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The top five giant sequoias
Giant sequoia. Just the name inspires the senses to come alive.
Their immense size and cinnamon color is a feast for the eyes. Though the largest trees on earth, they are soft and gentle to the touch.
The smell of a giant sequoia grove in the early morning, after a rain, or on a warm summers day is magical. Breezes can be heard in the uppermost branches of these massive trees that cant be felt at ground level, and birds call from treetops that cant even be seen.
The largest of these magnificent trees make the tallest buildings look small. They are wider than most city streets.
They have survived fire and flood and drought. Some have lived for over 2,000 years.
They are worthy of our protection. They have been here since the dawn of time and have much to teach us about life and survival.
Giant sequoias grow only on the west side of the Sierra Nevada mountains in just 75 groves, 30 of which are in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
They grow at elevations of 4,000 to 8,400 feet and prefer gentle slopes near moist, yet well-drained soil, alongside streams and meadows.
Nicknamed Big Trees for obvious reasons, sequoias, for all their girth, have amazingly shallow root systems. The trees bark is their secret to longevity - they dont die of old age.
Sequoias are relatively fire resistant and the wood has a low resin content, which provides further protection. The trees are immune to most fungus diseases, and insects very rarely harm them seriously.
Giant sequoias reproduce only from seed. In early summer, the trees offer a picturesque backdrop for the Pacific dogwood, whose white flowers add another magnificent dimension to what is already a unique and spectacular forest scene.
This summer, join in on the journey as we travel to the five largest giant sequoias, starting with the biggest tree on the planet and the most well-known - the General Sherman Tree in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park.
General Sherman Tree (#1)
Sequoia National Park
The tree is 274.9 feet tall and has a circumference at the ground of 102.6 feet. The volume of wood contained in its trunk is 52,500 cubic feet.
Although estimated to be between 1,800 and 2,700 years old, the General Sherman Tree is still growing and continues to bear cones. It adds about 40 cubic feet of wood each year, which is about the size of a 50-foot tree that is one foot in diameter.
The General Sherman is located just off the Generals Highway 19 miles from the Ash Mountain entrance station and 2.25 miles past the Giant Forest Museum. It is at the northern-most edge of the Giant Forest.
There is an easy-in/easy-out parking area and many signs directing visitors to the tree and other points of interest. Construction is currently ongoing on a new parking facility that will remove vehicle traffic away from the sensitive root systems of the Big Trees.
The General Sherman Tree was named Aug. 7, 1879, by James Wolverton, pioneer cattleman and trapper, in honor of General William Tecumseh Sherman, under whom he served as first lieutenant in the 9th Indiana Cavalry.
In fact, many of the giant sequoias which received names during this era are in honor of military leaders who were prominent during the Civil War. During the latter part of the 19th century, the nation was still attempting to heal its wounds caused by the violent conflict that took place among its citizens.
A walk on the Congress Trail, which begins near the Sherman Tree, is a hands-on history lesson in the forming of the United States government and those who were important in the founding of this country.
Since the General Sherman has been around since long before the dawn of civilization, it is to be expected that it has represented more than one group of peoples. Its prehistoric significance is unknown, but within mere years of the white man named Wolverton bestowing the honor of Sherman on this landmark, another group gave it a name representing what they, too, perceived was a great honor.
The Kaweah Colony, a group of idealists who formed a cooperative colony and hoped to build a utopian center of culture and equality, named the tree after their inspiration, Karl Marx. The colony, which was based in the Three Rivers area on the upper portions of what is now North Fork Drive, was in existence from 1886 to 1890.
This group is, in part, responsible for the creation of Sequoia National Park and the preservation of the Big Trees. It was because they filed claims for timber lands in a section of forest that contained giant sequoias and built an access road and lumber mill that local conservationists were spurred into action to protect the ancient groves.
So the largest tree in the world is the first stop in this summer-long series that will visit many more of the massive trees. The Sherman Tree is admired by millions each year.
Take time to visit this tree. View it in the early morning without the crowds. Then visit it at sunset, when its rich reddish-brown bark is accentuated by the suns rays.
Examine it up close. Notice its furrowed bark, its generations of burn scars.
Walk all the way around it and see it from all sides. Lie down and look up at its ragged, yet regal, crown.
Look at its uppermost branches, many of which are larger than most trees. Climb the hill behind where it stands, and see it from this perspective.
Make time to visit the area in late spring, when the dogwood are in bloom. Visit it with the summer crowds and be proud of this national treasure.
Come back in the fall and commune with it during the quiet time. Ski to it in the winter and revel in the stillness of a forest sleeping, yet so alive.
Washington Tree (#2)
Sequoia National Park
The name Washington Tree has appeared on maps as early as 1905. It is obvious for whom this tree was named, but whoever named it is unknown.
The Washington Tree may be reached by several circuitous routes. It is one of the best trees to visit because it is in the heart of Giant Forest, yet off the beaten path.
Trails that provide access to the tree begin at Crescent Meadow, Giant Forest Museum area, and the General Sherman Tree parking lot. No matter what route is selected, it is good practice to take a topographical map of the Giant Forest area.
There is a vast network of trails that transect the plateau, making it very easy to take a wrong turn, but not realize it. This is an area that seems well-traveled, yet it is extremely easy to lose sense of direction.
The route described here will take hikers in from Crescent Meadow, making it about a four-mile roundtrip hike with very little climbing. The tree can be reached in less than half this mileage from a trail that begins along the Generals Highway, about a quarter mile east of the Giant Forest Museum, however, trails are being rehabilitated and rerouted in that area, so, at this time, Im not certain that a description from this trailhead would be accurate.
From the Giant Forest Museum, take the Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road, which junctions with Generals Highway at the west end of the parking lot. The drive, itself, explores some of the most beautiful portions of the Giant Forest grove.
The road ends in two-and-a-half miles and at 6,700 feet elevation at the Crescent Meadow picnic area. At the northeast end of the parking lot, near the restrooms, take the trail that heads north and parallels beautiful Crescent Meadow.
This portion of trail is very popular with summer visitors, but the farther one ventures into the forest, the crowds begin to disappear. As a family, we have hiked to the Washington Tree two times, and on both occasions we had the area completely to ourselves.
In a half-mile, the Crescent Meadow Trail junctions with the Trail of the Sequoias, which on this section is also part of the Huckleberry Meadow Loop Trail. Turn left (northwest) here and continue for about another half mile, and when the trail junctions again, veer left, staying on the Huckleberry Meadow trail.
Within one-quarter of a mile, the west end of Circle Meadow is reached. In another tenth of a mile, there is another trail junction.
Stay left and continue on the Huckleberry Meadow Trail. The trail to the right is a fun detour as it parallels Circle Meadow to reach the Bears Bathtub in another quarter-mile.
The Bears Bathtub is actually two giant sequoias that have grown together and formed a hollow at their bases which is filled with water most of the year. The trees were named in 1902 by Ralph Hopping, a partner in the first Giant Forest concession company, after hearing the story that Chester Wright, a Sierra guide, once saw a bear bathing in the pool.
To continue on to the Washington Tree, turn around and backtrack to the trail junction. Take the Huckleberry Meadow Trail north for just over a quarter of a mile.
Even though the trail that spurs off to the left for one-tenth of a mile to the Washington Tree can be easily missed if not watching for it, it is the tree that stands like a sentry that cant help but be seen.
Maybe its the location - the tree is surrounded by others that are no match to its size - but the Washington Tree seems extraordinarily huge and grandiose. This tree - ranked number two in size behind the General Sherman which grows just over a mile away - has one branch that juts straight out then skyward that is bigger than most trees.
It resembles a giant arm, and the tree seems very alive and humanlike, as if it has feelings and knowledge of its mortality. The Washington Tree has created many young offspring which grow in the dense forest around their paternal parent.
The General Sherman Tree (274.9 feet) is actually 20 feet taller than the Washington Tree(254.7 feet). The Washington Trees ground perimeter is 101.1 feet; the Sherman Trees is 102.6.
The Washington Trees diameter at breast height is 26 feet; the Sherman Tree is 25.1.
While spending time in this secluded area that is near the center of the Giant Forest Grove, its easy to understand why people would want to live here. Just one-quarter of a mile to the north, down a gentle slope and near Little Deer Creek, which feeds both Round Meadow and Circle Meadow, is the site of an ancient Indian village.
Dozens of bedrock mortars where acorns and pine nuts were ground and blackened soil from generations of fires is what remains of Indians who made their summer home in Giant Forest. With the Washington Tree towering over the site on the hill to the south and beautiful pools and falls formed by the granite creek bed, it is not difficult to imagine the plentiful and peaceful life these native peoples led.
Ravens, which are said to contain the spirits of Indians, are always nearby and keep close watch on the area. Both times we have explored the area and relaxed on the sun-drenched granite boulders, they have kept constant vigil, guarding this precious hideaway for their ancestors of long ago.
During 2003, the Giant Fire, a park-managed prescribed fire ignited by lightning in July, reached the Washington Tree in mid-September. The tree, the second largest in the world, caught fire, burning its crown and causing its trademark massive branch to fall. The tree is estimated to be 2,800 years old.
General Grant Tree (#3)
Kings Canyon National Park
This week, presidential attention will once again be on the national parks as President Bushs Healthier US Initiative includes an entrance fee-free weekend on June 22 and 23. Just one more reason to enjoy Hiking the Parks...
The third largest tree in the world was designated as the Nations Christmas Tree by President Calvin Coolidge on April 28, 1926.
The General Grant Tree is also a living memorial to the men and women of the United States who have given their lives in service to their country. It was proclaimed a National Shrine on March 29, 1956, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The tree was discovered by Joseph Hardin Thomas in 1862. It was reportedly named by Lucretia Baker of Visalia on Aug. 20, 1867, while General Ulysses S. Grant was still in command of the Union armies, however, there is some controversy in my family about who really named the tree.
My great-great-uncle, Hudson Barton (1844-1929), was once quoted as saying:
In 1866, one year before it is claimed that Mrs. Baker named the tree, I myself held a tapeline to my belt and walked around the General Grant Tree. I found it to be 106 feet in circumference. The tree was known as the General Grant Tree at that time. I further state that I was told by Joseph Hardin Thomas, owner of the sawmill in Shingle Flat, now Sequoia Lake, that he himself discovered and named the tree. Thomas made this statement in the presence of men who could have disputed it had they knowledge to the contrary.
The first Christmas service at the base of the tree was inspired by the late Charles Lee of Sanger. In 1924, as he was staring in awe at the huge tree, a small girl approached.
What a lovely Christmas Tree that would be, she said, then turned and ran off.
The idea stayed with Lee and, on Dec. 25, 1925, he organized the first Christmas program at the tree. Upon returning home, Lee wrote a letter to the president, who adopted Lees suggestion.
The services have been held each year since, except during World War II when travel was restricted. The ceremony is sponsored by the Sanger Chamber of Commerce.
At the annual event, the National Park Service places a wreath at the base of the tree in honor of our fallen heroes.
The General Grant Tree is 268.1 feet in height, almost seven feet shy of the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree. It is located just inside the Kings Canyon National Park entrance in the Grant Grove.
Turn left off of Highway 180 one-quarter mile past Grant Grove Village. Travel 1.2 miles past Azalea Campground and Columbine Picnic Area. It is an easy, quarter-mile walk to the General Grant Tree from the parking lot, where also seen will be the Fallen Monarch, which has been historically used as both living quarters and a stable; the Gamlin Cabin, home to brothers Israel and Thomas Gamlin in the 1800s while they worked their 160-acre timber claim in Grant Grove; and the Centennial Stump, all thats left of a Big Tree that was cut down in 1875 for display at the World Exposition in Philadelphia.
President Tree (#4)
Sequoia National Park
The Congress Trail is a paved loop trail that begins and ends at the General Sherman Tree parking lot. It is a self-guiding trail and, although the most famous of the named trees are also graced with carved, wooden signs, there are pamphlets available at the trailhead that correspond with numbered markers along the trail that discuss various natural features of the forest.
It is also advised to travel in this area with a map in hand (available at park visitor centers). There is a network of trails criss-crossing the Giant Forest plateau and though most junctions are marked, its easy to become confused.
To reach the President Tree, take the trail at the northernmost end of the parking lot and walk east into the forest past the Leaning Tree, where the route then turns south.
In less than a tenth of a mile, the trail crosses Sherman Creek. Although above the return loop portion of the trail, it can be intermittently seen below.
The trail climbs gently, and in just over one-quarter of a mile, crosses another tributary of Sherman Creek. A trail junction is reached in under a half-mile that connects with the return loop.
Stay left here and continue to gradually ascend on the Congress Trail south. At just over three-quarters of a mile, the trail meets the Alta Trail.
This is where a slight detour will allow a glimpse of the beautiful Chief Sequoyah Tree. Instead of turning right on the short portion of the Congress/Alta trails just before they again go their separate ways, continue instead straight, crossing the Alta Trail.
This one-tenth of a mile segment is part of the Trail of the Sequoias, a six-mile loop trail that explores the highest reaches of the Giant Forest plateau, as well as Log, Crescent, and Circle meadows, Tharps Log, and provides access to several other trails in the area.
About 500 feet south of the Alta Trail on the Trail of the Sequoias, the Chief Sequoyah Tree comes into view. It is reached by a short spur trail that ascends to the left.
The Chief Sequoyah Tree was named in 1928 by Colonel John R. White, park superintendent, for the man who developed an alphabet for the Cherokee people, one of the greatest intellectual feats of all times. German botanist Stephen Endlicher, who originally named the trees sequoia gigantea (the Big Trees are now botanically known as sequoiadendron giganteum) and sequoia sempervirens (coast redwood), did so in Sequoyahs honor, but changed the spelling to how it appears today.
Back on the trail, the President Tree is in sight on the right side of the trail, an easy jaunt of one-tenth of a mile. The President Tree was dedicated Aug. 10, 1923, in honor of President Warren G. Harding, at the hour of his funeral.
Presidents of the United States well understand the checks and balances provided by their various branches, and for this, the President Tree is aptly named. Its branches are high up, large, and powerful, keeping the main body of the President, its trunk and lifeline, upright and true despite the species shallow roots system.
Lincoln Tree (#5)
Sequoia National Park
From the President Tree, which is located at the junction where our short spur trail meets the Congress Trail, we rejoin the Congress Trail and continue south. The Senate Group of giant sequoias is located at the southernmost portion of the Congress Trail at its junction with the west loop of the Trail of the Sequoias.
As we round the bend and turn back north on the Congress Trail, the House Group, another magnificent cluster, is on the left. Continue north until again reaching a junction with the Alta Trail.
Here, on the right side of the trail is the General Lee Tree. It is one of two giant sequoias named for the Confederate military leader; the other is the Robert E. Lee Tree in Grant Grove, located along the well-traveled trail to the General Grant Tree.
The Congress Trail goes north here as it begins its route back to the parking lot. To continue to the Lincoln Tree, veer left on the Alta Trail.
The trail climbs slightly and passes The Cloister group, four Big Trees growing closely together. Named by Colonel John R. White, park superintendent, in 1920, he was no doubt inspired by the secluded, spiritual space encompassed by these trees, and the divinity of the place is felt still today.
In less than one-quarter of a mile, the stately Lincoln Tree can be seen standing sentry alongside the trail. A fallen giant sequoia on the opposite side of the trail, at the junction with the Rimrock Trail, provides abundant seating from which to view the tree.
The Lincoln Tree, obviously, is named for Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.
The recent fate of the Lincoln Tree may have been determined because it had been named earlier in the century. This segment of forest was intentionally burned in recent years as part of the National Park Services prescribed burn program, an attempt to resynthesize the natural pattern of fires in the forest ignited either by resource managers or natural events such as lightning.
The fire left several giant sequoia casualties in its wake, reducing some of the ancient trees to standing, but dead, blackened toothpicks. In their quest to reintroduce fire to the landscape, the National Park Service (NPS) will not, however, burn a tree that has a name, but it has also discontinued its Big Tree-naming policy to ensure that there are no other trees to which the public may get to know and love on a first-name basis.
The Park Service has had an aggressive fire management policy since 1968. Major forest health concerns include excessive fuel buildup, which accumulated during a century of active fire-suppression, and catastrophic fires, which can damage land and resources.
Giant sequoias require fire for reproduction, and the sequoia groves may be endangered by the absence of fire. Fire opens the egg-sized sequoia cones, which store a large quantity of seeds, and allows them to disperse and take advantage of the water, nutrients, and space made available immediately after a burn.
The mimicking of natural fire continues to be a controversial subject due to air-quality and health concerns and for the very reason that giant sequoias, which have survived for thousands of years, are sacrificed at the hands of humans, no matter how gallant their intentions.
From the Lincoln Tree, dozens of miles more of trails await the energetic hiker who cant get enough of the grandeur of this breathtaking forest. To return to the General Sherman Tree parking area, backtrack northeast on the Alta Trail for a half mile until reaching the Congress Trail junction.
Turn left and travel an easy three-quarters of a mile north until reaching the south end of the parking lot.
Although the General Sherman has gained fame worldwide for being the biggest tree, there are several that rival it in size, including the President and Lincoln trees. Although just barely less voluminous, these two giant trees are suspected of actually being older than the General Sherman, which may put them at a youthful 2,500 years.
Really Big Trees
1. General Sherman
Volume: 52,508 cubic feet
Height: 274.9 feet
2. Washington Tree
Volume: 47,850 cubic feet
Height: 254.7 feet
3. General Grant Tree
Volume: 46,608 cubic feet
Height: 268.1 feet
4. President Tree
Volume: 45,148 cubic feet
Height: 240.9 feet
5. Lincoln Tree
Volume: 44,471 cubic feet