When you think of enormous living things, you might think of a giraffe, an elephant, a hundred-foot blue whale, or that terrifying bug you just saw that really shouldn’t be so big. But in fact, the largest living organism, if we’re measuring by volume, is a tree. Specifically, it’s the General Sherman Tree in California’s Sequoia National Park, an hour and a half drive from Fresno.
At 275 feet tall, the General Sherman Tree is as tall as three blue whales are long. It’s just thirty feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty. It weighs over 2,000 tons, the same weight as 400 elephants. Its base measures 36 feet in diameter, which means you could hide two sedans behind it, parked end to end. But really, it’s a tree you need to see to believe.
And California is the one remaining place on earth where these monstrously large trees grow wild. During the ice age, they grew across North America and Europe, but when the glaciers receded, so did the Sequoias. They grow along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada range, whose glacier caps feed the trees’ insatiable thirst: Sequoias this large need a lot of water to thrive.
At Sequoia National Park, General Sherman is something of a matinee idol. Throngs of people come to see the tree each day, and the infrastructure of the park has been built around this fact. From the nearest parking lot, the tree is a half mile’s walk, which takes you past other enormous trees—you may be shocked, passing them, that anything could be bigger. Part way down the path, a stone inlay shows the shape and size of the tree’s base—while you can’t walk up to or inside General Sherman, counting your paces along the expanse of these stones can give you a real sense of its size relative to your small human body.
The scope of the tree’s history is also impressive. General Sherman is estimated to be between 2,300 and 2,700 years old, which makes it squarely middle-aged in the world of giant sequoias, some of which make it past 3,000 years. This means that this enormous tree began growing during the earliest years of the Roman Empire. When European loggers arrived in California in the late 1800s, their industry threatened the Sequoias, as they initially tried to log these giants. But cutting them down was such an enormous effort, and their wood was so brittle, they gave up and set their sights on smaller trees. The tremendous tree got its current name from James Wolverton, a Civil War veteran who fought with the Union Army and became a rancher in Northern California. When he came upon this massive tree, he wanted to name it after someone great, someone he admired, and chose General William Tecumseh Sherman, whom he had fought under. A nearby socialist colony gave it their own name—Karl Marx—but when the park was established in 1890 and run by the US Army, the newly minted rangers knew which name they preferred.
Fittingly, the world’s second largest tree isn’t too far from General Sherman and is named for a related man: this one’s called General Grant. While Sherman served under the famed Civil War general and future president, General Grant (the tree) was discovered and named by a different set of people. Seventeen years before Wolverton set his eyes on General Sherman, a local man named Hardin Thomas spotted the tree. While he later claimed to have named it, historians believe that a pioneer woman named Lucretia P. Baker, who camped nearby with her family, did the honors.
These trees have survived not just naming disputes and greedy loggers, but fires and a changing climate. Giant sequoias are incredibly resilient thanks in part to their bark, which can be as thick as two feet. This makes for excellent fire protection – in fact, sequoias often thrive after forest fires: they use this time to release their (tiny!) pinecones to the forest floor, and the lack of competition from now-burnt trees gives them a strong chance of growing. The wood inside that bark, called the heartwood, is also very resistant to fungus and insects.
Walking through this forest of enormous, hardy trees is truly one of the greatest wonders California offers, especially when you know that this is the only place where they grow wild. The paved roads leading to and around General Sherman make it easy to walk through the grove with your head tilted to the sky, attempting to make sense of their scale—luckily there are no roots on the ground for you to trip over. If you want a tougher hike, the park offers a variety of backcountry trails that will give you expansive vistas that offer a different sense of scale. Stepping outside the thicket of sequoias and hiking along waterfalls will take you to peaks that will make even the most enormous tree feel small. You’ll also encounter the granite bedrock that fills the park’s peaks. While it may seem like some unassuming patches of rock, scientists have discovered that the presence of granite can actually help the growth of giant sequoias: granite contains phosphorus, an essential mineral for these trees, and when it breaks down and erodes over time, that phosphorus becomes available to the trees through the nearby soil. So, take a walk through the forest, and then hike over the granite—and thank it for the size and scope of General Sherman.