Amazing Places

Giant Sequoias Are the Biggest Lifeforms on the Planet

Imagine an ocean made of trees. The deeper you walk into it, the taller the trees grow, until finally they're unfathomably large. Their trunks measure hundreds of feet around; their canopies sway 25 stories above your head. This land of giants is real. Welcome to Sequoia National Park.

"Godlike Grandeur"

It takes a long time for a tree to grow to 250 feet (76 meters). Most estimates place these trees at around 2,000 to 2,500 years each. Between their age and their size, the sequoias almost seem like a power that's greater than anything mortal. When renowned naturalist John Muir walked beneath those branches, he staggered at their sense of "real godlike grandeur," and we don't blame him. These ancients have the presence of a divine force brought to Earth.

One tree of biblical proportions is enough to give you a new perspective on your place in the world, but sequoias don't come solo. They grow in giant groves, some of which can contain tens of thousands of the trees. Some of these 40-some groves wait right off the main road to welcome casual forest explorers, while others are accessible only by a long hike through remote wilderness. Whether you're just visiting an ancient tree while passing through the area or heading deep into the woods to commune with nature, you've got to make room for the giant among giants — the General Sherman Tree.

The King of the Forest

The General Sherman Tree is the largest surviving sequoia in the forest. Actually, it's the largest surviving tree in the world. At its base, the trunk has a diameter of 36 feet (10 meters) and a circumference of more than 100 feet (30 meters). That means it would take more than 17 average adults holding hands to surround the entire thing.

In 2006, the tree lost its largest branch in a storm. At 6 feet (1.8 meters) in diameter and 100 feet (30.5 meters) in length, the branch alone was larger than most entire trees. Don't take that to mean that the tree is in trouble, however. Researchers believe that breaking off branches is a natural survival mechanism to prevent the tree from breaking in powerful winds.

But the General wasn't always the biggest tree in the world. Until 1854, that honor belonged to the Mother of the Forest tree, which grew in what is now Calaveras Big Trees State Park. But some overeager tree fans decided that the best thing to do was to strip the giant of all its bark, then shape that bark back into a tree and send it on a world tour. It was a great way to give people in England a sense of how big the tree was — and also a great way to condemn it to death. The story does have a silver lining, however. The death of the Mother of the Forest and her companion The Mammoth Tree sparked such strong emotions that they led to the modern conservation movement. A greener future is better for all of us, sequoias included.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas July 5, 2017

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