Massive Sequoias Generals of the Sierras

like pillars of sunshine, giant sequoias dominate a sierra mountain forest


John Muir described Sequoiadendron giganteum, commonly known as Giant Sequoias, as beams of sunshine.

Indeed, they contrast their Coast Redwood brethren living in the misty, overcast northern shores of California drastically. While those tallest of trees are constantly enshrouded in a vampiric world of shade and moisture, the sequoias live in the realm of sunshine.

They themselves glow bright orange, almost painful on the eyes under the shine of high noon, and seem to light the forest below the canopy with their scratchy bark, which surprisingly feels like particle board crafted in a factory. As bright and glorious as they are, their presence–one or two standing every now and then between tall sugar pine and white fir trees–is haunting. Whether it’s simply their gargantuan size or something deeper, some native spirit still ringing in their trunks, can’t be known, but to walk among them feels as holy an experience as any papal architecture could ever hope to achieve.

Of the three types of trees that grow around the world and are referred to as redwoods, the Giant Sequoias are the largest. They live naturally only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada range, looking down over California, and on a particularly clear day the entire way to the Pacific Ocean. Though they are the largest tree by volume in the world, when felled they often shatter into pieces, their wood good for little more than splintered matches. To subject a monument, which each and every specimen is, to such a mundane finality struck enough of humanity as absolutely wrong that now nearly every naturally occurring member of the species is protected by national park, monument or forest.

two photographs, the left showing three equally sized sequoia trees, the right showing general sherman and a few neighbors in snow
Left: The Three Graces. Right: General Sherman (middle) in snow.

General Ulysses S. Grant is perhaps best known for his role in winning the American Civil War. As a President, he would go on to keep his nation away from foreign war while simultaneously ensuring that slavery and the ideals of the Confederacy would die along with their defeat. It was by his works that the Ku Klux Klan lost the majority of its power. He’s largely remembered as a prototype of the rugged Western hero. He died in 1885, of throat cancer. One might say he was the Marlboro man to the end.

Today, General Grant lives on as a Giant Sequoia tree. The General Grant tree, in a grove similarly named after the former President, is widely considered to be the second or third largest tree in the world. It is but one of many named trees, all of which are dubbed in honor of heroes, from presidents to legendary figures to football coaches (the one exception being the Boole tree, named for the logging supervisor who saved the tree due to its size).

As much as we have tried to bestow grandeur on these trees by naming them for our greatest heroes, it is the trees themselves which lend more fame, more credit, more heroics to the men they’re named for.

Another Civil War hero, General William Tecumseh Sherman would never rise above his superior President Grant in life, but perhaps as reward for his simultaneous brilliance in warfare and disdain for his orders to simply slaughter anything in his wake while fighting the South, the sequoia named for him, General Sherman in the Giant Forest, is the largest tree, in fact, the largest living organism, in the world.

General Sherman persists, silent and unassuming as he stands among many of his peers, none quite his size but many indiscernibly as large to the average passerby. Children pose at the fence around his base, enhancing the drastic size of this 2500-some year old beauty.

While a man like Tecumseh Sherman may have seemed larger than life in the wake of the North’s victory over the South, he and his legacy are dwarfed–as humanity is so often by nature–by his tree.

For example, the General Sherman tree weights as much as twenty blue whales. If a brachiosaurus were to wander beneath its limbs, its 50′ high head wouldn’t even reach the first branch. Two branches have fallen from the tree in recent years, the second of which was 7 feet around and just shy of 100 feet long; a branch larger than 90% of most trees’ trunks.

a tower of an orange tree climbs high, nearly out of the view of the photo before even one branch begins
The General Sherman. Renee Stevenson

Sequoias have cones reminiscent of large chunks of granola. 10,000 or so of these cones hang from a mature tree at any given time. That’s 10,000 chances for new trees to grow. But aside from occasionally being dried out by horned beetles or gnawed open by squirrels, the seeds of these cones typically require fire to blow through their undergrowth, eliminating competition by white firs and other native conifers. Fresh after a fire, sequoia saplings have their shot at a life which, with proper placement and perfect conditions, can lead to a thousands-year old life where they might grow to top 300 feet in height, 6000 tons.

Walking through the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park, the magic of the place is evident everywhere. Not just in the shadow of these standing giants, the allure lives everywhere. Fallen behemoths form walls separating labyrinth-like the forest. Others have had holes cut in them large enough for a car to drive through. In 1856, a homesteader by the name of Hale Tharp, seeking to secure himself a plot of land before the government set in, became the first non-native person to enter the Giant Forest.

Lead by local Indians, he would eventually build a small cabin out of a fire-hollowed, downed sequoia. That modest home still exists and is accessible to hikers today.

granite mountains rise from a forested hill
Sequoia National Park is not only Giant Sequoias. As the third national park ever created, it spans valleys, drastic craggy mountains and riverbeds alike.

Sugar pines, and their massive 20″ cones, are abundant in the forest, the cones falling from these 200-some foot trees to the forest floor. Nearby, views can be had of the Kaweah River valley, the National Park rolling over itself. Wildflowers erupt and birds flutter at the right time of year. Snow falls to whiten the floor between the mighty orange trunks of the sequoias.

As National Parks go, Sequoia is not particularly busy. Visitors climb up and down the twisting road from nearby Three Rivers, California, but the trip to the Giant Forest is 45 minutes from the south and well over an hour from the north. Those that do make the trip by car are not typically prone to embark on foot. So, of the one million people who visit each year (compared to Yosemite’s four million), you might be lucky enough to have an entire trail or two all to yourself. Which means these trees, which spent much of our early exploration in the area as a sort of circus sideshow, are now largely relegated back to a life of solace.

John Muir fell in love with the trees. It was largely through his actions that the sequoias were saved, that Yosemite (which has its own Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias) was created. He was a man who saw the balance that could be struck between the needs of man and our accountability for keeping the grandeur of our nation in tact. Friends with the aforementioned Hale Tharp, he called the hollowed log shack Tharp called home a “noble den,” and named the meadow adjacent to the shack the “Jewel of the Sierras”.

He helped found, and until his death was the original president of, the Sierra Club, an organization which still works to protect natural areas today. Through his work with the Sierra Club not only were Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks created, but the idea of National Forests spawned. As we stand below and amongst the majesty of any of the remaining sequoia groves, with all of the great warriors and mythical figures who gave lend their names to these leviathans, it is his name that should come first to our minds, it’s his life that likely made it possible that we could enjoy these creatures today.