Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Calaveras South Grove

Massive sequoias of the Calaveras Big Trees South Grove
5 miles loop, 750 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Calaveras Big Trees State Park entrance fee required

South Grove- the more remote of the two giant sequoia groves in California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park- is a lovely forest featuring many behemoth trees in a quieter and less touristy setting than the better known and more easily accessible North Grove in the same park. While the trail-accessible portions of this grove generally do not have a high density of these giant trees, there are some superlative trees along the five-mile loop hike through the grove. Most impressive of these trees include the Agassiz Tree, the largest sequoia in South Grove, along with other notables such as the Palace Hotel Tree and the Chimney Tree. As giant sequoias here occur at as low as 4500 feet- half the elevation of the sequoias found at Atwell Grove, hundreds of miles to the south- this is the lowest elevation of all giant sequoia groves. The hike to access this low elevation grove starts with a 1.2-mile access trail, includes a one-mile loop within the grove, and peaks along a 1.5 mile-round trip spur to the heart of the grove.

The road from the entrance of Calaveras Big Trees State Park to the South Grove Trailhead is closed during winter and is typically inaccessible from the first major snowfall of each winter until sometime in May, depending on snowfall each year- check the state park website to make sure the road is open before you go.

I visited Calaveras Big Trees State Park and hiked to the South Grove during an early May visit in a low-snow year, when dogwoods were blooming amidst the great redwood giants. The park is closest to Stockton and Sacramento and is a bit far for a day trip from the Bay Area, although those who are very ambitious could make it work. Driving in from the Stockton area, I followed Highway 4 east across the Central Valley, winding into the foothills above Copperopolis and passing the classic Gold Rush towns of Angels Camp and Murphys. I arrived at Calaveras Big Trees State Park about 70 miles after leaving Stockton on Highway 4 and made a right turn into the park; after passing through the park entrance, I followed a paved but winding and narrow 8-mile road across the North Fork Stanislaus River to the South Grove Trailhead near the end of the road. There were pit toilets here; services are more plentiful if you stop at the visitor center near the park entrance.

Leaving the trailhead, the South Grove Trail descended gently through forest to reach the banks of granite-lined Beaver Creek at 0.2 miles. The trail crossed this pretty creek on a well-built bridge. After the bridge, the South Grove Trail passed two junctions in quick succession with the Bradley Grove Trail, which split off to the left at both junctions; both times, I stuck to the right fork to continue towards South Grove. The trail ascended at a gentle to moderate grade after leaving Beaver Creek, passing through forests of pine mixed with dogwoods that were blooming during my May visit.

Bridge over Beaver Creek
The trail stuck to fairly plain Sierra pine forest for just over the first mile, encountering no sequoias along the way. The uphill ascent was gentle here, although during my early-season hike I had to climb around some sizable fallen trees. At one mile from the trailhead, the South Grove Trail crossed an old logging road. At 1.2 miles, the trail arrived at the edge of the grove and came to the start of the South Grove loop. I hiked the loop counterclockwise and started out by taking the left fork.

The left fork brought me across a stream, where the trail embarked on a steep climb- the most intense of the hike- that quickly elevated me 200 feet, after which the trail leveled out and headed up the valley. Here, I encountered the first sequoias of the hike, although there weren't any large sequoias that were close to the trail itself. Looking up and downslope, I spotted a few mature giant sequoias, some of which were quite impressive in girth.

Giant sequoia in South Grove
At just under 2 miles, the loop trail made a short descent and crossed the creek at the bottom of the valley and then came to a trail junction. The loop continued to the left, returning towards the trailhead, while the right fork was a spur heading deeper into the grove.

I took the right fork at this junction, following the spur trail for two-thirds of a mile to the Agassiz Tree. If you’ve come this far, you absolutely need to take the spur from the loop, as the spur has the best sequoia scenery of this hike.

Sequoia with dogwood flowers
Two hundred meters down the spur trail, I came to the Chimney Tree, a wide-girthed giant sequoia that had been completely hollowed out by fire such that the crown of the tree had toppled; however, the tree was still alive, sporting newer growth atop its original trunk.

Chimney Tree
Past the Chimney Tree, the trail began to pass by more and more giant sequoias, entering a more scenic part of the grove. In one of the most scenic moments of the hike, the trail passed right between two massive sequoias with diameters well over 15 feet that were growing side by side.

Sequoias of Calaveras South Grove
At 2.5 miles, I came upon the Palace Hotel Tree, which rose to the left of the trail and was marked by a small sign. The name of this enormous tree was apt: the inside of this 20+ foot diameter tree had been hollowed out by fire, creating a spacious chamber that would easily be as large as a small bedroom in a San Francisco apartment. Such burn scars are known as goosepens, having been used by early European American arrivals in the area to contain their poultry. This particular tree received its name soon after the opening of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, a grand and majestic structure that today still stands along Market St. near Montgomery Station.

Immense goosepen in the Palace Hotel Tree

Looking up at the Palace Hotel Tree
Leaving the Palace Hotel Tree, I continued another 200 meters onward until the trail made a rightward turn to reach the Agassiz Tree at 2.7 miles from the trailhead. The trail ended at the base of the tree, with a footpath going downhill and wrapping around the base of the tree. A few logs between the Agassiz Tree and Big Tree Creek provided places for hikers to rest and enjoy views of this arboreal behemoth. Blooming dogwoods dotted the understory around the Agassiz Tree, adding a lot of floral interest to the scenery.

Dogwoods at the Agassiz Tree
Base of the Agassiz Tree
The Agassiz Tree is the thirty-seventh largest giant sequoia in the world and the largest giant sequoia in Calaveras Big Trees State Park; it is the largest giant sequoia north of the Washington Tree in Mariposa Grove. The tree is stupendous, boasting a 25-foot diameter and standing over 260 feet tall. The base of the tree was hollowed out on one side by an enormous goosepen that rivaled the burn scar of the Palace Hotel Tree.

Goosepen of the Agassiz Tree
The tree is named after Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-born naturalist who taught at Harvard. Agassiz is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking work in glaciology, identifying geological features that result from glaciers and postulating that Europe had once endured continental glaciation during Ice Ages. Agassiz’s legacy is somewhat complicated now due to a number of his writings justifying scientific racism; however, while we should remember him Agassiz's failings in addition to his achievements, it is fair to note that Agassiz is remembered and commemorated today despite his failings, not because of them.

The mighty Agassiz Tree
After enjoying my lunch at the Agassiz Tree, I began my return towards the trailhead; at 3.4 miles I came to the junction with the loop again and this time took the right fork to complete the loop counterclockwise. There were not too many giant sequoias near this part of the trail but I was able to enjoy the sprinkling of white dogwood flowers throughout the lower portion of the forest canopy.

Dogwoods in South Grove
At 3.6 miles, I spotted the Kansas Group, a set of three mature giant sequoias, off to the left of the trail. In South Calaveras Grove’s general lack of sequoia density, these three great trees in such close proximity was quite striking. Continuing along the northern leg of the loop, I returned to the junction at the start of the loop at 3.9 miles; there were no sequoias of note in the final stretch of the loop. Back at the start of the loop, I followed the South Grove Trail for just over a mile, crossing Beaver Creek and then returning to the trailhead.

Kansas Group
South Calaveras Grove is not the most impressive sequoia grove due to its low density of trees- Giant Forest, Mariposa Grove, and Redwood Mountain Grove are certainly more picturesque. However, the awesome size of some of the individual trees in this grove still makes it a satisfying hike and it remains one of the best places to see giant sequoias north of Yosemite National Park.

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