutes walk from the Museum. As I have noted many times, people come in droves to the outdoors to ‘get away’ from urban life, only to spend much of their time sitting in traffic, queued in lines, milling about bus stations, thronging into gift shops and snack bars, talking incessantly, taking pictures of themselves, glued to their mobile phones, watching TV, etc., and otherwise doing the things we associate with urban life.
There had to have been at least 200 people clustered around the gift shop, all of whom apparently content to do so. Meanwhile, less than a five-minute walk away a spectacular overlook beckoned, which none of them could be bothered to get up and walk to. We enjoyed the scenery in peace along with a handful of other people before walking back to the cacophony of the Museum.
By the way, an interesting option to avoid the crowds is the above-mentioned Grant Grove. As stated, Grant Grove is not the magical place that the Giant Forest is, but it is an opportunity to see the second largest living tree with far, far less distracting clamor. Sylvia and I not only did some hiking here, but also some guided horseback riding. The horse option, which is available in season right out of the NPS commercial stables at Grant Grove, was very fine, following trails little used by hikers to loop around, and get some very good views of, the General Grant.
Of the three times that Brian has ‘taken to the saddle’ he rates this the best (IE least terrifying) experience. We also got a first hand look at wildlife in the area, as the horses closely approached sitting deer that didn’t even bother to rise from their haunches. Try that on foot. My experience is that horseback riding is a great way to observe wildlife because animals tend to see the rider as an extension of the horse, a fellow herbivore which they have no reason to fear. Also, not too many people hunt from the saddle these days. We would strongly recommend a mounted ride in this park.
The main trail around the General Grant can be extended to include a walk right through a gigantic, 300 year old hollowed-out log — the “Fallen Monarch” — that could easily lodge an entire family. In fact, this log WAS used as a temporary shelter by pioneers, and later as a saloon and finally a stable for the US Cavalry that patrolled the park.
Another suggestion is to visit Moro Rock on the way down to the Giant Forest. It’s a conspicuous granite outcrop by the road and a popular stop in itself, with great views over the foothills and flat lands to the west. It is sometimes said (By John Muir himself I believe) that when the air is clear you can see the Pacific Ocean from here. I am not sure if this was in fact ever true, but even if it was, the air is probably never clear enough nowadays to allow for this. But it sure is a far-flung view, and while the coast may not be visible, the coastal ranges certainly are.
You may see your share of bears at this park. Be wary of disturbing them when feeding.
Brian isn’t much for tourist traps, but he firmly believes any serious hiker should visit all the major national parks as a tourist first, then as a hiker. That way you get to know the park, see the sights, know what to do and what to avoid doing. Our experience with big trekking trips is you seldom have time or energy for anything else, let alone sight-see. If you can, do the tourist stuff first and get that out of the way. And that’s exactly what we did at Kings Canyon and Sequoia…Brian would return for the Rae Lakes Loop a few years later, and we will both return again to bag Whitney in the future.
And Speaking of the Rae Lakes Loop…We just MIGHT have some pictures of this somewhere in the closet.
NEXT UP: To Paradise and Beyond