Giant sequoias, the largest known trees living on earth, grow only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada at elevations between 4,500 to 7,000 feet. Found nowhere else on the planet, they are nevertheless closely related to California's coast redwoods, the tallest trees on earth. In Yosemite National Park, you can get acquainted with giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove, outside Wawona in the southern area of the park, as well as at two smaller and less crowded groves near Crane Flat.
Yosemite is home to around 550 mature giant sequoias which are found in three different groves. The Tuolumne and Merced groves are both located off CA 120 near Crane Flat, and Mariposa Grove is at the southern end of the park near Wawona.
Mariposa Grove of Sequoias
The Mariposa Grove near Wawona helped inspire the first protection of Yosemite National Park under the 1864 Yosemite Grant. Mariposa is the largest of the three groves with about 500 mature sequoias. It's worth the detour down to the park's southern entrance station.
Limited parking is available near the grove, although the access road is usually only open from April to November; during the winter, snowshoers and cross-country skiers use it.
Once you arrive, walk along gentle foot trails leading uphill through the grove. Pick up a self-guided interpretive brochure at the trailhead. (Bring cash for donation box.)
Then start a scavenger hunt with the kids, looking for the walk-through California Tunnel Tree; the whimsically named Bachelor and the Three Graces; the oddly shaped Clothespin Tree; the Telescope Tree, a hollowed-out survivor of several wildfires, through which you can look up to see the sky above; and the Grizzly Giant, which scientists have recently estimated to be 1,900–2,400 years old.
Learn more about these venerable giants at the Mariposa Grove Museum, which is about a four-mile round-trip hike from the trailhead parking lot.
Two Smaller Sequoia Groves in Yosemite
To avoid the biggest crowds at the Mariposa Grove, drive northwest of Yosemite Valley to the Crane Flat area. Off Highway 120, two different trailheads leading to more remote groves of giant sequoias. If you go early enough in the morning, you may be lucky enough to get some quiet time alone by yourself to contemplate the giant trees.
The Tuolumne and Merced groves are closed to vehicles and accessible by steep paved trails. In winter, the trails through Tuolumne and Merced groves are marked for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Tuolumne Grove of Sequoias
Interpretive signs in Tuolumne Grove explain the natural history and ecology of giant sequoias.
Take the two-mile round trip hike to Tuolumne Grove which is the shorter and more popular of the two trails. Be prepared for a steep downhill walk to the grove, followed by a stiff uphill climb back to your car. The trailhead is just east of Crane Flat gas station, on the north side of Tioga Road. The trail follows an old park road that once connected to Big Oak Flat.
Don't miss the Dead Giant, a hollow-out fallen giant sequoia (also called the Tunnel Tree), which you can walk through.
Merced Grove of Sequoias
Less often visited, the Merced Grove is a smaller grouping of giant sequoias around a historic cabin. The trailhead is on the south side of Big Oak Flat Road, west of Crane Flat as you head toward the park's Big Oak Flat entrance station. It's a three-mile round-trip hike, again losing some elevation on your way down into the grove, then working pretty hard to regain it on the way back up.