The Giants of Sequoia and Kings Canyon
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Highest mountains, deepest canyons, and biggest trees—only in superlatives can the main features of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks be described. No other mountain in the United States proper equals in elevation Mount Whitney's 14,495 foot summit. No other canyon in America exposes walls as high as those of Middle Fork of Kings River; and the largest living things in the entire world are seen in the General Sherman and the General Grant trees.

The setting, amid a wilderness of colossal proportions, certainly is appropriate to the forests of giants, and these titans of the plant world are among the paramount features of this wilderness. Other lands have high mountains. Other canyons may be more famed, but nowhere on earth except along the Sierra Nevada western slope will you find entire forests of giant trees, some 30 or more feet in diameter.


Members of the Joseph R. Walker exploration party are generally credited with being the discoverers of the giant sequoias along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. From the descriptions of Zenas Leonard of this party, we conclude that in 1833 they came upon the Merced and Tuolumne groves in what is now Yosemite National Park. General knowledge of the giant sequoias came later, however, with the publicity following the discovery of the Calaveras Grove in 1852 by A. T. Dowd, a miner.

The greatest of all sequoia forests remained unknown until 1858. In that year, Hale Tharp, who had settled two years earlier at Three Rivers, was guided by Indians from Hospital Rock to the upland behind Moro Rock. Here he discovered the grove which later, in 1875 was named by John Muir "The Giant Forest". In 1861, Tharp returned to establish a summer cabin in a fire-hollowed fallen sequoia log, and occupied it for many seasons. Tharp's Log is today a popular attraction in the Giant Forest. The carved record "H. D. Tharp 1858" could still be seen on the side of the log until destroyed by vandals in 1953.

The discovery of Giant Forest led to other explorations. The details of these events are obscure, but within a few years the Kings River groves, the Garfield and other neighboring groves became known.

Another friend and mountain companion of Hale Tharp was James Wolverton. Perhaps it was on one of his travels between Tharp's Log and his own lean-to cabin on Silliman Creek that he discovered the largest of all sequoias in 1879 and named it the General Sherman. Joseph Hardin Thomas discovered the largest tree in the Grant Grove in 1862. Five years later it was named the General Grant tree by Mrs. Lucretia P. Baker of Porterville.


While today both Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are quite as famous for their high country wilderness as for their big trees, it was primarily the urgency of preserving the giant sequoias that led to the establishment of these two national parks in 1890.

John Muir earlier had described the sequoia forest between the Kings and the Kaweah rivers as the only occurrence of sequoia gigantea that properly might be called a forest, the most magnificent portion occurring just south of Kings Canyon. During the 1880's lumbermen reached some of this forest, and there began a devastation that left parts of the grandest of all sequoia forests a desolation of stumps and sawdust, broken and shattered giants, and piles of slash. Similarly, an enterprise was being developed along the Kaweah which some people feared would result in time in the destruction of the Giant Forest.

It was to halt this devastation and to save the remaining groves, that Sequoia National Park was established by Congress October 1, 1890, and General Grant National Park was created two weeks later. The first action directed toward these goals was started by those who were closest to the scene—citizens of Fresno and Tulare counties, and Californians at large. Colonel George W. Stewart and associates of Visalia, Dr. Gustavus A. Eidsen of the California Academy of Sciences, and John Muir were the leaders, but there were many others, who through ceaseless efforts and the expenditure of personal funds, aided in the establishment of the nation's second national park, Sequoia, and its third and fourth, General Grant and Yosemite. Later, in 1940, the larger Kings Canyon National Park was created and General Grant National Park made a part of it.

Parts of the Giant Forest and other groves already were in private ownership when these two parks were established; but many people helped in the purchase of these lands. To federal appropriations of $50,000 were added to a similar amount by Stephen T. Mather who was then Director of the National Park Service, $20,000 by the National Geographic Society, $10,000 by the County of Tulare, and sizeable amounts by George Eastman, Senator W. F. Chandler of Fresno, and many other individuals and organizations. The Redwood Mountain-Redwood Canyon area was purchased by the federal government in 1938, and added to Kings Canyon National Park shortly after its establishment in 1940.

Today most of the important sequoia groves are safeguarded in national parks, state parks and national forests, and only some 8 per cent of all giant sequoias remain in private ownership. Some cutting continues on private lands, but public sentiment is such that effective appeals continue to be made to bring as many as possible of the remaining groves under state or federal protection.

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The Sierra juniper may live almost as long as a sequoia. Growing at higher elevations, its growth rate is extremely slow, and a four foot trunk may have more than 2000 annual growth rings. The Tule cypress of Mexico is another long-lived tree. The bristlecone pines, found near 10,000 feet in the White Mountains of California, are the oldest known living things. One of these gnarled trees is over 4,600 years old.

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Last Updated: 02-Feb-2007