In 1864, the American Civil War was raging. But in the midst of bloodshed and chaos, there was a magnificent grove of ancient sequoia trees that came to the attention of President Abraham Lincoln. Tucked in the wilds of California, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias needed to be protected before they were destroyed for lumber and development.

Lincoln never visited the more than 500 trees that dotted the grove. But they must have stirred his imagination. Perhaps it was the awe-inspiring photographs taken by photographer Carleton Watkins and the stories written about them by Galen Clark, a Canadian carpenter who built a cabin among the trees. On June 30, 1864, the president signed legislation introduced by Calif. Sen. John Conness that protected the grove and Yosemite Valley “for public use, resort, and recreation [and] shall be inalienable for all time.”

It’s difficult to understate the power of Lincoln’s signature on what was known as the Yosemite Grant. It was the first time our government designated land to protect it for the enjoyment of people. And it led to a new way of thinking about beautiful, wild places -that some natural corners of our country should be enjoyed and protected rather than developed. And that perhaps we needed these irreplaceable corners more for the human spirit than we ever had cared to admit aloud before. And that kind of thinking led to the creation of our first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872.

Grizzly Giant in Yosemite's Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

The Grizzly Giant tree in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

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.

Experience the wonder of the inspiring Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias with trees stretching 300 feet high by walking the moderate-rated Grizzly Giant Loop Trail. It's a two-mile loop that takes 1.5-2 hours and circles the edge of the grove. You'll pass the iconic Bachelor and Three Graces trees, as well as the Grizzly Giant, which scientists have recently estimated to be 1,900–2,400 years old, and California Tunnel Tree.

The Bachelor and Three Graces in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite

The Bachelor and Three Graces

Visitors with a disabled placard can drive as far as the Grizzly Giant parking area and experience this area of the grove via a section of trail that is wheelchair accessible.

To visit the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, visitors can park in a new 300-vehicle parking area at the South Entrance and hop on a free shuttle at the Welcome Plaza, which will transport you to the Lower Grove.

The California Tunnel Tree in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

The California Tunnel Tree in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

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 coastal redwoods, the tallest trees on earth. 

Elsewhere in Yosemite National Park, you can get acquainted with giant sequoias  at two smaller and less crowded groves near Crane Flat.

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Related: Mariposa Grove reopened June 2018 After Renovations