At Tuolumne Grove Trailhead in Yosemite the massive trees are the largest living organisms on the planet, known as the giant sequoia. While slightly shorter than its cousin, the redwood, and younger than the bristlecone pine, the giant sequoia is by far the heaviest (6,100 tons) and largest living thing, past or present, on Earth.
The Native Americans named these trees Wawona, which to them sounded like the hoof of an owl. The owl was considered the guardian spirit, the deity of these trees. The literal meaning of Wawona, translated from Miwok, is “big trees.”
Today there are some 75 groves scattered along the western slope of the Sierra. They exist in a band 260 miles long and only 15 miles wide, at elevations between 4000 and 7000 feet.
How Did They Get Here?
The distribution of the giant sequoias presents an unsolved mystery. How did they get to their present locations? Did they migrate through low mountain passes into favorable drainages before the Sierra became an impassable barrier about 3 million years ago? Were their seeds carried by wind or animals to distant favorable locations? Or are these groves remnants of a once vast forest that covered most of the west? Many scientists favor the first theory — that sequoias spread slowly through separate mountain passes to their present locations. Fossil evidence for this scenario is inconclusive and the exact answer may never be known. However, recent pollen studies have shed some light on the sequoias’ history, indicating that over the last 5,000 years the groves have actually increased in size.
John Muir searched unsuccessfuly for evidence to substantiate his theory that the scattered groves were once part of a vast giant sequoia forest.