Posted by Ric Garrido

California has some significant trees. The tallest, oldest and largest trees in the world are all in California represented by three different tree species.

The tallest tree is Hyperion, a coast redwood Sequoia sempervirens in a remote part of Redwood National Park in northwestern California and a few inches short of 380 feet when measured in 2006.

The oldest non-clonal trees in the world are bristlecone pines, Pinus longaeva. The oldest tree is estimated at 5,062 years for a bristlecone pine with no name in an undisclosed location of the White Mountains in eastern California, on the California-Nevada border east of the the town of Bishop and the Sierra Nevada range. Methuselah, measured at 4,845 years old also lives in an undisclosed location of the White Mountains. 

General Sherman, Sequoiadendron giganteum, a giant Sequoia tree in Sequoia National Park is named as the largest tree on earth. This giant tree has lived an estimated 2,200 years and grown to a height of 275 feet in the mountains of the western Sierra at an elevation of 7,000 feet.

General Sherman-2

Comprehending the massive size of these giant sequoia trees is difficult to see in human scale. General Sherman tree is 36.5 feet in diameter near the ground and still nearly 14 feet across at 180 ft. high on this 275 ft. tall tree. General Sherman is considered the largest tree by volume on earth and equivalent to the weight of ten full size blue whales.

General Sherman is old with an estimated age at 2,200 years old. There are at least four giant sequoia trees estimated at  3,033 to 3,266 years of age.

General Sherman-1

There are 2,161 giant sequoia trees with a trunk diameter over 10 feet in the 2,115 acres of the Giant Forest Grove, an area more than three square miles.

Miles of trails cross the grove for access to many named giant trees.

Giant Sequoia trees, Sequoiadendron giganteum

Giant Sequoia trees, Sequoiadendron giganteum, grow at an elevation of 4,500 to 7,000 feet in about 75 groves along the western side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Generals Highway from Kings Canyon National Park through Sequoia National Park passes near some of the largest giant sequoia groves.

The Sherman Tree Trail from the parking lot a short distance from the main Generals Highway to the giant General Sherman Tree is a paved 0.4 mile path downhill at 7,000 feet elevation to a giant sequoia grove with several ancient trees to walk beneath along a fenced dirt path around the grove.

There was a snow storm at the beginning of this week and night temperatures dropped to the low 20s at this elevation. The snow lingered on in the park even though it was in the mid-60s at 2pm in the afternoon in the sun at 7,000 feet on the first weekend of November.

Sherman Tree Trail

Sherman Tree Trail

General Sherman-3

The branches on the ancient giant sequoia trees tend to grow only on the upper half. The large branch on the left of General Sherman is nearly 7 feet in diameter, larger than the diameter of most tree species at their maximum size.

General Grant Tree in Grants Grove, Kings Canyon National Park

Grant Grove of Kings Canyon National Park is the location of the General Grant tree, a giant sequoia with the largest recorded diameter at 40 feet. This grove is more easily accessible from the parking lot than the 0.4 mile downhill and uphill walk at 7,000 feet to see the General Sherman tree.

general grant-1

General Grant, the Nation’s Christmas Tree, is about 6,500 ft. elevation and a few miles from the entrance of Kings Canyon National Park on an easily accessible trail. General Grant is 268 feet tall and 40 ft. in diameter. The circumference is 107 feet and General Grant is considered the third largest giant sequoia tree known.

General Grant-2

General Grant tree in Grants Grove, Kings Canyon National Park has its first branch at 129 feet above the ground with a 4.5 ft. diameter.

Grant Grove has 123 giant sequoia trees over 10 ft. in diameter.

Grants Grove and Giant Forest are 27 miles apart on the Generals Highway between Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

The Generals Highway Drive

The drive is a significant part of the experience getting to the giant trees of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. There are two access roads to Sequoia National Park from the north and the south.

Google Maps Generals Highway

Fresno (Highway 180) to Visalia (Highway 198) [click map to enlarge] via Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks is a 135 mile drive requiring 3.5 hours drive time. There are no gas stations between Squaw Valley Highway 180 on East Kings Canyon Road and Three Rivers Highway 198, a distance of 75 miles.

My drive started in the north leaving from Fresno on Highway 180. The highway is about 40 miles from Fresno to Kings Canyon National Park. Highway 180 continues another 37 miles into Kings Canyon. Generals Highway, shown as Highway 198 on the map is a right turn about a mile after entering Kings Canyon National Park. The 50 mile drive through Sequoia National Park to Three Rivers takes at least two hours.

On a clear sky early November day that reached the 80s down in the valley between Fresno and Visalia, simply reaching the Giant Forest seemed like it might be a road trip too far when I saw the sign on Highway 180 while ascending steeply up the foothills east of Fresno. The highway sign showed ‘CLOSED” for the Generals Highway connecting Kings Canyon National Park to Sequoia National Park.

The ranger at Kings Canyon National Park said snow tires on a passenger car would be sufficient for the drive along Generals Highway and out of the park to Visalia on Highway 198. There was snow on the road sides over 6,000 feet and ice on the road in shaded places at scattered points. The worst road sections were in the shaded Giant Forest with some places totally hard packed snow and ice from the storm earlier in the week.  

Preparedness is important to consider before heading into the Sierra mountains. I met a family traveling in two vehicles at a viewpoint on the Generals Highway about 30 miles from Squaw Valley gas station down the mountain. They had not planned their trip well and needed to leave the park for gas before traveling Highway 180 in Kings Canyon. Traveling Highway 180 into Kings Canyon along with the Generals Highway makes the trip about 150 miles between gas stations and around 200 miles to travel between Visalia and Fresno.

Highway 198 caution

Highway 198

The right side of the photo shows California State Route 198 and one of the many 10 mph switchback curves as the highway changes elevation from 7,000 to under 1,000 feet in the 12 miles from the Giant Forest Museum and the town of Three Rivers. This road is about one hour of a steep ascent or descent. Either way your car is strained and constrained at slow speed to safely navigate the dozens of hairpin turns with an elevation change from 800 feet to 7,300 feet in about 20 miles of road.

Highway 180 between Fresno and Kings Canyon National Park is 40 miles of steep, but far less curvy road than Highway 198 out of Visalia.

Squaw Valley on East Kings Canyon Road is the last gas station in the north section and Three Rivers is a small resort town in the foothills of the Sierra and last gas station in south when heading east from Visalia. There is no gas for sale in the National Parks area covering 75 miles of road along the Generals Highway between these gas station locations. Add the drive to the end of the  Kings Canyon Highway 180 dead-end road and the distance between gas stations is 150 miles. 

There are no apostrophes in the names of Generals or Kings.

These are grand public lands of California’s western Sierra. Even though some trees are named after public figures and war heroes such as General Grant and General Sherman, the ancient trees surrounding you are the true kings and generals of this land. I stood beneath them feeling I was in the presence of earth’s true living royalty.

Sentinel Tree

Giant Tree Museum in Sequoia National Park sits beneath the Sentinel Tree.

A road trip to walk among the largest trees in the world is a 5-star experience if you have the opportunity to visit these giants growing on the mountains of the western Sierra Nevada east of Visalia and Fresno, California in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California – National Park Service link.

The Mountains Are Calling and I Must Go Loyalty Traveler post about Highway 180 drive to the end of the road in Kings Canyon and the launch point for hiking into the high Sierra where the mountains are 9,500 to over 14,000 feet (May 15, 2011).

Yosemite Valley (May 17, 2011)

3 Responses

  1. Awesome writeup! Thanks for all of the information. I have danced around this visit several times while in California, most recently a couple of months ago. In the end I decided I wanted to wait until I could make this visit with my wife as it look truly amazing and it’s something I want to share with her.

  2. These are indeed phantastic places. My girlfriend and I had a wonderful time walking around underneath these giant trees. However, there is one big problem for me. And that is, that I am very much fearful of heights and I was a total nerve wreck when we had reached Sequoia NP (we had started in Fresno).
    Then, after coming down emotionally I was totally amazed at the beauty of this forest.
    The only thing that bugged me: we had to get back somehow.
    We returned the same way to Fresno … and I was kind of the happiest person on earth when I saw the sign “elevation: 1000 ft”. From then on it was easy to get back to almost sea level (after all it’s all in one’s head).
    I’m glad we did it, but I am sure I won’t do it again. Sad as that is. Well, again, I am happy we were there at least once in our life!

  3. @Ralfinho – good thing you did not try and drive out Highway 198 to Visalia.

    Mountain driving is not for everyone. My wife freaked out driving through Rocky Mountain National Park last summer where the road rises to 12,000 feet, the air is thin, and lightheadedness occurs while driving on cliffs in some places with no barrier to keep the car from taking a precipitous drop.

    Sequoia National Park is quite an elevation change in a short time period to go from near sea level in the valley to over 7,000 feet on the Generals Highway.

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