The approach to the world's second-largest tree is a quiet one. There are no crowds pressing to be first in line. There are no cars within a mile of it, and even then just a scant few. There are no rangers herding people along, nor are there restraints around the giant tree preventing a closer approach. No, you can walk right up and hug "Bull Buck"--that's what it's called--like you would your Uncle Bill. There's one other tree taller, but it's not as wide at the base. Bull Buck has a circumference at ground level of 99 feet.
Go see the largest tree, the General Sherman Tree, in Sequoia National Park, if you like--that is, if you can squeeze past the other tourists. But if you want a more meditative experience, if you want to remember an event for the rest of your life and perhaps conjure up the image from time to time to gain some peace of mind, then go to Nelder Grove in Sierra National Forest, just five miles south of the entrance to Yosemite National Park.
A few miles off California 41--about 50 miles north of Fresno and just north of the town of Oakhurst--weave your way on Sky Ranch Road (Road 632) to the grove. You'll enter Sierra National Forest along the way. Follow the signs to the picnic area at the Bull Buck trail head, park, and begin a mile walk into eternity.
The hike is easy enough that even young children can come along. The trail starts to the left of the parking area, weaving through a forest of second-growth pine, fir and incense cedar, with 106 mature sequoia gigantea scattered throughout. Most of the grove's redwoods were harvested in the 19th Century after its original owner, John Nelder, died. Nelder was a Forty-Niner who failed at mining and retreated to this land to become a hermit. He did, however, guide John Muir through the grove when the great naturalist traveled south of Yosemite, a fact mentioned in Muir's writings.
The sight of Bull Buck after about a mile of gentle ups and downs through a dense, mostly evergreen forest has to be one of the most downplayed natural wonders in existence. This behemoth is not treated as if it were a museum piece or tourist attraction, but remains an integral part of the forest. In fact, I wasn't sure at first if it were the right tree because I didn't have a sign directing me. But its unusual size marked it as the probable tree, and a wooden sign and plaque nearby confirmed it.
I had to view the tree from a distance to grasp its stature and size. Then I approached slowly, letting in the fact that it is 2,700 years old. Twenty-seven hundred years, I said to my friend, and then proceeded to name some of the major names and events that happened since that time, like Christ and Buddha and the Battle of Hastings and Mozart and Jefferson and Gettysburg and Little Bighorn and Gorbachev.
The thoughts were a bit overwhelming, so as a kind of reality check, I went up and touched the surprisingly soft and springy bark--bark that helps the sequoia survive fire because of its thickness. I strained my neck to take in all of its 247.31 feet and its 70.69 feet of spread at its crown.
As for photography, no combination of lenses seemed sufficient to capture the grandeur of this tree. From 35- to 200-millimeter, I knew the pictures were doomed to mediocrity, and would not come close to conveying the spirit of Bull Buck.
Nelder Grove also has a self-guided, milelong interpretive walk called "The Shadow of the Giants Trail," starting from nearby Sugar Pine Road. The trail follows Nelder Creek as signs explain the natural history of the giant sequoias and the surrounding environment. You can get more history of the area from Marge and John Hawksworth, volunteer rangers who have lived in the grove for many summers and are usually available to answer questions.
Bull Buck Tree typifies Madera County, which is filled with hidden treasures, somewhat lost in the grandeur of Yosemite. If you're willing to backpack about 10 miles in, for example, you can see an awesome mini-Grand Canyon as the San Joaquin River cuts a deep gorge, guarded by a group of sharp peaks called the Minarets.
If driving is more to your liking, try one of only three roads in California that meander through national forests and have a scenic byway designation. The Sierra Vista Scenic Byway loops from State 41 north of Oakhurst (the same road that leads to Nelder Grove) to North Fork, covering 92 miles of sometimes spectacular forest and mountain scenery. From different vantage points you can view the Minarets and much of the Ansel Adams Wilderness; 13,157-foot Mt. Ritter; a natural wonder called Globe Rock, propped up like a huge bowling ball near the road; Mammoth Pool Reservoir, and the San Joaquin River. Much of this can be seen from Mile High Vista, about 14 miles from North Fork.
The county also has a rich Indian culture, with about 600 Mono and Miwok still living there. There are no separate reservations, but for a great display of Miwok history, visit the Wassama Roundhouse State Historical Park in Ahwahnee. A roundhouse was a structure used for ceremonies connected with births, harvests, mourning the dead and other major tribal events. Such buildings were normally burned when a tribal leader died and a new one was then built. This is one of only three in the entire state, dating back to 1903 and restored in 1985.
As for the Mono culture, the Sierra Mono Museum is in North Fork, the Mono's traditional cultural center. This tribe was known for its intricate baskets, many of which are on display at the museum, along with tools, clothing and medicines used by these people for centuries.
You can get an even closer look at the Mono culture by visiting Gaylen Lee, a Mono Indian, at his North Fork home. Gaylen and his wife, Judy, developed the self-guided Mono Wind Nature Trail with examples of a semi-subterranean sweat house, an acorn granary and tepee-like houses made from slabs of bark from incense cedar. (Such houses were in use up to the 1930s.) Medicinal and food plants are also described, including wild peach for the common cold, black oak for acorn meal and bear clover for whatever ailed you.
From time to time, Gaylen and his mother, Ruby Pomona, give workshops on Mono skills, such as making manzanita berry juice and acorn meal, creating brushes and soap from the soap plant and weaving baskets. The whole project is a tribute to Gaylen's grandparents, who taught him the old Indian ways and skills. The nature trail is not open all the time, so call (209) 877-2710 to make arrangements to stop by and meet the Lees.
There's more to this county, as well. Bass Lake features boating, swimming, shopping and Ducey's by the Lake--a renowned 50-year-old resort that was completely rebuilt in stone and wood after a 1988 fire. Its lakeside rooms have Jacuzzis, fireplaces and beamed ceilings.
The Yosemite Mountain-Sugar Pine Railroad offers a narrow-gauge steam train ride up Lewis Creek Canyon starting at Fish Camp, four miles south of Yosemite on State 41. You're close enough to Yosemite National Park at the end of the day to drive in to see the sunset near Inspiration Point. The Yosemite Valley vista from the turnout beside the Wawona Tunnel on State 41 is one of the most photographed in the world, with views of El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Falls.
We had a picnic dinner at this spot, but you could dine much more elegantly back at Ducey's, as you do your own reflecting on everything that's happened in Bull Buck's lifetime.
Getting there: To get to the heart of Madera County, take Interstate 5 north to U.S. 99 to Fresno, then California 41 north to the Oakhurst area.
Where to stay: Ducey's on the Lake, P.O. Box 109, Bass Lake, Calif. 93604, (209) 642-3131, has deluxe rooms for $100-$210 in winter, $140-$275 in summer. Other upscale accommodations are available at Marriott's Tenaya Lodge, P.O. Box 159, Fish Camp, Calif. 93623, (800) 635-5807, which offers rooms at $149-$350 in summer, from $99 in winter. Budget travelers will be pleased with the Oakhurst Lodge, P.O. Box 24, Oakhurst, Calif. 93644, (800) 521-4447, with rates $40-$60 in winter, $5 higher in summer. Bed and breakfasts include the Pine Rose Inn, P.O. Box 2341, Oakhurst, Calif. 93644, (209) 642-2800, with rooms from $48-$99. For information on camping, call the U.S. Forest Service in Oakhurst, (209) 683-4665; in Bass Lake, (209) 642-3212, or nationwide reservations at (800) 283-CAMP.
For more information: Call the Southern Yosemite Visitors Bureau at (209) 683-INFO or the Bass Lake Chamber of Commerce at (209) 642-3676.