Scientists aren’t sure why giant sequoias are found in about 60 groves south of the Kings River and in only eight groves to the north with gaps of 50-60 between them. Three of these northern groves are located in Yosemite.
The best-known is the Mariposa Grove near Wawona on Yosemite’s southern border. Unlike their taller cousins the coast redwoods, sequoias are broad and massive. The most common measurement used is diameter at “breast height” and there are about 200 that measure at least 10 feet at this height in the Mariposa Grove.
The Mariposa Grove is Yosemite’s most visited grove because it is the largest, because there is parking available adjacent to the trees, and because a tram tour makes the trees accessible to visitors who prefer not to hike or who are physically unable to do so. For more information about the tram tour, go to www.yosemitepark.com or call (209) 372-4386.
During the spring, summer, and fall when visitation is highest, a free shuttle carries visitors between Wawona and the grove. This is a great way to get to the grove because the parking lot often fills up. The road from Highway 41 to the grove is usually open from April through November and sometimes longer, depending on snow conditions. It is currently open, but could be closed again if we get a late-season snowstorm. When the road is closed, the grove can still be visited by walking an additional 2 miles from the gate to the grove. If the snow is deep, it is an ideal route for snowshoes or Nordic skis. From May through September you can visit a small museum located in a replica of pioneer and early Yosemite guardian Galen Clark’s cabin in the upper part of the grove.
The total trail mileage within the grove is about 6.5 miles. Early visitors were allowed to drive through the grove, but the road is now only used by the tram due to traffic issues and the damage caused to roots by the weight of vehicles.
The famous Wawona Tree had a tunnel carved in it in 1881 to allow stagecoaches to drive through. Thousands of photos were taken of stagecoaches and the later motor vehicles that passed through it. The tunnel weakened the tree and it fell in the heavy snow year of 1969. You can still see the fallen trunk along the trail. A smaller tunnel tree, the “California Tree,” still stands and walking through it provides a different perspective on the size of these ancient giants – some of which live as long as 3,000 years. The largest trees in the grove are the Grizzly Giant and the Washington Tree.
The Grizzly Giant has a diameter of almost 100 feet and is close to the parking lot, making it the most popular tree in the grove. Located farther up the trail, the Washington Tree has a larger total volume.
The Tuolumne Grove is accessible via a 2.4-mile round-trip trail from a large parking area along the Tioga Road (Highway 120). It has about 15 trees that top 10 feet in diameter and a pedestrian trail through the Dead Giant – a tree that died when its trunk snapped about 25 feet above ground level. The trail connects to the Hogdon Meadow Campground near the Big Oak Flat Entrance Station for a total of 6 miles point-to-point along a former road.
The least visited of Yosemite’s three groves, the Merced Grove is located along a trail that starts from the south side of Highway 120 between the Big Oak Flat Entrance Station and Crane Flat. For many years, visitors who traveled to Yosemite on the old Coulterville Road passed through this grove when they entered the park. Today the old road is a 3-mile round-trip hiking trail to a group of trees that is comparable in size to the Tuolumne Grove. Experts believe that the Merced and Tuolumne groves are the remnants of a larger grove that thrived 15 million years ago when summers were wetter.
I picked the Merced Grove as a field trip destination for students from Golden Valley High School because it is one of the shorter trails in Yosemite where you can experience some of the park’s wonders in near-solitude. We only saw a couple of groups of other hikers during our visit. It was a nice contrast after visiting Yosemite Valley. The Merced and Tuolumne hroves can be accessed with snowshoes or Nordic skis when snow is on the ground, though both are already snow-free this year. All three groves are excellent destinations this time of year.
In addition to visiting the groves, one of the best ways to learn more about these awe-inspiring trees is Dwight Willard’s ‘A Guide to the Sequoia Groves of California.”