Conveniently located a three-hour drive from the Bay Area, between Sierra ski resorts and the California gold country, Calaveras Big Trees is understandably a popular park.
The park has two groves, of which the most popular by far is the North Grove, located just inside the park entrance. The larger and more remote South Grove requires a fairly long drive into the park. Both groves are at a relatively low elevation and have a low concentration of sequoias among a dense understory, mostly of dogwood. But the groves are of decent size and have some impressive trees.
Outside the sequoia groves, the park’s other trails — the Lava Bluffs Trail, the North Grove Overlook Trail, and the many dirt roads — are pretty dull.
The drive up to Calaveras Big Trees is exceptionally easy; the road is mostly straight all the way up, except for some twists and turns in the foothills. On the way it’s worth a short detour to drive through the town of Angels Camp. A few minutes further up, the road passes the very attractive (but also touristy and overcrowded) gold rush town of Murphys.
Calaveras Big Trees has a long association with Murphys; the sequoias were discovered during the height of the gold rush, by a hunter who was tracking a grizzly bear to feed Murphys water company workers (apparently construction workers in the 1850s ate bear meat). A year later the first tree that he found, which at the time was the largest known tree in the world, was cut down and turned into a traveling exhibition by an owner of the same water company. Meanwhile, the park was developed as a tourist attraction by an entrepreneur from Murphys.
Just past Murphys, the oak-dotted foothills gives way to pine forest and the road, climbing a surprisingly gentle incline, passes through the mountain resort town of Arnold before reaching Calaveras Big Trees.
The park has two campgrounds. The main campground is built around an alpine meadow just outside the North Grove. Since it’s right off Highway 4 it gets some traffic noise. The Oak Hollow campground is perhaps less scenic but is wonderfully peaceful and woodsy. There are also some walk-in primitive campsites on the ridge between the two campgrounds.
The Calaveras groves were the first to become widely known mainly because they’re just a few miles outside of the active mining town of Murphys. The sequoias were found by a hunter hired to provide food for water company workers in Murphys. The traveling exhibitions and the grove’s Mammoth Trees Hotel were started by well-to-do people from Murphys.
** North Calaveras Grove (1.6 miles, 70 feet)
This popular nature walk just off Route 4 is the park’s main attraction. It passes a series of large sequoias, mostly near the beginning of the loop, growing among a dense understory. Open all year.
** South Calaveras Grove (5.4 miles, 610 feet)
The quiet South Grove is much more remote than the North Grove and also requires more hiking. The sequoias are widely-scattered among a dense understory. It’s not quite as impressive as the North Grove but it gets fewer visitors and doesn’t seem as touristy. Closed in winter.
© 2012, 2018 David Baselt