Calaveras Big Trees State Park, June 24, 2012

July 26th, 2012 | Posted by Steve in California | Memorials | Parks

The previous post covers Jamestown and its historic railway.  Once we left Jamestown we headed to the Calaveras Big Trees State Park about an hour away and higher into the Sierra Nevada mountains.  We had decided on this as our ultimate goal.  It was a place none of us had visited before.

I am often asked about the giant Sequoias of California.  They are absolutely breathtaking.  The large Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) are native only to California and only to about 25 groves in the central Sierra Nevada.  A Sequoia is the largest single stem, non-clonal tree in the world.  It is also the largest single non-cloning organism on the planet.

Superlatives seem to pale next to one of these.  The largest of the trees are over 30 feet across at the base, can grow to well over 300 feet tall, and live over 3,000 years in age.  The largest on record, since fallen, weighed around 3,300 tons and had a trunk volume of over 88,000 cubic feet.  The Coastal Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) will grow taller, some even approach 400 feet, but are more slender and do not have the mass.

In case you are having any problem grasping the enormity of the trees here are a few more facts.  The largest of the Giant Sequoias is the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park.  The first branch of the tree, which fell off in 2006, was higher than any indigenous tree east of the Mississippi River is tall, and the branch itself was larger than any tree indigenous to east of the Mississippi River.  In fact, the branch was larger than most trees.  A Giant Sequoia will often weigh more than 15 Blue Whales which mean they would weigh more than 15 of the largest dinosaurs that ever walked the earth.

The Calaveras Big Trees State Park where hundreds of these trees may be found was formed from purchases of private land over a period of time from the 1930s to the 1950s.  Prior to that this area was owned by speculators and lumber companies.  There are still some trees on private lands throughout California, but most now seem to be under government protection.

The Giant Sequoias do not grow in pure stands like the costal redwood, but are found in forests mixed in with Sugar Pine, White Fir, Incense Cedar, and Ponderosa Pine.  Being so long lived they are slow to take root and grow.  The pine cones open up in a fire.  The fire clears an area allowing the seed to take root and grow.  A big Sequoia will generally dominate its immediate area once established.  Throughout California these trees attract tens of thousands of visitors each year.

The park entrance abuts the North Grove of Sequoias found in the park.  This is probably the most heavily travelled part of the park because the visitor center & parking lot is there and it is right at the state highway.  The South Grove is reached only by a 9 mile long access road through the park interior.  We didn’t visit the South Grove.

Once there I was particularly interested in seeing the stump of the Discovery Tree.  The Discovery Tree has an important place in Sierra Nevada history.  It was not the first Sequoia seen, but it was the first one that got someone excited enough to tell people about it.  In 1852 a trapper/miner named Augustus Dowd saw a tree of monstrous proportions while hunting a bear.  Back at Murphy’s gold camp (now Murphys, CA) he convinced other miners to travel some 20 miles up the mountains to see the tree and the other large trees nearby.

Named the Discovery Tree it was the first Sequoia nearest to the trail then in use and is very close to the state highway in use today.  In 1853 the tree was felled by speculators.  At the time it was about 280 feet tall, 25+ feet wide, and about 1,244 years old.  It took 5 men and 22 days to cut the tree through.  Despite that the tree stood a few more days before it fell.  The bark was stripped off the trunk for a traveling exhibit, but it caught fire and burnt to nothing a few months later.

Since then part of the trunk nearest the stump has had ‘tree ring’ sections removed to put on exhibit.  The log itself was used as a bar and a bowling alley for a while.  The stump was leveled and over the years has been used as a dance floor.  A gazebo stood above it for 60 or more years before it was dismantled.  In 1861 a hotel was built in the North Grove and it operated until 1943 when it was destroyed by fire.

This first shot is with the fish eye to encompass the entire stump.

More shots of the stump.  More than 65 people can stand on the stump at one time, but it would be very crowded.

This is the beginning of the felled tree trunk.  The volunteer called this section the “Chip off the old block”.  The original cutting marks are easily seen on the wider part of the chip.  The more narrow part is where the tree ring slices have been taken.

This is what is left of the trunk of the Discovery Tree.

Walking further I used the fisheye for this view of the forest.  That is Fran and Jonathan on the trail.

This is a fisheye close up of one of the trees in the last photo.  Some tourists were hamming it up for snapshots.  They gave the photo a sense of scale.  The tree is easily over 200’ tall.  It seems that whenever anyone gets close to these trees they try to stretch their arms around it or a group of them link up to try to do the same.


Further down the trail are two trees very close to each other.  Here is Jonathan doing the typical tourist thing.

One of the fallen trees is called The Father of the Forest.  This is a view down its trunk.  The tree fell long before recorded history caught up with this grove.

This is a view of the root structure.  You can walk into the root structure and walk through the trunk of the tree about 50’ back to that cut shown at left!  The tree was over 200’ tall when it fell.

This is a view of the root structure of another fallen tree.  This one fell during a violent storm in the 1960s.  People close by thought it was an earthquake!  Sequoias have a shallow, but wide root structure.  The roots only go a few feet into the ground.  Natural forces that cause the Sequoias to fall are usually wind, fire, fungus, erosion, or combinations of these.

These are a couple of trees.  I think they were called the Twins, but I’m not sure.

This is the Mother of the Forest.  Over 100 feet of its bark was stripped for a display which killed the tree.  Cut marks can still be seen on the trunk and I’ve added arrows to point out two of them.  The informational display is also shown.

Here are two views of the Pioneer Cabin Tree.

Trees you can walk through, drive on, or drive through were popular at one time.  Before Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park was dismantled there was the trunk of a fallen Sequoia you could drive on.  I did that with Fran & the kids back in the late 80’s.  The Mariposa Grove of Yosemite National had the famous tree you could drive through until it fell in the winter of 1969.  Now you can drive next to it instead.

That’s it for the Calaveras Big Trees.  As we headed back to Modesto we stopped at Murphys, CA so I could get a photo for a friend of mine. His name is -what else?- Murphy!  Murphys was a famous gold mining town.  Now it does what it can to attract the tourists.  The big industry there seems to be boutique wineries followed by Antique shops.  I counted at least 10 different tasting shops in the historic downtown section.

This is the Murphys Hotel.  It is dead center in the old historic town.

And immediately across the street from it is an ice cream shop with this interesting display.

Fast forward 2 days to June 26th.  Fran and I were driving home from our visit with Jonathan.  We stopped at the Sun Maid Raisin plant where the world’s largest raisin box is on display.  It is not quite as spectacular as the Giant Sequoias, but it is very colorful.


My next post will show photos from my visit on July 21 to Point Loma, and the USS Midway Museum in San Diego.  There are a few Point Loma shots on this website from last December, but these new ones will be a bit different.

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