California’s Three Superlative Trees

California's bristlecone pine trees in the White Mountains of the Eastern Sierra, near Bishop and Mammoth Lakes

Author’s Note: This article “California’s Three Superlative Trees” is one of 30 chapters in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available also as an ebook in Chinese. My other Northern California travel guidebook/ebook  with parallel content is my newest book Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.

By Lee Foster

The California imagination is sometimes nurtured by superlative facts of nature here that are indisputable. In California you can meet the tallest, the most massive, and the oldest living things on earth.

These three superlatives happen to be trees. In a two-week trip you can crisscross the state to witness these arboreal phenomena.

Tallest living earthly entities are the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) along the coast north from San Francisco. The tallest specimens flourish at a hidden location in Redwood National and State Parks, near Orick, in the northwestern corner of the state.

Most massive of living things are the coast redwoods’ inland cousin (Sequoiadendron gigantea), located in pockets along the western foothills of the Sierra at mid-state. The giant among these is the General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park, east of Fresno.

Oldest living creatures on this planet are the bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) that survive in the White Mountains, a range east of Bishop. Bristlecone Pines exist in other mountain settings in the Southwest, such as Utah, but the California trees rank as the oldest, more than 4,500 years, based on core samples that can be ring dated.

One danger in projecting superlatives is that an informed observer may present new observations that deflate the concept. This has happened in the California desert on the “oldest” issue. Some botanists assert that creosote bushes, which sprout clonally from the rootstock, are in fact older than the bristlecone pines. However, this is a semantics debate because the root stock persists, yet the individual plant dies. Fortunately, for the concept of this write-up, the elderly creosote bushes happen to be in California and can be seen at Red Rock Canyon State Park, happily on the main connecting road between the inland sequoias and the bristlecones. However, on the most massive issue, there can also be challenges. Is the Great Barrier Reef off Australia a single living thing? Most massive in one sense refers to a single specimen of a living thing.

If you wish to make an armchair or actual voyage to encounter these natural phenomena, follow along.

Tallest Living Thing on Earth

A quest to see the tallest of the tall trees will take you to Redwood National Park in the far northwest corner of the state.

Seeing the species Sequoia sempervirens is relatively easy because the trees are distributed in cool, moist areas along 400 miles of the California coast from Big Sur north to beyond the Oregon border. Some favorite viewing sites are near San Francisco at Muir Woods or at Big Basin State Park. On the road north from San Francisco impressive groves can be enjoyed at the Avenue of the Giants, along Highway 101, on the route to Redwood National Park.

Unlike the other two special trees, you can see the coast redwoods in many locations, if seeing the type of tree, as opposed to the prime specimen, satisfies your passions.

However, for me, nothing but the tallest trees would do, so I drove to the far north.  I learned in Orick that the exact location of the tallest trees, on Redwood Creek, is kept secret by the park rangers so as not to endanger it with undue attention, trampling the root area, for example. I found that the satisfying option was a walk in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, knowing that I was close to the allegedly tallest tree.

The walk gave me time to meditate over the marvel of the coast redwood. Though huge, these trees flourish in a fairly narrow environmental niche. They grow naturally only within 30 miles of the coast and at elevations below 3,000 feet, requiring a substantial amount of moisture from rain and fog. Capable of living 2,000 years, coast redwoods can sprout clonally from the rootstock of mother trees. They also perpetuate themselves with tiny seeds, pinhead size, which weigh in at about 125,000 per pound.

Along the route in redwood country, shops sell a favorite souvenir, redwood burls. The burls are masses of tree tissue that form around a bud. Burls make attractive ornaments and, if put in water, will sprout a miniature tree. Patience is required, however, as the burl nourishes a tree to grow a few feet in several years.

Fortunately, the most valuable examples of coast redwoods are now protected in parks. Only eight percent of the primeval forests of these trees escaped the loggers’ saws. Redwood lumber is one of the most durable wood building materials available, resistant to rot and insect damage, though not as strong as Douglas fir. In 1982 UNESCO declared the Redwood National Park a World Heritage Site, recognizing that the special environment of the redwoods is a phenomena of worldwide interest.

You are close to the heart of redwood country when you pause at the Kuckel Visitor Center at Orick. Here you can get information on the 106,000-acre Redwood National Park. Given that the tallest tree’s location is a closely held secret, other options are as follows. Stop on your way up, along the Avenue of the Giants redwood groves, to see the Founders Tree. That’s a big tree. Founders Tree narrowly averted death in March 2011 when another nearby giant fell, grazing the side of the Founder’s Tree. Redwoods have shallow roots and can seldom withstand a direct hit from another falling tree.  The Dyerville Giant tree at Founders’ Grove is a good example of a large tree that fell.

North from the Kuckel Center, a truly huge tree to see would be the big tree at Big Tree Wayside in Prairie Creek Redwoods Park. Several hiking trails lead out from Big Tree Wayside, all proceeding through lovely old growth forests.

The redwood forest exhibits a cathedral hush. So dense and dimly lit is this reverential area, so moist and cool and strewn with oxalis flowers, so calm and eternal in aura as compared with the frenetic and ephemeral acts of daily human life, that you may find tears coming to your eyes and experience a certain relaxing release, as you commune with the arboreal giants all around you. Though you may be unable to see the forest from the trees, you will be elated rather than confused.

The Most Massive Living Thing on Earth

Out of deference to Civil War Generals, who appeared at the time as the most substantial figures around, the giant inland sequoias are known as the General Sherman Tree, General Grant Tree, and other Generals trees.

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 foothills, at mid-state, east of Fresno.

Unlike the tallest of the coast redwood trees, the inland sequoias are drive-in wonders. The largest tree, General Sherman, stands only a short walk from a park shuttle bus stop or a quarter mile downhill from a car parking lot. Standing before the General Sherman tree is akin to swimming next to 15 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.

As you proceed through the parks, several encounters with the massive trees occur. First, pay your respect in Kings Canyon National Park 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, the General Lee. Finally, in an area of Sequoia National Park called the Giant Forest, you meet 2,500-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. In 1890 the first groves in this tree wonderland were set aside as a National Park for future generations to enjoy.

The propensity to turn those cubic feet into board feet of salable lumber proved to be an understandable, if shortsighted, temptation of the lumber interests. At the Grant Grove Visitor Center you can learn how close these priceless natural gems came to feeding a pedestrian lumber mill before the creation of the park. 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. Trees just didn’t grow this large. It is comforting to know that the remaining giant sequoia trees will now survive for at least as long as there are people to appreciate them.

To get the full benefit of the trees, scenic terrain, and many potential hikes, spend at least a full day wandering the “Generals” Highway, entering on 180 from Fresno, snaking through the park, then turning down 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.

California's bristlecone pine trees in the White Mountains of the Eastern Sierra, near Bishop and Mammoth Lakes
California’s bristlecone pine trees in the White Mountains of the Eastern Sierra, near Bishop and Mammoth Lakes

The Oldest Living Thing on Earth

Not until 1957 was the startling discovery made that trees 4,000 years old, trees even older than the sequoias, existed in the White Mountains of eastern California.

The surprising discovery was that some gnarled bristlecone pines ring dated to that early period. Moreover, a 9,000-year chronology of weather patterns could be established by matching the ring dates of living trees, dead trees, and downed wood.

Some bristlecones living today were already ancient when Socrates posed penetrating questions in early Greece. The tenacious bristlecones silently maintain their vigil, living in the inhospitable conditions of the White Mountains, where moisture is minimal and locked up for long periods as snow, where wind constantly prunes adventuresome branches, and where alkaline soils present as spare a nutrient base as plant life can survive on. Longevity of the twisted, ravaged bristlecones seems to stand as a metaphor of adaptation to adversity.

Communing with the bristlecones makes the passing fashions, the everyone-is-famous-for-15-minutes philosophy, the capsulized soundbite mentality of our time, seem fleeting indeed.

A ranger on duty at Schulman Grove can acquaint you with two self-guided trails, the Discovery Trail and the Methuselah Trail. Take the mile-long Discovery Trail, which has plenty of photogenic trees and the Pine Alpha, the first tree that Dr. Edmund Schulman determined was over 4,000 years old. The Methuselah Trail is longer, taking several hours, and is recommended only to the extremely fit who can hike some distance in the rarefied air.


The Bristlecone forest is a special 28,000-acre preserve within Inyo National Forest. Transport yourself to the aerie from your support base along Highway 395 at Bishop or Big Pine, the convenient places for lodging and dining. Consider the outing to the bristlecones as an assault on a peak, for you will rise to almost 10,000, so make sure your car is in good condition and be sure to pace yourself, taking only very short walks. You would need to acclimatize yourself for a day or more before hiking here strenuously. Fill the tank with gasoline at Bishop, take plenty of protective clothes, and carry a gallon of water per person in your vehicle.

From Big Pine make the 23-mile drive to the bristlecones by starting east on Highway 168, also known as Westguard Pass Road. After two miles, stay left at the junction with Eureka Valley. Eleven miles later, a sign will direct you to the bristlecones. You pass through a forest of pinon pine and Utah juniper until you reach the nearly pure forest of bristlecones, starting at 9,500 feet. Within the Bristlecone Pine Forest, visit the Schulman Grove, at the south edge. Another grove, the Patriarch Grove, lies at the north end, but the drive in to this moonscape environment takes over an hour on a dirt road.

California is a special place. The state can boast of this arboreal natural wonder. Even the most dispassionate scientific observers support the notion that California offers you the tallest, most massive, and oldest living things on this planet.


If You Go: California’s Arboreal Superlatives

To the Tallest Living Thing:

For Redwood National & State Parks, see  www.nps.gov/redw.

For tourism information on the northern redwood region, see the Humboldt County Convention & Visitors Bureau at www.redwoods.info.

To the Most Massive Living Thing

For Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, see www.nps.gov/seki.

To the Oldest Living Thing:

Contact the Visitor Center-Schulman Grove, www.fs.usda.gov/inyo.

This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s book Northern California Travel: The Best Options. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers. The book is a printed book, ebook, and on Amazon a Chinese ebook. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page