Sunday, November 3, 2013

Fall hiking in the Western Sierra

Story and photos by Elliott Almond

ARNOLD, Calif.--As October ceded the stage to November we returned to one of our newly discovered haunts: Calavaras Big Trees State Park along CA 4 toward Ebbetts Pass. I had visited two weeks earlier, luckily catching the fall foliage color changes in peak season. We were a week late the first weekend of November but it proved to be another perfect outing. This time a Bay Area friend joined the party, equipped with his professional lenses and eye for taking exquisite photographs. I had my usual point-and-shoot but now I also had a human subject to help give the arbol beasts some perspective. 

John somehow hiked eight miles with his camera always pointed upward.

Standing in the hallowed out portion of the tree call the Palace Hotel

John is dwarfed by the base of the Agassiz Tree, the largest in the park.
We think this redwood is part of the Moody Group, a handful of trees lying east of the maintained trail's end at Agassiz.
Some of the big ones along the trial just popped out.

The old trail continues to the eastern border of the grove but it is all but impassable without a serious bushwhack and a full day. John and I ventured into the thicket to explore a bit. The trail disappears quickly even though some trail map guides say you can continue for 1 mile. Despite the setback we were able to find a handful of Sequoias most don't see because, well, who in their right mind gets that far into the forest? We also then tried to wend our way up Big Tree Creek beyond the Agassiz Tree. Again, we quickly were turned back by an impossibly tangled forest understory. We were able to bushwhack a ways, however, to come into the Moody Group -- at least we think we reached the edge of the group based on a detailed map we have. 

We enjoyed the last vestiges of autumn colors. A storm is expected by the end of the week. The South Grove will be all but inaccessible once the first snow blankets the spongy turf. 

                                                          The Kansas Group of three Sequoias are the South Grove's final burst of magnificent redwood.

                                                        THE NORTH GROVE
The Discovery Stump

This is the place most visitors stop because it is a 1.6-mile stroll through a thinned-out forest next to the visitor's center. For anyone wanting a close-up look at some big trees this is the place to go. John equated it to a tree zoo, which is an apt description. The more adventurous should take the scenic overlook to get a more interesting perspective of the trees by looking across at them instead of peering up all the time.

Viewing Old Bachelor from the scenic overlook trail gave us a chance to inspect the canopy.

The state park service maintains the grove to make it accessible to visitors. Unlike the South Grove, the Sequoias stand out without the obstruction of a mixed forest that includes incense ceders, sugar pines and Ponderosa pines.

John hangs out at the Pioneer Cabin Tree.

A word on tree heights. It's almost impossible to know the truth when it comes to the world's tallest Sequoias. For example, according to a 310-foot tree has been reported in Calavaras Big Trees in the South Grove. It seems possible considering there are about 1,000 Sequoias in the grove. The loop trail takes visitors past no more than 10 percent of those trees.  The website, run by Welkers Nursery in Auberry, Calif., states that another tree in Redwood Mountain Grove in Kings Canyon National Park also is 310 feet, and that these are the world's tallest Sequoias. A biologist at the Calaveras visitors center questioned the veracity of a 310-foot tree her the park. I can't find any reliable information that one exists.Also, Humboldt State professor and redwood authority Steve Sillett has reported measuring a 314-foot Sequoia along Sherman Creek in Giant Forest just outside Sequoia National Park. Sillett and his crew have perfected the measurement of trees, starting with coast redwoods.Here is a list of  three tallest Sequoias:314 -- Unnamed, Sequoia National Forest (reported by Sillett)311.4 --Unnamed, Redwood Mountain Grove, Kings Canyon NP (climbed and measured by Sillett)311.0 --Unnamed Headwaters of Upper Redwood Creek basin at junction of Cabin Creek (discovered by Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor, famous for identifying many of the world's biggest coast redwoods)