Giant Sequoias

The spectacular groves of giant sequoia trees housed in California’s Yosemite National Park are must-sees for any nature lover. Located in more than 740,000 acres of the park’s majestic, forested landscape and surrounded by the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, the park makes the perfect backdrop for the grandeur of this unique species.

The largest trees by volume are the Giant Sequoias.  They dominate the landscape with their giant trunks and imposing height. Although they are not the tallest type of tree — that honor goes to the coastal redwood, another species native to California — their cinnamon-colored bark and enormous comparative size reserve them the honor of being California’s state tree.

Yosemite National Park has three groves of Giant Sequoias, or sequoiadendron giganteum. The most famous Mariposa Grove, is an approximately 35-mile drive southwest from the bustling center of Yosemite Valley. It is also the park’s largest grove with more than 200 giant sequoias living within its borders. It also houses Yosemite’s most famous giant Sequoia, the Grizzly Giant. The tree is 100 feet in circumference and is estimated to be 2,700 years old, possibly making it the world’s oldest sequoia. Also in the grove is the Fallen Monarch, a toppled sequoia that gives visitors an ample view of the species’ famed shallow roots. It is unclear why the tree fell, but it was in that position upon the grove’s discovery in the mid-19th century. Near these sites lies another toppled giant, the Wawona Tunnel Tree. A large, rectangular tunnel was cut through the tree’s enormous base in 1881 to accommodate the horse-drawn wagons traveling along a route that, at that time, passed directly through the trees. Later, cars could drive through the tunnel. That route is now gone, as is the functionality of the tunnel; the tree toppled in 1969, but remains lying on its side as a monument to the consequences of human interference in the ecosystem.

The Tuolumne and Merced Groves, Yosemite’s two other giant sequoia groves, are about one mile west of the Yosemite Valley near Crane Flat. Although they are both smaller, with the Tuolumne grove housing about 25 trees, each feature many sequoias and miles of isolated hiking trails perfect for a more intimate experience with the natural wonders of Yosemite National Park. Additionally, one tunneled sequoia — the first to ever be cut — remains standing in the Tuolumne Grove. Called the Dead Giant, the tree was already dead before the tunnel was cut in the early 1870s to attract stagecoach tourism traffic. Visitors to the grove can still experience this piece of history by walking beneath its carved arch today.

Though Yosemite clearly has many of its own renowned “red giants,” the most famous of the world’s groves is at Southern California’s Sequoia National Park. The Giant Forest, as it is called, houses five out of the world’s largest ten giant sequoias, including the number one-ranked tree: General Sherman. It weighs in at approximately 2.7 million pounds, although it is neither the tallest or widest tree in the world.

The trees themselves are not only interesting as natural attractions, but as scientific specimen as well. The coastal redwood and the giant sequoia, though closely related, are two distinct species. The majestic coastal redwood is officially the world’s tallest tree, soaring to heights of almost 400 feet in some cases. However, compared to their counterparts, their trunk is extremely thin. This fact allows for the giant sequoia to be the larger of the two by volume (due to its extreme girth) and has also earned the title of being the fastest-growing and oldest tree on the planet.

The sequoia bark itself also has very many unique characteristics designed to help the tree to persevere for so many years. Although the trees were initially logged upon discovery in the late 19th century, the bark is so brittle and dry that it frequently splintered when falling to the ground. It is estimated that only about 50 percent of the sequoias logged ever actually made it to the logging warehouses to become boards. Splintered wood was either used for mulch or, in some cases, turned into toothpicks. The wood is also extremely fibrous and can be up to two feet thick at the trunk’s base. This tough outer covering is what has allowed fallen trees like the aforementioned Fallen Monarch to remain for over one hundred years with no visible disintegration.