Calaveras Big Trees State Park: Home to Some of the World’s Largest Living Things

By Betty Sederquist

Back in 1852, hunter Augustus T. Dowd made a startling discovery. While tracking a grizzly bear he had wounded, he entered heavily wooded unfamiliar territory. Suddenly he found himself staring up at a monstrous tree, easily three times larger than anything he had ever seen. After spending the day exploring and finding more of the trees, he returned back to the mining camp of Murphys and told a few people of his find, but no one believed him at first. Finally, he gathered a group of skeptics and they returned to the trees. Although Dowd was the first to publicize the existence of the trees, a John M. Wooster carved his initials in one of the trees back in 1850.
Word of the trees—known as sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum)—quickly spread around the world. By 1853 a good road led from Murphys to Calaveras. Speculators decided to fell the first tree that Dowd had discovered. Five men worked for 22 days to drop the tree, largest in the North Grove. Then the bark was assembled into the tree’s original form for a traveling exhibit; unfortunately, fire destroyed it a year later. However, the stump was planed and used for a dance floor, bar and bowling alley. Even in those early boom-mentality years, many people were outraged at the cutting of the tree.
Once spread throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills, sequoias are only found today in about 75 groves. Glaciation destroyed many of the sequoia forests. The largest groves are in Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks. The General Grant in Sequoia National Park is the world’s largest, standing 271 feet high and measuring 28 feet in diameter at six feet above the ground. The northernmost sequoias are found in a small grove east of Foresthill.
Calaveras Big Trees features two groves of sequoias, the North Grove and South Grove. Most visitors come to the North Grove, meandering along a 1.5-mile-long handicap-accessible trail.
Getting a sense of the size of these giants is difficult. In 1965, a tree in the North Grove, weakened by heavy winds, crashed to the earth. Nearby residents thought an earthquake had occurred. And it was no wonder that the earth shook; the tree weighed about 2,600 tons, as much as a small ship or 18 blue whales—largest animals in the world. The trees can live up to 4,000 years. Today a tree known as the Empire State is considered to be the most massive tree in the North Grove; its base diameter is about 30 feet.
Conservationist John Muir championed the trees early on, marveling at their longevity. “There is no absolute limit to the existence of any tree,” he wrote. “Death is due to accidents, not, as that of animals, to the wearing out of organs. Only the leaves die of old age…I never saw one that was sick or showed the slightest sign of decay. Barring accidents, it seems to be immortal. It is a curious fact that all the very old sequoias had lost their heads by lightning strokes. ‘All things come to him who waits.’ But of all living things, sequoia is perhaps the only one able to wait long enough to make sure of being struck by lightning.”
At several spots along the trail one can view fallen trees and marvel at the extensive root system. Sequoia roots can encompass up to an acre of land. Seeds germinate only under the most tenuous circumstances. Fire creates ideal growing conditions for the young trees, which require mineral soil and soil moisture conditions between five and sixteen percent. In a fire, the heat causes the cones to open and release the seeds. Managers at Calaveras Big Trees are now implementing prescribed burns to recreate pre-settlement conditions.
Calaveras Big Trees has been a popular tourist destination since the late 1850s. However, more and more tourists chose instead to go to Yosemite, attracted in part by the Wawona Tunnel Tree, carved out in the 1880s. So the owners of the North Grove decided to carve out one of the Calaveras trees. They got their tunnel, but unfortunately nearly killed the tree.
Since Dowd’s 1852 discovery, ownership of Calaveras changed several times. In 1900, Robert P.Whiteside, a lumberman, purchased it. Fortunately he made a gentleman’s pledge not to log the trees. Finally, in 1931, Calaveras became a state park. And so these spectacular trees are preserved for future generations.
This giant sequoia is more dead than alive after speculators carved a tunnel through it in the nineteenth century.
Getting to Calaveras:

From Stockton on Highway 99, take state Highway 4 east about 60 miles to Calaveras Big Trees. The park is about 20 miles from Murphys.

From Manteca on Highway 99, take Highway 120 east to Highway 49, then follow Highway 49 north to where it intersects with Highway 4. Go east on Highway 4. Total distance is about 70 miles.

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