Redwoods Young & Old, Big & Tall

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When the first white man to see a giant sequoia reported his find, he was greeted with disbelief. But the existence of the trees was soon verified and they became a well known tourist attraction.

Naturally there were those who saw lumber and money where others saw a precious treasure to be preserved. Both views had their day, with a moderate amount of logging in the small northern groves in the central Sierra Nevada, and a great deal in the larger and more numerous southern groves. Most notably was the Converse Basin, adjacent to what is now Kings Canyon National Park, where in excess of 3,000 trees were cut.

The giant trees of the Sierra are properly called sequoias (sequoiadendron giganteum). Equally well known in California are the coast redwoods (sequoia sempervirens), which are taller but do not match their cousins in overall size or age.

Shattered redwood log


The sequoia redwoods are highly brittle, and many shattered when they fell. Independent woodsmen often salvaged parts of these chunks by cutting shingles and posts from them. Like the coast redwoods, sequoias resist rot and the remaining wood of this tree is still as solid as the day it fell over a hundred years ago.

They are scattered by the thousands along the western slope of the costal mountains from extreme southern Oregon to the Big Sur country south of Monterey. Coastal fog and winter storms provide a damp environment the year around for these trees, while the sequoias flourish around the 5,000 foot elevation level with dry summers and snowy winters.

The tallest known coast redwood stands more than 365 feet, and hundreds reach the 300 foot mark. Some of the tallest are only 400 to 800 years old, and could reach even greater heights with another five to ten centuries of growth. The largest redwoods reach 20 feet in diameter at chest height, but the average is under 10 feet.

The sequoias have the greatest total bulk of any tree in the world. The General Sherman in Sequoia National Park has long held the title of the largest, at 275 feet in height and a diameter of 30 feet at chest level. The volume is estimated at 50,000 cubic feet. But detailed measurements are difficult and a number of other trees are very close. These are vigorously growing trees as well, so the leader may well be overtaken by a challenger as the years pass.

The oldest known coast redwood was cut in 1934 at the age of 2,200 years. However, most are under 2,000 and the average age of old-growth redwoods is 500 to 700 years. The sequoias of the Sierra reach much greater age; the oldest authenticated age of a downed tree is about 3,200 years. One of the largest, the Grizzly Giant in Yosemite, is 2,700 years old, and a number of the biggest trees appear to be 1,500 to 2,000 years old. These are not the oldest trees in the world; that honor goes to the much smaller bristlecone pines in eastern California’s White Mountains, where trees as old as 4,600 years are found. A sequoia buried in a meadow in the Sierra has been carbon dated to 10,000 years ago, but of course, its age when it fell is unknown.

It is a rare individual who is not awed by the sight of a giant redwood. The famed naturalist John Muir wrote, "There is something wonderfully attractive in this king tree, even when beheld from afar, that draws us to it with indescribable enthusiasm; its superior height and massive smoothly rounded outlines proclaiming its character in any company; and when one of the oldest attains full stature on some commanding ridge it seems to be the very god of the woods."


Young sequoias in Nelder Grove

Dead redwood snage

Young sequoias, the largest about 15 feet tall

An ancient dead snag was once a proud giant like the tree in the background.

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Updated December 8, 2018