Giant Forest is the heart of arguably the best Sequoia grove within what is one of the greatest forests of North America. The mixed-conifer forests in the middle elevations of the Sierras feature some of the largest and most beautiful trees in the country, and this more apparent here than anywhere else. Drop several feet of snow on the scene and Giant Forest becomes a transcendently beautiful, but icy cold, fantasy land.
Distance: 7.7 Miles
Elevation Gained: 1,000′
Critters: A deer on the drive up
Giant Forest gets its name from the Sequoia, or Giant Redwood, which is found in isolated patches on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. I’ve written about this place and these trees in a number of other places, but I will write a blog about the Sequoia soon, since it is a relict species, and I enjoy writing about relict species.
The Sequoias aren’t the only giants in this forest. In fact, the name of this forest is more apt since everything takes on massive proportions. The world’s tallest pines – the sugar and ponderosa – grow here at their maximum vertical expressions. The world’s tallest true fir – the red fir – also grows here at its maximum vertical expression. The trees here commonly exceed 200′, which is often twice the size of what many conifers in other regions of the country reach. The only place where these heights are rivaled in America is on the California coast, where Douglas Fir and Coast Redwood exceed 300′, and the pacific northwest, where Sitka Spruce and Douglas Fir often exceed 300′ as well.
The trees grow so large due to a combination of climate and moisture. Giant Forest sits on a relatively flat, broad shelf that faces west and north. Moisture from the coast climbs the west slope of the Sierras, and, as it cools, it releases most of its moisture between 6,000′-8,000′. Giant Forest sits entirely within this elevation band. Moreover, because it sits on the north-west slope, it is mostly shielded from the drying influence of the sun. Cross over the ridge that separates the north slope from the west slope, and you will see 300′ trees give way to oaks, manzanita, and a few hardy pine trees in a matter of feet.
Finally, since the terrain is relatively flat for a mountain region, there is enough of a water table to support luxurious growths of coniferous trees, as well as ferns, wildflowers, and grasses during the summer months. The water flows through gently-sloped creeks, which often collect in long, broad meadows, around which Sequoias crowd and reach massive proportions. These conditions are not unique, but they are nowhere more perfect anywhere in the world. As a result, Giant Forest features most of the largest Sequoias anywhere in the Sierras.
Kyle and I snowshoed a wide loop through the forest. We started at the Giant Forest Museum and took the Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow access road all the way to Crescent Meadow. This access road is closed during the winter, and when left unplowed creates an easy-to-follow, easy-to-hike trail that leads to some of the most popular features in the park. On this stretch, the weather was clear and icy cold, which allowed us to enjoy the only sunlight we would get on this hike.
As we reached Crescent Meadow, the sky clouded over, and a light snow began to fall. Crescent Meadow is one of the most beautiful places in all of the Sierras. Shrouded in snow, the meadow becomes hushed and still as an amphitheater framed by walls of towering trees. The snow was very deep here, covering the logs that usually criss-cross the meadow.
At this point, we cut north along the west edge of the meadow and into the heart of Giant Forest. Here, the trees reach their maximum size, often assuming inspiring proportions and taking the shape of massive cinnamon-colored pillars with wild, gnarled crowns. Some of the branches on these trees are as large as an average fir tree. Many of the crowns have been struck by lightning, forming bizarre shapes.
Along the way, we walked through Circle Meadow. Walking through a meadow is usually forbidden since it’s such a fragile ecosystem. However, with nighttime temperatures falling below 0 degrees, the meadow below us was frozen solid, allowing us to walk through the snow. Here, the sky opened up, and the snow became somewhat heavier, although never uncomfortable. Standing in the long open space, surrounded by trees was inspiring.
After Kyle got his chance to see the President, which is one of the most impressive trees here, we turned back on the Alta Trail, which quickly vanished in the snow. I had the sketchy idea of turning north toward the main road, although I could not be sure where that was exactly. After a few nervous moments walking along a steep slope with snow almost waist-deep, we spotted a car cruising along General’s Highway. We dropped down from the slope and trekked the last 1.7 miles on the road, virtually ignored by all the passing cars.
We had made the long loop through icy cold, chilled fingers, deep snow, and thousands of superlative trees. This was one of the most memorable, if not the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever taken, and it will be a long time before I forget passing through one of my favorite places in unbelievably gorgeous winter conditions.