Sunday, August 21, 2016

Grief and Hope at the North Grove of Calaveras Big Trees State Park

Date: September 7, 2015
Place: Calaveras Big Trees State Park, Arnold, California
Coordinates: Coordinates: 38.279081, -120.307259
Length: 2 miles
Level: easy

Two years ago I took my chikas camping with friends at the Spicer Reservoir. After a beautiful weekend during which we got to hike around Lake Alpine too it was time to drive back home. Calaveras Big Trees State Park is on the way and I decided to stop there for a hike. It was Labor Day and the North Grove area was so jam-packed, there was no hope of finding any parking there. I drove to the South Grove area where we had an enjoyable hike at the Bradley Grove. However, that day we missed the North Grove of Giant Sequoia, which was our main objective of visiting this park.

Last year, after saying goodbye to our friends who hiked with us around Kirkwood Lake we arrived again at Calaveras Big Trees SP. Also on Memorial Day, the park was again full of visitors, but this time we had arrived early enough to find a parking spot. It was hot and Papa Quail wanted to get home earlier rather than later, so we chose the shortest loop trail, just to check out the main sights of the North Grove. Being there for the first time I didn't know what to expect (except for huge sequoia trees, of course). Little did I know the heart ache this hike would bring me.
Our North Grove hike as captured by Papa Quail's GPS
Stump of the Mammoth Tree
The first jolt was right by the trailhead: the stump of a logged Giant Sequoia, made sleek by countless of humans walking on it. There was a constant stream of people climbing on and off that stump and it was impossible to get a photo of it without any humans. I managed to get a human-free photo of it on another visit there last week, but I chose to post the human-containing image because it shows the scale of  the tree's remains, and because it fits with my overall emotions of this place.  

I have seen sequoia stumps before. They are found in the groves first discovered by the European-descent immigrants. They date back to the time before their protection. And the first of those groves was at the area where Calaveras Big Trees State Park is today. It was here in this park where the Giant Sequoia made its first impression on modern people, and they were these that became the first victims to modern man's greed.
But it is easy to get distracted from gloomy thoughts in a beautiful forest. Past the giant sequoia stump there is a little wooden bridge crossing a small creek that was bone dry at the time. There were excited shouts from people near and on the bridge and soon the source of excitement was identified: a small bat was flying circles in the area, looping its way back and forth between people. I raised my camera but all I got was a blur.It does show, however, how close to us that bat was flying.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a bat! 
And then, just like that, the little bat landed on a nearby log where Papa Quail took its photograph:
Townsend's Bat
The next tree that caught my attention wasn't a sequoia but one of the most beautiful Sierra broadleaf trees: a mountain dogwood. This small tree was just turning its leaves for fall.
Mountain Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii)
But then again, my reason for being there in the first place were the big trees. And they cannot be passed over by any means.
As the story goes, the giant sequoia were seen by a member of a mining expedition that went hunting for food. When no one believed his report of giant trees he fabricated a successful bear hunt and called for help carrying the carcass. When the others went with him to carry the 'bear' he led them to the first grove of giant sequoia seen by western eyes.
Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
The forest isn't very thick and sunlight goes right through its canopies. The outcome is a rich layer of undergrowth comprised of low shrubs, ferns, and small dogwood trees. A prefect habitat for little brown birds, lizards and squirrels.

Indeed, we saw squirrels all over the place. Thankfully they didn't approach us and they weren't begging for food like I've seen so many do in other popular parks.
Douglas Squirrel
From the moment of their discovery, the giant sequoia became a huge attraction for spectators. Even today they bring a good crowd. Towering over all other trees in their forest (that are quite big as well), these relics of pre-Ice Age species seem almost unreal.
Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
Near the end of the Creek Trail there is a fallen hollow log where people can walk through. I was satisfied going through once but the chikas ran back and forth several times. Other children climbed on top of that log and performed Tarzan jumps back down to the path. I can imagine that young Mi-Wok children did the same, making the most of Nature's playground.

Spectators weren't the only people admiring the giant trees. So did loggers, who saw their fortune in turning these majestic beings into building materials. Fortunately it turned out that unlike its relative the coastal redwood, giant sequoia wood is really poor lumber. Sadly, quite a few giants were felled before this fact sunk in.

I didn't expect to see anything blooming in the park this late in summer, but I did find a lone straggler, and of course it grabbed my attention.
White-flowered Hawkweed (Hieracium albiflorum)
But it was, indeed, the only plant still in bloom there. Everything else had gone to fruit by then.
Mountain Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii)
Travel in the mid-18th century wasn't as simple as nowadays and people in the east wished to see this world wonder with their own eyes. They would pay money to see such a tree. And it wasn't long before opportunists cut down the giant sequoia named the Mammoth Tree and sent it in sawed off slabs to New York :-( 
Giant Sequoia fused at the base
The killing of the Mammoth Tree provoked local anger but it was the killing of the Mother of the Forest that led to action. This tree, formerly known as the most beautiful sequoia ever seen was stripped completely of its bark. The bark was shipped to London and the bare remains of this tree still stand in testament of human greed.

Facing the Mother of the Forest's remains I cried. I tear up still as I write these words.
Mother of the Forest
The one good outcome of this vandalism is that many were angered by the did. Enough to finally get these marvelous trees protected, in the Calaveras Big Trees State Park and throughout the Sierra Nevada.
Giant Sequoia isn't the only tree in the park. Not even the most common. Other conifers are there too, and they are quite tall as well. 
Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana)
There are many birds there, and not all of them are LBB (Little Brown Birds). A nice grove of trees is a great woodpecker habitat and Papa Quail was looking out for them.
Red Breasted Nuthatch
There were many woodpeckers to see (and hear). They hopped about from tree to tree, and then crept up the tree and around it before moving on to the next one.
The most common woodpecker there is the White-headed Woodpecker. On one tree we saw three of them - a male and two females. The male has a small red spot on the back of his head.
White-headed Woodpecker, male
The females have no such red spot on their napes. Also, they always seemed to be standing lower than the male, but I have no clue if that has any significance. I observed them for only a brief time.
White-headed Woodpecker, female
When we left the park I was tired and drained. We were going home and I didn't think I'd be there again soon. I also didn't think I'd take so long to write about this hike, but each time I started working on this post I almost immediately found something else to write about first. And then, just a few days ago, without any prior planning, I got to visit there again.

Date: August 8, 2016
Place: Calaveras Big Trees State Park, Arnold, California
Coordinates: 38.279081, -120.307259
Length: 2.6 miles
Level: easy

On the first week of August, while my chikas were at their annual 4-H Camp, I went backpacking at Mineral King. I returned back to a full house, including Grandma Quail and Papa Quail's two nieces  who came for a visit. Within a day we were to embark on a week-long road trip and for some unknown reason the planning of this trip was left for me. I had one day to come up with a plan.
I decided to go east. To spend the first half of the trip in the Gold Country and during that time to figure out what's next.
I found us a place to stay in Murphys and, after being warned not to plan anything strenuous or even moderately challenging, I listed a few things we could do in the area. Calaveras Big Trees State Park topped the list and on our first morning there we went there.
Being a month earlier in season and following a good rainy year the place was much greener than I remembered from my previous visit there. The creek wasn't running, but the plants looked lush and healthy, and there was still much bloom to see. Like this wild rose I found right by the visitor center:
California Wild Rose (Rosa californica)
This time too we hiked the North Grove. It wasn't overly hotted we were morning-fresh so we took the slightly longer route of the Overlook Trail that connected later to the trail we hiked last year.
Our hike as captured by Papa Quail's GPS
There were much fewer people in the park this time, but we were certainly not alone there. Still, I got to see the Mammoth Tree stump without any people on it.
We passed the mammoth stump and went on the Overlook Trail where the trees are, in fact, quite small, and many are of broadleaf species or small pines.

There was a lot of life moving about and making sounds. One of the common forest birds is the Dark-eyed Junco. Common as they are, it isn't easy to get a good photo of them because they are hyperactive and they prefer the shadows. This time Papa Quail got lucky. 
Dark-eyed Junco
There was color on the ground - fall is just around the corner. 
Dogwood turned leaf
Looking up I saw the beginning of fall.
Mountain Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii)
We were walking slowly but even so I managed to run into Papa Quail as he was trying to get a good shot of a chipmunk that was running around in the undergrowth. When he was satisfied and moved on the chipmunk settled on a tree near me and I had my chance.
Long-eared Chipmunk
We saw the Douglas squirrel again - this time a female that was clearly still lactating. Didn't see any of the babies, though. 
Douglas Squirrel, lactating female
 There Papa Quail soon spotted another tree bird - a hairy woodpecker.
Hairy Woodpecker, male
The male woodpecker remained high and in the branches. The female was lower below and at moments also out in plain sight.
Hairy Woodpecker, female
 The forest seemed happier and livelier this time around. We saw many more birds and squirrels, but a big excitement broke out when the girls glimpsed a deer in the shrubs. The doe kept a wary eye on us but otherwise didn't seem bothered by our presence.
Black-tailed Deer
Easy pace is good for nature appreciation. Common things that are usually passed over on faster hikes now demanded their deserved attention. Like the beautiful dome spider webs
that hanged in the undergrowth.

The main idea of the Overview Trail, however, is that from the somewhat higher hillside there was a good view of the giant sequoia below and there was no need to crane our necks to see their canopies.
Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
Another common conifer in the area is the sugar pine, which can also get very tall although not nearly as big and massive as the sequoia. This tree scores on a different measure: the sugar pine produces impressively huge cones. 
The cone of Sugar Pine
Toward its end the Overlook Trail curves back to the west and descends from the hill slope.
We were getting back down to the main sequoia grove. Along the path, more wildflowers were on display. Some were clearly past their prime, like the lupines who were nearly all fruiting at the time with only a few stragglers still in bloom.
Lupine (Lupinus sp.)
Others didn't seem in any hurry to set seeds before the onset of winter and they were still in full bloom, like the elegant Crimson Columbine.
Crimson Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)
We connected with the Creek Trail and sat by the hollow log to eat. When it was time to get moving again I led our group back to the trail intersection and onto the Big Trees Trail.
White-headed Woodpecker twisting in mid-air
Once again I walked through the grove giants. I made sure to get everyone in my company to look on the Mother of the Forest and learn its story. I listened to the comments and wondered what impact would this sight have on them. What lasting message will they take from there, if any. 

Near the end of the trail there is a tunnel tree. That is a tree that a pass was cut out in its base, large enough to let a carriage through. It was a common enough practice at the time before the trees' protection: to cut these passages through the trees in way of showing how huge they were. It was done to several giant sequoia and also to some coastal redwoods. Cutting these passages, however, injures the tree and significantly weakens it. The famous 'Tunnel Tree' of Mariposa Grove in Yosemite eventually died of it when a winter storm piled too much snow on its compromised frame. 
The tunnel tree in the Calaveras Big trees SP was also seriously compromised. By a glance it is dead already. But looking up, there is one live branch there still, indicating that this tree is still alive, still and fighting. 
And still people take their photos in the tree's man-made passage without ever looking up.
The Tunnel Tree
The Giant Sequoia was wide-spread before the ice age. This species was resurrected when the Sierra glaciers receded and millennia old seeds stored in the frozen ground sprouted to the spreading California warmth. Today this species is restricted to California alone, to the western slopes Sierra Nevada mountain range. Even there their habitat is very limited. The premise of many dominant human societies that the world's resources were created for mankind to exploit, even to exhaustion had caused already the extinction of other species and demise of ecosystems around the globe. It wouldn't have taken much to lose the giant sequoia too to opportunism and greed. It was a combination of a habitat not easily accessible to development and the fierce fight of early conservationists who saved these magnificent beings and laid the foundation for a system of parks and reserves and the concept of saving entire ecosystems for the sake of that one public-worthy species.

The North Grove of Giant Sequoia at the Calaveras Big Trees State Park is impressive, readily accessible, and an easy and beautiful hike. And my next visit there I'll try to schedule to a different season. I hear this grove is absolutely spectacular when wearing winter-white :-)


  1. The giant sequoia never fails to amaze... I cannot understand how people can look at it and think about destructing it for persnal gain. Bu then again, there is a lot I don't understand about people

    1. I share your bewilderment here. People can be so depressing. I am glad they did wake up in time to save the rest.