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HIKING / Giant Sequoias, Calaveras County. South Grove

Some Gigantic Reasons to Visit Calaveras Park

March 15, 1992|JOHN McKINNEY

The "Big Trees" in the park name is a tip-off: Two groves of giant sequoia redwoods are the highlights of Calaveras Big Trees State Park near Angels Camp, Calif.

The trees became world famous in the 1850s, thanks in part to some Barnum & Bailey Circus-style promoters, who chopped down "Discovery Tree" and took it on tour. Another set of profiteers stripped the bark off the "Mother of the Forest" tree, then reassembled it for an exhibition in New York and in England's famed Crystal Palace.

Fortunately--for the trees, anyway--most of the truly curious came to visit the Sierra redwoods rather than expecting the trees to visit them. Scientists, celebrities and thousands of just plain fascinated folks made their way to Calaveras County, often staying in the Mammoth Grove Hotel, built close by the big trees.

For a time, scientists believed that the giant sequoias in North Grove were the only ones anywhere. With the discovery of other, greater groves in the Yosemite-Sequoia National Park areas, the Calaveras Big Trees declined somewhat in importance as a tourist attraction. The biggest trees are truly big--25O to 300 feet high and 25 to 30 feet across. And they're ancient--2,000 to 3,000 years old. The trees are relics from a warmer and wetter clime and time, the Mesozoic Era--some 180 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Once much more plentiful, the big trees now survive only in 75 groves on the western slope of the high Sierra.

"A flowering glade in the very heart of the woods, forming a fine center for the student, and a delicious resting place for the weary," is how the great naturalist John Muir described the forest of giant sequoia, ponderosa pine and incense cedar now protected by Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

The park has some great campgrounds and picnic areas, as well as an opportunity for trout fishing and a dip in the Stanislaus River. Most visitors, however, come to see the big trees, particularly those found in North Grove. A gentle mile-long trail meanders through the grove, leading to such grand sequoia specimens as Abraham Lincoln, the Siamese Twins, Empire State and Father of the Forest.

Much less visited is the park's more remote South Grove, which offers a chance for solitude among the giants. The grove is protected in a "Natural Preserve," the highest category of environmental protection offered by the state park system.

Interpretive pamphlets for both South Grove and North Grove trails are available for a small donation at their respective trail heads or at the park's museum/visitors center.

Directions to trail head: The park is off Highway 4, four miles northeast of Arnold, and about 21 miles from Angels Camp and the junction with Highway 49. Once in the park, continue nine miles along the scenic park road (Walter W. Smith Memorial Parkway) to the South Grove trail head.

The hike: South Grove Trail soon crosses Beaver Creek on a foot bridge and reaches a junction with Bradley Trail. (This 2 1/2-mile-long path loops through land logged in the early 1950s. After the loggers left, park caretaker Owen Bradley planted sequoia seedlings, and today about 150 young Sierra redwoods thrive in Bradley Grove, a testament to forest regeneration and to the future.)

South Grove Trail climbs moderately through tall sugar and ponderosa pines and rises out of the Beaver Creek drainage. After crossing a fire road, the path meanders upstream alongside Big Trees Creek.

Bear right at the trail junction and continue hiking among the Sierra redwoods, incense cedar and occasional big leaf maple. Just past a large hollow redwood lying across the creek, you'll reach another junction. You can bear left to complete the loop trail, but better yet, head right to visit Agassiz Tree, largest in the park. One of the more curious Sierra redwoods encountered en route is aptly named Chimney Tree. Its insides were long ago consumed by fire, forming a "chimney" in a still-living tree.

Agassiz Tree, one of the top 10 Sierra redwoods in size, honors 19th-Century naturalist Louis Agassiz, last of the scientific creationists and a pioneer in Ice Age theory and plant and animal classification.

While the trail ends here at this biggest of the big trees, the adventurous can continue another mile along Big Trees Creek and get up-close looks at other magnificent South Grove specimens: the Moody Group, named for a 19th-Century evangelist; storied Old Goliath, felled by a windstorm in 1861, and three mammoth trees called The Portals.

Retrace your steps back to the loop trail junction, this time branching right and descending back to the trail head.

Where: Calaveras Big Tree State Park. Distance: 5 miles round trip, with 400-foot elevation gain. Terrain: Forested slopes, watershed of Big Trees Creek. Highlights: Magnificent Sierra redwood groves. Degree of difficulty: Moderate. Precautions: Snow closes the road to South Grove; call the park for the latest road and weather conditions. For more information: Contact Big Trees State Park, P.O. Box 120, Arnold, Calif. 95233, (209) 795-2334.

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