Menacing, big and tall: California’s trees

A Midwesterner can’t drive through California without being impressed with its trees.

I grew up in an area of Minnesota between the corn belt plains and the northern forest, populated mostly with pine trees, though my little town had a wide variety of deciduous trees which dropped their leaves annually. I remember because in seventh grade, I collected leaves and pressed them between sheets of wax paper for a science project.

But not until I drove through California did I see trees of amazement and worthy of collection, at least in memory. Trees in California loom large, but you may have to travel a bit to see them. I spent a number of weekends on vacation or business in California’s cosmopolitan cities without ever seeing the state’s trees, which can only be described as impressive.

tree joshua

As we drove through the desert from Arizona, we encountered the strange and fascinating Joshua tree. The Mormons named it for what looks like its hands raised in prayer; those “fingers” are almost like Christmas lights. But maybe the Spanish name for the tree is more apt. Izote de desierto means “desert dagger.”

tree joshua in scene

The Joshua tree grows in the Mojave Desert, and once it establishes a foothold among the creosote bushes, it can live for hundreds of years.

tree sequoia forest

But the Joshua tree is only a speck on the landscape after one encounters a great sequoia tree. Giant sequoia grow naturally in only one place in the world — on western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, primarily between 5,000 and 7,000 feet in elevation. You’ll drive over an hour through narrow, windy roads in Sequoia National Park to get to these trees, but it’s worth every second. If an enchanted forest exists outside of fairy tales, it’s here.


The trees even have names. A sequoia named for the famed American Civil War general in the Union Army, William Tecumseh Sherman, General Sherman is the world’s largest tree, based on the volume of the trunk, not including the branches. Pictures alone cannot capture the immensity of this tree and its nearby sisters (and brothers, I suppose), but here’s a shot of General Sherman from bottom to top.

tree general sherman

General Sherman is in the center, and those microscopic people at the base are taking pictures like the one we took above. If you belted General Sherman near the ground, you’d have to have more than 100 feet of leather, and it’s nearly as tall as a football field is long.

Those who should know estimate General Sherman to be 2,000 years old, which means it was a little sprout when Jesus walked the earth. Other giant sequoia are estimated to be older than 3,200 years.

Related, but not the same, are California’s coastal redwoods, which grow on the northern coast (the scientific name is sequoia sempervirens while the giant sequoia are sequoiadendron giganteum; one more sequoia species exists on earth, in the remote mountain valleys of China’s Sichuan and Hubei provinces (metasequoia glyptostroboides).

You may have sung the lyrics to “This Land is Your Land” when you were a youngster, but a walk through the forest hear will have them ringing in your head for days: “From the Redwood forest to the Gulf Steam water, this land is made for you and me.”

The coastal redwoods are not as big around at the giant sequoias, but they can be much taller, up to 377 feet tall, the tallest living things on earth. Like the sequoia, they are long lived, due in part to their bark, which can be up to a foot thick. That bark protects a tree from cold and from forest fire.

immortal tree close

That fish on the tree represents the water level in the 1964 flood.

When we stayed at the Ancient Redwood RV Park near Redcrest, California, we were introduced to the Immortal Tree, a 1,000-year-old redwood that has survived a lightning strike (which removed its top), logger’s axe, a 1908 forest fire and the incredible 1964 flood, which wiped out whole towns up and down the coast.

tree immortal long off

The Immortal Tree is now 248 feet tall, but it was nearly 300 feet tall before the lightning strike.

tree redwood forest

Our last stop in California included a drive and walk through the Redwood National and State Parks, an experience I can’t recommend highly enough. Being there, breathing in the piney air and feeling the silence as much as hearing it, one is reminded of dinosaurs and is tempted to believe in dryads and wood nymphs. The trees are alive, and they might be smiling or frowning or about to reach out and touch you. No wonder one of California’s stereotypes is of tree huggers. Even a logger’s gotta love a tree like that.

Standing among those majestic trees reminded me I am nothing, and my life, however long it is, passes in a blink. Erasing one’s self-importance and inflated problems is comforting. If nature is a place of worship, the sequoia and redwood forests are cathedrals.


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