We arrived at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks on a Saturday in early April. The park was still in winter-mode, with most of the campgrounds closed for the season. The one campground on the Sequoia National Park side that was open was completely full (unsurprising, as it was a Saturday). Another campground on the Kings Canyon side of the park had space, but to drive there we were required to carry tire chains, which we didn’t have. So that first day we only spent a few minutes in the park, checking out the Foothills Visitor Center before turning around to find a place to stay outside the park.

The Visitor Centers at this park are the most depressing I have ever been to. The educational focus was on all the changes that development has caused: eradicating native grasses by introducing European one, logging groves of 1500-3000 year old trees that resulted in drying up streams, and more. On a positive note about those drying streams, recognition by the farmers in the valley below about that problem led to the protection of the big trees. The roots of the trees affect the hydrology of the mountainside and create streams in the groves. When logging of sequoias began in the mid-1800’s, the streams dried up and the farmers below worried for their water supply if all the groves were logged. Residents of the valley urged Congress to protect the trees in the 1880’s, leading to Sequoia National Park being the second National Park created.

Spring was in full bloom in the foothills, which were covered in fields of flowers.

Spring was in full bloom in the foothills, which were covered in fields of flowers.

Just a few miles outside the entrance to the national park John found an inexpensive private campground, Three Rivers Hideaway.  This was a nice campground – convenient to the park, clean and hot showers, and wifi (if you are close to the transmitter), situated on a river with a swimming hole.

Sunday morning we drove to the Chevron gas station down the road because they had the best rate on chain rentals. We would need to carry the chains in order to drive up to the sequoia grove. When we asked for the chains, the employee said that the park had called and informed him that the chain restriction had been lifted. He had this information so early that the official park information lines were not updated. This was amazing news. Not only did it mean that we didn’t have to spend the $70 renting chains to drive into the heart of the park, but also that we could take the scenic and direct route on General’s Highway to head north when we left rather than drive back to return the chains.

An overlook along the General’s Highway. If you look closely you can see the ribbon of the highway zigzagging up the mountainside.

An overlook along the General’s Highway. If you look closely you can see the ribbon of the highway zigzagging up the mountainside.

Campsites at the Potwisha Campground opened up on Sunday, and we stayed here for two nights, driving the hour up to the Giant Forest each day to visit the Big Trees.

Elk Creek, near the Potwisha Campground.

Elk Creek, near the Potwisha Campground.

Bridge over Elk Creek.

Bridge over Elk Creek.

After checking into the campground we finally made our way up to the Giant Forest,  one of the largest sequoia groves and the center of Sequoia National Park. Here we were in the presence of the huge trees, and had opportunity to learn about them and what makes them so special. Sequoia trunks are huge, among the tallest as well as the thickest of all tree species. They grow densely in isolated groves. Those growing crowded together have small branches 200 feet up a thick, stocky trunk, reminiscent of the small arms on a large tyrannosaurus rex.

Sequoias in the Giant Forest.

Sequoias in the Giant Forest.

Looking up at John and into the tree tops.

Looking up at John and into the tree tops.

John demonstrates how wide the sequoias are.

John demonstrates how wide the sequoias are.

Sequoias are the largest known living organisms by volume. Growing up to 310 feet, they are not the tallest trees – Coastal Redwoods can reach 378 feet. Aging over 3000 years, they are not the oldest trees – some bristlecone pines are over 4,600 years old. Measuring over 125 feet around at the base, they are not the thickest trees – the Montezuma cypress of Mexico can reach nearly 160 feet around. However, the combination of height and width makes them the most voluminous tree, and the most voluminous living organism. (As a fun fact side note, the largest, by extent, living organism, is a mushroom.)

Sequoias are TOO BIG to hug!

Sequoias are TOO BIG to hug!

Despite some naming confusion and similarly ancient histories, the Sequoia and Coastal Redwood are not that closely related. The Big Tree of the Sierra Nevada, commonly called the Sequoia, is now in its own genus Sequoiadendron and the full scientific name is Sequoiadendron giganteum. Though the common name Sequoia is applied to the Big Trees, the Coastal Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is the only tree in the genus Sequoia. This name confusion came about by historical confusion, where the two California native trees were assumed to be in the same genus, Sequoia, until further research determined that the Big Tree warranted its own genus, Sequoiadendron. In common usage “Sequoia” continued to refer to this tree and not the Redwood which is scientifically the only living Sequoia. How confusing! The name Sequoia is a commemoration of Sequoyah, a Cherokee man who developed an alphabet to write the Cherokee language. For an entertaining account of the deception and intrigue of botanists naming the tree, see this article.

The Sequoia and the Coastal Redwood, along with the Baldcypress and others were formerly classified in a family called Taxodiaceae. Recent genetic analysis showed that there is no distinction between these trees and those in the cypress family, so the Taxodiaceae family has been merged into the Cupressaceae (cypress) family. I previously made the claim that baldcypress trees were more closely related to sequoia trees based on this family link. It turns out my reference material was outdated, but from what I have read, I think the statement is still true. These three American trees, along with some Asian species including the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia guyptostroboides) are surviving remnants of a prehistoric conifer forest that was widespread millions of years ago.

This map from the National Park Service shows the range of both the Coastal Redwoods and the Giant Sequioas. The Sequioa range is denoted by dots that represent individual groves because the range is not contiguous.

This map from the National Park Service shows the range of both the Coastal Redwoods and the Giant Sequioas. The Sequioa range is denoted by dots that represent individual groves because the range is not contiguous.

Sequoias are only found between 5,000-7,500 feet in elevation on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Above 7,500 feet is too cold and below 5,000 feet is too dry.

Sequoias are only found between 5,000-7,500 feet in elevation on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Above 7,500 feet is too cold and below 5,000 feet is too dry.

Every year the largest sequoias add as much new wood as the entire volume of a normal 60 foot tree. This is not surprising in light of new research that finds that old growth trees in general grow at a faster rate than previously thought. A group at Oregon State University found that large trees grow faster, and therefore sequester more carbon, than small trees. Previously it was believed that small trees grow faster than large ones. This assumption seems to be based on the more familiar growth patterns of animals, rather than on any actual evidence of the growth rate of trees. This finding was confirmed for sequoias specifically by a group of researchers out of Humbolt State Univerisity and beautifully described by the National Geographic.

Bark covering the sequoia is unlike any other tree I have ever touched. It is soft, spongy when wet, and up to two feet thick. This extra thick, spongy bark protects the sequoia from fire; even when burned through to the heartwood the sequoia can survive fire. In fact, the propagation of the species requires fire. Mature cones sit green on the branches until fire dries them and scatters the seeds onto ground that has been cleared of competing trees and left fertile with ash. Planted in these conditions, seeds sprout and new sequoias grow. Due to a policy of fire prevention under the misguided notion that fire is alway destructive and humans can improve on nature’s system, no new sequoias grew for nearly 100 years. Once researchers realized the role fire plays in their propagation, the fire management policy of the National Park Service was adapted to let wildfires run their course.

Two adjoining sequoias with a hollow burned by fire. Most sequoias display this fire damage. These trees are over 1000 years old, living in a forest that burns every 5-20 years. That’s a lot of fires to experience.

Two adjoining sequoias with a hollow burned by fire. Most sequoias display this fire damage. These trees are over 1000 years old, living in a forest that burns every 5-20 years. That’s a lot of fires to live through.

Now that the park service recognizes the importance of fires, prescribed and managed fires burn through the forest, opening up the canopy and allowing sequoias seedlings to grow.

Sequoia seedlings. Now that the park service recognizes the importance of fires, prescribed and managed fires burn through the forest, opening up the canopy and allowing sequoias seedlings, such as these pictured, to grow.

These huge trees create these small cones. A sequoia seed is about the size of a rolled oat, much smaller than those of its neighboring pine and fir trees.

These huge trees create small cones. A sequoia seed is about the size of a rolled oat, much smaller than the seeds of its neighboring pine and fir trees.

Fire does not directly kill large sequoia trees, but the hollows it creates may eventually lead to the demise of one as the weakened trunk allows the tree to be felled by strong storms. Besides this and humans chopping the trees down, virtually nothing kills a mature sequoia. As John Muir says: “There is no absolute limit to the existence of any tree. Death is due to accidents, not, as that of animals, to the wearing out of organs. … Most of the Sierra trees die of disease, insects, fungi, etc., but nothing hurts the big tree. 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.” (I recently read a John Muir book for the first time, “The Yosemite”. His descriptions of natural beauty are simply sublime (a word he uses a lot), and I cannot help but quote heavily from this book in the next few posts.)

John climbs the roots of a fallen sequoia. This is the Auto Log, a fallen sequoia which was used as a roadway until the rotting wood became too soft to safely support cars.

John climbs the roots of a fallen sequoia. This is the Auto Log, a fallen sequoia which was used as a roadway until the rotting wood became too soft to safely support cars.

During our visit, snow covered the ground around the Giant Forest. We choose our walking routes carefully to avoid deep drifts. The temperature was warm enough, in the 50’s, but we do not have gaiters and walking in snow up to your calf without gaiters results in very wet feet.

The first day we walked to Moro Rock, a 6,725 foot high granite outcropping with sweeping views of the mountain range. In the summer Moro Rock is accessible by a short walk from a parking lot, but the road out to it is closed for the winter and unplowed. We walked about two miles each way mostly along a packed trail in the snow to the Moro Rock trailhead. The trail to the rock is up a few sets of stairs and along narrow ledges protected by railings. The shady areas of this trail were coated in slippery snow, but we made it safely up and down with the aid of the railings.

View east from Moro Rock.

View east from Moro Rock.

A squirrel takes in the view from Moro Rock.

A squirrel (bottom center) takes in the view from Moro Rock.

Trail across MoroRock.

Trail across MoroRock.

From Moro Rock you can look back over the tops of trees in the Giant Forest. From this aerial perspective the mature sequoias, called monarchs, can be picked out by their rounded crowns, while the young sequoias and other forest trees point to the sky with conical tops. John Muir on tree shapes: “Except the sugar pine, most of their neighbors with pointed tops seem ever trying to go higher, while the big tree, soaring above them all, seems satisfied. Its grand domed head seems to be poised about as lightly as a cloud, giving no impression of seeking to rise higher.”

Many of the largest sequoias are given names. What is strange to me is that they are named after people important in the early history of our country. These trees, which started growing around the year where our modern calendar begins, are named to commemorate such recent figures. I prefer names such as “Sentinel”, which allude to the qualities inherent in the trees themselves, rather than naming the grand ancient specimens for relatively short-lived humans.

The tree called General Sherman, after a Civil War General, is the largest tree in the world by weight and volume. It is 52,500 cubic feet and weighs an estimated 1,385 tons. General Sherman is estimated to be 2,300-2,700 years old, centuries younger than the oldest known sequoia estimated to be 3,200 years old.  It has attained this enormous size through a combination of longevity and an ideal growing location. For prospective on the size of this tree, John (6 feet tall) looking up at General Sherman Tree sees it as a mouse looking up at John would see him.

General Sherman, the largest tree in the world, from a distance. If you click on the picture to make it full size and zoom in at the base you can find some people for scale. As is common among sequoia monarchs, the crown is topped by a dead spire which prevents further growth in height.

General Sherman, the largest tree in the world, from a distance. If you click on the picture to make it full size and zoom in at the base you can find some people for scale. As is common among sequoia monarchs, the crown is topped by a dead spire which prevents further growth in height. The largest branch is bigger than the surrounding non-sequoia trees.

Here we are, with the largest tree on Earth!

Here we are, with the largest tree on Earth! The fence keeps us would-be tree huggers at bay. 🙁

Fences are placed around the most popularly visited sequoias to help protect their roots. Surprisingly given their size, the root system for the trees are very shallow. The roots spread out wide to support the tree, but they are buried under only a few inches of soil. Their roots can fuse with the roots of their neighbors, allowing close-growing trees to share nutrients and gain structural support.

Driving through a grove of sequoias along the Generals Highway.

Driving through a grove of sequoias along the Generals Highway.

The four trees lining the highway in the picture above are growing along a straight line. This is a common configuration for sequoias, thought to result from seedlings finding favorable growing conditions in the ash from a burned log. Several groupings like this are found in the sequoia groves, and are given names like the “Three Graces” and “Faithful Couple”.

The Giant Forest boasts both a Senate and a House along the Congress trail.

The Giant Forest boasts both a Senate and a House along the Congress trail.

Superwoman flying by a sequoia.

Superwoman flying by a sequoia.

An overlook on the edge of the giant forest looks down into the San Joaquin valley. At least it looks into the valley in the winter. In the summer air pollution from Fresno and even as far away as Los Angeles fills the valley and obscures the view. At Joshua Tree National Park we learned that that park has the fourth most polluted air of all the national parks; Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks are ahead of it in the top three.

Superwoman flies over a clear San Joaquin Valley.

Superwoman flies over a clear San Joaquin Valley.

Forests always feel like magical places to me, where trees stand tall and silent as protectors of the life below, lush ferns cover the ground, moss paints surfaces green, mushrooms push through the soil hinting at the mysterious life teaming below the surface, and elusive creatures hide behind it all, out of sight of the human observer. The magic of a sequoia grove is different from that of the common forest. The sequoia is an ancient giant, outliving all the life that springs up below it, growing ever larger as it waits and watches. A being from another age, like a time traveler propelled to the future. John Muir again: “One soon becomes acquainted with new species of pine and fir and spruce as with friendly people, shaking their out-stretched branches like shaking hands and fondling their little ones, while the verbal aboriginal sequoia, ancient of other days, keeps you at a distance, looking as strange in aspect and behavior amend its neighbor trees as would the mastodon among the homely bears and deers.”

The Giant Forest is a special place that warrants a long, contemplative visit. Winter, with the snow cover and solitude it brings, is a good season to explore the groves, provided one is prepared and brings snow shoes. Whatever season, I recommend you experience the presence of these giants first-hand. I certainly plan on returning.

April 5 – 8, 2014

5 Thoughts on “The Biggest Tree in the World

  1. Rich on May 10, 2014 at 8:26 pm said:

    Beautiful piece, Heidi! A loving tribute to the ancient souls you’ve been communing with.

  2. Rich on May 13, 2014 at 6:48 pm said:

    Wish I were there with you both. Maybe the three of us, along with maybe 10 more friends, could give one of those giants a proper hug.

  3. Melinda on August 21, 2014 at 2:01 pm said:

    Do you think pollution helps the trees grow bigger?

    • I certainly don’t know enough about tree biology to say anything about the effects of pollution on growth. If I recall correctly, I have read that small increases in CO2 increase the growth rate of plants, but as it increases further the effects are detrimental. The threshold varies by plant, and I don’t off the top of my head know what the optimal range may be. Other pollutants will have different effects.

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