Seeing some big trees is an essential part of any visit to California. If you don’t have time to make it all the way up to Redwoods or down to Sequoia National Park, you have another choice: Calaveras Big Trees State Park, in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountains. There are two groves here, and since the south grove is considered to be the better of the two, it’s the one I visited. However, it does require a fairly easy, but moderately long hike.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park is located along California Highway 4. From Stockton and Interstate 5, follow Highway 4 east for 75 miles. From Nevada, take California 89 to 4, and head west over Ebbetts Pass.
It’s truth in advertising. Calaveras Big Trees State Park really does deliver when it comes to big trees. The park was established in 1931 to protect the giant Sequoias that grow in this area. When you visit, there are two areas to focus on: the North Grove and the South Grove. The North Grove requires a shorter hike (1.5 miles), and it’s closer to the visitor center, so it’s the more visited of the two areas. But I was told that the South Grove offered the better experience overall. It requires a bit of a drive to get there — about 8 miles on a winding road. Once you arrive, you’ll need to hike about five miles to see it all. But, the South Grove allows you to see the park’s two biggest trees: the Palace Hotel and the Agassiz Tree.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park: South Grove
The trail begins at the parking area, and you will immediately be surrounded by trees, but these aren’t big trees — they’re pretty average. It takes a mile and a half of hiking just to reach the entry to the South Grove. You’ll cross a fire road, enter the grove, and then continue on to a split in the trail where the hiking loop begins and ends.
I decided to go right and follow a counter-clockwise loop around the South Grove. Immediately after the junction, the trail crosses a small bridge at an odd angle, taking you over to the south side of Big Trees Creek. The South Grove at Calaveras Big Trees State Park is spread across both sides of this creek.
That hike from the parking lot wasn’t very interesting, but at this point, it gets much better. Immediately, you’re surrounded by enormous Sequoia trees. Some are still standing…
… and others are mighty trunks that crashed to the ground, decades or centuries ago.
Some of these are big enough to walk through. I think this one used to provide a bridge over a creek…
… but not anymore.
Sequoia trees have the remarkable ability to survive fires. Just look at this one, still alive, despite missing most of its trunk.
Fire, in fact, is essential for Sequoias. A low-intensity forest fire allows seeds to be released from the trees’ pine cones. The fire also releases nutrients in the soil, allowing those seeds to germinate and grow. The result might be ugly — let’s face it, this isn’t the most beautiful tree in the forest — but it’s essential.
If you want to see the two biggest trees in the park, you’ll need to walk to the very end of the trail. The loop crosses the creek once again, and rejoins the main trail. Take a left, and you’ll close the loop and return to the parking area. But first, turn right and follow the spur trail to the end. Along the way, you’ll pass the…
This hollowed-out Sequoia is big enough to welcome overnight guests. Back in the 1870’s, the Palace Hotel Tree reminded park visitors of the newly-opened Palace Hotel in San Francisco.
It is enormous…
… and you can step inside to frame-up a unique picture of some of the other big trees nearby.
Your efforts to reach the end of the trail are rewarded with a visit to the Agassiz Tree (pronounced AG-uh-see). It received its name in honor of Louis Agassiz, a 19th-century zoologist and naturalist.
The Agassiz Tree is 250 feet tall…
… and 25 feet in diameter, six feet above the ground.
Of course, it’s even wider at the base.
The spur trail ends at Agassiz Tree, so you’ll need to backtrack to rejoin the main loop. On the return trip, you’ll pass a cluster of three giant Sequoias, known as the Kansas Group, as well as a few other giant trees, before returning to the fire road, and finishing the hike back to the parking area.
If you do have time to check out the North Grove, be sure to see the Discovery Tree — cut in 1853 to promote the area. The stump was later used as a dance floor. Also, you can see what remains of the Pioneer Cabin Tree — a walk-through tree that fell in 2017.
Here’s a look at the drive over Ebbetts Pass to Big Trees on Highway 4…
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… to and from the South Grove at Big Trees Park…
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… and from Big Trees to California Highway 99:
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The Bottom Line
Calaveras Big Trees State Park provided a great place to hike, following the long drive over the Sierra Nevada mountains from Lake Tahoe. The South Grove Hike requires more effort — a longer drive and a longer hike — but it will probably be much less crowded than the North Grove, and you’ll get to see the park’s biggest trees.