A grove of giant redwood or sequoias should be kept just as we keep a great and beautiful cathedral.
— President Theodore Roosevelt
Giant Sequoias, the world’s largest trees by volume, are found only on California’s western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. These majestic trees were the impetus behind the creation of the United States’ second and third national parks: Sequoia National Park and General Grant National Park (later expanded and renamed Kings Canyon National Park).
Sequoias can grow to be upwards of a 26-story building in height and over 3,000 years old. They were named Sequoiadendron giganteum, or Sequoia for short, after the Native American man, Sequoyah, who created the Cherokee’s system of writing. In the mid-1800s, Western settlers came across these trees and were awe-struck by their grandeur. Not surprisingly, the largest sequoias were given names of monumental American figures of that time including Lincoln, General Sherman, and General Grant, as well as a sequoia known only as the “President.”
One of the largest tree stumps in the world is known as the Mark Twain Tree. Embodying the American spirit of adventure and storytelling, the Mark Twain Tree was cut down and sent off in cross sections to be displayed in museums in New York and London. Although the parks were created to stop logging, the Mark Twain Tree was cut down, right or wrong, to showcase these wonders of the world and educate the public. Standing before a cross-section and looking at its many rings, we are offered a different perspective on the age and incredible scale of these ancient specimens.
So here we have two separate national parks joined at the hip, very different and with one big thing in common—size. Sequoia National Park has the largest tree on Earth by volume stationed within its boundaries its name is General Sherman. Kings Canyon is home to one of North America’s largest (and most beautiful) canyons, and to the world’s second-largest tree, General Grant.
The Largest Tree in the World
Sequoia National Park is home to the largest tree in the world which stands 275 feet high with a volume of 52,508 cubic feet. Though far from being the world’s tallest tree, this sequoia’s mass is unrivaled across the planet. Named after American Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, the General Sherman Tree is a highly visited feature of the National Park System.
Recently, fires in the area of the Giant Forest sequoia grove made it necessary to take additional steps to protect General Sherman and other giant sequoias. General Sherman’s incredible 36-foot-diameter base and nearly 103-foot circumference were wrapped in foil up to 10–15 feet high to help shield its already thick bark from potential flames. Luckily, a recent program of prescribed fires kept this massive sequoia and its neighbors protected, though, unfortunately, other groves in the surrounding Sequoia National Forest did not fare so well.
This increased threat to the world’s largest tree was brought to national attention and it was used as an opportunity to highlight controversy over its name. One periodical called for the tree to be “saved and then renamed.” General Sherman’s tactics during and after the Civil War were indeed nothing short of brutal. His command oversaw the mass killing of Native Americans and the near extinction of buffalo.
Critics justifiably highlight the paradox inherent in sequoias being named after a Cherokee man while the pinnacle exemplar of the species is ironically given the name of a general who oversaw the mass slaughter and displacement of Native Americans.
Is the answer to America’s past to revise or rename everything that is challenging or can we continue to rationally face these difficult aspects of our history without needing to destroy or rename national landmarks?
Instead of canceling history, it is important to have the past inform the present to avoid making similar mistakes. It is the trees themselves that are great regardless of any given name or historical figure with whom they are associated. The giant sequoias were here long before American colonization, and, God willing, they will remain for millennia to come. In Shakespeare’s famous words, “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Protecting the Trees
On September 25, 1890, Sequoia National Park was created by President Harrison to protect sequoias from private industry. General Grant National Park was created one week later to protect additional groves in the area. Expanded and renamed Kings Canyon National Park in 1940, the park is home to the second largest tree in the world, the General Grant Tree. Named after President of the United States, and General, Ulysses S. Grant, the tree stands 268 feet tall with a volume of 46,608 cubic feet.
President Grant established the National Park Service. This act alone makes it fitting that a giant sequoia is named in his honor. Grant famously oversaw the end of the Civil War at Appomattox, where, on April 9, 1865, a peace agreement was signed with General Lee and no prisoners of war were taken. In 1868, Grant was elected president of a nation still deeply wounded by domestic bloodshed. President Eisenhower made the General Grant Tree a national shrine in 1956 to honor all those who have lost their lives serving our country. It is the only living shrine in the United States.
Nature’s Mightiest Survivors
Everyone who stands at the base of a mighty sequoia for the first time is changed by the experience. These gigantic trees, thousands of years in the making, command a feeling of great reverence. Their presence is felt in the stillness and peace of their groves. While recent fires have threatened and taken the lives of many sequoias, others have survived through many flames long since extinguished. Sequoias are some of nature’s best survivors. They have a very thick skin, so to speak, with bark that can be up to 1.5 feet thick, shielding the living tissue underneath.
Fire plays an essential role in the growth of sequoias and the health of the forest. Through fire come renewal and the opportunity for new sequoias to plant and have the sunlight to grow. Fire clears out natural buildup on the forest floor, making way for new life. Fire severity increases in potential when small fires are prevented from doing this necessary work. Native Americans managed the forest with fire and the National Park Service has learned to do the same with controlled, “prescribed” burns. Sequoia seeds successfully grow into seedlings thanks to the mineral soil cleared, and enriched, by fire.
We can strive to protect these beautiful trees out of genuine love, or attachment, but we don’t own nature, and whether we like it or not, we aren’t in control of its cycles. 2014 marked the most severe drought in 122 years, but that does not mean it is wholly unnatural, or “man-made.” Humanity impacts nature in a variety of ways but it is part of the deception of our time to assume that we are to blame for most of the frightening occurrences or extreme events that happen in nature.
The evidence is written in the rings of trees that were here long before us. Giant sequoias have survived as long as they have because they have learned to live through and grow from adversity. They are known as a “pioneer species” because they are among the first to take root after a fire occurs. There is a humbling and regenerative wisdom amongst these trees that seems to calmly, yet powerfully, whisper, “This too shall pass.” Edwin Markham, American poet of the 19th and 20th centuries, wrote:
The sequoias belong to the silences of the millenniums. Many of them have seen a hundred human generations rise, give off their little clamors and perish. They seem indeed to be forms of immortality standing here among the transitory shapes of time.
Sequoia National Park: 404,063 acres
Kings Canyon National Park: 461,901 acres
Sequoia National Park: September 25, 1890
Kings Canyon National Park: March 4, 1940
Location: Central California
Park Elevation: 1,370 feet-14,494 feet
How the parks got their names:
Sequoia National Park: This park was named after the giant Sequoia tree! The naming of the sequoia tree has a complicated past—some stories say that it commemorates a Cherokee Indian Chief named Sequoya who is well known for giving a phonetic alphabet to his nation; others record that it was named after the tree genus of its close relative—the redwood tree—which was named after the Latin word sequoiadendron giganteum.
Kings Canyon National Park: Kings Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in America—1.5 miles deep—and was named for the Kings River that flows through the base of it creating the canyon. The Kings River also flows through Sequoia and Sierra National Forests.
Iconic sites in the park:
Sequoia National Park: Hands down this honor goes to the General Sherman Tree—the largest tree in the world by volume—so iconic that it was chosen by the National Park Service to represent all trees in all of the parks on the iconic Arrowhead logo insignia. It is estimated that General Sherman is between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. A new, well-established trail to the iconic site was completed in 2006, allowing more space for visitors to wander and to better appreciate the massive size of the tree. The 0.8-mile out and back hike is a breeze, but do go slow—the elevation at the parking lot is 7,000 feet and you most likely climbed by car to get there so you might be a bit light headed on the short walk due to the elevation change.
Kings Canyon National Park: The views on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway took our breath away. It is these views that Sierra Club photographer Ansel Adams captured and shared with the U.S. government to successfully lobby for national park status. Winding down the 50-mile mountain pass you will see wildflowers, forests of trees, sloped mountains, rock formations, and at the base of it all, the Kings River—the stepping off point to the wilds of the Sierra Nevada wilderness.
Did you know…
Sequoia is America’s second national park. It was the first national park to be created to protect a living organism, the giant sequoia tree, which at a time of the park formation was vulnerable to complete destruction due to logging endeavors.
The largest tree in the world by volume is in Sequoia National Park, it’s name is General Sherman. The largest of the sequoias are as tall (on average) as a 26-story building.
The world’s second largest tree by volume, the General Grant Tree, can be found in Kings Canyon National Park. It is not only America’s official Christmas tree, but also a national shrine dedicated to U.S. veterans in 1956. It is estimated to be 2,000 years old.
Mt. Whitney, standing at 14,505 feet, is the highest mountain in the lower 48 states and is located on the eastern side of Sequoia National Park.
A Giant Sequoia Tree’s Guide to Life
Have a thick skin
Stand up to the heat
Don’t let things bug you
Heal your own wounds
Enjoy your days in the sun
Strive for balance
Hold yourself up high
No other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked down on so many centuries as the Sequoia, or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history.
—John Muir, The Big Trees, Chapter 7 of The Yosemite (1912)