Calaveras Big Trees State Park is one of California’s most celebrated tourist spots. Its 1,100 full-grown giant sequoias are divided into two groupings – the popular North Grove, which lies along an easy, well-manicured one-mile trail near the park entrance, and the wild and vastly undervisited South Grove Natural Preserve, a 15-minute drive from park headquarters. If, like more than 99 percent of park visitors, you’ve strolled through the North Grove and gone home thinking you’ve had the full Calaveras Big Trees experience, give the remote South Grove a try. You’ll discover just how wrong you’ve been.
Approximately four and a half miles long by a mile and a half wide, the South Grove Natural Preserve is a little-known treasure. It offers the opportunity to walk among these giant trees – the largest living things on Earth – in a pristine setting almost untouched by any human presence. The South Grove contains both the largest trees in the park and the largest number of mature trees – over 1,000 of them, more than 10 times as many as in the North Grove. Walking its trails and trailless areas is like stepping back in time.
To get to the park, take Highway 49 south from Grass Valley about 110 miles to Angels Camp; turn left (east) onto Highway 4.
The park entrance is about three miles past the town of Arnold, on the right, 25 miles from Angels Camp. (There’s a $2 entrance fee for day use. Please don’t be like the guy ahead of me in the brand-new T-bird convertible, who tried to negotiate a lower entrance fee for himself, his wife, and their rodent-sized, immaculately coiffed poodle based on their AARP membership. At two bucks, it’s clearly already a bargain.)
After passing the entrance station, you’ll see signs directing you to the South Grove Natural Preserve on the well-marked park road.
After a few miles the road crosses the Stanislaus River, where you can park and take a short, easy walk down to the shore. The gorge is steep and narrow here, and the views are spectacular. Swimming in the cold, fast-moving water is not advised, however.
After leaving the river, the road climbs up the other side of the canyon and passes Oak Hollow Campground before arriving at the South Grove parking lot and trailhead at an elevation of 4,400 feet. Be sure to pick up a 50-cent trail map at the trailhead kiosk. You’ll find it invaluable later on.
There are three ways to explore the South Grove trail system.
The first is to take the moderately difficult 3.5-mile loop trail through the lower part of the Preserve. You’ll see a representative sample of the largest sequoias without taxing yourself too much or going off-trail. (Be sure to take a dip in warm, shallow Beaver Creek just after leaving the trailhead. It’s a safer spot for swimming, and kids love it.)
The second option is to expand your hike to five miles by branching off the loop trail at its eastern apex and taking the 1.5-mile extension to the Agassiz Tree, the largest tree in the park. It’s an awesome sight, and highly recommended.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can opt to keep going and explore the far eastern reaches of the preserve, past the point where the official trail ends at the Agassiz Tree, as my teenage sons and I did on a recent trip. (Exploring off-trail is allowed and even encouraged in the preserve, although park literature stresses the importance of feeling comfortable navigating in an “unfamiliar wilderness area” before doing so.)
It’s possible to hike a total of eight miles round-trip from the trailhead in this manner, following a vague half-trail that snakes along Big Trees Creek and passes through thick, unforgiving foliage and over fallen trees up to 25 feet in diameter before petering out completely (learn from my mistake and wear protective clothing – i.e., pants – when choosing this option!). If you’re up to the challenge, the rewards of this hike are enormous: You can wander for hours using the trail map as your guide, most likely without seeing another soul, through primeval groves of gigantic trees in their natural state – not a trail sign or an interpretive marker, or even a human footprint, anywhere. It’s the closest thing to time travel you’ll ever experience.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park is open year-round, sunrise to sunset. When hiking the South Grove, you may want to consider spending a night or two at lovely Oak Hollow Campground, a short drive from the trailhead (campsites are $12 per night). To reserve a space, go to
Sylvia Jordan is a free-lance writer and editor who lives in Grass Valley. Contact her at
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