Wednesday, August 5, 2020

General Grant Tree

General Grant Tree
0.5 miles loop, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Sequoia-Kings Canyon entrance fee required

The General Grant Tree, a giant sequoia in California's Sierra Nevada, is the second largest tree in the world by volume and one of the highlights of Kings Canyon National Park. The giant sequoias of the Sierra Nevada already reach unbelievable sizes; Grant Grove contains some of the most incredible specimens of these gargantuan living beings, outdone only by the General Sherman Tree in Giant Forest in neighboring Sequoia National Park. The short, paved hike to this iconic tree is very easy and can be done by just about everyone, making this a requisite stop for any visit to Kings Canyon. While you'll run into plenty of other visitors here, crowds are still a little thinner than Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park.

I visited the General Grant Tree during a brief day trip to Kings Canyon National Park on a July weekday. Grant Grove is nearly four hours from the San Francisco Bay Area but just an hour and a half out of Fresno. From Fresno, I followed California Highway 180 east as it turned from freeway gradually into a mountain road, passing by Squaw Valley and then climbing from near sea level to over 6000 feet above. After entering Kings Canyon National Park at the Big Stump entrance, I came to a junction with Highway 198 (Generals Highway) shortly; here, I stayed on Highway 180 and soon I arrived at Grant Grove Village. Driving past the visitor center, I turned left onto the Grant Tree Road (signs indicated the direction for the General Grant Tree) and followed it downhill to the parking area for Grant Grove.

I didn't even have to leave the parking lot to see some extraordinarily impressive giant sequoias: a row of four giants lined the eastern edge of the parking lot. The trail itself left from the north end of the lot, a half mile paved loop visiting the General Grant Tree. While there are longer trails in the Grant Grove area, many of the most impressive trees are close to this loop. I chose to hike the loop counterclockwise, taking the right fork at the start. There were massive giant sequoias along the entire half mile length of this hike. I quickly came upon the Fallen Monarch, a toppled giant sequoia that has been hollowed out into a trail; the diameter of the trunk is far more than wide enough to accomodate hikers passing through and in the past had been utilized as a residence and stables for the US Cavalry. The inside of Fallen Monarch was drawing plenty of visitors so I chose to skip it during a time of social distancing.

Visitors walking through Fallen Monarch next to the 11th largest sequoia
If you find the giant sequoia rising right next to Fallen Monarch to be particularly impressive, you've successfully identified the second largest sequoia in Grant Grove and the 11th largest tree on the planet. This tree is still officially named after Robert E. Lee, but Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park finally removed signage in the area identifying the tree as such in 2020 during the aftermath of George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis police.

I continued along the loop, taking the left fork at the next trail junction. I soon arrived at the base of the massive General Grant Tree. A branching trail led to the right to see the fire scar on the east side of the tree; I stuck to the main trail to see this glorious tree from its base. Visitors collected on the stretch of trail nearest the base of the tree to take photographs, so I didn't there for too long.

General Grant Tree
The General Grant Tree is the second largest giant sequoia and thus the second largest tree on Earth. Only the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park's Giant Forest is slightly larger by volume. The tree was initially thought the largest in the world, prompting its preservation in General Grant National Park in 1890 as the nation's third national park (only Sequoia and Yellowstone National Parks precede it). Later measurements showed both the General Sherman Tree and the Washington Tree in Giant Forest to be larger; however, the Washington Tree's crown largely collapsed in the early 2000s, making the Grant Tree the world's second largest. The Grant Tree has a 29-foot diameter at breast height, the widest of all giant sequoias by that measure, and is 267 feet tall and over 1600 years old. The lowest of the tree's branches is over 120 feet above ground and its volume is equivalent to one and a half Boeing 747s.

The tree was designated the Nation's Christmas Tree by Calvin Coolidge and declared a national shrine to America's war dead by Dwight D. Eisenhower, making this perhaps the most venerated tree in this country. It was named shortly following the Civil War after the Union's best-known general, Ulysses S. Grant, who defeated the Confederate armies of Robert E. Lee in campaigns across Virginia to bring an end to state-sanctioned slavery in the United States. 

The impact of Grant's work upon the lives of the enslaved is undeniable, but it is still a little ironic that this large tree today carries his name. The very species name of these majestic titans seems somewhat inappropriate: Sequoyah was a member of the Cherokee people in the American South who developed a syllabary for his people, leading to widespread literacy among the Cherokees. Despite his exemplar accomplishments, Sequoyah was completely unaffiliated with the trees that now bear his name two thousand miles to the west. An Austrian botanist ultimately bestowed Sequoyah's name upon trees found only in California. Today there is no discussion of the names that native peoples of California might have once used for these trees, in part because those native Californians were subject to a brutal genocide brought upon them by the very same government that had fought to end slavery in the South. I admired these soaring trees, but these other thoughts were difficult to push out of my mind, especially in 2020, as I contemplated the complicated role that race relations have played on all of America's landscapes.

General Grant Tree
I continued along the paved trail to the Gamlin Cabin, where the Grant Tree Trail intersected with the North Boundary Loop. I took the left fork to stay on the paved Grant Tree Trail, passing by the small log cabin once inhabited by the Gamlin brothers, who homesteaded here and grazed after filing a timber claim for this forest. We're lucky that the brothers did not get to cutting down these trees; after General Grant National Park was established here in 1890, the cabin was used by US Cavalry who served as the nation's initial park rangers. General Grant National Park was later incorporated into Kings Canyon National Park when the latter was established in 1940.

The return leg of the loop passed by some massive clusters of sequoias, making it the most scenic and enjoyable part of the hike. Many other visitors skipped this segment of trail, choosing to return from the Grant Tree via the way they came; I encourage you to make sure you remember this leg of the loop!

Giant sequoias of Grant Grove
The trail passed to the right of Centennial Stump, the remains of a logged 24 foot-diameter giant. European American settlers in California in the 19th century were initially awestruck by the size of these trees and had difficulty convincing residents of eastern states that giant sequoias were real. To send some evidence, this once massive tree was cut down, cut into parts, shipped east, and then reassembled at the 1876 Philadelphia World's Fair. Attendees of the Centennial Exposition refused to believe their eyes, dismissing the reassembled giant as the "California hoax." Many great trees suffered similar fates in a misguided effort by early European settlers to prove a point.

The final stretch of trail passed by the other end of Fallen Monarch as well as a few more massive trees before depositing the constant stream of visitors back at the parking area.

Grant Grove
This grove contains some of the largest trees on Earth and is not to be missed, even though the area is frequently crowded with tourists. Come early, late, or on weekdays to enjoy these majestic giants in peace.

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