When people think of Yosemite National Park, they usually think of soaring cliffs and majestic waterfalls. And why not? Yosemite offers some of the best in the world. But there is another natural wonder that is often overlooked here – the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias.
It is hard to believe that these giant trees start life as a tiny fragile seed. Sequoias produce tens of thousands of these seeds because the chances of any individual making it to adulthood are exceedingly small. The trees only grow in a narrow band at the right altitude on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. In addition to the climate, they also need ground fires to clear the way for them to grow. The fires not only burn off competitors, but they also prepare the ground in just the right manner to allow the seeds to germinate. Once established, they grow quite quickly but it is many years until their survival is assured. You might see some small sequoia cones lying on the ground, please leave them. The one seed that may defy the odds to grow into a giant might be in that cone!
The first highlight of our hike is the Fallen Monarch, a huge tree that fell long before anyone was keeping track. It is a good place to start because it really shows just how huge these trees are. By walking right next to it and seeing the enormous roots up close, it gives a perspective that is hard to achieve looking up at them. Note how the roots spread out, but not down. Sequoias are known for being shallow rooted, sort of like standing a pin on its head. It’s a miracle that they can stand for thousands of years.
After admiring the Fallen Monarch, continue up the nature trail to some of the groves most famous residents. These include the Three Graces and the Grizzly Giant. The Grizzly is unusual in that it is one of the largest sequoias known and it leans pretty dramatically. Remember how shallow the roots were on the Fallen Monarch and it is difficult to see how the Grizzly Giant has remained upright for over 2,000 years!
Continuing up the road, we come to another oddity, the Clothespin Tree. This tree was burned in a way that left a 60′ split in the lower section. It looks like a giant clothespin that grows into a tree and is quite healthy considering how much of the lower part was burned. A bit further on we come to one of the most amazing trees in my opinion – the Telescope Tree. This tree was completely hollowed out by fire so you can look straight up the inside and right out the top like a telescope. Since the living part of the tree is only the thin outer layers just beneath the bark, having the insides removed doesn’t seem to have bothered it much. Unfortunately, the famous Wawona Tree that you see in old postcards with cars driving through it actually fell many years ago, probably a victim of its own popularity. Not that I think cutting a tunnel through a tree is appropriate, I’m just sorry the tree did not make it.
The famous sequoias can steal the show so be careful not to “miss the forest for the trees”. It is easy to get so focused on the individual trees that you miss the fact that it is a really beautiful forest as a whole too. Some places remind me of being in a cavernous natural cathedral. Be sure to stand back and take in the wider views too.
You may have noticed that I was a little vague in describing a particular route through the grove. This is because there are quite a few trails as well as a road running through it, so it is not really a linear experience. I have never taken the same way twice. My best advice is to roam around and look at whatever interests you. Just be sure to carry a list of the trees on your first visit so that you can be sure not to miss any of the unique ones. I can easily spend a good half a day here and always find something new on each visit.
The Mariposa Grove has a small visitor’s center that is worth a look, especially if you like a bit of history to frame your experience. It is also worth noting that, in my humble opinion, the grove is actually better on a rainy day. The rain brings out the cinnamon color of the trees and they look even more majestic rising up into a misty sky. Rain also makes for much more interesting photographs and helps prevent blown out skies when looking up at the crowns of the trees. One more thing, the fragrance of the forest is just awesome on a wet day! Okay, enough with the rain. No matter what the weather is like on your visit, you will be amazed.