Are sequoia trees really the largest living things on earth?
It depends on how you define largest living thing. Some claim that the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia is the largest living thing on earth. Others claim that an aspen grove covering more than 100 acres in Utah holds that title because the trees all appear to share the same root system. But it might be argued that these are colonies of clones rather a single organism.
Some claim that a large Armillaria bulbosa fungus, whose mycelia permeate more than 30 acres of forest soil in northern Michigan, is the largest living thing. (An even larger cousin of the Armillaria bulbosa fungus makes its home in a forest in Oregon.)
But if you restrict your definition to single-trunked trees, then the General Sherman sequoia tree in Giant Forest holds the title as the largest living specimen on earth. It is 275 feet (83 m) tall with a massive trunk 36.5 feet (11.1 m) in diameter and 109 feet (33 m) in circumference at the base. Even more remarkable is the fact that at a point 120 feet (36 m) in the air the trunk of General Sherman is still 17 feet (5 m) in diameter.
It is estimated to have a volume of 52,500 cubic ft. (1,486.6 cubic meters). In lumberman's terms, this one tree probably contains 630,000 board feet of lumber. (A board foot is 12 in. x 1 in. plank that is one foot long.) That's enough to build 120 average-sized houses. In fact, a single giant sequoia may contain more wood than is found on several acres of some of the finest virgin timberland in the Pacific Northwest. The trunk of General Sherman alone weighs nearly 1,400 tons. That is roughly equivalent to 15 adult blue whales, 10 diesel-electric train locomotives, or 25 military battle tanks!
In just one year, an average mature giant sequoia tree adds enough wood to make a sixty-foot tall, three-foot diameter oak tree!
Where is the famous sequoia tree that has a tunnel that I can drive through?
This question is asked thousands of times each year by visitors to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. They are surprised to hear that the famous tunneled sequoia tree they seek was never in these parks, but rather 100 air-miles north in the Mariposa Grove of Yosemite National Park. And to complicate matters further, this famous sequoia, the Wawona Tree, fell over in early 1969.
The tunnel through Yosemite's famous Wawona Tree was cut in 1881 as a tourist attraction. It was the second standing sequoia to be tunneled (the first, a dead tree, still stands in the Tuolumne Grove in Yosemite). The Wawona Tree stood for 88 summers before it fell during the severe winter of 1968-69. Factors leading to its failure include heavy snow, wet soil, and, of course, the weakening effect of the tunnel. When it fell, the Wawona Tree was approximately 2,100 years old, 234 feet high (71.3 meters), and 26 feet in diameter at the base (7.9 meters). The famous tunnel was 7 feet wide, 9 feet high and 26 feet long at the base (2.1 meters by 2.7 meters by 7.9 meters).
Visitors to Sequoia and Kings Canyon can drive through Sequoia Park's fallen "Tunnel Log" located along the Crescent Meadow Road in Giant Forest.
The fallen Tunnel Log of Sequoia National Park came into being after an unnamed giant sequoia fell across the Crescent Meadow Road in late 1937 as a result of "natural causes." The following summer, a tunnel was cut through the fallen log as a visitor attraction. When it fell, the tree stood 275 feet high (83.8 meters) and was 21 feet in diameter at the base (6.4 meters). The tree's age when it fell has not been determined, but probably exceeded 2,000 years.
The tunnel, which remains in use today, is 17 feet wide and 8 feet high (5.2 meters by 2.4 meters). There is a bypass for taller vehicles. "Why not cut a new tunnel tree?" many visitors suggest, when they discover that the Wawona Tree can no longer be driven through. Times change, however, and actions proper for one generation may not fit the needs and goals of a succeeding generation.
Our expectations of national parks have changed immensely during the past half century. When our national parks were young, cutting tunnels through sequoia trees was a way to popularize the parks and gain support for their protection. In those early days, national parks usually were managed to protect individual features rather than to protect the integrity of the complete environment. Today, we realize that our national parks represent some of the last primeval landscapes in America, and our goal in the parks is to allow nature to run its course with as little interference from humans as possible. Tunnel trees had their time and place in the early history of our national parks. But today sequoias which are standing healthy and whole are worth far more.