Monday, October 21, 2013

Giant Sequoias, Sierra's fall foliage

The Chimney Tree.

Story and photos by Elliott Almond
ARNOLD, Calif. --  When it comes to mammoth redwoods some of the biggest specimens often remain a big secret. Such is the case at surprising Calaveras Big Trees State Park in the western rampart of the Sierra Nevada.
About 1,0000 of Calaveras’ towering giants are found in the spectacular South Grove among the park’s greatest collection of sequoias. State park officials offer a road map to the Agassiz Tree at the back end of the grove, one of the finest areas for giant sequoias north of Yosemite’s Mariposa forest. It’s one of the few trees they identify in the extensive grove; perhaps as a way to keep visitors from disturbing root systems, or worse, defacing sequoias like they have done with the Agassiz Tree. Dissuading people from searching for super big trees isn’t unusual these days. Rangers and scientists take extensive measures to hide and protect some of best of the coast redwoods in Prairie Creek and Jed Smith state parks along the Northern California coast.
But next time I visit Calaveras -- and there will be a next time -- I’ll examine the grove to see if I spot ones taller than Agassiz. Such determination feeds an intellectual curiosity, nothing more.
Although the giant sequoias commanded the spotlight nothing was more elemental than tramping alone through the quiet woods on a brilliant autumn day. Nature’s Impressionists had painted the big-leaf maples, Pacific dogwood and hazelnuts in a blaze of golds, yellows and crimson as if waving magic brushes across a wide swath of forest. It is peak coloring-book season from now through early November along this stretch of the North Fork of the Stanislaus River.
Any Californian yearning for a taste of New England’s famous fall foliage will enjoy the fluttering Monets along the narrow roads and trails. The conifer forest is a mix of evergreens and deciduous shrubbery that perform nature’s annual denouement to mark a final, illuminating breath before hibernation.
The remote South Grove is accessed from a well-maintained trail that offers hikes from 3 ½ to 7 ½ miles and beyond. But for tree lovers, a 5 ½-mile loop will lead past many of the big ones.

Here is a photo essay of my 7 ½-mile hike into the grove:

At an elevation between 3,000 feet and 4,500 feet the western Sierra Nevada is alive with colors, particularly in Gold Rush Country that extends from Sonora in the south to Nevada City. The colors are more prominent in the higher elevations of the region.

According to state park officials, an ideal time to visit Calaveras Big Tree is just after a strong rain because storms often shake the colorful leaves from their branches and carpet the moist ground in an illuminating landscape. But I had no such luck on a cloudless, blue-sky day. Ah, shucks.

The head-turning colors almost made me forget that I had come to stand beneath the giant sequoias of Calaveras. The northernmost grove of sequoias lies east of Auburn in Forestville on the the western slope of Donner Pass. According to descriptions, the Forestville grove isn't as extensive as the sequoias of Calaveras.

Big Tree Creek cuts through the South Grove. This scene is near the end of a 2.5-mile loop trail into the Bradley Grove, which is not worth the trouble except for adding some mileage to the day's hike.

THE SOUTH Grove straddles a ridge trial that eventually descends into the grove after 1 mile. A signpost alerts hikers when they are entering the natural preserve. About 100 sequoias are located along the trail. The groves in Sequoia and Kings Canyon and Yosemite are exceptional compared to Calaveras'. But these ancient trees are worthy in their own right. The park is easily accessible to the Bay Area -- just a three-hour drive past Stockton along Highway 4 that eventually crosses 8,730-foot Ebbetts Pass well above Calaveras Big Trees.

                                   THE AGASSIZ TREE

 The Agassiz Tree at the end of the South Grove trial is considered the crown jewel of the Calaveras park. It is 25 feet in diameter and 275 feet high. Considering an unnamed tree in the same grove is 310 feet tall Agassiz loses some of its oomph for tree geeks. The backside of Agassiz is hollowed out because of lightning strikes that set the beast ablaze. Visitors have carved their initials into the blackened bark, underscoring why it is important to not advertise where all the truly big specimens are located.
 Although the trial ends at Agassiz Tree, it is possible to extend the route for another mile along Big Tree Creek. It will afford the intrepid traveler a chance to see more giants that are a bit off the beaten path.

 Some of the unidentified sequoias away from the trail seemed enormous but without any kind of instrumentation, I could not judge their heights. Not that it mattered. The contrast between blazing fall foliage and the redwoods provided a spectacular day in the woods.

The so-called Kansas Group is a closely bunched stand of redwoods. Unlike coast redwoods the sequoias usually need wide berths to grow above the forest canopy. But these peas in a pod seem to keep each other company.