Home A - Z FAQ Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

Next: California GeysersContentsPrevious: Yosemite Valley

The Yosemite Valley, and the Mammoth Trees and Geysers of California (c1870)


“To equal which, the tallest pine,
Hewn on Norwegian hills to be the mast
Of some great admiral, were but a wand.”


The Mammoth Trees of Mariposa and Frezno were discovered by Mr. Hogg, a hunter, about the beginning of August 1855. In the ensuing October Mr. Clayton, a civil engineer, met with other trees of the same class on the Frezno river. Other groups have been discovered at various dates; but none are so celebrated as those of Calaveras, which we shall hereafter describe, and next to which rank those of Mariposa in point of height, girth, and general sublimity.

The first point to make for is Clark’s Ranch, about halfway between Mariposa and the Yosemite, where you will obtain the services of an efficient and obliging guide. The trail runs through a pleasant country, but, as it climbs a long ascent, is very wearisome.

We are, however, fully repaid for our fatigue when we enter the forest-shades, and catch glimpses of dim mysterious vistas, piercing an apparently boundless obscurity. The trunks of the trees are of a loftiness and a diameter that, at first, are singularly impressive, and awaken in you a very lively sentiment of wonder; but something of this feeling passes away as you turn from one giant to another, and find in each very similar characteristics.

The trees of which we are speaking belong to the Taxodium family, and to the genus known by ourselves as Sequoia gigantea, by our English cousins as Wellingtonia gigantea. The origin of these names we shall hereafter relate.

One of the most curious stems—it is little more—is named “Satan’s Spear,” allusion to Milton’s description of the weapon wielded by the fallen archangel in his battle with the hosts of heaven. Its circumference is 78 feet.

You are next taken to see a huge trunk, with a shattered top, that bears some resemblance to a ruined turret; it is 70 feet in circumference, and known as the “Giant’s Tower.”

The two double trees beyond are the “Twin Sisters;” and close together stand another couple—one scarred, and gnarled, and rugged; the other, smooth, straight and leafy—which have been not inaptly christened the “Twin Sisters.”

Across the ravine near “Satan’s Spear,” following Mr. Hutchings’ direction, we came to several noble trees on the side and summit of the mountainous ridge. One, with a circumference of 60 feet, and a dome of dense dark green foliage, is called “The Queen of the Forest.” And above it stands “The Artist’s Encampment,” 77 feet in circumference; but so large a portion of its trunk has decayed, or been burned by the Indians up to a height of 30 feet, as considerably to lessen its dimensions.

We subjoin a table of the size and number of the principal trees in the Mariposa Grave, as ascertained by Mr. Clark and Colonel Warren. It does not quite coincide with Professor Whitney’s statement, that the total number is 365 of a diameter exceeding one foot, and 125 trees over 40 feet in circumference, but is believed to be more accurate:—

Size.No. of
  Size.No. of
102feet in girth161feet in girth1
44feet in girth836feet in girth2
* In this table no notice is taken of the height of the trees, or of any under 28 feet in girth.

The foregoing table, however, doe not comprise the whole group, which includes between 480 and 500, and covers from two to three hundred acres. There are about 300 sequoias.

Mr. Clark and Colonel Warren named some of the more workable of these mammoth trees, sad the traveller may amuse himself by endeavouring to identify them:—

A group of four splendid trees, 250 feet high, and fully 83 feet in girth, were christened the “Four Pillars.”

Two gigantic trees, 7 and 77 feet in circumference, received the names of “Washington” and “Lafayette.”

Another group, from their excelling beauty, were called “The Graces;” and a tree, 300 feet high, and 80 feet is girth, suggested the poetical title of “The Lone Giant.”

One monster tree that had fallen, and been burned hollow, had recently proved large enough to accommodate a party of cavaliers, who rode through it, as they might have ridden through a tunnel 153 feet in length.

The mightiest tree of the group, however, now lies upon the ground, and, fallen as it lies, is a wonder still; it is charred and blackened, and time has stripped it of its heavy bark. Yet “across the butt of the tree, as it lay upturned, it measured 35 feet without its bark; there can be no question that in its vigour, with its bark on, it was 40 feet in diameter, or 120 feet in circumference. Only about 150 feet of the trunk remains, yet the cavity where it fell is still a large hallow beyond the portion burned oil, and, upon pacing it, measuring from the root 120 paces; and estimating the branches, this tree must have been 400 feet high.”

Crossing a ridge to the south-westward of the large grove is another small one, the South Grove, containing many splendid specimens; among others, a gnarled and maimed veteran, 90 feet circumference, and a trunk prone upon the ground, 204 feet in length, which has been christened, by a lady, “King Arthur, the Prostrate Monarch.” Another hoar, weather-beaten, and fire-scarred bulk, still 90 feet in girth, though the bark is almost entirely gone, bears the name of the “Grizzled Giant.”


Following to some extent the course of the Big Creek, and keeping in a direction due south, we arrive, after a journey of from six to seven miles, at the Frezno group, consisting of about five hundred trees of the Taxodium family, on about as many acres of undulating forest-land. Here the two largest measure 81 feet each in circumference, rising from the ground as straight and smooth as pillars. The others, not less remarkable for their pillar-like appearance, are from 51 to 75 feet in circumference. Other species of trees seem in these localities to attain a remarkable development, owing, we suspect, to the geological character of the soil. At all events, Mr. Hutchings saw some very large sugar pines (Pinus Lambertiana) among them, and so did we; but he measured them, and we did not; being content, like Virgil’s enemies (sic vos, non vobis), to accept the labours of others. One lying on the ground is 29 1/2 feet in circumference, and 237 feet in length; a splendid specimen of a conifer! We saw numbers on our route, however, with a diameter of from 7 to 10 feet.

The groves of these remarkable trees discovered up to the present time are ten:—

1. The Calaveras, containing about one hundred trees;

2. The great South Grove, including one thousand three hundred and eighty;

3. The South Tuolumne Grove, thirty-one;

4. One unnamed, south of the watershed of the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers, below Crane Flat, forty-two;

5. The Mariposa Groves, three hundred and sixty-five;

6. The Frezno, about five hundred;

7. The San Joaquin (12 miles east of Frezno), seven hundred;

8. The Kings and Kaweah River, “a belt of big trees extending for some ten miles,” supposed to contain thousands;

9. The North Tule River; and

10. The South Tule River, upon whose banks trees are scattered over several square miles. These last-named groves were discovered by M. D’Heureuse, of the Geological Survey, in 1867.*

*Hutchings, “Scenes of Wonder in California.”

The three commonly visited, however, are the Mariposa and Frezno, of which we have spoken; and the Calaveras, of which we are about to speak.

In no other part of the world, we believe, do the sequoias flourish on so colossal a scale. There is another species, Sequoia sempervirens, popularly known as the “Red Wood,” which also attains a height of 300 feet.



[Route.—By stage from Stockton to Murphy’s Camp, a day’s journey. Then, next morning, by conveyance to the Grove, returning in the afternoon about 2 o’clock.

N.B.—It is unnecessary for the traveller who has visited Mariposa, to visit Calaveras, or vice versā—the Mammoth Trees everywhere presenting the same characteristics.

The Calaveras Grove of Big Trees was the first discovered, and is, to our mind, the most beautiful. It lies in lat. 30° N., and long. 120° 10' W., at an elevation above the sea-level of 4370 feet.

Here, within an area of fifty acres, we find one hundred and three trees of stately proportions, twenty of them exceeding 75 feet in circumference; and yet these are mere saplings, not half arrived at the maturity of treehood! Your guide will point you out a stump which affords sufficient space for a good-sized public meeting; and on whose surface—so runs the record—thirty-two persons danced four sets of cotillions at one time, without coming into chance collision. This stump measures 25 feet across, without the bark. It occupied the labour of five men for twenty-two days to fell it, and this work was accomplished, not with axe or saw, but by boring it off with pump augers. A small—what do we say?—a large pavilion has been erected upon this stump, and we can assure the reader it will comfortably shelter him and all his party, unless he goes attended by a retinue like the President’s!

The largest tree now standing has been named—from its immense size, the two breast-like protuberances, or mammae, on one side, and the number of small trees of a similar species growing in its vicinity—the “Mother of the Forest.” That it is one of the “big facts” of California, may be gathered from the following measurements:—*

At the base, its circumference is84 feet.
At twenty feet from the ground69 feet.
At seventy feet from the ground43 feet, 6 inches.
At one hundred and sixteen feet39 feet, 6 inches.
Height to the first branch137 feet.
Total height321 feet.

* The bark of this tree was removed to England, and put up in the Crystal Palace, as a visible representation of a mammoth tree. Unfortunately for the Londoners, it was destroyed by fire in 1866.

And here let ns remark that we. would fain have said something and original about the Calaveras Grove. But we find it impossible. It is a gathering of the hugest, but not the most picturesque, trees in the world. We would not give up our cedars or pines, or maples or chestnuts, for a whole forest of them. Their foliage grows at too great an elevation to lend the tree any conspicuous actor ante and what you really see is, trunk after trunk of a surprising height, running up for two hundred feet or more without the relief of a single branch. We prefer, for beauty and majesty, the sugar pines that cluster round about them, and which, on the whole, are of similar gigantic dimensions, but possess a decidedly greater romanticity of appearance.

In fact, as Dr. Todd has honestly said,—and we shelter ourselves under his mantle,—on your introduction to the mammoth trees you are, at first, disappointed: the trees do not look as you expected; they are not as large; “they look as if somebody had stripped off their clothing, and left them in their night-dress.” Dr. Todd’s mode of realizing the stature of these giants we have not adopted, but we can recommend it to others.

“The height of enjoyment,” he says, “is to lie down on your back in the twilight of evening or under the full moon, and look up, say ten feet at a look, till the eye has travelled all the way up to the top—over three hundred feet. We forget, too, when looking at a tree thirty feet in diameter, and wonder why it is not larger, that a pine tree with us, which is five feet in diameter, is a monster. I never saw but one of that size at the North. Let us now walk into the grove: the first impression you receive is, that these giants must be very old; how old you cannot possibly say. By counting the concentric circles in the tree, some will count thirteen hundred, and some near three thousand, ...... making the tree as many years old. For my own part, though I have heard it complained that they are four thousand years old, yet I should not be willing to certify for more than half that age. You are struck unpleasantly that the names of men, such as modern generals and colonels, should be screwed to trees that have been living and bearing the storms of earth centuries before these men were ever heard of. Why should such names as ‘Phil Sheridan’ be attached to a tree that perhaps saw light before the star arose over Bethlehem, or Titus besieged Jerusalem? But there they are, and you may speak to ‘George Washington,’ ‘Abraham Lincoln,’ ‘Daniel Webster,’ ‘W. H. Seward,’ ‘Andrew Johnson,’ and a host of other names; or, if you want to address whole states, there is the ‘Granite State,’ ‘Vermont,’ ‘Old Dominion,’ ‘Old Kentucky,’ and many others.”

In this last matter we don’t agree with our friend the doctor. If it is necessary to distinguish the trees by separate names, we do not see why we should not take them from contemporary history our own country, as well as go back to “Titus” and “Jerusalem.” The only rule we are inclined to enforce is, that no grotesque or absurd designations be allowed—nothing inconsistent with the dignity and colossal bearing of the giants of Calaveras.*

*A lady of our party—Mrs. William Nelson, the wife of Mr. W. Nelson, of the well-known British publishing firm of Thomas Nelson and Sons—was allowed by the proprietor of these trees to name one of them, after the city of her residence, “Auld Reekie,”—that is, Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. And we have that lady’s authority, and the authority of her friends, to say that they enjoyed their trip across the continent immensely, and will always entertain a kindly recollection of American hospitality.

One curious thing connected with them is the smallness of the cones which produce them. They are no larger than a hen’s egg, and the seed is a mere speck— about one-twelfth the weight of an apple-seed!

But we must resume our description:—Near the “Mother of the Forest” lies prone the “Father of the Forest,” less fortunate in his fate than his venerated consort. He lies half-embedded in the soil, but grand is his decay, and obviously worthy of the title given him. In circumference at the roots, he measures 110 feet. His trunk is 200 feet long before he throws off a single branch, and throughout the whole of this length the trunk is hollow, forming a kind of tunnel or corridor, wherein a man can walk erect. At a height of 300 feet from the roots, and at the point where it was rent in twain by falling against another huge tree, it measures 18 feet in circumference.

Now let no direct our attention to a graceful pair, which, from their seemingly affectionate approximation to one another, are appropriately known as “The Husband and Wife.” Their dimensions are nearly equal: about 60 feet in circumference at the base, and, in height, about 250 feet.

The “Hermit “rises alone in individual grandeur; its tall and shapely trunk mounting upward, by sure degrees but slow, to an elevation of 318, and a circumference of 60 feet.

Another giant has been designated “Hercules; “its girth is 95, and its height, 312 feet.*

* On the trunk is cut the name of “G. M. Wooster, June 1850,” who was present with the pasty of Mr. Whitehead, when the latter accidentally discovered these lords of the forest.

Then there is another, the “Burnt Tree,” which lies on the ground, and has been hollowed out by repeated burnings. At least you can ride into it sixty feet on horseback. It is calculated that its height, when standing, must have been 330 feet; its circumference, 97 feet.

A bowed, broken, and sad-looking tree is the “Old Maid” of this family of Anakim: 261 feet high, and 59 feet in circumference. And it has a suitable companion in a rugged and scarred old trunk, the “Old Bachelor,” 298 feet high, and about 21 feet in diameter.

The “Siamese Twins” rise from the ground in a single stem; but, at an elevation of about 40 feet, divides into two separate trees, and attains an altitude of 300 feet.

But one of the most beautiful of the forest-giants is, as Mr. Hutchings points out, the “Pride of the Forest.” It is exceedingly well-shaped, straight as a mast, and solid as granite: 275 feet high, and 60 feet in circumference.

We must not overlook the picturesque couple of the “Mother and Son: the latter, 302 feet, has not attained, as yet, the maternal stature, 315 feet. Taking them together, their circumference is 93 feet.

The “Guardian” is a noble-looking tree, 312 feet high, by 81 feet in circumference. Somewhat inferior in elevation, but of more picturesque character, is the “ Beauty of the Forest,” whose graceful head rises to the height of 307 feet, while measuring round the trunk 65 feet.

There is also the “Horseback Ride,” a hollow trunk, 100 feet long, which affords a sheltered arcade for equestrian display. Another hollow tree, but still erect, has been called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and accommodates in its interior twenty-five persons comfortably. It is 305 feet high, and 91 feet in circumference.

The “Two Guardsmen” stand by the roadside, and at the entrance of the clearing. They are 300 feet high, and while one is 65, the other is 69 feet in circumference.

The “Three Graces” is one of the most attractive groups in the whole grove. In height they are nearly equal (295 feet); and they measure, jointly, 92 feet in circumference, at their base.

It was long supposed that each concentric circle of any one of these sequoias, or about two inches in diameter, represented the growth of one year; and as nearly three thousand concentric circles, it was supposed, might be counted in the trunks of the fallen trees, the conclusion seemed inevitable, that they were in existence three thousand years ago—or nearly twelve hundred years before the birth of our Saviour—in the very pride of prosperity of the mysterious Egyptian empire. But more careful researches have demonstrated the number of concentric rings to be exaggerated, and the actual age of these trees is now stated at eleven hundred years.

Let us add, as every traveller cannot fail to see, that among the giants of the grove are scattered a multitude of young giants, not more perhaps than two hundred to four hundred years old. These, if no catastrophe intervene, will, in eight or ten hundred years, become worthy successors of the present race. The catastrophe most to be feared is a forest-fire; and we trust that due precautions will be taken to prevent a calamity which would be irreparable, and which. the whole civilized world would regret.

Now for the story of the discovery of the Calaveras Grove.

As we have seen, its giant trees were first sighted by Wooster, Whitehead, and their party, in 1850. At least, it is said so; but we have never heard that they made their discovery known. In 1852 they were again discovered, or re-discovered, by a man employed as a hunter, for the purpose of keeping a body of miners supplied with fresh meat from the large quantities of game frequenting that district of California. One day, while ice pursuit of a bear he had wounded, he suddenly found himself in sight of these colossal trees; and the spectacle no filled him with astonishment that he forgot all about the bear.

Returning to the miners’ camp, he related what he had seen; but his comrades laughed at the idea of trees three hundred feet high; and ridiculed his enthusiasm in the approved manner.

At the time lie said no more; but, a few days afterwards, he reappeared in camp with the news that he had slain an enormous bear, and that he required the assistance of some of the men to bring it in.

A party was sent with trim for this purpose. They toiled on for miles, until they felt inclined to denounce the bear as the unnecessary cause of a laborious journey. All at once, however, the mammoth trees burst upon their sight, and the hunter confessed that his “enormous bear” was a fiction, intended to bring them to the grove, and by so doing to prevail over their incredulity.

In due time, an article appeared in the North American Review describing the now Californian “sensation.” It attracted little attention in this country; but, when republished in an English magazine, stirred up the interest of the most distinguished botanists in the Old Country, and Dr. Lindley named the species Wellingtonia gigantea. When this became known in the States, our savants grew indignant that an American tree should be named after an English hero. A warm discussion ensued. It came, however, to a satisfactory result—thus the English, might, if they liked, retain the appellation of Wellingtonia gigantea; but that orthodox Americans would adopt the name of all Indian chief, Sequoia.

Let us add, in conclusion, that the traveller should go on from the Grove to the Calaveras Caves (14 m. west), situated on M‘Kenny’s Humbug, a tributary of the Calaveras River. They were discovered in 1850. Through a narrow passage we cater the Council Chamber, 60 feet by 20 feet; thence we pass on to view the huge mass of stalactites, appropriately called the Cataract. Another apartment, with a lofty opening in the centre of the roof, called the Cathedral. There are also the Bishop’s Palace, the Musical Hall, and a perfect fairy scene of wonder—the Bridal Chamber. This is decorated, most gorgeously and capriciously, with pillars and curtains and carved work of the finest description. When lighted up, the scene produces an impression on the imagination which is not easily described, and, assuredly, is not soon forgotten.

There is a very comfortable and commodious hotel situated near the entrance to this great cavern.*

*The Hotel was erected, in 1853, by Messrs. Magee and Angel, at the cost of about $4500.

Next: California GeysersContentsPrevious: Yosemite Valley

Home A - Z FAQ Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management