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In the Land of the Giants

Submitted by grovehunter on 2005-12-23 | Last Modified on 2010-02-26

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I’ve twisted knees and ankles, fallen into holes, fell into icy cold streams in the dead of winter, trudged through knee deep snow and been tracked by mountain lions all for the sake of visiting trees. But mine is a small price to pay compared to that of the trees. I’m speaking of course of the giant sequoias, immense behemoths that begin their lives as seeds the size of oatmeal flakes. It’s only one fact about these giants that pushes me out into the deepest and oldest forests of the land, over and over again… grove hunting.

So what is grove hunting, and what do you do to the trees when you find them? These are some of the questions I am asked about my obsession with giant sequoias. First off, grove hunting is searching known giant sequoia groves to visit specific trees and searching for new giants beyond 20’ in diameter. Giant sequoias generally cluster in “Groves”, hence the term grove hunter. Grove hunters consider a true giant to exceed 30,000 cubic feet of volume, not including the branches and foliage.

Before I go further, I'd like to define some giant sequoia facts. To begin with, the giant sequoia is not as tall as the coastal Redwood, nor as wide as a certain Cypress tree in Oaxaca, Mexico, but no other tree in the world matches the giant sequoia for mass. Ton for ton it is the largest living thing in the world and one of the oldest. Many have peacefully coexisted with the world since before Christ walked the Earth!

To germinate, the sequoia seed needs a perfectly prepared bed of ash laden with minerals, ample water and plenty of sunshine to compete with other plants, such as the fast-growing brush found in many mixed conifer forests. Fires started by lightning usually burn away this brush and open up the forest floor for the sequoia to take seed. Ironically a moderate fire is healthy for the giant sequoia. Bark up to three feet thick protects the tree during the fire and clears away any competition for precious sunlight.

Unfortunately, their finicky nature limits their habitat to what we call the “Sequoia Belt” of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There are sixty seven known groves recognized by grove hunters, and they are normally found on the south western slopes of this range. The belt is about 250 air miles long and about 15 miles wide. The tree is found nowhere else in the world naturally, but oddly, they seem to thrive under the right conditions when planted in other locations around the world. Aside from the axe, Giant sequoias fall to a silent death, usually from top heavy snow pack and the very moist soil from spring run off.

Great Bonsai

Normally, when hunting groves there’s a certain tree I’m trying to find, which increases the challenge. But how hard could it be to find a tree twenty feet in diameter? Very. These trees hide themselves incredibly well despite their enormous size! The watersheds these trees reside in are often infested with poison oak, timber rattlers, bears and lately, drug cartels who would think nothing of killing me.

I do it because I love sequoia trees. From the moment I first stood under the branches of a giant sequoia and marveled at its gargantuan trunk, I have never lost the astonishment. Even the groves most frequented offer a peaceful solitude that is unmatched in my experience. And I’ll keep going back as long as I can for the rest of my life.

Grove hunting isn’t for everyone, but this doesn’t mean everybody still can’t appreciate the giant sequoia. Many groves have well-groomed trails and some you can even drive right up to! Giant Forest, for example, is the premiere “grove” of groves, has excellent trails and contains many trees over fifteen feet in diameter. Giant Forest also boasts four of the biggest five trees in the world, including the General Sherman tree, believed to be the largest. A close second in my opinion is the Mountain Home grove, which has seven of the top forty largest trees in the world. Only Giant Forest has more top-forty trees, with a total of thirteen! Summit road in the Mountain Home grove is a “virtual nonstop avenue of the giants”, according to Dwight Willard, noted author and sequoia expert. I took a look for myself and I am inclined to agree with him absolutely. Beside having a great number of exceptionally large trees, Mountain Home grove has beautiful meadows and gorgeous ponds surrounded by some of the best maintained mixed conifer forest found anywhere in the Sierras.

Some of the best trees in Mountain Home are odd indeed. The “Great Bonsai Tree” has an enormous base and trunk combined with many large limbs and shouldn’t be missed. The “Oliver Twist” tree and the “Three Fingered Jack” are great trees as well. The “Hercules” tree has a 12’ room carved out of the trunk and at one time someone actually lived in the tree. The “Sawed” tree is a tree completely cut through and is still standing, albeit dead. Rumor has it that the loggers who attempted to harvest this tree were spooked when it didn’t topple and left it the way it is today!

Very Healthy

Mountain Home is my favorite grove and in it is one of the most beautiful sequoia trees I have ever witnessed. This unnamed tree, which I call the “Very Healthy” tree, never dropped its lower branches, and has some of the best foliage of any sequoia I’ve yet to witness. For sheer beauty this is the sequoia by which I judge all others! The “Black Mountain Beauty” is another tree that shares many of the same attributes as the “Very Healthy Tree”. You can find this giant in the Black Mountain grove.

The Black Mountain grove is another example of fine forest and many very large trees. It has excellent roads and borders the Tule Indian reservation, which, acre for acre, is how a forest ought to look. The third grove I highly recommend is a tie between the Muir Grove and the Redwood Mountain grove. When first entering the Muir grove, the feeling is nothing short of inspiring. Many large trees and an open forest appearance combine to produce a very pleasing effect, even though Muir doesn’t possess any “True Giants.” Redwood Mountain on the other hand does have a few true giants and is the largest of all the groves in total acreage. The special thing about this grove is an almost pure stand of sequoias called the “Sugarbowl.” When you come upon this special place you know you have entered sacred ground.

There are many other groves to visit and I can’t talk about them all, you’ll have to see for yourself, as I think you should. I don’t expect anyone but the most ardent of tree lovers to hike fourteen miles and face down mountain lions and rattlers to see a tree, but if you’ve never witnessed the awesome size of the giant sequoia or if you are ever in the area don’t skip a grove adventure of your own. Who knows, Maybe you’ll get hooked like I did. Maybe we’ll even meet some day in the land of the giants.


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