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In Search of a Giant Sequoia

By Randee Bergen

The Giant Sequoias were on the list for our Spring Break road trip, but I’ll tell you, it was the hardest part of the trip to plan. First, Sequoiadendron giganteum occurs naturally only in groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. This is a pretty out-of-the way spot for us Coloradoans and a difficult one to return home to from. After seeing sequoias, we would either have to go way far north to get up and around the Sierra Nevadas or all the way back down south again to get to the other side of the Sierras. This is because – I learned as I was planning the trip – there’s no crossing the Sierras during the winter months. And March is still winter when you’re talking mountain country.

But, I thought it’d be worth the extra driving if we could incorporate something interesting or unique while in the sequoia area. Like snowshoeing. Yeah, how about snowshoeing through the sequoias? That would a neat experience, especially after coming from the beach the day before. But, alas, when I called to inquire several months beforehand and make reservations for an activity like this, everyone told me that so far there wasn’t much snow and they couldn’t predict how much snow there would be in March and that therefore we couldn’t make reservations.

And as I researched further, I read in several places that we might not be able to get to any sequoias, due to road closures, if there did happen to be snow.

So, I scrapped the idea of going all the way north to Kings Canyon National Park or even Sequoia National Park and focused, instead, on Sequoia National Forest. Specifically, I Googled “most southern Sequoia groves.”

I felt armed and ready with my plans –though they concluded with “just ask the locals where to find a sequoia” — and, after leaving the beach, the girls and I drove northeast into central California. I hadn’t been to Bakersfield since I was a child and must say I thought it was lovely with its surrounding orchards and agriculture. From there, we went to Porterville and the much smaller, quaint and pastoral town of Springville (population 1,100), which would be our home base for finding a Sequoia tree.

We arrived in the late afternoon and decided to drive to Balch Park. My research indicated that this was a beautiful park with a lake, walking paths, and several of the giant trees. As we wound our way up into the mountains through several life zones, the late afternoon sunshine illuminated many plants and trees to which we were not accustomed. The forest grew thicker and taller, but the trees we saw were not sequoias. Balch Park is 26 miles from Springville. Around mile 20, we started seeing cabins, but they must have been summer homes because there were no other vehicles and no signs of human activity. Signs indicated that the road was open to local traffic only and that the road would be closed in two miles and then, after we’d gone the two miles, in 500 feet. But we were able to keep going. It was open. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. I knew we were close to Balch Park. It had to be just beyond the closed and locked gate that blocked the road. But we couldn’t enter. Tulare County had the road closed for the season.

So after an hour or more of switch-backing up into the mountains, we turned back. We all agreed it was an incredibly beautiful drive and that though we didn’t reach our destination, it had still been an enjoyable time.

And then we saw it. A random Giant Sequoia. In the tall, tall forest that we were in, it rose high above the rest of the trees. Its color was magnificent in the late evening sun. And it was beautiful.

The girls were moved by this tree and Addy said, “Mom, I want to see more of these. Can’t we please drive north tomorrow and go see a bunch of them?”

We stopped in a charming café in the small town of Springville for dinner. There, we asked our waitress where the closest place to see the trees was. She wasn’t sure; she hadn’t lived there long. But, some fellow diners overheard us and explained that all we had to do was go up Camp Nelson Road to the Trail of 100 Giants. “It’s not that far, but it’ll take you nearly two hours to get there because the road’s so windy and it’s such a climb.”

“Will the road be open though?” I explained to her what had happened in our attempt to get to Balch Park.

“Oh yeah, the road’s open.” They seemed sure about it.

Back at the hotel room, I opened my laptop and did some research. Everything I read indicated that the road to the Trail of 100 Giants would not be open, even at the end of March. This is what I had read while researching at home before we left. There were two small communities up this same road though and I reasoned the road would have to be open to at least that point being that these were towns and people most likely lived there year-round. And near one of these communities was the world’s fifth largest tree, the Stagg Tree. It would require a short hike, but I had a feeling we could get to it.

I asked the girls if they wanted to get up early – 5:00 a.m. – and once again switch back into the mountains and attempt to find Stagg Tree. Surprisingly, they did.

The drive was steep and windy and slow. We climbed more than 4,000 feet in an hour and got a real sense of how high and vast the Sierras were. And it really was winter up there. It was cold and there was snow everywhere, even some snow on the road. Amy was feeling carsick but didn’t complain too much. After an hour and a half, we reached the small communities. I didn’t see much sign of activity and I knew I had lucked out that this road was open. I kept half an eye on my hastily written notes–according to my directions, I needed to turn onto a dirt road soon–and wished that I had written more detailed ones. What if we couldn’t find this tree, after a second attempt and all this driving?

Then, my notes made sense and I could see where we were supposed to turn. But it wasn’t a dirt road. It was a snowy road. And I couldn’t see much of it as it went off into the forest. “What do you think, girls? Should we go for it?” Of course, we had to. I put my Sequoia in 4LOW.

Now, I wasn’t about to do anything crazy. I wasn’t going anywhere where I might get stuck. I mean, we were an hour and a half into the mountains and as far as I knew, there wasn’t a soul around. And there surely wasn’t any cell service. Mostly, I put my vehicle in 4LOW to be on the safe side. And to make it seem more adventurous.

We only went about 100 yards until we came to a closed gate. But there were footprints in the snow beyond the gate and I had a feeling that was where we needed to go. Again, I asked the girls if they wanted to press on. They didn’t have the greatest hiking shoes. And we’d be hiking in snow.

After coming as far as we had, they wanted to find this tree.

It was a lovely day for a hike, about 35 degrees, sunny, and just a few inches of snow on a pretty road. And there were several stately Sequoias along the way.

The hike was about 3/4 of a mile, but then a sign showed that we should leave the road and go into the forest. The snow was deeper here, it was downhill, and we didn’t know how far we’d have to go on this new section of our journey. It was icy and we giggled as we slid and grabbed at the vegetation that lined the trail to help maintain our footing.

Then, just ahead, I saw a large sign and I knew it must be for Stagg Tree.

The “giant redwood” aspect of the sign perplexed me a bit. Were Giant Sequoias redwoods? I was pretty sure they were a different species than the Giant Redwoods in northern California and Oregon. When I got home, I looked it up and read that sequoias are one of three species of coniferous trees known as redwoods. The sign said that Stagg Tree was about 3,00 years old. 3,000! The oldest Sequoia is estimated to be about 3,500 years of age. The circumference of its trunk at the ground is 109 feet. We could not walk all the way around it due to the amount of snow on the backside.

We enjoyed the beauty and wonder of Stagg Tree and the idea of hiking in the snow in the Sierra Nevada with no one else around and then we walked back to our vehicle and began the long, slow drive into the valley. Amy drove; she didn’t want to deal with that carsick feeling again. Addy slept. And I smiled to myself the entire way.

Mission accomplished – together we three Bergen women had conquered our need to find and touch and marvel at a Giant Sequoia tree.

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