Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Merced Grove

Giant sequoias of Merced Grove
3 miles round trip, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

Merced Grove is the quietest of the three groves of giant sequoias in California's Yosemite National Park, a tranquil collection of a handful of massive trees reached by a short and not terribly difficult hike from a trailhead just minutes away from the park's Big Oak Flat Entrance. After its waterfalls and granite domes, giant sequoias are perhaps the next most heralded attraction at this extremely popular national park. Almost all visitors head to Mariposa Grove in the southern part of the park and a good number stream into Tuolumne Grove during summer months as well. Merced Grove sees the fewest visitors of these groves, despite having some impressive big trees. The grove is quiet and beautiful, but at the end of the day has fewer and smaller trees than the more famous Mariposa Grove. First time visitors to the park will probably want to stick with seeing Grizzly Giant in Mariposa Grove, but repeat visitors will find this an enjoyable hike to experience these great trees with just a fraction of the crowds. The trail heads downhill on the way to the grove and requires hiking uphill on the return, so make sure you're in appropriate condition to hike up before you head down to the grove.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Yosemite National Park has used a permit quota system to restrict the number of visitors in the park during peak tourist season. Check nps.gov/yose before you go to see whether there are currently restrictions on visiting the park.

I hiked to Merced Grove during a mid-April visit to Yosemite. The trailhead is conveniently located just off of California Highway 120, just a few miles from the Big Oak Flat entrance that most Bay Area visitors use to pile into this park. To reach the trailhead, I followed Highway 120 east from Manteca in the Central Valley, staying on Highway 120 at the junction in Oakdale and Chinese Camp. I passed Groveland as the sun began to rise and arrived at the Big Oak Flat entrance around 7 AM. The Merced Grove Trailhead was four miles beyond the entrance station on the right side of the road: there was parking for about 10 cars and a pit toilet.

The hike to Merced Grove started out by following a road trace south from the parking area. The initial 3/5 of a mile were flat and easy as the trail passed through a sparse and fairly uninteresting forest. At 0.6 miles, the trail came to a junction; I took the left fork for Merced Grove. This left fork was another road trace but this time, the trail began a steady descent. Over the next mile, the road trace dropped about 550 feet down into the valley of Moss Creek.

As I approached the bottom of the valley, I began to catch glimpses of soaring, burnt-orange tree trunks of enormous girth. The trail then arrived at the base of a cluster of five old-growth giant sequoias. This collection of trees- which marked the start of the grove- were perhaps also the grove's most spectacular sight. Although there are larger trees elsewhere in the grove, this is the only spot in Merced Grove when so many sequoias are in such close proximity. A fence kept visitors away from the base of these trees to protect these sequoias' sensitive roots.

Cluster of sequoias at the start of Merced Grove
Continuing on from this first cluster of big trees, the trail descended a bit more to reach the Merced Grove Ranger Station, passing directly in between two old growth giants at one point. The ranger station was a rustic wooden structure that was unstaffed at the time of my visit; it was surrounded by a number of soaring old growth redwoods. The trees were not particularly dense here but a few of these trees were of impressive size. This was the heart of the grove and marked the end of the hike. I stuck around the ranger station for a while, gazing up at the massive giants nearby before returning to the trailhead.

Giant sequoia
Giant sequoias- Sequoiadendron giganteum- are the largest single-trunk organisms on our planet. These trees can reach diameters of about 30 feet and grow up to 250 feet tall. While their coastal cousins, the redwoods, are taller, no other tree on Earth is as massive. These trees likely had a much more widespread range but today these species are confined to a number of groves scattered along 250 miles of the west slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Merced Grove is one of the northernmost giant sequoia groves left: only nearby Tuolumne Grove, the famed Calaveras Grove, and northernmost Placer Grove are at higher latitudes. As there just tens of old growth sequoia groves left in the world, the species is in increasing danger, not only from development and logging but from climate change. Sierra snowpack is diminishing and wildfires are becoming more severe. Merced Grove survived the 2013 Rim Fire that devastated the area around the Big Oak Flat entrance, but in the summer of 2020 some of the southernmost giant sequoia groves were lost multiple old growth giants to the Sequoia Complex Fire.

Giant sequoias near the Merced Grove Ranger Station
Giant sequoias are the species' most common name for the moment, but I'm not sure it is a name that necessarily makes as much sense as more descriptive names like the Sierra redwood. This is partially because the name "Sequoia" has little to do with these massive trees: it is not a name bestowed by the local Miwok or any other native peoples of California. Instead, the name was most likely settled upon by European scientists, who named the tree after Cherokee leader Sequoyah. While Sequoyah developed a syllabary for his people's language and certainly deserves to be honored, it does strike me a bit odd that his name has stuck on a tree that has no real relation to him.

Soaring sequoias
I had the entire grove and the entire hike to myself. Granted, this wasn't surprising as I wrapped up my hike by 9 AM; still, I visited on a nice spring weekend when traffic was terrible in Yosemite Valley. While Merced Grove is far from being the most impressive grove of giant sequoias, it is still a beautiful and tranquil spot to appreciate these mighty trees and a good place to escape Yosemite's crowds.

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