This summer has been spent exploring Calaveras County, but one popular state park still on our list was Calaveras Big Trees with towering groves of Giant Sequoias, hiking trails meandering through the lush Sierra forests, and multiple creeks and rivers to play in.
When exploring options for Labor Day weekend activities, we found out that one of our favorite local dead bands was playing again at the Heart of Gold Cafe in Mountain Ranch that Saturday night. Mountain Ranch is close to the city of Arnold where Big Trees is located, so we decided to make a weekend out of it and head up to go hiking at Calaveras Big Trees on Saturday, see Saints of Circumstance play Saturday night, and then visit California Caverns on Sunday.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Calaveras became a State Park in 1931 to preserve the North Grove of giant sequoias. This grove includes the “Discovery Tree”, also known as the “Big Stump”, the first Sierra redwood noted by Augustus T. Dowd in 1852. This area has been a major tourist attraction ever since, and is considered the longest continuously operated tourist facility in California.
We hadn’t visited Calaveras Big Trees State Park since Carter was about two years old — and to be honest, I don’t really remember much of the trip. I remember being their with my in-laws, visiting the park on Family Day, Carter sleeping in the backpack, and Natalie participating in some activities near the visitor center. But that’s it. I don’t remember anything about the hikes or the big trees, as this trip was in the height of my overwhelm days, when I was working 16-18 hour days, seven days a week, trying to get my business off the ground and stable.
Needless to say, we all were pretty excited to explore two new things on this trip — the giant sequoias and the California Cavern at Cave City.
Calaveras Big Trees Hiking Trails
Before our trip, I researched the Calaveras Big Trees hiking trails to see which trails are best for families and could be done in one day. The state park actually has seven maintained hiking trails to choose from:
North Grove Area
- 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.
South Grove Area
- South Grove Trail:
This trail travels through the South Grove Natural Preserve, home to about 1,000 mature Giant Sequoias, and the largest trees in the park. This moderate trail consists of a 3.5 mile loop through the lower part of the grove, with a .75 mile spur trail leading to the Agassiz Tree — the largest in the park — for a total of 5 miles. The South Grove Trailhead parking area is located nine miles past the park entrance station on the main park road.
- Bradley Grove Trail:
This 2.5 mile, round-trip, moderate loop trail travels to a grove of young Giant Sequoias that were plated in the early 1950s by summer park caretakers and conservationists Owen and Adrienne Bradley. To access the trail, start hiking on the South Grove Trail. Just after crossing the bridge over Beaver Creek, look for a trail sign and box with trail guides and follow the trail to the left.
- River Canyon Trail:
This is not a gentle stroll along the river, but a very strenuous hike into and out of the Stanislaus River Canyon. The hike is 8 miles round trip, with an elevation change of over 1,000 feet. To access the trail, start hiking on the North Grove Trail. Just past marker #2, take the trail to the right and follow it up to the Scenic Overlook (not the Grove Overlook Trail). At the far end of the Scenic Overlook parking lot, you will find a restroom, a display describing the trail, and access to the rest of the trail. From here, you will descend 1,000 feet over three miles to the Stanislaus River. From there, you will retrace your steps, traveling three miles and ascending 1,000 feet back up again to the scenic overlook.
- Lava Bluffs Trail:
This 2.5 mile loop trail will take you through varied environments, across a volcanic formation, and along a historic water ditch. This diverse area hosts the park’s most colorful spring wildflower displays and excellent birdwatching. There are many steep sections along this trail, including some difficult footing. This is the only trail in the park with poison oak. The trail begins at the Lava Bluffs parking area, about 5 miles from the park entrance on the main park road.
- Fire/Dirt Roads:
You are welcome to hike or bike on any of the park’s fire/dirt roads. All are shown on the park map. Dogs are allowed on these roads.
After reviewing all the Calaveras Big Trees hiking trail details, we chose to do the South Grove Trail, including the spur trail to the Palace Hotel Tree and the Agassiz Tree (the largest tree in the whole park), as well as the more popular North Grove Trail and The Pioneer Cabin Tree. These two hikes allowed us to check out all of the famous, notable redwood trees in the park and have us done in time to grab dinner and get cleaned up for our concert later that night.
Our plan was to:
- Get to the park early on Saturday and hike the South Grove Loop Trail first because when combined with the spur trail, it’s a five mile hike. It was the longest hike of our day, so we wanted to get it knocked out first while it was cool.
- Find a great picnic spot for relaxing lunch along the Stanisluas River.
- Head over to the Visitor Center to check out the park visitor information and the store.
- Finish up the day with the North Grove Loop Trail hike when the crowds began to thin.
South Grove Trail
I knew because of it’s length, the Calaveras Big Trees South Grove Trail, would be less crowded, but that is a complete understatement. When we arrived there were only a few other cars in the parking lot, which meant we had almost the entire trail to ourselves, only coming across a few other couples and one other family.
The trail leaves the parking lot, near the restrooms and gently weaves through the brush and an open meadow before reaching a beautiful bridge spanning Beaver Creek. We crossed the bridge, climbed down to the creek bed and explored the area a bit. Then, with promises to spend some more time at the creek not the way back, we grabbed our backpacks and hit the trail.
The first mile and half is uphill and takes you to the start of the South Grove Trail loop. Once you enter the South Grove, you are allowed to go off-trail and explore the giant sequoias up close. The trail took us past enormous redwood tree after enormous redwood tree, each magnificent in its own right. We were able to go inside fire burnouts of some giant sequoias, climb inside fallen trees, and follow the spur trail at the peak of the loop trail out to two absolutely giant sequoias — The Palace Hotel Tree and the Agassiz Tree (the largest tree in the park).
Thankfully, the whole hike back to our car was downhill, which gave us extra time to relax at Beaver Creek and soak our feet in the cool water!
Picnic Area and Swimming Hole
After our hike, even with snacks, we were starving and headed back toward the North Grove to a picnic area we saw by the Stanislaus River. There were tons of open picnic tables under the trees and plenty of parking, so we snagged a tale and ate lunch.
Picnicking is one of our favorite things about our family day trips and adventures. Because I don’t eat dairy, Brian eats no red meat or pork, and Carter eats almost nothing, dining out is often quite lackluster for our family. By packing a picnic lunch, not only are we all able to enjoy our favorite foods, but we’re able to do so in spectacularly gorgeous settings at a much lower price. It also allows my son to get up and play or explore the area when he’s done, instead of being forced to sit at a restaurant table bored to death.
When we finished up lunch, we followed the short trail from the picnic area down to the Stanislaus River. This section of the river had a small sandy beach for kids to play at, lots of shade for relaxing parents, and calm water that creates the perfect family-friendly swimming hole.
While we were just scoping out the area before heading over to the North Grove for more hiking, there were several families at the beach who were spending their whole day there.
Visitor Center And Museum
Near the Visitor Center we found big crowds, more noise, and the only normal, flush restrooms in the whole park — WooHoo! We also found $1.00 ice cream cones and $1.00 popcorn, so the kids were ecstatic! The entire Visitor Center, Museum, and store area is new and the construction is beautiful. It overlooks the campfire program amphitheater and is located right at the start of the North Grove Trail.
We stopped in to get Natalie a new hoodie, Carter some natural tree pencils, and me a Christmas ornament — I collect them from every trip we take so our Christmas tree tells a story of our adventures.
North Grove Loop Trail
After putting our Visitor Center loot back in the truck, we hit the Calaveras Big Trees North Grove Trail, the most crowded and loud trail in the whole park because:
- It is a short, easy, flat trail
- Most of the trail is wheelchair and stroller friendly (when dry)
- It has the most big trees to see in the park all in one place
- It is the closest trail to the park entrance and the Visitor Center
While this hike wasn’t as peaceful and we weren’t able to get as close to most of the huge redwoods as we could on the South Grove Trail, it did have some really spectacular giant sequoias to check out! We were able to check out The Big Stump, The Pioneer Cabin Tree, The Mother And Son, the fallen Father of the Forest, the Siamese Twins, the Granite State Tree, and the Empire State Tree. The Pioneer Cabin Tree was the kids favorite because we could walk right through it and cars used to drive through it!
About The Giant Sequoias
Here are some fun facts to share with your family on the ride to Calaveras Big Trees State Park direct from the Park Activity Guide:
- Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) are the largest trees on earth.
- The most massive Giant Sequoia known is the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park. It is 275 feet tall and 36.5 feet in diameter.
- The oldest known Giant Sequoia lived for 3,200 years.
- The ancestors of Giant Sequoias date back 150 million years to the Jurassic Period and were once widespread across North America and parts of Europe.
- The only place Giant Sequoias grown now is on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. The 75 distinct groves are found within a narrow band about 260 miles long and 15 miles wide at its widest point.
- One cone from a Giant Sequoia contains an average of 200 seeds. A mature big tree can have 7,000 cones, which means each large Giant Sequoia can have as many as 1,400,000 seeds.
- One seed is about the size of a flake of oatmeal. It would take 91,000 seeds to weigh one pound.
- Giant Sequoias have adapted to surviving fire and they actually need fire to clear the ground for their tiny seeds. Tick bark, high branches, and fire-resistant tannins protect the trees from fire.
- Giant Sequoias have shallow roots that can extend 100 feet from the tree.
Know Before You Go
- Located at 1170 California 4, Arnold, CA 95223, Calaveras Big Trees State Park is four miles northeast of Arnold on Highway 4 and about 35 minutes from Angel’s Camp. in Calaveras County.
- Guided Tours. The Visitor Center is only open weekends and holidays for most of the spring. It is open daily from April through November with varying hours. On Saturdays at 1:00 pm there is a 1.5 hour guided hike through the North Grove area of the park that is free with park admission.
- 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 trails in the park aren’t. They are steep, rocky, and at times slippery. This isn’t the time for flip flops or sandals.
- Camping is available. There are two large campgrounds with a total of 129 campsites, five environmental sites, and two group camps.
- Pack water and snacks. While there are some concessions like the $1.00 ice cream and popcorn near the North Grove and the Visitor Center (bring cash), 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.
- Plan to relax at Beaver Creek. Soaking your feet in the cool water feels amazing and your kids are going to beg you to play there anyway. If you’re like me and cringe at the idea of putting dirty socks back on, pack an extra pair of socks in your backpack.
- 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.
- Mountain biking is allowed on the fire roads/dirt roads throughout the park.
- 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.