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Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Posted Aug 04 2009 6:44pm
Each summer when our family makes a pilgrimage to the Sierras, I steal a morning to spend among the giant sequoias of Calaveras Big Trees State Park.


I’ve written about running in this majestic area before, but that was before I became a prolific photo-blogger – so I figured that an updated tour was in order.


The most popular routes from the main parking area are the North Grove and River Trails. The North Grove is a 1.5-mile stroll through the largest and most distinctive of the giant sequoias, and is the most heavily trafficked area of the park. The River Trail is the runner’s and hiker’s route, taking the path less traveled on more than 4 miles of mostly single track to the Stanislaus River.



Before you branch off the North Grove trail, you pass the remains of the Discovery Tree, around which the entire park was eventually created. Pictures don’t really do justice to how large this downed tree is - unless there’s something in the frame for a point of reference …


… such as a 6’2” man reaching up the outer section of the trunk, without even reaching the midway point of the 25’ diameter. It’s estimated that the tree was “only” 1200 years old when it was killed, which is relatively young for a giant sequoia. Its outermost growth rings were still large, meaning it was still growing rapidly at the time of its demise.

From an educational standpoint, Big Trees Park serves a dual purpose: instilling a sense of admiration about the trees, and serving as a reminder of the cruel destruction that humans have foolishly (and repeatedly) inflicted upon them over the years – and the Discovery Tree is a perfect example.

The story goes like this: in 1852, a hunter tracking a wounded bear through the wilderness came upon this tree of monstrous proportions. Initially, nobody believed his story, until he coaxed a group of men into the woods to see for themselves. Less than one year later, the tree was stripped of its bark and felled by speculators. Since there were no saws large enough for the job, they drilled a series of auger holes through the trunk (visible on the top section in the picture above) for more than 3 weeks before the tree was finally defeated.

In ensuing years, the remaining stump was sanded flat and used for various commercial enterprises, from a dance floor to a bowling alley to a hotel – which gives you a sense of just how large it is. It’s an absolutely horrible legacy, but it has one silver lining: as visitor traffic increased to the area, early environmentalists (including John Muir) started a movement to preserve the Calaveras Grove, as it was called – which eventually led to the creation of Big Trees State Park, and legal protection of the surrounding forest.

So there’s your history lesson for the day. Meanwhile, back on the run …


The River Trail only intersects the North Grove Trail for a few hundred yards, but there’s plenty to look at before you head away from the main loop. It’s difficult to emphasize just how small you feel running around the base of 30-foot diameter giants …


… whose limbs reach more than 300 feet in the air. To give another sense of scale, at a point 50 feet off the ground, some of these trunks are still more than 15 feet across. Did I mention that I felt very small?


Outside the tourist loop, the River Trail branches away and gently climbs through some run of the mill tall trees …


… before cresting onto a road for a few hundred yards, where you enjoy great views of the Stanislaus National Forest. From this point, the trail will descend about 1400’ over 2.75 miles towards the turnaround point at the river.


Parts of the trail look like any other forest single track …


… but there are constant reminders that this is no ordinary forest.


You develop an appreciation for how tricky it must have been to cut a trail through this area …


… and how difficult that trail must be to maintain from one season to the next as limbs and branches fall from winter snow or summer storms.


Eventually the trail reaches the Stanislaus River, where you occasionally find some fishermen looking to score their evening’s dinner …


… but if you get there early enough, you pretty much have the place to yourself. A couple of side notes about this picture:

* I’m wearing the North Face E-Race Boa hydration pack, which accompanied me for my whole week in the mountains, and which I reviewed in this post. When I say that I enjoy the field testing part of gear reviews, can you really blame me?

* I’m at a totally awkward angle on that rock, aren’t I? There wasn’t a flat place to sit, so taking this picture felt like one of those isometric wall squat exercises – especially when the first few attempts with the self-timer went bad. I really need to get more efficient at this someday.


Since you’re retracing your steps on the return trip, most of the 4 miles back to the North Grove are an uphill grind. It’s generally runable except for a few steep portions …


… and the scenery is just as pretty on the way back.


When you start seeing the giant sequoias more frequently, you know you’re approaching the North Grove again.


Another nice feature of the well-traveled visitor path in the North Grove is that it is wheelchair accessible, meaning the dirt is somewhat groomed inside the barricades. And since you’re getting close to your start/finish point in the main parking lot …


… it’s a nice place to kick off your shoes and cool down with a few minutes of barefoot running. If wandering among these trees under normal circumstances is humbling, doing so while barefoot makes you feel downright insignificant.

Honestly, it’s not such a bad feeling to take away from a nice long run – especially when it’s accompanied by a sense of awe and reverence at the wonders of this magnificent forest.

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