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View from the USA: Tall trees in California

Historic, huge and humbling, California’s giant sequoias are a powerful reminder of the importance of forests.

Published 2 Oct 2019, 05:00 BST
Aaron Millar.
Aaron Millar.
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, in which he describes hiking the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, from Maine to Georgia, is one of my favourite travel books. Not just because Bryson is the funniest travel writer alive today — a man who, in that book, describes a moose as ‘a cow drawn by a three-year-old’ and his plan for a bear attack as ‘[to] literally shit myself lifeless’ — but because I also love how it celebrates my favourite landscape: forests. Oceans are wild, but unattainable. Mountains impressive, but daunting. Forests, however, are different. 

Which is lucky, because America is filled with some of the greatest in the world. I’ve seen aspens turn gold in the Rocky Mountains, and New England oaks blaze a fire red. I’ve walked among the Joshua trees of the Mojave Desert — strange, spiky things that look like they’ve been drawn by Dr Seuss — and, in Nevada, glimpsed the gnarled bark of the Great Basin bristlecone pine, the oldest of which had their roots in the ground at the same time as the first stones of the Egyptian pyramids were laid.

But of all of America’s trees, one is surely king: the great sequoia. John Muir, the 19th-century Scottish-American environmentalist, called this Californian giant the ‘god of the woods’. Stretching hundreds of feet into the sky, with reddish-brown bark and blankets of evergreen needles, it’s the world’s largest tree by volume; growing as tall as a 27-storey building and as wide as a double-decker bus. 

Sequoias exist only in a narrow band of elevation on the western side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, with the biggest found in Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. It was only when I visited that I realised what a spectacular place it is. This is the back door to Yosemite National Park, home to soaring granite peaks, black bears and alpine meadows bursting with wildflowers. The hiking is superb, there’s world-class rock climbing, and even an enormous marble cavern called the Crystal Cave.

But the trees are the main reason people come here, and the best place to see them is the Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest. Remember that ’80s film, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, where a bunch of teenagers are reduced to the size of ants by their amateur scientist dad? It’s like that. I walked fully upright through fallen, hollowed out sequoias, craned my neck as I strolled through groves of wood colossi, and, yes, I’m not too proud to admit it, I tree-hugged too. Well, I tried, at least. It would take 10 of me, stretched fingertip to fingertip, to reach all the way around even the smallest tree here.

The biggest is General Sherman — the largest living thing on Earth. It’s hard to visualise 52,000 cubic feet, so let’s just say, if it were a hot tub, you could share it with 1,000 friends and still have room to wiggle.

If it were a keg, it would hold over three million pints of beer. I walked around its enormous trunk, 103ft in circumference, soaring 275ft high, like a skyscraper of bark and leaf, and hardly believed it was real.

Fossil records suggest giant sequoias date back to the time of the dinosaurs — giants from a time of giants. Humbling, inspiring and hard to comprehend. 

Forests have the remarkable power to make you stop and think. Bryson wrote: ‘Woods are not like other spaces… they
make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs.’ And that’s how it feels among the giant sequoias. 

But woods are also somehow comforting, relaxing and, most importantly, alive. Deserts and mountains are ecosystems where life exists; here, life simply is. You can feel it. You can sense the Earth breathing, springing and soaring into the sky. 

Studies have shown that simply looking at pictures of trees is enough to reduce stress levels. Forest bathing — wandering mindfully among the woods — is one of the latest wellness trends. We haven’t evolved to live in cities, I thought as I stared up at these gods of the woods. We’ve evolved to live here among the trees. Perhaps it’s time we all went for a walk in the woods.

British travel writer Aaron Millar ran away from London in 2013 and has been hiding out in Boulder, Colorado ever since.

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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