Typically for a lower-elevation sequoia grove, South Calaveras Grove is densely wooded and has a dense understory of dogwoods. The grove has a low density of sequoias; over 3 miles of hiking in the grove, you might see only about 30 or 40 big trees, most of them some distance from the trail. It’s essentially a normal Sierra pine forest where you encounter a big tree every five or ten minutes. The sequoias are fine-looking examples, though, massive and with the characteristically pinkish, stout and perfectly cylindrical trunks that don’t taper as they rise through the canopy.
The South Grove is wonderfully remote and feels much more pristine and less touristy than the North Grove. The 8-mile drive into the park, followed by a 1-mile uphill hike to reach the grove, ensures that the grove isn’t too heavily visited. The grove is remarkably quiet except for the rushing sound of a little (mostly unseen) creek that flows near the trail. The trail is wide, well-maintained, and easy to hike.
Interestingly, Dwight Willard’s book says that the South Grove is “open” , while to me it seems just the opposite. How open or dense the grove appears may depend on how long it’s been since the last controlled burn.
The woods can be a little buggy, even in fall when mosquitos usually aren’t a problem in other areas.
The trail starts at a little parking lot just off Big Trees Parkway. The trail winds past a meadow and descends slightly to Big Trees Creek. The wide, granite-line creek, typical of Sierra waterways, is a popular stopping point. A path to the left leads to the Beaver Creek Picnic Area, which has some creekside picnic tables. The trail crosses the creek on an arched steel bridge and begins a gentle climb through ordinary Sierra pine forest.
The trail officially enters the South Grove when it crosses a dirt road that apparently used to be a logging railroad. However, there aren’t any sequoias at first. Turn right at a Y-intersection, following a sign that says "South Grove Loop Trail". The trail almost immediately crosses a little creek and begins to climb a hillside. Here the first sequoias appear, getting off to a great start with a massive tree right by the side of the trail. In all the hillside has a few dozen sequoias, of which maybe six big trees are prominently visible right next to the trail, culminating in two mammoth trees near the trail’s highest point.
As the South Grove Loop Trail descends back to the creek the woods are somewhat less impressive, with fewer sequoias.
At the end of the loop trail, turn right onto the side trail to the Agassiz Tree. This is the best part of the hike. The trail gently climbs through a broad valley with a typically dense pine forest of tall, straight-trunked trees. Here and there are a few big sequoias, most notably a concentration at around the halfway point, where the trail passes between a pair of big trees.
At the end of the trail is the park’s biggest sequoia, the 25-foot-diameter Agissiz Tree. It’s an impressive tree; walk around to the back to see a huge goosepen. Just behind the tree is a fern-lined creek.
It looks like an unofficial trail used to continue up the valley, and the park’s interpretive guide even suggests continuing off-trail past the Agassiz Tree. However, the understory is now so dense that the trail is almost completely gone and it would be slow and unpleasant going. There’s been discussion of extending the official trail, but the park wasn’t able to obtain funding.
On the way back, stay to the right to take the level creekside half of the loop trail. This is the least impressive section of trail in the South Grove; a few sequoias can be seen, especially a cluster of three big trees, but otherwise the sequoias are very widely spaced, and about halfway along the section they peter out altogether.
The Bradley Grove Trail is an unexceptional 2-mile loop that branches off from the start of the South Grove Trail. It passes by one relatively small (but still old growth) outlier, the Lone Sequoia. A second small outlier, the Railroad Tree, grows next to the old logging railroad and can be seen by taking a short side trip off the trail. Bradley Grove itself is a small, easy-to-miss sequoia grove that was planted in the 1950s. There aren’t any other sequoias on the loop.
© 2011, 2012, 2018 David Baselt