Between the heavy pine and silver fir zones towers the Big Tree (Sequoia[dendron] gigantea), the king of all the conifers in the world, “the noblest of the noble race” … It extends, a widely interrupted belt, from a very small grove on the middle fork of the American River to the head of Deer Creek, a distance of about 260 miles, its northern limit being near the thirty-ninth parallel, the southern a little below the thirty-sixth. The elevation of the belt above the sea varies from about 5000 to 8000 feet … Southward the giants become more and more irrepressibly jubilant, heaving their massive crowns into the sky from every ridge and slope, waving onward in graceful compliance with the complicated topography of the region. The finest of the Kaweah section of the belt is on the broad ridge between Marble Creek and the middle fork, and is called the Giant Forest. It extends from the granite headlands, overlooking the hot San Joaquin plains, to within a few miles of the cool glacial fountains of the summit peaks … and is included in the Sequoia National Park.
– John Muir, The Yosemite, 1912
It was not yet 10:30am as we turned from the throng at the base of the General Sherman Tree and started into the Giant Forest on the popular, paved Congress Trail. I had a general sense that we would ultimately end up at the Giant Forest Museum (where at 6:30pm, the shuttle would return us to Three Rivers) by way of Moro Rock. But our exact route through the grove was yet to be determined.
Congress Trail was moderately busy that morning, although not nearly so crowded as I’d feared given that it was a holiday week. The most amusing fellow hiker was a little girl who was wailing on a harmonica as she walked along.
Once widespread in the northern hemisphere, Giant Sequoias now only grow in scattered stands on the western slopes of the southern and central Sierra Nevada range. They are ancient trees both in individual age (documented to 3,500 years old) and as a species. Fossilized Sequoias date to at least the Cretaceous Period (the age of Triceratops, Parasaurolophus, and Tyrannosaurus Rex).
The stands are not purely Sequoias. Other conifers that love the same altitude and conditions growing among their larger neighbors. Sugar Pine, Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine, and Lodgepole Pine all add color, shape, and texture to the forest, as does a vibrant understory of shrubs and wildflowers
Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest is the largest of the Park’s unlogged Giant Sequoia groves. In fact, protecting the grove from logging was one of the major motivators for the Park’s establishment in 1890. It comprises 1,880 acres of a rolling plateau between the gorges of the Middle Fork and the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. Although for decades its understory was trampled by a campground, cabins, and an array of facilities, between 1995 and 2000, 282 structures were removed and 231 acres of the grove were restored allowing for the return of a healthy understory of wildflowers and seedlings, the reestablishment of free-flowing hydrological systems, and the reduction of stress on the root systems of the Giant Sequoias and other species. Now, despite high visitation, it is possible to experience peaceful contemplation and discovery on the Giant Forest’s forty-plus miles of hiking trails.
As for our route, I had thought about turning onto Alta Trail to Wolverton Cutoff and then doing part of the High Sierra Trail, but decided to stay on Congress Trail until we reached the President Tree.
The President Tree, famously photographed for the December 2012 issue of National Geographic, gives the Sherman Tree a run for its money as largest tree by volume. The President stand 247 feet high and has a ground circumference of nine-three feet and a base diameter of twenty-three feet.
We sat on a rough-hewn log bench while I consulted the map.
Immediately adjacent to us (and the President) was the Senate Group of four medium-sized Giant Sequoias. Each was fire-scarred. Not only are Giant Sequoias fire-tolerant with their thick, resinous bark, but they need fire to germinate and to clear the understory of faster growing species so their seedlings have a chance to grow.
We decided to take the Trail of the Sequoias and immediately came upon the Chief Sequoyah Tree, honoring a Cherokee scholar who created a syllabary of his people’s language in 1821.
The Trail of the Sequoias is a dirt path (unlike the paved Congress Trail), and we immediately felt more secluded. There were other hikers on the trail, but we went for long stretches without encountering them.
Although gentle, the trail was clearly rising to a ridge
At the crest of the ridge was a grand old Sequoia. From here the trail turned north for a while (after trending south thus far).
We could see some glimpses of the mountains on the other side of the Middle Kaweah gorge.
Some hikers were stopped on the trail ahead because of a Mule Deer browsing maybe thirty yards away. He was utterly unconcerned with us.
After the ridge, the trail wound around some fairly gentle slopes drained by Crescent Creek as it worked its way south toward the Middle Kaweah.
Here on a south-facing slope with a more exposed understory, plants like manzanita joined the celebration.
We crossed Crescent Creek, merely a trickle here, for the first time that day.
After the creek crossing, the trail turned south with some earnestness, roughly following the creek above it on its eastern ridge.
We came to our second Sequoia tunnel of the day.
As we hiked along, we heard a rustling and commotion off to our left up the slope. I’m fairly certain it was a bear, but we didn’t see it.
Around 12:30pm, we stopped for a lunch of peanut butter and potato chip wraps (and some bars and such). We sat on some rocks above the trail. In the whole time we were munching, we only saw one group of hikers (a family with children) go by. Even in the frontcountry of a popular Park on the eve of a holiday, we had lots of alone time with the big trees.
We came to a junction that indicated we’d hiked three miles already since standing at the base of the General Sherman Tree.
The final half mile of the trail led through a lush section with the thimbleberry undergrowth almost obscuring the trail. The trail traversed a gentle slope as it rose.
We stopped to gaze at an extensively burned, but still living Giant Sequoia, which Sean declared his favorite.
We could hear some babbling of voices ahead, and a telltale brightness between the trees indicated that we were reaching the southern edge of the plateau and the junction with High Sierra Trail. We’d crossed the Giant Forest roughly from north to south, and now it was time for more adventures along the edge of the plateau.