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Giant sequoias in California

Natural range of the giant sequoia

Natural range of the giant sequoia, made by Tim Bekaert The natural range of the giant sequoia is a narrow band along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada range, California, USA. The tree grows at high altitudes between 5,000 to 8,000 ft and only occurs naturally in about 65 to 75 disjoint groves (depending on the definition of a grove) with a total area of 36,000 acres.

In the northern part of its range (American River, Placer County to Kings River) there are only eight small separate groves, of which three are contained within the borders of Yosemite National Park.
However, most of the groves (and the largest ones) occur along a 70 mile long band between the Kings River and Deer Creek Grove in the south, with most of the groves in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park and in the Giant Sequoia National Monument.

The groves vary in size between forests with 20,000 giant sequoias to small stands with only 6 living specimens.

Quite a lot of these trees have been logged since the discovery of these forests. To keep the few remaining stands safe for the future, most of the groves are now contained within the National Parks of the US and or the State Parks of California. Of course they cannot be be cut down there but also outside of the parks, logging of giant sequoia is prohibited by law.

National parks

A large part of the giant sequoia forests is quite remote and is only visited by backpackers. A number of the biggest giant sequoias, like "Stagg" and the "Ishi Giant", seldom get visitors, while a few others, like "General Sherman" probably see hundreds of thousands visitors a year.

National parks, state parks, and national monuments where giant sequoias (Sierra redwoods, giant redwoods, or big trees, Sequoiadendron giganteum) can be visited, are:

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

where the so called Giant Forest is a real tourist hit (only in summertime, during the winter entrance to the area is difficult to impossible because of the snow).
Famous giants that grow in the Giant Forest are, amongst others, "General Sherman", "Washington", "General Grant", "President", and "Lincoln".
The tree "General Sherman" is the biggest tree on earth in terms of trunk volume.
The images below show "General Sherman" (on the left), "General Grant" (in the center), and the lower trunk of "The President" (on the right).


Until 2003 "Washington" was one of the biggest, and most beautiful giant sequoias. In the fall of that year, a lightning strike caused a fire in the top of the tree, that burned for days before the park rangers noticed it. Because of that, the tree was weakened that much that during a winter storm in 2005, the tree collapsed: the once 77 m tall tree is now only 31 m tall. However, the tree is not dead but it's not easy to say how long the weakened tree will remain alive.


Washington is also seen as one of the oldest known living giant sequoias. Research of 2002 has shown that its age is about 2850 (+/- 300) years.

The image above shows a part of a natural giant sequoia forest (Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park). The difference between the young and the old trees is clearly visible.

Yosemite National Park

Tuolumne Grove en Merced Grove (quite small), Mariposa Grove (relatively big)


In summertime, Yosemite is probably visited by more tourists than Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park is. However, most of them do not explore much more of the park than Yosemite Valley with its characteristic rock formations, of which the images above show somewhat of the atmosphere.

There are three giant sequoia groves in Yosemite (Tuolumne, Merced, and Mariposa Grove), of which Mariposa Grove is the largest and most visited.

In this park was the world famous Wawona "Tunnel" Tree. In 1881 a tunnel was made through this tree so wide you could drive your carriage, or later your car, right trough. Apparently this startles the imagination: almost all the time this is one of the first facts about redwoods or sequoias that people read about of hear of. What people do not know on the other hand, is that the tree did not survive this interference: in 1969 the tree died at an age of 2100 years as a result of the construction of the tunnel. The tree was brought down and no new 'tunnel tree' was made, so images like this belong to the past. There are some other, smaller existing 'tunnel trees' though.

Site Yosemite National Park
Another famous tree in Yosemite National Park is the strangely shaped "Grizzly Giant", the largest tree in Yosemite. Despite its size, it is still only 27th on the list of large giant sequoias and is also surpassed in girth by at least ten to twenty other giant redwoods.


On the image on the right (1903) you can see, amongst others, president Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir standing before the lower part of the trunk of this tree. The image on the left shows a large male mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) resting beneath the Grizzly Giant, a hundred years later.

Sequoia National Forest and The Giant Sequoia National Monument

These are the woods that are connected to the Sequoia National Park and that are also protected by the preservation system of the US. Here the most extensive and least visited giant sequoia forest can be found. Because some parts were heavily logged in the 19th century, so some parts only consist of young trees of about hundred years or younger.

The image on the right shows a typical view in Long Meadow Grove. Notice the typical conical shape of the crown of the young giant redwood and the clearly distinguishable different shape of the old growth trees on the left. The smaller pines below are Pinus ponderosa.

More about the vegetation in giant sequoia forests...
One of the valleys that was completely ravaged by loggers is the Converse Basin. The biggest tree there was spared by Frank Boole, the general manager of the lumber company and was named the Boole Tree. The old photo on the left shows the loggers, together with the Boole Tree. Except a few specimens on rough terrain, this tree is the only remaining old growth tree there.


Today the ancient giants are no longer under threat of harvest. Nature has taken over again and the Boole Tree is surrounded again by a large number of fast growing relatively young giant sequoias. On the right you can see the lower part of the trunk of the Boole Tree as it is today. In the Converse Basin a lot of remains of this logging of the past can be found: everywhere there are gigantic stumps and chunks of the fallen trees. Because of the low quality of the wood, they fell to pieces when they were taken down. The high levels of tannin in the wood have kept most of the chunks safe from decay.

Site Giant Sequoia National Monument
Site Sequoia National Forest
A photo gallery of the giant sequoias in the Sequoia State Forest.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park

South Calaveras Grove (big) and North Calaveras Grove (small)
This state park is the most visited of all giant sequoia forests, especially due to the easy access. The so called "Discovery Tree", purportedly the first giant redwood seen by white men (1852), can be seen in North Calaveras Grove. Well, what remains of it at least: only a year after its discovery, it was cut down.


The image on the left shows the stump of the logged Discovery Tree, on the right image a view in Calaveras Big Tree State Park can be seen.
Site Calaveras State Park

Sierra National Forest

Nelder Grove en McKinley Grove Short after its discovery during the gold rush in the middle of the 19th century, the giant sequoia was planted extensively elsewhere in the world, especially in western Europe where its growth is vigourous.

Giant sequoias are also planted elsewhere in the US.

Vegetation of the giant sequoia forests

Unlike the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), who grows in almost pure stands, the giant sequoia forms mixed-conifer stands. The giant sequoias are typically accompanied by white fir (Abies concolor var. lowiana) of which you can see one on the image on the right.

Other conifers that can be found:

Also a species of oak, the California Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii), can be seen, just as Castanopsis sempervirens and Whitethorn Ceanothus (Ceanothus cordulatus).

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