While the red, white, and blue of the American flag dominated the decorations around the 4th-of-July weekend, the color scheme in the Calaveras Big Trees State Park was dominated by the red of the bark of the sequoias, the green of the dark needles, and the blue of the clear California summer sky. The state park is home to the giant sequoias (also called sierra redwoods), which are the largest living things ever to exist on the earth according to the state park brochure. The trees can reach a height of 325 feet, or 99 meters, and a diameter of 33 feet, or ten meters, and some of the trees in the park are believed to be 2,000 years old but they can live over 3,000 years. At first, the trees do not seem that large from the distance, but stand next to a tree, and the size becomes a lot more obvious.
The grove of trees in this park was first noticed by Euro-Americans in 1852 by accident. Augustus Dowd chased a grizzly bear on a hunt and came across the large trees in an unfamiliar part of the forest. His stories about the size of the trees was at first ignored as a tall tale, and since it seemed too unbelievable, one of the large trees, the Discovery Tree, was cut down, which took 22 days, and shipped to San Francisco and New York to be put on display. Even then, many did not believe the size.
The trees quickly became a popular setting for photographers, and most of the large trees have been given names: Empire State, the largest tree in the park, The Siamese Twins, Mother and Son, Father of the Forest, Abraham Lincoln, Mother of the Forest, The Three Graces. The tree called Father of the Forest fell long before the 19th century but is still a favorite for photos of visitors walking through its trunk or poking their heads through the holes where the branches grew.
The trees are actually quite odd looking: spiral growth, a wide base that does not get much narrower and can still be 16 feet (5 meters) in diameter 48 feet (14 meters) above ground, branches only high above the ground, and fibrous bark. These traits are also the reason why the trees grow so old and live through forest fires: they are stable and other burning trees just roll off them when they fall against the sequoias.
After the sheer size, the red bark is the most unusual detail about the trees; it does not feel like the bark of a “typical” tree – it is soft, and fibrous/hairy, and feels more like the skin of an animal. I have never touched an elephant, but I imagine its skin would feel like the bark of the sequoias. The bark does not burn easily because of the lack of flammable pitch and the high amounts of tannin. Nevertheless, many trees have fire scares that are now in the process as healing as the bark is growing over the wound.
John Muir once declared that “Skinning this tree alive is as sensible a scheme as skinning our great men…,” and still the trees have been skinned and tunnels have been carved out. The Pioneer Cabin Tree is still alive despite the large cut.
The state park is near Arnold on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, about 2 hours southeast of Sacramento. The park’s most popular walk through the North Grove is easy and short but also very busy with visitors especially on the weekends. Some of the famous site such as the big stump and the tree tunnel were difficult to photograph without all the visitors, so I actually relied on the photos provided by the park. I would recommend visiting during the week in summer and/or add another walk or hike to your visit to enjoy the trees without the masses.