Trees That Please Part I

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An early alarm call could only mean one thing – it was hit the road day again. This time it was a slightly shorter 340 miles and a rather more straightforward route down the freeway. We had considered taking a more scenic route through Yosemite, which would have been a similar distance, but would have added about 4 hours to the journey time. However as it happened that option was not available as the road was still blocked by the winter snow – its highest elevation is about 9,500 feet and is not expected to be open until the end of June.

We made our way away from Lake Tahoe and headed down the mountain passes to the freeways in the valley below. Driving through the city of Folsom we looked for the prison so we could sing along to Jonny Cash’s blues classic, but perhaps for that very reason the road does not go passed it. By lunchtime we were through Fresno and on the road to Giant Sequoia National Park – for me there was a great sense of anticipation growing as this has long been my favourite of the parks. I was hoping that it would not disappoint.

On the freeway in the valley, the temperature was in the high 20s Celsius, but started to drop as we steadily began to climb into the mountains again. As a rule of thumb the temperature will drop by anaverage of a couple of degrees or so for every 1000 feet you ascend, so by the time we got to the park entrance at 5000 feet it was down to a much more comfortable 18. Unfortunately it proceeded to drop further as the sky also darkened dramatically and by the time we reached the Grant Village visitor centre, it was down to 8 and we were in a repeat cycle of the monster hail we’d had at Lassen – was this a National Park special, put on just for us we wondered?

Fortunately it was short-lived and after a brief pause to pick up trail maps and leaflets on how to deal with bears who approach you: either (a) run at them, making as much noise as possible (aye, ok, you first…), or (b) if it’s a grizzly, lie on the ground and pretend to be dead (hmm, right, as if a grizzly sniffing you isn’t going to lead to the sudden opening of an orifice or two and give the game away…)

Having been on the road for 5 hours or so we were reaching cabin fever point so we parked up in a layby advertising a trail to a viewpoint and had another of what was now becoming our customary rock scrambles. 20 minutes later and we were atop the hill in the sunshine with a panoramic view of the park with its mountains, valleys and cascading waterfalls and we were all alone – just blissful. We chilled for a good while until the rumbles of thunder got too loud to ignore any more (we were after all the highest and pointiest things in the immediate area) and so we headed back to the car and made our way to our hotel – Wuksachi Lodge.

As I’ve previously written about the Giant Sequoias, I shan’t go into all the details again; however, the following is a quick fact-list to refresh the memory.

1. They only grow naturally in a narrow 260-mile strip on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, primarily between 5,000 and 7,000 feet in elevation – this is because of their climate and environmental requirements.

2. With a lifespan of up to 3,000 years they are the 3rd longest-living tree species, can grow as high as 300 feet, with branches up to 8 feet in diameter and bark up to 2 feet thick (which also is flame-resistant). Although most of the tallest get struck by lightening, causing the top 30% of the tree to fall off; but this though does not kill them and they continue to grow outwards rather than upwards, putting on the beef rather than the height, as it were…

3. They were extensively logged during the 19th century, before we understood the damage we were doing – an astonishing 95% of the trees were felled – however rather sadly the resulting wood is brittle and therefore not a great deal of use to us. Doh!

4. The largest Giant Sequoia is the General Sherman and it is the largest living organism in the world – please don’t anyone start on me about The Great Barrier Reef – because although only 83m (275 feet) tall, the diameter and circumference of its base are 11m (36 feet) and 31m (102 feet) respectively. This gives it a total mass of 1,487 cubic metres (52,500 cubic feet) – which is the equivalent of just over 13 double decker buses. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it Lothian Transport…