What do you do with the world’s biggest tree?
If you’re the National Park System, you put it in a tree museum, of course. Though, unlike in the lyrics to the conservationist’s anthem, Big Yellow Taxi, today they charge a bit more than a dollar and a half to see them at Sequoia National Park.
In contrast to our tepid impression of Joshua Tree National Park, this place really felt deserving of our most careful stewardship.
So what’s the big deal?
Let’s start with size. Giant sequoias are, well, giant.
They grow tall, up to the equivalent of a 26-story building. The average diameter at the base of the trunk is wider than many streets. Truly, unless you’ve seen a Sequoiadendron giganteum in person, it’s quite impossible to get your head around how colossal they are. Even standing right in front of one and touching the papery, almost spongy, cinnamon-colored bark, my brain simply could not process the scale of this ancient organism.
When Douglas Adams wrote this entry about the enormity of space in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he could just as well have been writing about the giant sequoia:
“You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to [sequoias].”
Matching their great mass, their age is equally as mind-boggling. Giant sequoias are one of the oldest living life forms on earth. At 3,200 years-old, the President Tree in this national park is the oldest Big Tree, as the naturalist John Muir dubbed them.
Thousands of years ago, this tree grew from a seed. Just one from among the 300,000 or so produced by a mature tree each year. The seeds, counterintuitively, are measured in millimeters and come from a small, egg-sized cone. We found this one among countless others underneath a giant sequoia standing alone a hill.
Here’s a cross section of one the giant’s trunks. Scanning your eyes toward its center, you’re traveling back in time. Just think, many of these trees had already reached maturity when the legendary Arthur won his battle against the Saxons, when Yang Jian united China following generations of discord, and when Justinian the Great died, marking the beginning of the end of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Perhaps that’s why I feel so insignificant standing next to one. If they were sentient, I imagine these arboreal titans would take no notice of us.
But there was a time they were forced to reckon with the darkest sides of humanity’s avarice and short-sightedness.
Giant Sequoias Were Not Always Protected
This area that would become our national park had some tough times in the late 1800’s. Inconceivable to our sensibilities today, promoters and speculators who failed to get rich in California’s gold rush filed lumber claims on these precious groves and started cutting them down in a grotesque show of destructive greed. Still others of these trees were felled and shipped in segments around the country in sensationalist sideshows to with the goal of ‘educating’ the disbelieving public about the wonders that lay at the edge of this continent they thought was theirs to exploit.
Later, once it had protected the groves, the NPS set to work to attract and accommodate visitors with myriad hotels, lodges, shops, and even cabins built inside the sensitive groves. These imbued the park with a carnival-like atmosphere and spoiled the natural landscape – especially when, in the name of novelty or progress, they carved up and took down some of the very trees they were charged with safeguarding.
Most, if not all, of those tacky relics are now gone, and the NPS has since evolved into a more somber guardian.
Even with that evolution, my visit to the park was a disappointment. Yes, these trees are impossibly grand. The surrounding mountainous landscape is breathtaking. But after reading John Muir’s glowing, reverential writing about these incredible forests, I had (oh-so-naively) hoped to catch even the tiniest trace of the humble awe he felt there.
Sadly, my experience at the park just reinforced my misanthropy. I cringed as I saw crowds of yahoos littering the ground with wrappers from fast food they ate while tailgating in jammed parking lots. Witnessing the loud music and hollering, you would be forgiven for thinking they were partying outside a football stadium instead of visiting a unique natural treasure that we, as a nation, deemed important enough to set aside and protect for future generations.
Still, I’m still glad I visited. These trees really are a wonder to behold and the park is worth seeing … as long as you don’t expect a John Muir moment while there.
Here are some pictures from our visits at Sequoia National Park. Besides walking the giant groves, we also hiked. On one of our trips, we hiked several miles in the snow-blanketed forest to see a waterfall that was just breaking free of its winter ice.
Oh, and we saw a bobcat … and it saw us!