After breakfast on Wednesday, May 25, we climbed into the Jeep and drove the short distance from Hodgdon Meadow Campground to the trailhead for Merced Grove. Merced Grove is the smallest of the three Giant Sequoia groves in Yosemite National Park. The largest and most famous, Mariposa Grove, was closed for restoration until 2017 so we would be making our first acquaintance of the Giant Sequoias at Merced Grove. Happily, while Merced Grove has only about twenty mature Giant Sequoias (compared to Mariposa Grove’s five hundred), it is the least visited of the three and the most likely spot to have some seclusion among the big trees.
We parked the Jeep and set off on the moderate hike to the grove around 10:15am. The hike is a three-mile out and back with an elevation change of about 530 feet.
The trail begins on a broad path, which also functions as a limited access road. The scale of the road combined with the scale of the trees (although we were still nowhere near the Giant Sequoias) made everything feel gigantic.
After about half a mile, a proper foot trail split off from the road.
After continuing as a level path for a bit more, the trail began to descend a slope, dropping elevation with some earnestness.
Largely the path hugged the side of slope, winding its way down rather than plunging in switchbacks.
After about three quarters of a mile, we spotted our first Giant Sequoia to the left some ways from the trail. The light cinnamon-red bark, gently scored trunk, and huge girth were dead giveaways that we had arrived among the Sequoias.
Around one more bend in the trail, a cluster of five Sequoias welcomed us to Merced Grove.
Giant Sequoias are the largest trees on the planet. They are also the largest living things on the planet. Redwoods are taller. Bristlecone Pines are older. But for sheer size, Giant Sequoias are the champions.
Giant Sequoias grow only at elevations between 4,600 and 7,000 feet on the western slopes of the central Sierra Nevada. Here the dry, sunny summers and snowy winters create ideal conditions for these huge trees.
A century of well-intentioned fire suppression efforts hurt the trees’ reproduction cycle, which needs periodic low-intensity fire to clear brush and to dry cones and cause them to open and distribute seeds. In the past forty years, the National Park Service has cared for Giant Sequoia groves by conducting controlled burns and letting natural wildfires burn.
The fibrous bark of the Giant Sequoia is highly fire resistant. Many mature trees show fire scarring from centuries of blazes that removed competitor species and helped the Sequoias regenerate.
It is to the Giant Sequoia’s great benefit that its wood is brittle and essentially useless for construction. Its lack of commercial usefulness saved the tree from being wiped out by nineteenth century logging. This, and its remarkable size, allowed it to be set aside for protection, first as part of the 1864 Yosemite Grant, and later as part of the trio of 1890 National Parks: Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant. Had the tree been commercially valuable, there is little chance it would have been spared, let alone celebrated and preserved in three of the earliest National Parks.
Although not the oldest tree, Giant Sequoias still live a very long time. The oldest specimen is estimated to be 3,500 years old.
In Merced Grove, some of the more ecologically sensitive areas around trees are fenced off, but the trail winds past many trees that visitors can go up to, touch, and make the acquaintance of. Even with a bunch of trees not fenced off, a family of French-speaking visitors blithely climbed over the fences to go over and touch the fenced-off trees and trample ground around them.
In the midst of the grove is the Merced Grove Ranger Station, completed by the Park Service in 1935. It was used periodically as a summer retreat for Yosemite National Park superintendents.
We walked the trail a bit past Merced Grove, where the Giant Sequoias gave the forest back to White Fir and Ponderosa Pine.
Then we turned around and began our ascent, back through Merced Grove.
There were a fair number of people with us on the trail, likely more than there would have been had Mariposa Grove not been closed. Still, there were few enough on this Wednesday morning that at times we had the grove to ourselves.
On the way back out of the grove, we spent some time totally alone with the cluster of five Giant Sequoias that had first greeted us.
It wasn’t until a couple of hikers rounded the bend to be greeted by these trees that we said our farewell and began the hike back up the trail in earnest.
Between Sean’s cold, now fully settled in on him, and my lingering dry cough, the mile and a half, 530-foot climb back out of Merced Grove was much tougher than it should have been or usually would have been for us.
By the time we reached the broad, level road portion of the trail, I was fairly winded and Sean was feeling a bit rough.
We arrived back at the Jeep around 12:20pm, a touch more than two hours after we’d set out. Back in the Jeep, Sean let himself admit that he was sicker than he’d thought. He popped some vitamin C and stuffed some kleenex in his nose. I suggested that we could return to camp, but he said no, let’s go to the valley and get some lunch. And so I pulled out onto Big Oak Flat Road and headed for Yosemite Valley.