As if spectacular Yosemite Valley weren't enough, Yosemite National Park offers another of nature's greatest wonders: the giant sequoia trees. They can grow as tall as a 25-story building and live as long as 3,500 years. Coastal redwoods grow taller and bristlecone pines live longer, but no tree has greater volume. These are the world's largest living things, and they grow only on the western slopes of the Sierras at elevations of 5,000 - 8,000 feet.
The Tuolumne Grove of sequoias, near Crane Flat, is closest to the valley, but Mariposa Grove at the park's south end is more impressive with more, older and bigger trees. It lies just over 30 miles south of the valley, but allow more than an hour each way to navigate winding, hilly Wawona Road. If you enter the park from the south, make this your first stop.
Try to arrive early in the day, as the parking lot fills up quickly. Several big trees are visible from the lot, but you'll have to walk a couple miles along the nature trail to see the most famous trees. Be prepared for some uphill terrain, although it will seem fairly mild if you've already conquered the walls of Yosemite Valley.
The greatest of these sequoias is the Grizzly Giant, about a mile up the path. At an estimated 2,700 years old, it measures 209 feet high, 92.5 feet in circumference and 33 feet in diameter. Visitors often look for the "drive-through" tree, but this sequoia fell decades ago. You can now see it in its recumbent position. But you can still walk through the popular California tree.
One of the most remarkable things you'll notice about these trees is the amount of scorching on them. Their bark is flame retardant, so in the course of their long lives, sequoias will likely endure many fires. They also resist disease very well, contributing to their longevity. However, even though they are the largest trees, they possess rather shallow root systems, making them susceptible to toppling. Hence, some of the trees like the Grizzly Giant are surrounded by fencing to prevent visitors from trampling the roots.
I caught part of a ranger talk and learned more about the sequoias. The first white travelers to see these trees were both awed and frightened by the forest. If the trees were this large, then maybe the animals were too, they reasoned. Once these fears were disproved, they looked at the trees with dollar signs in their eyes; just one of these giants could provide as much timber as dozens of ordinary trees. Fortunately, the grove was soon protected by a federal land grant, which led to the eventual formation of the park.
Give yourself a couple hours to enjoy Mariposa Grove. If time allows, on the way back to Yosemite Valley, turn off on Glacier Point Road, take it to the end and enjoy one of the most inspiring views of Yosemite.