Awe-inspiring giant sequoia trees are among the largest living things on earth, but the opportunity to experience them is rare. Approximately 75 groves exist, and only along the southern Sierra’s western slope on moist sites between about 5,000 and 7,000 feet in elevation. Giant Forest, one of the largest groves, was saved from logging by the establishment of Sequoia National Park in 1890. But national park status did not fully protect the big trees.
On this episode, the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park.
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The road that brought visitors to Giant Forest also brought camping, cabins, commercial development, and congestion. The impacts of this development, both to the giant sequoia ecosystem and to the quality of visitor experience, conflicted with the National Park Service mandate to conserve park resources and values and leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of present and future generations.
Commercial recreational use of Giant Forest began in 1899 with the construction of a tent camp that was reached by a pack mule train. In 1903 a proper road was completed and the tent camp grew accordingly. The end of the road at Round Meadow became the location for a ramshackle collection of semi-permanent summer camps, along with administrative and concessionaire buildings. Ensuing campaigns to draw people to the national parks — and to see the “big trees” in particular — generated a massive increase in visitation. From 1915 to 1930, lodges, four campgrounds, dozens of parking lots, a garbage incinerator, water and sewage systems, a gas station, corrals, and over 200 cabins were built, along with, restaurants, office, retail, and bath-house structures. Many of these were located directly among stands of monarch sequoias.
By the late 1920s, this disturbing human impact on the Giant Forest was noted by many, including Emilio Meinecke, an eminent forest pathologist who was commissioned by National Park Service Director Stephen Mather to study the “effects of tourist traffic on plant life, particularly big trees” in Sequoia National Park. In 1926, Meinecke reported that humans were heavily impacting the Giant Forest. A second voice was that of Colonel John White, superintendent of Sequoia National Park. He was appalled by the congestion and over-development of the grove. In 1927, he suggested that the Giant Forest Lodge cabins be removed.
Another voice to arise in the late 1920s was that of the park concessioner, the Sequoia and General Grant National Parks Company. This fledgling company immediately recognized the commercial value of the Giant Forest, and was at odds with those who would favor conservation.
The outspoken Colonel White was to be Superintendent of the parks for two decades. During his tenure, his conviction regarding the restoration of the Giant Forest would grow in nearly equal measure to the power of the Sequoia and General Grant National Parks Company. But the conscessionaire won nearly every battle. In 1931 Colonel White drew a line in the sand, refusing the concessioner’s proposed addition of five new cabins to the Giant Forest Lodge on the grounds that “the company should not be in the sequoia grove in the first place.”
The Director of the National Park Service overruled White’s decision, but chose to institute limits on guest capacity — a decision that would mark the first occasion that the Park Service would limit tourism development in any of its parks. The concessioner was able to construct additional development before hitting this limit, and within a few years of Colonel White’s retirement, the grove would contain more than 400 structures.
In the 1920s, Emilio Meinecke put considerable effort into understanding the human impact on the big trees, even as other scientific research on the trees was stagnant. During these years, landscape architects directed most land-use planning. The science of ecology was in its infancy, as was landscape architecture. It was geared toward swift, visually appealing results instead of preservation.
It wouldn’t be until 1954, when the National Park Service instituted a dramatic change in land management policy, that giant sequoia groves would begin to receive protection fitting their importance. That year, the Yosemite Report, commissioned by the Yosemite superintendent, concluded that human impacts were harming the roots of sequoias, and recommended removal of development.
In 1962, scientist Richard Hartesveldt found that altered hydrology in the Mariposa Grove and increasingly dense competing vegetation without natural fire was causing the most severe impacts to sequoias. The most damage was caused where major roots had been cut for road construction.
In 1963 came the Leopold Report, which had an enormous influence on science in the parks. The Leopold Report was the product of an advisory panel headed by Dr. Starker Leopold, appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. In essence, the report called for maintenance or restoration of natural systems to the greatest extent possible. This had direct implications for the Giant Forest, which was specifically mentioned in the report. The Secretary of the Interior issued an order that the report’s recommendations be followed, lending tremendous backing to the movement to restore the Giant Forest.
Colonel White’s vision of a natural Sequoia National Park wouldn’t begin to be realized until the turn of the millennium. After years of planning, design, and construction, the process began to restore the forest to its natural state.
The first challenge was to demolish and remove infrastructure without causing further damage to vegetation and soils. Over 282 buildings, 24 acres of asphalt, dozens of manholes, a sewage treatment plant and spray field, and all exposed sewer and water pipe, aerial telephone and electric lines, and underground propane and fuel tanks were removed delicately. Many of the buildings contained lead-based paint, asbestos insulation, and mercury light fixtures requiring extra care.
Asphalt pavement in roads, parking lots, and walkways was removed by lifting the pavement edges using the claw of an excavator or backhoe. To protect shallow roots, underground water and sewer lines were left in place unless portions were exposed during demolition. Underground propane tanks were purged of any remaining propane and removed completely. Telephone lines, electric lines, and light fixtures that were attached to live trees were delicately removed.
All overnight accommodations were relocated, and the entire grove has been converted from overnight-use to day-use. Once the home of nearly 300 buildings, the region now has four.
But the removal of human development was not enough. Paved roads, trails, and parking lots changed drainage patterns, allowing water to concentrate and create erosion gullies. Vehicle and foot travel compacted the soil and quickly broke down needles and twigs on the soil surface, depleting the topsoil of organic matter. Groups of mature trees were cleared for buildings and parking lots. There were very few grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, or tree seedlings due to the lack of fire and human trampling.
A massive restoration project was needed to recover the regions ecological integrity. The park service regraded roads, trails, parking lots, and other altered landforms to resemble the original topography and drainage patterns, using soil that approximated the surrounding, undisturbed soils.
The vegetation would then begin to be restored, largely by letting natural fire do its work, bringing new trees to life.
Today’s restored Giant Forest results from the efforts of countless dedicated personnel, from biologists to heavy equipment operators. But the monumental accomplishments of this project stem from the unwavering ideals of managers and planners beginning with Colonel White.
The dramatic landscape of Sequoia National Park, and its sister park King’s Canyon, is full of huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and, of course, the world’s largest trees. The two parks lie side by side in the southern Sierra Nevada east of the San Joaquin Valley. The elevation ranges from 1,370′ to 14,494′. The largest and finest groves of giant sequoias grow at the sometimes snowy mid-elevations.
Giant Forest is one of many sequoia groves in the parks, but it’s the largest of the unlogged giant sequoia groves and contains more exceptionally large sequoias than any other, including the largest living sequoia, the General Sherman Tree.
Giant Forest has an extensive network of hiking trails that range from 1-2 hour hikes to half-day or longer explorations.
Throughout the summer, free in-park shuttle service will get you around without the pains of finding parking. There are fourteen campgrounds in these parks, including three that are open year-round. Most campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Check vehicle-length limits on park roads before deciding which route to take in. There are no RV hookups in the parks, but many of the campgrounds can accommodate RVs. There are also 4 lodges for those wanting the National Park Lodge experience.