Forests of Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant National Parks
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By C. L. HILL, Forest Examiner, U. S. Forest Service.

1In the preparation of this manuscript use has been made of many publications, especially those of the late Prof. William R. Dudley, of John Muir, and of George B. Sudworth, to all of whom grateful acknowledgmnent is made.

The forests of Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant National Parks in the central and southern Sierra Nevada are said by naturalists and travelers to surpass any other of their kind in the size and beauty of trees and the number of species represented. The forest is predominantly a coniferous one. The broad-leaf trees, while represented by a comparatively large number of species, are mostly small, unfit for lumber production, and, with the exception of the oaks, are mostly confined to the stream courses and moist flats. Within these parks are found not less than 10 species of pines, 2 of true firs, besides the Douglas fir, and 1 each of cedar, hemlock, and the so-called nutmeg, while among the broad-leaf trees there are 6 species of oak, 2 each of alder, cherry, maple, and dogwood, 1 cottonwood, an aspen, the bladder nut, the so-called mountain mahogany, and several willows. Several of the broad-leaf species, however, and one conifer, the nutmeg, seldom or never grow to be more than shrubs in this region.

Nowhere do all these species grow together. For just as people differ in their likes and dislikes, so each kind of tree has its own preferences and peculiar requirements as to the moisture, heat, light, and soil upon which its life and growth depend.

One of the most striking features of the Sierra forest, which impresses the traveler journeying into it, is the broad belts into which the forest is divided, approximately in accordance with elevation. These belts are due to the effect of the altitude on the moisture and heat which are available to the trees. To be sure, at the same altitiide a ridge or south slope may be so hot and dry as to permit a displacement of the forest prevalent at that altitude by an extension of the one below it; or, a protected gulch may be so moist and cool as to permit the downward extension of the type above it. These lines between the types are seldom level or in any other way hard and fast, but the different forest types and belts are still very real and discernible.


As one approaches the mountains from the hot, treeless valleys on his way to the parks the first trees met, except in the moist water courses, are stunted and scattered oaks, which begin to appear upon the foothills. Higher, on the approaches to the Yosemite Park, there begins to appear, at about 1,000 feet elevation, the straggling, irregular-branching, gray leaved digger pine mixing with the oaks and brush. This mixture of trees, or forest type as it is called, continues for some 2,000 feet higher, more or less, according to conditions. Throughout its range this type is interspersed frequently with heavy chaparral brush. Within the Yosemite Park it is found only on the lower slopes of the deep canyons of the main rivers, such as the South Fork of the Merced into which one looks from the Wawona Road, in the southern part of the park. In the region of the Sequoia and General Grant Parks the digger pine does not grow, but the oak and chaparral continue to the main forest belt at about 4,000 to 5,000 feet elevation. The digger pine is of no importance as a lumber tree. Its wood is heavy and resinous and has a high fuel value, but is brash and very difficult to split. It is, however, a picturesque scenic element in a country where better pines can not grow.


At an elevation of about 3,000 feet in the Yosemite region and 4,000 feet in that of the Sequoia and General Grant Parks one begins to see the trim trunk and the slender, cylindrical crown of long, glossy needles of the yellow pine. In the Yosemite the appearance of the yellow pine is gradual; at first it is seen in protected spots among the digger pine, which it more and more displaces as the altitude increases. In the southern region the oak and chaparral give way, for the most part suddenly in a clearly defined line, to the forest of yellow pine. In this forest the yellow pine is sometimes pure, but usually one can soon notice, scattered occasionally among the yellow-pine trees, the tapering, heavily ridged trunk and drooping, feathery-foliage sprays of the incense cedar. This cedar is easily distinguished from the pines by its leaves, which, instead of being long needles, are like small green scales closely clothing the slender flexible twigs. The usual proportion of the two trees in this type of forest is about 90 per cent pine and 10 per cent cedar.

On ridges and exposed slopes the yellow pine often grows alone, but is likely to be stunted and scattered. In the moist ravines, where the soil and moisture are most favorable for both species, the cedar, by its superior power of living in the shade, often captures from the yellow pine a larger proportion of the ground than it normally occupies.

Scattered throughout the yellow-pine type are oak trees—on the drier slopes and ridges the California black oak and in the well watered flats the holly-leaved or maul oak. Both these trees grow to large size, especially the holly-leaved oak. Brush is also frequent within the yellow-pine type wherever openings afford access to the sun, but the pines rise over the oaks in lordly height and give the predominant character to the forest.

A large portion of the roads leading through the outer part of the Yosemite Park to the valley proper run through this type, which also covers the floor of the valley. In the Sequoia Park the proportional area covered by this type is much smaller. The type is largely passed as a continuous body before one reaches the General Grant Park.


At an elevation of about 4,000 feet in the Yosemite and about 5,000 feet in the Sequoia and General Grant Parks, sugar pine begins to appear in the forest, and shortly above these elevations, in the steep moist gulches, appears the white fir.

Sugar pine can immediately be distinguished from the yellow pine by its closely checked bark and its short, silvery foliage on wide spreading branches, from the tips of which hang its tremendous cones.

The white fir has very short needles thickly clothing the slender branchlets in sprays which are flat and fanlike, and the tree always retains a distinct pyramidal form.

Sugar pine seldom grows in pure stands or forms even one-half of the forest, but it is so valuable a timber and so striking a feature of the forest in which it grows that this forest is known as the sugar-pine type. For the first 1,500 feet or so after entering this type the bulk of the forest is still yellow pine, with a mixture of 15 to 40 per cent of sugar pine, and cedar in about the same proportion as in the yellow-pine type. The sugar pine demands more moisture than the yellow pine, so that it is confined largely to the well-watered flats and the easterly and northerly slopes which, by reason of their exposure, are cool and moist. On the steeper southern and western slopes the heat and dryness compel the sugar pine to give way to the upward extension of the yellow-pine type. In the steep, moist watercourses the yellow pine is displaced in the forest mixture by white fir, and the forest is one of white fir, sugar pine, and cedar. As one passes higher toward the 6,000-feet elevation, the increasing coolness enables the fir to encroach upon the yellow pine to a larger and larger extent, and above 6,000 to 7,000 feet the usual forest is that of white fir, sugar pine, and cedar. In the best watered places at this altitude the white fir, by its dense growth, may crowd out the light-loving sugar pine. At this elevation the yellow-pine type is confined entirely to the warm less ferthe slopes and ridges, and the yellow pine of the lower elevations is replaced partially or entirely by the Jeffrey pine, which is a closely related form much the same in appearance, but distinguishable by its large, heavy cones and the unmistakable odor of pineapple, which can be detected in the deep crevices of its heavy trunk bark.

At about 7,000 feet in the Yosemite region and 7,500 in the Sequoia and General Grant Parks the total heat of the growing season begins to drop below the requirements of the sugar pine, which is restricted to warm exposures, more and more of the forest area being surrendered to the hardy fir. The incense cedar also disappears at about the same altitude as the sugar pine.

The Jeffrey pine clings to its precarious hold on the rocky ridges and sunny slopes to an elevation of perhaps 500 feet above the sugar pine; but finally it, too, vanishes, and the fir reigns supreme over the forest.

In scattered groves through the central and southern Sierras, but mostly in the sugar-pine forest type, is found the giant sequoia, the forest monarch of the world; the oldest, largest, and most majestic of all earth's living things. Description of this tree, however, will be better understood if a general survey of the forest types of the Sierra region is first completed.

In favored spots in the sugar-pine type, and also in the upper part of the yellow-pine type in Yosemite Park, occurs another tree, the Douglas. fir. This is the same tree which grows to such magnificent dimensions in the Pacific Northwest. Here, however, it is not in its region of best growth and does not equal either the yellow pine or the sugar pine in size. Its foliage is much like that of the true firs but is less dense, and the tree is always distinguishable from its associates in the Sierra forests by its gracefully pendant twigs and branchlets. A fine specimen of the Douglas fir stands directly by the Wawona Road, near where it crosses Alder Creek, at what is known as Mosquito Camp in the southern part of the Yosemite Park. This tree does not grow in the Sierras as far south as the Sequoia and General Grant Parks.

The oaks which grew in the yellow-pine belt continue into the sugar-pine type, but diminish both in size and number. At this elevation there is also some brush in the forest openings and on exposed slopes it may be exceedingly dense, but the species are different from those found below the sugar-pine type.


This type is more nearly pure than any heretofore described. But, while it is thus nearly all composed of fir, the white fir is not long alone, for at about the altitude where the sugar pine disappears one can begin to see, among the sharp spires of the white fir, the more rounded domes of the great red fir.

The fir forest holds its sway for from 1,000 to 2,000 feet. This is the region of long winters, storms, and heavy snows. The forest is dense and dark, strikingly in contrast with the open, sunny character of the lower Sierra forests. Yet the delicate tracery of the fir's feathery fronds gives to it a beauty of its own, and the sparkling mountain meadows, which dot this forest type more frequently than any of the others, are a perennial source of pleasure to the traveler.


Finally even the red fir gives way to the increasing cold. But above the fir there are not wanting several hardy pioneers of the tree world to push their way out among the rocks and snow. Around the meadows and down the edges of many streams in the fir type, and pushing its way out upon the rocky slopes and heights beyond, wherever there is a little water seepage, may be found the lodgepole pine, often called tamarack by the California mountaineers. In the upper regions of the Tuolumne in Yosemite Park this slender, graceful, two-leaved pine covers large areas above the limits of other merchantable tree species.

Coming across from the eastern slope of the mountains, and not uncommon at high altitudes south of the Kings River, is the desert or single-leaved pinyon pine. As far north as the Yosemite this tree has been found on the western slope in only one place—in the Piute Creek gorge above the Tuolumne River.

Perched on the high basins and on the rocky spurs of the peaks, a southward wanderer from its northern home in Idaho, Washington, and British Columbia, may be found the western white pine; and even more hardy, venturing out upon the bleakest summits, the last outpost of the trees in their conquest of the rocks, are the white-barked pine and mountain hemlock. Seldom, however, do trees extend above 10,000 feet in the Yosemite region and 11,000 feet in the Sequoia and General Grant Parks. At 11,500 feet the last outpost of the forest is passed.


Such is the Sierra forest in its general outline. There has been reserved until last the account of the noblest tree of them all—the giant sequoia. It could not well be described in the general purview of the forest since it occurs, for the most part, only in detached groves, and, while it finds its home chiefly within the altitudinal limits of the Sugar-pine type, it extends in the southern part of its range both downward into the yellow-pine type and upward into the fir. The range of this sequoia is exceedingly limited. It grows nowhere except on the western slopes of the Sierras, and here only from Placer County on the north to Tulare County on the south.

FIG. 1.—Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park. The Mariposa Grove is situated in the southern portion of the Yosemite National Park, 35 miles from Yosemite Valley. There are two other groves of big trces in the Yosemite National Park—the Tuolumne Grove of 20 trees 17 miles northwest of Yosemite Valley and the Merced Grove of 40 trees 9 miles northwest of Yosemite Valley. Photograph by Pillsbury Picture Co.

In the Yosemite Park there are three groves of the big tree—the Tuolumne Grove, 1-1/2 miles northwest of Crane Flat Station, on the Coulterville Road, and 17 miles from Yosemite Village; the Merced Grove, a few miles southwest of the Tuolumne Grove; and the Mariposa Grove (fig. 1). which may be reached by road from Wawona, at the southern extremity of the park. The Mariposa is the largest of these groves, containing in its two divisions about 545 trees. The Merced Grove contains 40 trees and the Tuolumne not more than 20. The most famous tree in these groves is the Grizzly Giant (figs. 2 and 3), in the Mariposa Grove. This tree is 93 feet 7 inches in circumference at the ground and 64 feet 6 inches at 10 feet above. It has a height of 204 feet. It has been supposed by many to be the largest tree in existence, but it can hardly sustain this claim.

FIG. 2.—The Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park. Height, 204 feet; 93 feet in circumference and 29 feet in diameter at base; 64 feet in circumference and 20 feet in diameter at a point 10 feet above the ground. Photograph by Pillsbury Picture Co.

FIG. 3.—Base of Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park. Photograph by Pillsbury Picture Co.

Size of big trees in Mariposa Grove.
[All dimensions are in feet.]

Trees. Girth
10 feet
10 feet
Grizzly Giant9329.664.520.5204
Faithful Couple9429.96320244

Old Guard (South Tree)4514.3319.9244
General Sherman632041.513.2267
General Grant6721.34213.4271

General Sheridan7624.25116.2263
St. Louis7323.25116.2269

William McKinley7022.346.514.8243
General Logan7624.249.515.7259
Galen Clark59.518.94714.9238

Wawona (26 feet through opening)----60.519.2227
New York5216.545.514.5237
Forest Queen53.5173812.1219

Capt. A. E. Wood5216.54012.7310
Mark Twain5316.94113331

Stonewall Jackson5316.938.512.2265
South Carolina7423.554.517.3264

Southeastward from the Mariposa Grove, along the Sierra Range, there are only two widely separated groves until the Kings River is crossed. On the southern drainage of the Kings and its south fork lie several groves of the big trees. The largest of these lies in the Converse Basin. Here appears one of the most striking changes in the distribution of the big tree, for here the sequoia, instead of being confined to isolated groves, spreads out over hill and valley to form a veritable forest. It is sadly unfortunate that most of the sequoia-covered areas here, as elsewhere outside the few national parks, are privately owned and are disappearing before the attacks of the lumberman. The Converse Basin area has been almost entirely lumbered. The sequoia trees are so huge that ordinary lumbering methods are powerless, and the trees have to be dynamited to reduce them to dimensions which can be handled and sawed, and often one-half or three-fourths of the tree is so shattered as to be useless. This waste is so excessive in proportion to the amount saved for usefulness to man, and the profit to the lumberman, largely because of this waste, is so small that it is doubly sad to see thus needlessly sacrificed a tree which is unique in size and grandeur and age and of which there are so relatively few as to make it a priceless legacy from the hoary ages of the past.

Almost at the top of the divide which separates the Kings and the Kaweah Rivers lies the General Grant National Park, inclosing the big-tree grove of the same name. This park has an area of 4 square miles and ranges in altitude between 6,000 feet on the west and 8,000 on the east. The big trees are confined to the northeastern portion, and were originally a part of the Converse Basin Forest. The grove consists of about 262 trees and contains an unusual proportion of exceedingly large ones. The largest tree is the General Grant (fig. 4). It is 107 feet 4 inches in circumference at the ground and about 69 feet (or 23 feet in diameter) at 12 feet above the ground. It is 264 feet in height.

FIG. 4.—General Grant tree, General Grant National Park. Height, 264 feet; diameter, 35 feet. The General Grant Grove, in the park of the same name, has an area of 235 acres and contains 190 trees exceeding 30 feet in diameter.

Between the General Grant Park and the Sequoia Park lies the Redwood Mountain Forest, privately owned and lumbered to a considerable extent. This forest is notable because it exhibits, for the first time in a southward journey over the distribution of the big tree, another notable circumstance in its behavior. For while the sequoia generally grows scattered through the forest of other trees, much as does the sugar pine, and to the north grows entirely in this manner, in the Redwood Mountain Forest it covers a considerable area in nearly or quite pure stand.

The Sequoia National Park includes seven townships or about 252 square miles. It contains 11 groves of big trees, of which the largest is the Giant Forest (see title-page). In the northern part of the park, reached by the Old Colony Road, are the Dorst Creek Groves, on the stream of that name, which is a tributary of the North Fork of the Kaweah River. They contain 766 trees. In the southeastern part of the same township is also the small Swanee River Grove.

The Giant Forest, next to the south, lies on the Marble Fork of the Kaweah, near its mouth. This noble forest, named by the venerable naturalist, John Muir, has an area of about 10 square miles and contains about 5,000 trees. Part of this forest is in private ownership, but the trees have been protected from destruction, and this forest constitutes the largest forest intact of this species. Its largest tree is the General Sherman (fig. 5) which is 103 feet in circumference at the ground and 82 feet 4 inches at 12 above the ground. It is now 280 feet high, but, like most of the giants, was once much taller, having lost many feet of its top by lightning. In volume of wood, at least this tree seems to have valid claim to be called the largest known tree; although if form and freedom from damage be counted, its claim may well be disputed by the Boole tree in the Converse Basin.

FIG. 5.—General Sherman, Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park. Height, 286 feet; diameter, 36 feet.

On the East Fork of the Kaweah River, 3 miles west of Mineral King, are the East Fork forests, of which the northern and larger one is 3 miles long by a half mile wide. These groves have been much injured by lumbering. On many other streams through the southern part of the park are groves, forming a more or less interrupted forest of the big trees. They then pass over the divide into the basin of the Tule River, where the most extensive forests of the species are found. Farther south the trees diminish, both in numbers and size, and south of Tulare County the big tree is found no more.

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Last Updated: 02-Feb-2007