Redwoods in California’s coastal mountains get more of the glory including being the official state tree but they are babes and petite in terms of girth and age compared to their giant sequoia cousins in the Sierra.
Both species are unique to California and substantial groves of each tree can be reached within a two-and-a-half to three-hour drive from anywhere in the 209.
Redwoods thrive in the moist foggy climate of California’s coast. They are taller than the Giant Sequoias with the tallest reaching 378 feet, surpassing the Statue of Liberty in height. The redwoods’ average life expectancy of around 2,000 years is topped by the giant sequoias that can reach 3,000-plus years. While redwoods are tall and relatively slender the giant sequoias are tall and bulky. Giant sequoias are only found on the western slopes of the Sierra in un-glaciered gullies between 4,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation. The warmth of the Sierra summer is essential for seeds to pop from its pinecones. The giant sequoia seeds and pinecones are three times larger than those of the redwoods.
Giant sequoia trees are significantly coarser in texture than redwood. The rings of the redwood are also wider than the giant sequoia.
The world’s largest living organism can be found three hours away among the 8,000 plus giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park. General Sherman has more than 52,000 cubic feet, is 25 feet in diameter, soars 275 feet and is between 2,300 and 2,700 years old.
Closest Redwood Grove
The closest redwood grove to the 209 is Big Basin State Park in Boulder Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
It offers 80 miles of hiking trails.
The “showcase” trail is the 10.6-mile loop to Berry Creek Falls that takes you past numerous redwood trees. The route is considered strenuous and can be covered in six hours or so. That said, if you are willing to forego the falls, you can hike about two miles into the loop from the southern end and enjoy gazing at numerous redwoods.
There are much shorter trails that are classified as easy. The day entry fee is $10.
There is also a general store with a small restaurant near the park headquarters. The giant sequoias you can reach in the 209 are typically six plus miles from the nearest general store.
As an added bonus you can combine the trip with stops in San Jose or other Bay Area attractions, shopping or dining options since the park is 17 miles as the crow flies from downtown San Jose. Driving distance from San Jose, though, is 30 plus miles given the windy, curving road you need to take once you leave Highway 17.
Due to it being near the coast, the temperature this time of year while be milder than what you will experience visiting groves of giant sequoias in the Sierra.
Giant Sequoias In Yosemite
When most people in the 209 think of giant sequoias they tend to look in their own backyard — Yosemite National Park.
There are 63 groves of giant sequoias in the Sierra with the farthest north being a cluster of six trees in the backcountry of eastern Placer County found on the way to French Meadows Reservoir and the southernmost grove near the Kern River.
The two closest to this area can be found off the continuation of Highway 120 through Yosemite via Crane Flat and Tioga Road.
The first is just a mile or so north of the Tioga Road turnoff. It is where you will find the Merced Grove, the smallest and less crowded of the three giant sequoia groves in Yosemite with 20 trees.
The trailhead is at 6,000 feet. It is three miles round trip and takes an average person two to four hours to hike a relatively smooth trail since much of it was a former road. The trail has a gain of 600 feet which you won’t hit until your way back to your car.
The next collection of giant sequoias is in the Tuolumne Grove that is accessed at a parking lot a half mile east of the turnoff to go toward Tioga Pass. There are more than two dozen trees in the grove. It is here that you will find a giant sequoia that you can walk through. The trailhead is at 6,200 feet and involves a two-and-a-half mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of 400 feet. It is also uphill on the way back to your car. A typical person can hike the trail round-trip in 90 minutes to just over two hours.
Visit The ‘New’ Mariposa Grove
The largest grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite with more than 500 of the woody beasts was closed up until this past spring for major renovations and restoration work that took three years.
Given the cooler days of autumn are arriving and the crowds are thinning while the snow has yet to fall, this is the best time to see the handiwork of nature along with the impact of the $40 million restoration project that was a 50-50 project of the National Park Service and the Yosemite Conservancy that gets some of its revenue from state-issued Yosemite license plates.
The Mariposa Grove trailhead is three miles from the southern entrance to the park. But if you’re coming from Turlock/Merced via Highway 41 or the Oakdale/Escalon/Riverbank area via Highway 120, you need to take the Wawona Road (through the Wawona Tunnel) to get there.
Instead of parking amid the grove, a visit today starts at the new Welcome Plaza near the park’s South Entrance, where a cross section of a fallen sequoia that lived for more than 800 years reminds visitors of the ancient place they are about to explore. From the plaza, visitors will take a free two-mile shuttle bus ride to the Grove Arrival Area where habitat grows in what was once parking areas for vehicles, tour busses, trams and employees. The grove’s trails are now made of natural surfaces instead of pavement, and wooden boardwalks hover over sensitive wetland to protect habitat and sequoia roots. Rattlesnake Creek is flowing again after culverts blocking water flows were replaced by one of the elevated boardwalks. Another new trail invites people of all abilities to experience the famous Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree.
Trams depart the welcome plaza between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. through Nov. 30. After that if you want to visit the Mariposa Grove you will have to walk in until tram service returns March 15.
A big motivation to visit now is the fact that the million visitors the grove receives annually flock there primarily between mid-April and early October.
Giant Sequoias can grow to be 300 feet high, 35 feet in diameter and 100 feet in circumference. One of the grove’s largest trees, the Grizzly Giant, is 209 feet tall and an estimated 1,800 years old. The grove is also home to more than 70 wildlife species, including rare wildlife such as pallid bats, Pacific fishers, and spotted owls.
A Yosemite Conservancy-funded assessment of Mariposa Grove was the foundation for the restoration plan. That survey, the first ever conducted in the grove, identified an estimated population of 5,803 trees of all sizes, including seedlings, saplings, juveniles and adults. Park biologists learned that 81 percent of the juvenile sequoias and 68 percent of saplings grow within 100 feet of wetlands, an important factor in the redesign of paths and installation of boardwalk to ensure the health of the grove.
It’s 2.2 miles round trip to the lower grove and eight miles round trip to the lower and upper groves. The elevation gain is as much as 1,200 feet if you go all the way to the far point of the upper grove. The trailhead is at 5,600 feet. Depending upon how far you go, the hike time is one to four hours round trip.
The entrance fee to Yosemite is $35 a vehicle for a seven-day pass. If you plan on taking two or more trips in the next 12 months, the $70 annual Yosemite pass is the better deal. If you plan to hit Sequoia National Park or Kings River Canyon National Park — both east of Visalia — to see the largest concentration of giant sequoias in the world including the famous General Sherman in the next 12 months — then the $80 national park annual pass makes sense. Yes, they do take credit and debit cards at the entrance stations.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
If Yosemite is too crowded for your taste, the other major giant sequoia grove in the 209 can be found at Calaveras Big Trees State Park three miles north of Arnold on Highway 4.
The entrance fee is $10. But unlike Yosemite where day users can wander around 24/7, the park is only open from sunrise to sunset.
That said, Calaveras Big Trees offers a more pleasant experience crowd wise compared to the Mariposa Grove along with more hiking trails in and around the big trees with somewhat easier elevation gains.