So who’s up for a stroll around the ol’ Agassiz Tree? Warning: This may take a while. But you’re in no rush, right? After all, this big guy’s been rooted here for a couple of thousand years and ranks as one of the Sierra’s 10 largest sequoias, so the least you can do is linger long enough to, perhaps, find just the right adjective for its size.
Impressive in girth even more than height, the Agassiz is situated at the far end of the 5-mile South Grove Trail at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, the focus of this month’s “Fresh Tracks” feature, which is Part 2 of our “Triad of Trees” series. (Hint: Next month, we’ll be in Felton.)
Yeah, you’ve got to hoof it all the way to the turnaround point in this semi-looping out-and-back trail to see Agassiz, named for Louis Agassiz, an honored naturalist. Point is, it’s worth it. And along the way, you’ll be entranced periodically by the Agassiz’s sequoia brethren standing tall in a landscape also rife with sugar pine, white fir and cedar and, now in autumn, dogwoods, oaks and maples that add a splash of color to the evergreen palette. Then there’s the trail itself, soft duff and needle- and wood chip-matted, enabling you to ogle with arboristic impunity without fear of pratfalls on roots or rocks.
By the time you turn the final corner of the trail, where Agassiz awaits, you might think you’ve become accustomed to the scale.
At first, even the firs and pines look imposing, but they pale to the sight of the first of a dozen sequoias set back in the woods, so huge and vast that even the sturdy, unfurling expanse of a ponderosa pine looks Lilliputian by comparison. Upon reaching the sequoia dubbed “The Palace Hotel,” Agassiz’s nearest neighbor and sort of the warm-up act for the main show, you think the big trees in Big Trees State Park can’t get any bigger.
Your first glimpse of Agassiz reveals a Great Wall of Bark, a gnarled mass of solid matter spreading in both directions and casting a wide swath of shade. Fortunately, there is a hiker standing in front to provide much-needed human scale. He appears so puny, not even taller than the relatively minor charred crack in the trunk that runs higher than a basketball hoop. His bloated backpack at his feet looks, comparatively, the size of an acorn.
It might be helpful, at this juncture, just to stop gawking and give you some measurements of Agassiz. It is believed to be 2,000 years old, 250 feet tall, 25 feet in diameter (measured 6 feet off the ground) and with a circumference of 97 feet.
OK, back to gawking. Other specimens residing in the state’s 75 sequoia groves are taller, no doubt, but such girth is rarely seen. In fact, if Agassiz could be compared to a human leg, it would have a major case of “cankles.” Whereas other trees start sturdy at the base of the trunk and taper as they rise, Agassiz retains its rotund shape as far up as the eyes can see, at least until the branches become visible about halfway up.
Checking out the tree head-on from the trail, you’ll notice a large gash, a blackened gaping maw scorched by fire. You can easily wedge your body in its folds, and it looks as if some woodland creatures have made a home of it. Run your hands along the smooth wood absent the rough bark surrounding it, and think about how resilient sequoias must be to absorb fire damage and still thrive where lesser trees would be reduced to soot and ash.
Moving counterclockwise, you notice the trunk does not burrow deep in the ground as a whole, but bifurcates and sends out roots into the soil that, up close, resemble the legs of an elephant. The bark’s color ranges from tawny to charcoal, with daubs of lichen adding a patina of antiquity. Look up, though, and the bark turns a more uniform brown and seemingly adds an extra layer or two of epidermis. Some of it has partially peeled away, as if sloughing off its summer skin.
Another darkened rift in the trunk develops a quarter of the way around. Agassiz seems to have internalized the assault well; healthy brown bark cauterizes the wound. Guess if you live more than 2,000 years you are bound to get some scars amid your rings. In this case, it gives Agassiz character.
Halfway around, the trunk gets truncated, disappearing in the folds. A large triangle of the trunk is just gone, ravaged by fire. What remains is a darkened cavern bigger than a studio apartment. Seriously, you could put a queen-size mattress in there. The space goes so far into the tree’s center that you wonder why gravity doesn’t make it fall. But go ahead and slap those inside walls; there’s still plenty of tree left to keep things entirely vertical.
Now, look up. Sunlight shoots up 20 or so feet, illuminating the split-open sides of the interior walls, only lightly crusted with bark, until, somewhere up in the darkness beyond vision, the tree becomes whole once more. It is an intimate encounter, strange as it is sublime, as if you were able to split open Agassiz’s belly and root around in the internal organs. Such vulnerability for such a big tree, you think.
Stepping back out and following the circular path, Agassiz regains its regal bearing, its bark bronzed, its branches above offering dappled sunlight to those below. Decomposing logs – or, perhaps, branches Agassiz has shed – bump against the trunk, as if proximity to the great sequoia might revive them. Careful stepping over the logs, for they tend to splinter and collapse under the weight of the human body. That fragility only underscores the strength of the sequoia.
It’s hard, after heading back roughly 2.5 miles to the trailhead, to get too excited about a mere pine or fir. Agassiz and his sequoia comrades have raised the bar (branch?) too high for lesser specimens to come off as anything more than saplings.
But for those who didn’t get enough of the big trees in the South Grove, a car ride back near the state park entrance yields the North Grove, more thick with sequoias, though none standing quite as tall as Agassiz.
The North Grove can be a little depressing, to be honest. It’s more crowded and doesn’t have as long and as wild and interesting of a trail to traverse. It also has a certain melancholy about what once was there but now is merely a stump, albeit a giant stump – 24 feet of sadness, to be exact.
That would be the famous “Discovery Tree,” so named by the discoverer, Augustus T. Dowd, in 1852 when the outdoorsman was chasing a grizzly bear through the forest and happened upon a massive sequoia. Shortly after Dowd’s discovery, the tree was chopped down and sent “on tour,” like a circus freak-show act. All that remains is the giant stump, which once was used as a dance floor and bowling alley before it had some dignity returned to it and now serves as a North Grove landmark.
Apparently, people in the 1850s didn’t grasp the concept that you are supposed to visit the trees; the trees do not visit you.
CALAVERAS BIG TREES STATE PARK: SOUTH GROVE TRAIL
Trail Length: 5 miles total, out and back
Elevation gain: 600 feet
Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Highway 16 East/Jackson Road for 30 miles. Turn on Highway 49 South/Highway 88 East through Jackson for 16 miles to San Andreas. Stay on Highway 49 for 11.8 miles to Angels Camp, turn left onto Highway 4 East. Drive 20 miles to the city of Arnold. Calaveras Big Trees State Park is 4 miles east of town. Turn right at park sign. From park entrance, drive 8.5 miles to the South Grove parking lot.
Route: From the signed trailhead across from the portable toilets, head downhill and cross Beaver Creek on a wooden bridge. Pass the junction for Bradley Grove and stay on the South Grove Trail. At 1 mile, cross a dirt road and stay straight; look for sign. At 1.3 miles, turn right at a fork for the South Grove Trail. Cross several bridges and do a moderate climb to the 2-mile mark. Ahead is the junction that closes the trail loop. Turn right and take the Agassiz Spur for 0.5 miles. The trail ends at the Agassiz Tree. Retrace steps a half mile to the junction. Stay straight at a sign that reads “Parking Lot” with an arrow. That leads 2 miles back to the trailhead.
Exposure: Shaded in most parts
Toilets: Yes, at trailhead
Probability of getting lost: Almost impossible; well-marked trail
Will there be blood: No. Trail is well-manicured, soft dirt and duff.