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An autumn walk through Calaveras County’s majestic groves

One hundred and fifty years ago, about 20 miles northeast of a Gold Rush camp near Murphys, hunter Augustus Dowd chased a bear into the woods.

Very big woods, as it turned out. So big that Dowd, a meat supplier, had a hard time convincing his disbelieving customers back at the camp. But soon he persuaded them to travel to the woods, where his account proved to be no tall tale.

The largest specimen in the grove was the Discovery Tree, a 300-foot sequoia with a base more than 24 feet in diameter. In 1853, a year after Dowd discovered it, the tree was chopped down and shipped in sections to New York City, where it was reassembled and placed on exhibit.

The Discovery Tree wowed New Yorkers and, later, Londoners. And to John Muir’s horror, its enormous stump was converted into a dance floor by the grove’s owner.

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Before dozens of other sequoia forests were discovered on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, the North Grove that Dowd discovered in Calaveras County was believed to be the only one. That made it a cause celebre for scientists and environmentally concerned politicians.

Muir suggested that the sequoia grove would be “a fine center for the student and a delicious place for the weary.” He decried the felling of the trees in an angry essay titled “The Vandals Then Danced Upon the Stump!”

More than 1,000 ancient sequoias remain preserved within the 6,500-acre Calaveras Big Trees State Park, which includes Dowd’s North Grove as well as a second group of sequoias, called South Grove. The best way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the trees’ discovery is to walk among them on lovely trails nearby.

Autumn in Gold Country means colorful foliage, pleasant days and nippy nights, as well as uncrowded roads and trails. The state park’s sequoia groves include beautiful reddish mountain dogwood.

Start your visit at the park’s museum and visitor center, where a donation of $1 or more will get you detailed interpretive pamphlets with historical background and maps for North Grove and South Grove trails.

First, some advice: Skip the three-mile, viewless Lava Bluff Trail. The bluff was the bed of the Stanislaus River until a lava flow filled it long ago. Yawn. The river took another course, and so should you.

Instead try a gentle one-mile trail that meanders through North Grove, leading to grand sequoias with names such as Abraham Lincoln, Empire State and the Father of the Forest. Among the path’s sights is the stump of the Discovery Tree and a tree that has a hollowed-out trunk.

Much less visited is the park’s remote South Grove. The trail here offers terrific hiking among a greater number of sequoias, as well as tall sugar and ponderosa pines, incense cedar and a few big leaf maples. The path leads to the 250-foot-tall Agassiz Tree, one of the 10 largest Sierra redwoods.

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You can extend your sojourn on the Bradley Grove Trail. This 2 1/2-mile path loops through land logged in the early 1950s. Park caretaker Owen Bradley planted seedlings around that time, and about 150 sequoias are thriving in the grove, a testament to forest regeneration.

Calaveras Big Trees State Park is off Highway 4, about four miles northeast of Arnold and about 20 miles northeast of Angels Camp.

North Grove Trail starts from the day-use parking area near the park entrance. South Grove Trail starts nine miles southeast, off Walter W. Smith Memorial Parkway.

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See more of John McKinney’s tips at www.thetrailmaster.com.


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