The North Grove Trail, just off Route 4, is the main attraction of Calaveras Big Trees State Park. The grove has a low density of sequoias and is mostly a typical Sierra pine forest with a few sequoias scattered around. However, the pines are themselves fine-looking old-growth, straight and tall. The lodgepole pines, with their smooth tan-colored, perfectly cylindrical trunks, are especially attractive.
Typically for low elevation groves, North Grove has a very dense understory. Dogwood in particular is very common and tends to block the views at eye level, making the grove difficult to photograph; you have to look up above the understory to see the sequoias. Above the understory, though, the grove is actually quite open and bright.
The grove is especially significant because it was the first sequoia grove to become widely known; earlier sightings of sequoias in present-day Yosemite had been dismissed as tall tales and forgotten. From 1852 to 1855 the North Grove was the only sequoia grove that was known to the public. During this period entrepreneurs quickly laid claim to the grove and destroyed its two biggest trees — at the time the largest known trees in the world — to exhibit the “vegetable wonders” in San Francisco, New York, and London. The exhibitions were soon destroyed in fires, but what’s left of the trees can still be seen: the huge, ghastly-looking Discovery Tree stump remains a prominent sight at the beginning of the North Grove loop, while the trunk of the Mother of the Forest tree still stands, stripped of its bark and completely dead, near the end of the loop. Both appear to be much larger than any other tree remaining in the grove.
Here’s the trailhead location in Google Maps.
Going around the loop counter-clockwise, as the signs direct, the trail gets off to a nice start with an unusual concentration of good-sized trees. The sequoias are fine-looking specimens, the reddish trunks perfectly straight and cylindrical, rising through the dense understory like stout columns. Most of the trees stand alone, but they come at a rapid pace, one after the other, and there are a few groups of two or three trees. The big trees taper off after the first quarter-mile. After the first half-mile the trail turns back toward the parking lot; after this point the trail is notably less impressive. However, smaller sequoias are scattered throughout the entire loop.
Near the end of the loop trail is the fallen Pioneer Cabin Tree. In the 1880s the owners of the grove, which at the time was a privately-owned resort, carved the tunnel because Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove also has a tunnel tree (the Wawona Tree) and was attracting more visitors. Both tunnel trees eventually fell: the Wawona Tree in 1969, the Pioneer Cabin Tree in January 2017.
The last sequoia sight on the loop is a group of mid-sized sequoias with a wooden platform around them.
The occasional whooshing of cars on Highway 4 can be heard throughout the hike. Depending on the season, the cawing of crows or the much more melodic flute-like whistles of thrushes can also be heard, and the hammering of woodpeckers echoes through the forest. Adorable little Douglas squirrels dart around and squeak at you. The trail is quite popular, and even when the crowds diminish in late afternoon or in the "shoulder" season there’s always the sounds of kids yelling and people talking. On a busy day you might encounter a group of people every minute.
© 2012, 2014, 2018 David Baselt