By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: The story of California’s mammoth trees, the giant inland Sequoias, is one of the intriguing nature tales in the history of the Golden State. This article is also a chapter update in my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are updated, a new edition of the book will appear.)
While the California imagination sometimes suffers from inflation, certain facts of nature here stand out as indisputable. In California you can see the tallest, the most massive, and the oldest living things on earth.
These three superlatives happen to be trees. In a one-week trip you can crisscross Northern California to witness these arboreal phenomena. The saving of these trees is one of the grand historical decisions that Californians made.
Though some giant sequoias can be seen at Wawona in Yosemite, the major stands are in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks. The General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park is the most massive living thing on earth.
The Historic Story
Tallest living earthly entities are the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) along the coast north from San Francisco. Three of the taller specimens, measuring 367 feet high, flourish in Redwood National Park, near Orick, in the northwestern corner of the state. Another article/chapter covers them in detail.
Oldest living creatures on this planet are the bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva), which survive in the White Mountains, a range east of Bishop. Bristlecone pines exist in other mountain settings in the Southwest, but the California trees rank as the oldest, around 4,500 years, based on core samples that have been ring dated. Another article/chapter describes these ancient trees.
Most massive of living things are the coast redwoods’ inland cousin (Sequoiadendron giganteum), located in pockets (53 groves in all) along the western foothills of the Sierra at midstate. The giant among these is the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park, east of Fresno.
In 1890 the first element of this tree wonderland was set aside as a national park for future generations to enjoy. In April 2000 President Bill Clinton decreed an additional 328,000 acres of the surrounding forest land, which includes some further “big trees,” as a national monument, which will be administered by the USDA Forest Service.
Stately as Civil War Generals
Out of deference to Civil War generals, who appeared at the time as the most substantial figures around, the big trees received their names. Trees became known as the General Sherman, the General Grant, and several other military leaders.
You can see these marvelous and massive objects in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, twin parks comprising 1,300 square miles in the Sierra Nevada, east of Fresno.
Unlike the taller coast redwood trees, which require a hike-in, the inland sequoias are drive-in wonders. The General Sherman towers only a short walk from your car. Standing before the world’s largest tree is akin to swimming next to a dozen blue whales in the ocean. The size of a mere human, compared to the tree, is sobering. Many of the inland sequoia trees are fully 30 feet in diameter and rise over 200 feet high.
Meeting General Sherman
As you proceed through the parks, it is possible to prepare yourself for the climactic encounter with General Sherman. First, pay your respect to the third largest, the General Grant Tree (267 feet high, 107.6 feet circumference). General Grant gets the nod from many observers as the most classic illustration of this tree species because it stands alone in magnificent grandeur, beautifully proportioned. Then proceed to the second most massive tree in the Grant Grove, the General Lee Tree.
Finally, in an area called the Giant Forest, you meet 2,100-year-old General Sherman (275 feet high, 103 feet in circumference, and 36.5 feet maximum diameter). The volume of its trunk is estimated to be 52,500 cubic feet.
The propensity of entrepreneurs to turn those cubic feet into board feet of salable lumber proved to be an understandable, if short-sighted, temptation. At the Grant Grove Visitor Center you can learn how close these priceless natural gems came to being fed into a pedestrian lumber mill before the creation of the park.
A Tall Tale
In fact, a 300-foot Sequoia was cut so that a cross section could be taken to Philadelphia for the National Centennial in 1876. Most observers in 1876 dismissed the purported cross section of a tree as a California hoax, a “tall tale.” The tall tale was an important literary genre of the day. Trees just didn’t grow this large, most people agreed. It is comforting to know that the remaining giant sequoias will now survive for at least as long as there are people to appreciate them.
The most direct route to the most massive trees on earth from San Francisco is east on Interstate 580, then south on Interstate 5, then east at Fresno on Highway 180 to Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks.
Be Sure to See
To get the full benefit of the trees, scenic terrain, and many potential hikes, spend a day wandering the Generals Highway, entering on 180 from Fresno. Snake your way through the park, then turn down Highway 198 to Visalia. Your vistas will include the sharp-toothed granite peaks of the Sierra, especially the view from Moro Rock. For a good hike, try the two-mile Congress Trail in the General Sherman locale.
Best Time of Year
Summer is the best time of the year to go to Sequoia-Kings Canyon.
In Sequoia National Park stay at the Wuksachi Village & Lodge (PO Box 89, Sequoia National Park, CA 93262; 888/252-5757; https://www.visitsequoia.com/). There is also lodging in Kings Canyon National Park.
The dining room at Wuksachi is a good option.
For Further Information
Write ahead for a brochure to Superintendent, Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks, 47050 Generals Highway, Three Rivers, CA 93271; 559/565-3341; https://www.nps.gov/seki/index.htm.