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Yosemite: Where To Go and What Go Do (1888) by George G. MacKenzie


The Big Tree Groves.

The first discovery of the Big Trees of California, now so famous throughout the world, was made in October, 1849, by a Mr. Burney, who was Sheriff of Mariposa County at that time. He came across a few of these trees, probably forming part of a group in what is now Fresno County. (Bunnell’s “Discovery of the Yosemite.”) Thereafter from time to time persons exploring the mountains found grove after grove, until it was known that groups of the trees were scattered along the western front of the Sierra for a distance of about 200 miles. The groups number ten, and are known by the following names in their order from north to south: Calaveras, South Grove, Tuolumne, Merced, Mariposa, Fresno, Dinky Creek, King’s River, New King’s River, and Kaweah or Tule. Elsewhere in California these trees are not known to exist

The tree is closely related to the Redwood tree of the Coast Range of mountains. The scientific name of the Big Tree is Sequoia Gigantea, and that of the Redwood is Sequoia Sempervirens. The name Sequoia was given to the genus in honor of a Cherokee chief, who was born in Alabama about 1770 and died in 1843. He invented an alphabet for the language of his people, and in other ways labored for their civilization.

In England, where the first scientific description of the tree was published, the name given to it is Wellingtonia Gigantea. The tallest tree of any of the northern groups, and the tallest of those which have been accurately measured in any of the groups, is one called the Keystone State in the Calaveras Grove. It is, according to Professor Whitney, 325 feet in height. The trees having the greatest circumference are found in the Mariposa Grove. Some of their measurements are given below under that head.

The age of the larger of these trees is a matter of mere conjecture. Their size is not necessarily a sign of extreme age as compared with that of other kinds of trees, for they are known to be exceedingly quick of growth. People who have claimed to be able to ascertain the age of the trees by counting “the rings” of the wood have varied in their conclusions all the way from 1000 years to more than 4000 years.

Big Tree, Wawona Grove (giant Sequoia)
[click to enlarge]

The Sequoias are easily reared from the seed in any suitable climate. There are many of them now growing in widely separate parts of the world. This fact makes all the more singular the restricted limits of their native nursery. The cone of the Big Tree is a small thing, averaging about two inches in length. It is generally accepted that three years elapse from the budding to the ripening of the seed.

The wood of the Big Tree, like that of the Redwood of the Coast Range, is valuable for its utility. When exposed to excessive moisture it is unsurpassed for durability, it is easily worked into any desired shape, is light, receives a high polish, and some specimens are beautifully marked. In its natural condition it is generally of a pale red tint. At some of the larger groves many Big Trees have been converted into marketable lumber.

The Mariposa Grove.—This group is included in a tract of land that was granted to the State of California by the United Sates in 1864. The area of land granted was four square miles, and the terms of the grant were similar to those accompanying the gift of the Yosemite Valley to the State, viz: that the place should be forever kept for public use, resort, and recreation.

The name given to the grove is due to the latter’s position in Mariposa County.

The Sequoias of this group are really divided into two

Big Tree stump (giant Sequoia)
[click to enlarge]
groves, called the Lower and Upper, from their respective situations on the mountain-side whereon they grow. In the Upper Grove there are said to be 365 Big Trees measuring from a foot up to more than thirty feet in diameter. In the Lower Grove there are about half as many of considerable size. In approaching by the wagon road the Lower Grove is first visited. The trees are much more scattered than in the Upper. The Largest Sequoia in the Lower stands immediately by the road. It is called the Grizzly Giant, and its rugged, time-worn appearance is in keeping with the name. Although not so symmetrically handsome as many other trees in the grove, the Grizzly Giant is perhaps the most striking of all. It has several very large limbs, one of which, six feet or more in diameter, shoots out horizontally for some distance and then turns up abruptly to the vertical. The Grizzly Giant measures ninety-three feet and seven inches at the ground, and sixty-four feet and three inches at a height of eleven feet from the ground (Whitney’s measurement).

Passing by the Grizzly Giant and other trees of the Lower Grove, the road climbs up the hill-side, winds around through

First Cabin, Mariposa Grove
[click to enlarge]
the Upper Grove so that pretty nearly all the larger trees are brought into sight, and then returns by the Lower Grove. In making the drive stages and other conveyances pass by means of a tunnel directly through the heart of a living tree. This Sequoia, called Wawona (the Indian word for Big Tree), is twenty-seven feet in diameter at the base. The tunnel through which the wagon road runs is ten feet high, and nine feet, six inches wide at the bottom, sloping in to six feet six inches at the top.

The measurements of some of the larger trees in the Mariposa Grove may be classified as below. It is, however, noteworthy that the ground circumferences of several of the largest class of trees have been much reduced from their natural sizes, fire having burned away considerable parts of their bulks. Over ninety feet in circumference at ground, three; between eighty and ninety feet, seven; between seventy and eighty feet, seven; between sixty and seventy feet, four.

There are a great many trees running from thirty feet to sixty feet in circumference, measurements having been taken accurately of only a few of them. Some trees, not measured at the ground, were found to have the following circumferences at six feet above the ground: Feet—63, 57, 51, 51, 48, 46, 46, 46, 44, 40, 40.

Names have been given to a number of the larger trees. “Washington” is a tree over ninety feet in circumference. “U. S. Grant” is about sixty-five feet around the base. “Ohio” is seventy-six feet. These two stand on either side of a log-cabin built in the grove for the use of the guardian. Four very finely shaped trees are “Longfellow,” “Whittier,” “Dana” and “Lyell.” “Harvard” is there, too, and a “General Lafayette.” “Massachusetts,” “Virginia” and “Maryland,” and the names of other States appear.

Several of the trees have been hollowed out by fire, and will readily admit the entrance of people on horseback. Sixteen horses are said (Hutchings’ “Heart of the Sierras”) to have stood at one time in the hollows of the “Haverford.”

Professor Whitney measured the height of twenty-five trees, which may fairly be called representative. The highest was 272 feet. The least altitude given by him was 187 feet. The average of all his measurements is slightly over 230 feet and seven inches. He found seven trees between 250 feet and 272 feet in height, but there are probably others somewhat exceeding the smaller measurement. He measured ten between 220 and 250 feet high.

(For roads to the Mariposa Big Tree Grove, see the Raymond, the Madera and the Mariposa routes, in the chapter concerning roads to Yosemite.)

There is no hotel at the grove, the Wawona hotel being that at which visitors by stage find accommodations. Persons leaving private conveyances, and not wishing to camp, may go either to the Wawona Hotel or to the Fish Camp house on the Madera route.

The Calaveras Grove.—(For access to this grove, see the chapter on roads to Yosemite and the Big Trees.)

Thirty-one trees have been measured in the Calaveras group. Of these there were found four respectively 325, 319, 315, and 307 feet in height. Four were between 280 and 290 feet. There were four between 270 and 280 feet; nine between 260 and 270 feet; five between 250 and 260 feet; three between 240 and 250 feet; and two between 230 and 240 feet. The average of all their heights is more than 269 feet.

In girth the largest trees of the Calaveras Grove are somewhat less than those of the Mariposa Grove.

Big Tree (giant Sequoia) felled by pump augers
[click to enlarge]

There is an excellent hotel at this place, which is conveniently situated for people who wish to see a group of Big Trees without extending their trip in the direction of Yosemite.

The Tuolumne Grove.—This is a small group, numbering about thirty trees that is passed by the Milton or Big Oak Flat route to the Valley. A tunnel has been cut through a great stump, known as “The Dead Giant,” and the stages drive through the passage. Although not so remarkable as the larger groves, this one does not fail to reveal the distinguished character of the Sequoias.

The Merced Grove.—A group of Sequoias numbering about fifty, and containing many fine trees with girths of between fifty and ninety feet. The Coulterville road passes directly by this grove about sixteen miles before reaching the Yosemite Valley.

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