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big tree
Dylan stands at the base of a Giant Sequoia – the largest living trees on earth.

John Muir called them “the noblest of the noble race.”

And until you’re standing beside a Giant Sequoia tree in the middle of a forest, it’s hard to explain their majesty and exactly much larger they are than any of the other trees they’re competing against for resources.

It had been years since I’ve been up to Calaveras Big Trees State Park off of Highway 4 – one of a few dozen groves of old-growth Sequoia trees left along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada – and I wanted to make a visit to rekindle that spirit of natural awe while getting away from the claustrophobic confines of home for an early morning stroll.

Since Yosemite National Park now requires reservations and the majority of the destinations on the western side of the Sierra Nevada are packed full of people on every weekend this time of year – and doubly so during the age of COVID-19 – I figured smack-dab in the middle of the week would be the best time to venture out and remind myself that the world can be a truly magical, and ancient, place.

Dylan and I packed up lunches and snacks and hit the road by 7 a.m. to make the drive out to Highway 4 and up towards Arnold – the last city before hitting the park. That drive in and of itself is pleasant once you start to climb out of the valley floor past Farmington and becomes an experience when you start to approach Angels Camp and the road begins slicing back and forth as the elevation gain starts to come.

The drive through Murphys is always enjoyable, and once you get up the hill a little bit further into Arnold you’re already deep into the forest to set the tone for what is to come when you get up to Big Trees – aptly named for the majestic creatures contained within.

This is the first time that Dylan and I have ventured out into the forest together for an “adventure” now that he’s old enough to walk on his own and explore things with the natural curiosity that only a child can bring.

It didn’t take long on one of the loop trails that cuts down and through the groves of Giant Sequoias for me to stare up in wonderment at the bark and branches that jut hundreds of feet into the sky – coming to terms with the fact that there are few of these trees left in the world, and there is only place in the world that they actually grow.

While he gave the requisite “wow” as he looked up at the giant tree before him and eventually went back to staring and following the massive black carpenter ants that are plentiful in the forest, I found myself filled with the childlike wonder as we passed multiple giant trees – both standing and fallen.

Unfortunately, one of the main attractions of the park, the Pioneer Cabin Tree, was felled by a storm three years ago and while Dylan was drawn to the picture of the tree on the map that we were given at the gate, a trip through it was not in our cards. We’ll have to wait for Yosemite to make that memory happen.

But there are still plenty of gigantic redwood trees to observe, photograph, and walk around as you navigate the remarkably well-kept walking paths – some of which include long stretches of wooden decking that take feet off of the ground and way from the shallow root structures of the trees.

After going about as far as we could with a 3-year-old, and after being told that a bear was spotted somewhere up ahead about 10 minutes prior to our arrival at that point on the trail, we headed back to the car and grabbed our lunches and found a picnic table beneath a shade canopy and enjoyed a meal while staring up at treetops.

It’s really easy to get to the point during the COVID-19 pandemic that the walls around you feel like they’re closing in. Most entertainment activities are closed, what does exist is often impacted, and while I still have a long list of things that I want to get through on streaming services, there’s only so much Netflix or Hulu you can watch before it starts to blend together.

That’s where the magic in our backyard really comes in handy. In less than two hours you be standing beneath the tallest trees on earth, and in a park that has a moderate amount of amenities including a gift shop with educational toys and items and bathrooms that are located not far from the trails themselves.

Since Yosemite is currently the most impacted park in the state, spots like Calaveras Big Trees provide a viable alternative and an affordable opportunity for residents to enjoy the magic that nature provides with the added benefit of making it a half-day trip.

Calaveras Big Trees is roughly 80 miles from Manteca off of Highway 4 and takes about 90 minutes to drive depending on traffic conditions – which can be heavier on the weekends. To get there either take Highway 99 to the Highway 4 East exist and head for the mountains or take Jack Tone Road out of town (accessible by either Louise Avenue of State Route 120) and turn right onto Highway 4. The park is approximately 4 miles past Arnold, and costs $10 for day use. It is recommended to arrive at or before 9 a.m. on weekdays as the parking lot fills up quickly – especially during the summer. A more detailed breakdown of the contents of the park can be found on the California Department of Parks and Recreation website at

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.