Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Tuolumne Grove

Big Red, the largest sequoia in Tuolumne Grove
2.8 miles loop, 550 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

Tuolumne Grove is one of three groves of giant sequoias in California’s Yosemite National Park; unfortunately, with just a handful of these giant trees, it is also the least impressive of those groves. There are about 25 sequoias in this grove, which is still extremely popular as it is reachable by a short downhill hike from the Crane Flat area of the park and hosts the Dead Giant Tunnel Tree. The trail down to the grove is a paved road, though a nice dirt loop trail winds through a less nice corner of the grove. At the end of the day, though, mature giant sequoias never fail to impress: this grove is still beautiful, just less so than Mariposa or even Merced Groves, not to speak of the forests of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Hikers who have already visited the larger sequoia groves may find this to be an enjoyable winter hike or snowshoe, when the park is less crowded; however, visitors with limited time in the Sierra Nevada should head to just about any other sequoia grove.

It's important to note that Tuolumne Grove is about 500 feet downhill from the trailhead at Crane Flat. This means that hikers will have a fairly stiff ascent on the return- don’t go down to the grove if you aren’t certain that you’ll be fine making it back up.

I hiked to Tuolumne Grove on a sunny February day. In winter, Big Oak Flat Road- which leads to Crane Flat- is plowed and maintained and usually accessible except immediately after major snowstorms, although tire chains may be necessary; call (209)372-0200 to check park road conditions before leaving for a winter visit (the NPS website for Yosemite does not necessarily stay up to date on chain requirements). The first mile of Tioga Road from the junction at Crane Flat to the Tuolumne Grove trailhead, along with the trailhead parking lot, are also routinely plowed. With fresh snow, Tuolumne Grove is a popular snowshoeing and cross-country skiing destination. However, a few weeks removed from fresh snow, the snow on the ground solidifies and becomes packed and uneven, making snowshoeing and skiing more difficult but still necessitating bringing microspikes or Yaktrax. Summer visitors will find no such gear restrictions, but again, it’s not clear that it’s worth battling crowds to walk down a paved road to visit this small grove during peak season.

To reach the trailhead from Yosemite Valley, I followed Big Oak Flat Road west from the valley towards Highway 120 and Manteca, climbing uphill to the junction with Tioga Road at Crane Flat, about 15 miles from Yosemite Lodge. I turned right onto Tioga Road and followed it north for one mile to the left turnoff for Tuolumne Grove and parked in the large trailhead parking lot, which had pit toilets and room for about 50 cars. Visitors coming from Manteca and Groveland in the west can follow Highway 120 into the park and then turn left at the junction for Tioga Road at Crane Flat.

During my February visit, I was able to avoid hiking directly on the paved road leading down to the grove, as there was about two feet of packed, uneven snow on the ground. Putting on my microspikes, I set out on the snowy road, which traveled through a pine forest. The trail’s initially gentle downhill grade turned into a steeper descent at 0.3 miles and the trail dropped steadily through the forest to a sharp switchback to the left at 2/3 of a mile where an informational placard discussed the trail’s former role as Old Big Oak Flat Road, a stagecoach road in the early days of the park which ran directly through Tuolumne Grove.

Snowy trail through forest on the way down to the grove
After descending to the next switchback- a sharp turn to the right- I reached a sign indicating my arrival in the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias at 0.9 miles. This sign was ultimately premature, as the trail would travel another 200 meters along the road trace before arriving at the first of the grove’s giant sequoias.

At just over a mile from the trailhead, I came to the base of Big Red, the first visible and largest tree in Tuolumne Grove that came into view well before I reached the actual base of the trunk. For all the disparagement that I’ve lobbed at Tuolumne Grove through this post so far, Big Red was really a very impressive tree: it maintained an immense girth well up its soaring trunk and had multiple massive branches that surely were each as wide as a person is tall. Mature giant sequoias like Big Red never fail to astonish; however, unlike at other, larger groves, Big Red stood alone to the left and downhill from the trail, with two much smaller sequoias growing to the right and uphill. Big Red also marked a junction with the Tuolumne Grove Loop Trail: the park recommended doing the loop clockwise, which meant continuing to the left along the road trace and later returning from the other side.

Big Red
As I hiked down along the road trace from Big Red, I spotted at least six other giant sequoias of impressive size downhill of the road in the valley: most of these trees reached a size comparable to the trees of Mariposa Grove, although I was unfortunately only able to view them from a distance, as a fence and signage prohibited heading downhill to visit these trees. I understand the National Park Service’s desire to protect these trees, as Tuolumne Grove receives far too many tourists in summer and opening the bases of those trees to tourist access would undoubtedly harm them, risking losing some of the few remaining giants in the grove to soil compaction. Nonetheless, it was a little disappointing that, with the exception of visiting Big Red, the loop trail here stuck to visiting the smaller trees in the grove.

Larger sequoia in Tuolumne Grove
At 1.2 miles, I came to a small picnic area on the right side of the road, with a few tables located in a clearing at the base of a medium-sized sequoia. This marked a complicated five-way trail junction. The road trace leading straight ahead continued towards Hodgdon Meadow, near the park entrance; the two paths to the right of the road, branching off to either side of the picnic tables, form the two ends of the first of two loops that made up the Tuolumne Grove Loop Trail. The rightmost fork, which bent sharply backwards and uphill, is the start of the second fork of the Tuolumne Grove Loop.

I started out on the first 0.4-mile loop, taking the leftmost trail branching out from the picnic tables and following signs marking the Grove Loop. This first loop started out by crossing a small creek on a sturdy wooden bridge; however, there were initially no sequoias along this trail! At the far the extent of the loop, the trail followed a fallen redwood giant, before winding its way uphill and approaching a set of three medium-sized sequoias that were somewhat spaced apart. It’s unfortunate that the biggest sequoias along this stretch of the loop have long since toppled; an informational placard along the trail here noted that toppling is one of the key ways that sequoias die, as they are otherwise quite resilient (the Rough Fire, the SQF Complex Fire, and the KNP Complex Fires in the last decade have proven otherwise, though).

Sequoias of Tuolumne Grove
Crossing the creek via bridge again, I found myself back at the picnic area with the multi-way junction. I took the leftmost fork from the perspective of coming off the first loop to start on the second loop. Heading uphill along the second loop, I came to the Dead Giant Tunnel Tree. Here, a wide tunnel had been carved through the base of what once must have been a truly gargantuan sequoia: however, Dead Giant was already deceased when European-American settlers began construction of Big Oak Flat Road. This tunnel was carved through the base as a draw for nineteenth century tourists, who for some reason found traveling through a tree to be a more enlightening experience than simply wondering at these arboreal titans, though the number of times I was asked “How much farther to the tunnel tree?” on my hike back by unprepared hikers tacking a slippery, snowy trail in tennis shoes suggested that things haven’t really changed.

Dead Giant Tunnel Tree
After passing through the tunnel in Dead Giant, the loop trail passed between two final medium-sized sequoias, before the loop ended as the trail rejoined the road trace next to Big Red, now 1.7 miles into the hike. After admiring this massive giant for a final time, I retraced my steps to the trailhead. While I had Tuolumne Grove to myself for most of the morning (I had started my hike at 9:30 AM), by the time I was heading back uphill at 11 AM there were far more visitors on their way down to the grove.

Medium size sequoias with Big Red rising behind
There are some notable aspects of Tuolumne Grove- namely, the massive Big Red tree- but while pretty, this grove of giant sequoias is ultimately one of the sparsest and smallest groves in the entire Sierra Nevada. If you have limited time in Yosemite, skip Tuolumne Grove and head to either of the park’s two other groves. Hikers who are fortunate to visit more frequently will find the grove to be an enjoyable but relatively less impressive destination.

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