Every Saturday throughout the year, Calaveras Big Trees State Park hosts a walking tour of the North Grove Trail, in which docents speak on the history and ecology of the park.
When snow blankets the ground in the winter, the tours proceed as usual, but with one small exception – snowshoes are provided free-of-charge to help visitors easily navigate the snow-covered trail.
On Jan. 18, a crowd of various ages gathered in front of the Warming Hut. While the park keeps 30 pairs of snowshoes on hand, the tour drew more than 50 people that day. Luckily, some brought snowshoes from home, while others came prepared with snow boots.
Melting snow steadily dripped from towering trees as the tour set out from the parking lot. For some, it was their first time on snowshoes, but awkward steps quickly gave way to steady strides.
The tour was led by Jim Allday, who has volunteered as a docent at the park for the past eight years. Docent Patty Haskell brought up the rear of the group to ensure no one was left behind.
The first stop on the tour was at the base of a large redwood tree just beyond the Visitor Center. Allday said that the giant sequoia trees can live to be 2,000 to 3,000 years old.
“These trees have to learn to do things to survive, and one of those things is their bark. The bark on that tree right there is about that thick,” he said, holding his hands more than a foot apart. “And that bark is fire-resistant, and almost fireproof. We don’t know of a giant sequoia that’s been lost anywhere, in any national park or here, due to fire.”
Snow crunched underfoot as the group made its way to the Big Stump, formerly called the Discovery Tree.
“This is what it’s all about,” Allday said, standing in front of the stump. “This is the reason that we have a state park to preserve things, and you can imagine from the name of the park, Big Trees, what people thought was worth preserving.”
Allday told the story of hunter Augustus Dowd finding the massive tree while chasing a wounded grizzly bear in the spring of 1852.
“He just froze, because there wasn’t anything like this,” Allday said.
A year later, the tree was cut down to determine its age and to create a tourist attraction.
“They used bore drills from the water company to drill holes in the tree, and it took two weeks and it finally toppled over,” Allday said. “Then they cut the bark off, got the bark out of here and took it to San Francisco and put it on display; put the bark back together. And it was very, very well-received by the people, but obviously not by the tree.”
Allday explained how the area was developed into a tourist destination shortly after the discovery of the North Grove, complete with a hotel, restaurant, bar and two-lane bowling alley.
“The part next to the parking lot where you see the kids sledding – the snow field – that’s actually where the hotel was,” he said.
Allday pointed out a large downed tree just off of the trail that was slowly disintegrating.
“You can see what happens,” Allday said. “We have kids’ programs here where we teach about FBI – fungus, bacteria and invertebrates – that’s what eats away at these things. That, plus ice and snow and fire. Well, every one of those things has happened, and you can see it’s taken the heartwood out of this tree.”
Allday came to a stop near the base of Mother of the Forest, a giant sequoia that had also been stripped of its bark, which was sent to the World’s Fair in the 1850s.
“It was a big hit at the World’s Fair – I’m not justifying it, but it certainly was,” Allday said. “Then they shipped it to London. It stayed there for 20 years, and was in a big, huge display in an exhibition center. And the wharf caught on fire, and it was such an intense fire that it actually burned the fire-resistant bark.”
Allday said that he believes that when John Muir saw the devastated tree on a visit to the park, it played an important role in his decision to become an environmentalist and preservationist.
“He said, ‘That’s enough. I can’t just go hiking up in the mountains and talking about the beauty of these. I’ve got to do something to preserve these to get people on track,’” Allday said.
“Thank God he did,” a snowshoer said.
Years after its protective bark was removed, the tree had caught fire in 1910, but it still remains standing. A woman in the group asked if it would fall down.
“Oh, it’ll fall down, but it’s completely unpredictable,” Allday said.
Not finding this news especially comforting, the attendee was relieved to continue along the trail and away from the base of the tree.
At an old section of the Immigrant Trail, Allday told the story of Snowshoe Thompson, who delivered the mail over the Sierra in the dead of winter on a pair of 14-foot-long handmade skis during the mid-1800s.
“He ended up carrying 70 pounds – 40 pounds of mail and 30 pounds of goods that he sold back and forth,” Allday said, laughing, “Very interesting person. Kind of a legend locally here in this part of the Sierra, and rightfully so.”
The last stop on the tour was at perhaps the most famous tree in the park: the Pioneer Cabin Tree. During the 1860s, a hole was cut through the base of the tree, allowing visitors to pass through on a road. While the tour began at the first giant sequoia to come down following the grove’s discovery in the 1850s, it ended with the most recent casualty. The tree stretched out along the forest floor, covered in a layer of fresh snow.
Allday said that giant sequoias only come down in one of two ways: “There’s people, and there’s the winter – between snow, ice and wind,” he said. “And that’s what happened to the Pioneer Cabin Tree. In the winter it got too much for it, and it just fell over.”
Allday was at the park when the tree came down in the wet winter of 2017.
“On Jan. 7, 2017, I was working in the Warming Hut, and it was a miserable day,” he said. “Some people decided that they were going to hike the North Grove Trail, and didn’t even make it to the Big Stump, the weather was so bad.”
At 2 p.m., one of the volunteers heard a loud crash. A couple of hours later, someone ran up to the Warming Hut and reported that the tree had fallen. Allday quickly changed his clothes and rushed up the trail.
“I got out here and this is what I saw, only it was in a pool of water that was flowing down the trail,” he said. “I tried to go around the tree, and I stepped in a mud hole up there, way at the top, and was all the way in, up to my waist, face first. And I finally got out, and took three pictures, and went running home.”
Allday gave his pictures to the Calaveras Big Trees Association (CBTA), which passed them along to the press.
“The next day, I had 1,000 requests for interviews,” he said. “I wake up and I have 100 friend requests from around the world … And that’s not because of me, that’s what this tree meant to people.”
The tree had fallen right on top of a popular gathering place for families as they waited to have their pictures taken by park docents, Allday said.
“The day before, I took a guided tour right here where we are, and we were taking pictures of the families and the tree,” he said. “It’s scary to me to think what would’ve happened had it fallen with all of those people gathered around.”
Afterward, the group made its way back to the Warming Hut to sit by a welcome fire and sip warm drinks.
Attendee Shelly Costa, of Oakdale, said that she enjoyed the snowshoe hike. She and a friend had planned on going since they found out about it a couple of years ago, but there hadn’t been snow on the ground on her last few visits.
“I think that it’s a good introduction to snowshoeing,” she said. “We’ve done the self-guided tour where you read the pamphlets, but I think having the docent adds another element to it. I would highly recommend it to anybody, really, even if you’ve been here before. It just adds a personal history to it, like he did. So I think it was fantastic.”
Allday said that the day’s snowshoe tour was the largest one that he had led.
“I’d say 25 to 30 is the average, and we had close to 50 this time,” he said. “This weekend is one of the busier ones.”
The CBTA, which assists park officials as a nonprofit association, raises funds and provides services like the Warming Hut and guided hikes in partnership with the park, said park volunteer Betty Chase.
“The association is a huge part of providing extra services,” she said.
Larger groups interested in the snowshoe tours should consider calling in advance, Chase said.
“People that come together should probably try to schedule their own tour by calling the Visitor Center,” she said. “If there are big groups that are known of in advance, we can probably get someone to take them out at a different time.”