Giant Forest With My Daughter

My daughter and I had a great time on our first road trip with her doing most of the driving. We went to Sequoia, camped at Upper Stony Creek Campground, and hiked the Congress Trail and a few short extensions in Giant Forest the next day. I was in Giant Forest snowshoeing in January and knew it would be a fantastic first trip. The major factor for the hiking component of our trip was to go to a place with phenomenal scenery that did not require a lot of effort to traverse because it was my daughter’s first hike in a while. Our hike of only about 3 miles and 450′ of gain over a mostly paved trail was interestingly diverse for such a short stretch of trail and intensely awe-inspiring. Within the first half mile we came upon the General Sherman Tree–the largest tree in the world (by volume).

General Sherman Tree (notice the people at its base)

General Sherman Tree (notice the people at its base)–click to shrink image to your screen size.

It is hard to convey the size of Giant Sequoia trees (which is why I sized the above photo the way I did). Unlike a skyscraper where one can usually see the top of the building from close by (often from a few feet in front of the entry), the branches and leaves of these trees prevent one from seeing the tree top from anywhere near its trunk. As a result photos looking up from the base of Giant Sequoias usually capture half or less of the tree’s height. Trying to internalize their size is an exercise in viewing them from multiple distances and angles in order to both get far enough away to take in their overall form and close enough to tangibly experience a direct relationship of the size of at least one small part of the tree to oneself.

Kyle sitting on the Chief Sequoyah Tree. Photo by Sarah (click to enlarge).

Kyle sitting on the Chief Sequoyah Tree. Photo by Sarah

Sarah inside the base of the Lincoln Tree.

Sarah inside the base of the Lincoln Tree.

One of the signs along the trail states that “the largest sequoias in this area are between 1,800 and 3,000 years old.” Wrapping our minds around the reality that these giant objects in the landscape are actually alive and thousands of years old is something I think we are still working on. Sarah pointed out that these trees remind her of the Ents from Lord of the Rings. That they are living and so old feels more like something from science fiction or fantasy than something we could actually touch. Standing next to one of the larger sequoias and imagining that it was alive before I found myself thinking about history and the fact that the older sequoias lived through it (granted they didn’t “witness” anything outside the grove they live in) and how different that is than the presence of inorganic objects on our planet that are just as old or older.

Young sequoias with giants looming large in the background.

Young sequoias with giants looming large in the background.

With sequoias ranging in age from less than a year old to thousands of years old, the texture of the forest is fascinating to behold. There is a tangible history to it.

Texture of Giant Forest. (Note the people standing next to a fallen giant with a comparatively young sequoia growing out of it).

Texture of Giant Forest. (Note the people standing next to a fallen giant with a comparatively young sequoia growing out of it).

One of the signs along the trail point out that the sequoias “thick fibrous bark provides superior insulation against fire. With little flammable sap, it doesn’t burn easily”. These trees do get hit by lightening which is far more likely to scar them than burn them to a crisp. The likelihood of the older trees being hit by lightening at least once in their life is high enough that there are numerous trees that are still alive but also have significant features associated with surviving such intense strikes. These features were often something to marvel at as we made our way through the forest.

View up Chief Sequoyah standing inside a hollowed out portion of its trunk.

View up Chief Sequoyah standing inside a hollowed out portion of its trunk.

There really is a lot to look at. For a while, Sarah became fascinated with the surprisingly small sequoia pine cones and enjoyed looking for and admiring the most perfectly shaped ones and sharing them with me. Hard as it was to do, we resisted breaking the rules and taking any home with us.

Pine cone of a Giant Sequoia

Pine cone of a Giant Sequoia

We didn’t see many creatures during our trek but we were fortunate to come across a marmot hanging out on some boulders.

Marmot

Marmot

Of course I took more photos along the Congress Trail and am looking forward to returning to Sequoia in July.

Nature’s Version of New York City

Last weekend I journeyed outside of Angeles Forest to Sequoia with Scott Turner.  Scott is the author of the blog 1000 Miles and has already written excellently about our hike on the Marble Falls Trail from our campsite at Potwisha, our snowshoeing trek through Giant Forest, and on Giant Sequoia trees.

As I was snowshoeing through Giant Forest I became aware that my reactions to the trees and forest were similar in some ways to my reactions to the buildings and urbanism of New York City.  Like the skyscrapers of New York, I was in awe of the size of the trees and found them just as difficult to photograph for the same reasons.  I couldn’t get far enough away from a tree to angle the camera in a way that didn’t yield large distortions because other trees got in the way.  Even when the forest opened up a bit allowing a reasonable photo of an individual tree, other trees around it were close enough to falsely appear to dramatically angle inward.  The distortions remain even after cropping out about half of an image that was already in portrait mode to begin with as shown in the cropped photo below.

Scott Turner next to a Giant Sequoia along the Crescent Trail.

Scott Turner next to a Giant Sequoia along the Crescent Trail (click on image to see it shrunk down to fit your screen).

It was during my early attempts to photograph individual trees that I realized that the spatial composition of Giant Forest is proportionally similar to New York City.  So, I started looking for other similarities.  Skyscrapers typically have a ground floor that is articulated differently than the floors above.  The ground floor usually emphasizes the entryway and often has display windows, views into a lobby, or other features to give the building a more human scaled street presence.  Similarly, the transition from the trunk to the root system in the Giant Sequoias is so large as to be proportionately the same scale as the entryway of a skyscraper.  In the snow where the tapering out of the trunk at the base creates a surface for the snow to rest upon, the tree has an even more clearly articulated human scaled trail level presence.

Kyle Kuns at the base of a Giant Sequoia taking in the scale of the tree's connection to the ground.  Photo by Scott Turner.

Kyle Kuns at the base of a Giant Sequoia taking in the scale of the tree’s connection to the ground. Photo by Scott Turner.

I’m told that New Yorkers can easily spot tourists by noticing them stopping frequently to look up, often in a jaw dropped daze as they marvel at the skyline, at times dangerously oblivious to what is taking place at the street level around them.  Residents, on the other hand, are accustomed to the massive non-human scale of the skyscrapers.  On my three visits to New York City, I also looked upward frequently as I was often awestruck by the skyscrapers height and interested to see the tops of the towers and how they met the sky.  In the Giant Forest, I found myself stopping just as frequently along the trail, jaw dropped, and looking up to marvel at the impressive height of the trees for the same reasons.

Looking up from inside as small cluster of Giant Sequoias

Looking up from inside as small cluster of Giant Sequoias.

For brief periods of time the awe inspiring verticality of the environment becomes somewhat peripheral to the immediate ground level focus required to move through the environment.  I say peripheral because there is always an awareness of the skyline even when one is looking straight ahead.  In both places there is a rich and varied texture to the ground level experience.  The skyscrapers in New York City come in various shapes, heights, materials, architectural styles, and functions.  There is a long history of their construction where things like technology and materials evolved allowing for more extraordinary projects to be realized.  The trees in Giant Forest also come in different heights, trunk thicknesses, shapes of their branches, and species.  Some trees have lived thousands of years, some are just taking root.  Both places are full of fascinating juxtapositions.

Trail level texture of Giant Forest.

Trail level texture of Giant Forest (click to enlarge).

In both places there are wonderful surprises.  A good example from New York City is the base of the Citicorp Building.  My favorite one from this trip to Giant Forest was seeing a young Giant Sequoia (taller than me) growing out of a fallen one.

Young Giant Sequoia growing out of a fallen one.

Young Giant Sequoia growing out of a fallen one.

Both places are densely packed with tall structures covering large areas.  They are places of verticality.  Moving through them yields few opportunities for a long view that isn’t simply a view down a street or trail.  There are stretches (usually not very long)  where the buildings or trees that surround while spectacular in another context are average for these places.

Densely packed verticality along the Alta Trail.

Densely packed verticality along the Alta Trail.

Those stretches are important and make any horizontal opening up of the ground level special.  In New York City there are small parks (by NY standards) like Bryant Park and plazas like that of the Seagram Building.  In the Giant Forest there are clearings that provide the horizontal space to bask in more sunlight (when it’s not cloudy or snowing) and  be far enough away from the trees to better take in their splendor (and take less distorted photos).

Small clearing along the Crescent Trail.

Small clearing along the Crescent Trail.

With all their verticality, both places also possess magnificently grand horizontal space where the skyline can be seen with little distortion.  These are places of radically different texture than what surrounds them and of a large enough scale to provide a captivating contrast.  Functionally, other things are going on in these places.  Central Park is the obvious example from New York City.  Meadows (which are technically a different ecosystem than the forest they are surrounded by) are what Giant Forest has for grand horizontal space.

Crescent Meadow (click to enlarge).

Crescent Meadow (click to enlarge).

In New York City, there are large projects involving multiple buildings that create a local place unto their own.  The cluster of buildings is recognizable from afar and there is a real sense of being within their domain as a unique place within the city.  Rockefeller Center is a good example.  In Giant forest there are several impressive groups of trees that grew up together forming a clearly defined local inside and outside.

View looking at the outside of the Parker Group.

View looking at the outside of the Parker Group.

View looking up from inside the Founders Group.

View looking up from inside of the Founders Group.

New York City has numerous individual skyscrapers (like the Empire State Building) that are world famous for their size and design and are destinations unto their own.  Similarly, Giant Forest has several trees that are world famous for their phenomenal size and beauty.  The Giant Sequoia known as The President is an excellent example.  National Geographic recently published an article and a video about The President.  It is worth watching the short video because it shows an elaborately created photo without any distortion that gives the best sense of scale of these amazing trees that I’ve seen.  According to National Geographic, this tree is 27 feet in diameter, 247 feet tall, holds nearly 2 billion leaves, is 3,200 years old, and still growing.  So, having learned about The President before going to Giant Forest, I made it a point to visit it and was definitely impressed by its magnificence.

Kyle Kuns in front of The President.  Vertical Panorama photo by Scott Turner

Kyle Kuns in front of The President. Vertical Panorama photo by Scott Turner

It got pretty cold (my car thermometer read 6 degrees when we left the visitor’s center) on this snowshoeing trek.  We even found ourselves trekking through a light snow fall.  Stopping for long made my hands get painfully cold.  The place is so photogenic, I stopped often anyway and took many photos of the Giant Forest, I even got a couple with bears.  I’m looking forward to returning.