On our day trip to Calaveras Big Trees over Labor Day weekend, we walked/hiked more than 9 miles through the South Grove Trail, Beaver Creek, the picnic area and beach along the Stanislaus River, and the North Grove Trail.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park, located in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains north of Yosemite National Park in Calaveras County, is a perfect day trip destination for Sacramento area families. Whether you want to hike through both groves of giant sequoias, or walk the short North Grove Trail and enjoy a picnic by the river, or skip the hiking all together and just have a play day at the river, this state park has you covered.
We kicked off our day with the South Grove Trail because it was going to be the longest single hike of the day. After hiking the South Grove Trail and the spur trail out to the famous Agassiz Tree, playing in Beaver Creek, and enjoying a picnic lunch in the shade, we headed over to the North Grove area to check out the Visitor Center and museum, grab some ice cream comes for the kids, see The Big Stump, and walk the North Grove Trail.
We were especially excited to see The Pioneer Cabin Tree — a giant sequoia that had a tunnel cut through it for thousands of tourist vehicles to drive through. When the tunnel was cut through the tree, the land it was on was a private resort and the owners wanted an attraction that competed with the Wawona Tunnel Tree that had been cut in Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove. While the Wawona Tunnel Tree was killed by the cutting process and eventually fell in the 1960s during a storm, the Pioneer Cabin Tree stands firm, still showing signs of new growth.
UPDATE: On January 8, 2017, during a severe winter storm, the Pioneer Cabin Tree finally fell.
The Pioneer Cabin tree has fallen! This iconic and still living tree — the tunnel tree — enchanted many visitors. The storm was just too much for it.
The Calaveras Big Trees Association
Calaveras Big Trees North Grove Area
In 1852, the Calaveras Big Trees North Grove was the first grove of giant sequoias in the California to be discovered by white settlers. It became a state park in 1931, with the South Grove coming under state protection in 1954. There are three maintained hiking trails in the North Grove, including the:
- North Grove Trail:
A gentle 1.7 mile loop hike that takes you through the historic grove of Giant Sequoias discovered in 1852. The Big Stump, Mother and Father of the Forest, and the Pioneer Cabin Tree (at one time a “drive through” tree) are all located on this trail, as well as about 100 very large Giant Sequoias. The trail begins and ends at the far end of the North Grove parking lot. When dry, the trail is stroller friendly.
- Three Senses Trail:
Located next to the Big Stump, this is a very short loop trail of just a few hundred yards that delivers a sensory experience of the forest.
- Grove Overlook Trail:
This trail begins a short distance beyond the big stump, branching off of the North Grove Trail. It climbs the ridge above the grove and parallels the North Grove Trail for about .5 mile to provide views of the upper parts of the Big Trees. It rejoins the North Grove Trail near the Father of the Forest.
Calaveras Big Trees Visitor Center
The Calaveras Big Trees Visitor Center is the place to go for information about the state park. With a book store and gift shop, you’ll also find unique and creative gifts and souvenirs — we stopped in to pick up a hoodie for Natalie, some tree pencils for Carter, and a Christmas Ornament for me. (I get one on every trip we take.) Also located at the Visitor Center, is a kid-friendly museum with many large and small mammals on display, as well as hands on items your kids can pick up and look at up close. Admission to the museum is included with paid admission to the park.
The North Grove Trail leaves from the Visitor Center.
North Grove Trail
The North Grove Trail is a 1.5 mile, gentle, well-marked, loop trail that meanders through the North Grove of Giant Sequoias and takes about an hour to walk. On the trail, you’ll not only see magnificent giant sequoias, but also Sugar Pines, White Fir, Incense Cedar and Ponderosa Pines in their natural settings, as well as giant fallen redwoods and Big Trees Creek.
The North Grove Trail starts out at The Big Stump. Discovered in 1853, The Big Stump was originally known as The Discovery Tree. Famous for being one of the biggest trees in the world, a group of businessmen cut it down and took it on the road as a traveling exhibit. The exhibit failed miserably and the stump was then used as a platform for bands and dances. At the time the tree was cut down, it measured 24 feet in diameter at its base and by ring count, was determined to be 1,244 years old.
Once inside The North Grove, there are numbered trail markers at each notable giant sequoia that correspond with an informational brochure you can pick up in the Visitor Center (or download here). By following the trail markers and checking the brochure, you and your family can learn the stories and history of the towering giant sequoias, including the Three Graces of Greek Mythology, The Pioneer Cabin Tree, The Abraham Lincoln tree, The Sacrificial Tree, The Father of the Forest, Old Bachelor Tree, Siamese Twins, the Granite State Tree, and the Empire State Tree.
Know Before You Go
- Download The Park brochure
- Calaveras Big Trees State Park is located at 1170 E Highway 4, Arnold, CA 95223 (four miles northeast of Arnold on Highway 4) in Calaveras County.
- Wear tennis shoes or good hiking shoes. While the North Grove Loop Trail is flat and mostly on a wooden boardwalk, the rest of the area is covered in a layer of dusty dirt that will completely coat your feet. Plus, the rest of the trails can be steep, rocky, and at times slippery.
- Pack water and snacks. While there are some concessions like the $1.00 ice cream and popcorn near the Visitor Center, that is it unless you want to leave the park and eat in Arnold. Be sure you pack enough water for your everyone in your family to stay hydrated, and pack a picnic lunch and plenty of healthy snacks.
- Get to the park early. Calaveras Big Trees State Park gets very crowded on the weekends. For the best experience and the fewest crowds, be sure to arrive at the park early in the day, or plan on visiting during the week.
- Know your restrooms. The only normal, flush restrooms are located near the Visitor Center. All other restrooms are vault toilets (pit toilets) and they are only at the trailhead parking areas and picnic area parking lot.
- No dogs on trails. Dogs are welcome in the park, on leash, in developed areas like picnic sites, campgrounds, roads, and fire roads (dirt). Dogs are not allowed on the designated trails, nor in the woods in general.