Within the Nelder Grove of Sierra National Forest, Shadow of the Giants Trail provides an informative stroll through a partially logged sequoia grove. Shadow of the Giants Trail is a self guided nature trail loaded with a couple dozen panels that describe giant sequoias and other surrounding plants. Shadow of the Giants Trail is 1.1 miles round trip with 200 feet of easy elevation change. Along the loop, you can gaze up at several mature giant sequoias and learn what makes the world’s biggest trees so special.
Set out from the Shadow of the Giants Trailhead, walking 100 yards up a side single-track trail to a split where the loop begins. To hike the loop in a clockwise direction, stay to the left. Down the trail to the right, you’ll see a bridge over Nelder Creek that you’ll cross at the end of the hike.
Shadow of the Giants Trail ventures through forest up one side of Nelder Creek and then comes back down the other side of the ravine. Along the way, you will walk pass numerous signs describing giant sequoias and other trees that grow nearby.
The first two panels after the junction compare giant sequoias with incense cedars, which have similar triangle shapes when they are young, but can be distinguished by their needles. Juvenile giant sequoias have dark green, scale-like needles that are bunched, rounded, and prickly to touch. Young incense cedars have scale-like needles in flat clusters. Mature giant sequoias lose their lower branches, trading their triangular shape for something more like a Q-tip, with long, thick trunks supporting canopies of gnarled branches.
Progress through a mixed forest of firs, cedars, and dogwoods to approach the first of around 8 mature giant sequoias standing along the trail. If these trees look out of place in the forests of today, there’s good reason for that, as panels explain:
The giant sequoia is a remnant of a prehistoric age. About 130 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed through giant tree-fern forests, the first big trees began to grow. The earth’s climate was much warmer then than it is now. The distribution of the big trees spread until vast sequoia empires stretched across the continent of North America and Europe. As the climate in the northern hemisphere cooled, the sequoia forests were gradually reduced. Today the giant sequoia is found only in 70 small groves containing less than 60,000 mature trees. The groves are scattered from Placer County to Tulare County on the west side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where conditions remain favorable for growth and reproduction.
Farther up, the trail actually cuts through a fallen giant sequoia. This tree was not downed by the loggers the cleared most of the giant sequoias from Nelder Grove, but fell instead from natural causes. Sequoias rely on root systems that can cover over two acres, but the roots remain shallow, rarely dropping more than eight feet into the ground. If erosion exposes a sequoia’s roots, the enormous trees are susceptible to toppling.
As you proceed past a few standing giants, reach out and touch the cinnamon-colored bark. Giant sequoias have a thick layer of soft outer bark that insulates the trees from the cold, and more importantly offers protection from wildfires. In order to live for thousands of years, sequoias have adapted to survive wildfires, which can blacken tree trunks without killing the trees.
Panels by the trail detail how giant sequoias start from small seeds and face long odds to reach maturity. Fully-grown giant sequoias drop about 2,000 cones to the ground each year. Each cone carries 200 to 300 seeds. That adds up to about half a million seeds produced each year. The seeds are so tiny, that you would need put about 3,000 seeds on a scale to measure just one ounce. With such abundant production, you might think sequoias would be everywhere. However, out of all the seeds that a giant sequoia generates, only a few ever reach maturity. A sequoia must overcome many obstacles to become a giant.
Walk through the scattered sequoias surrounded by pines, firs, and cedars. Drop to Nelder Creek, half a mile from the start. Cross over a bridge to the east bank of Nelder Creek and begin hiking down the opposite side of the ravine. Over the second half of the loop, the panels transition from lessons about giant sequoias to other members of the forest community. Unlike some trees, Sequoias don’t grow in pure stands where they are only surrounded by other sequoias. Instead, sequoias make neighbors with bushes and trees like azaleas, chinquapin, dogwoods, ponderosa pines, sugar pines, and white firs. One tree you’re sure to notice is the Pacific Dogwood, particularly during May and June:
The Pacific dogwood is beautiful through the year. It spring, it has large white blossoms. In summer, the bright green leaves filter the sunlight and cast a dappled shadow on the forest floor. Crimson leaves and clusters of shiny red seeds and warm color to a chilly autumn.
A panel also describes logging’s impact on giant sequoias:
Man’s affect on the giant sequoia was negligible until the late nineteenth century, when loggers began to harvest the big trees. Entire sequoia groves were eliminated. Nelder Grove is unique because it was only partially logged. In this grove, we can see full-sized sequoias growing among the stumps from past logging operations. The first sequoias were cut in Nelder Grove in the 1880s.
Progress across the forest slope above Nelder Creek, passing a handful of giant sequoias growing apart from each other. Eventually, the trail turns downhill and drops to a bridge going back across Nelder Creek. Cross this bridge, 1 mile from the start, and rise up the opposite back to the junction where the loop began. Turn left to return to the trailhead. Near the end of the loop, you’ll pass one final panel with a quote from conservationist John Muir:
Walk in the Sequoia woods at any time of year and you will say they are the most beautiful and majestic thing on earth.
Hopeful Shadow of the Giants Trail proves to be as rewarding as Muir found the sequoia groves to be in his day.
A vault toilet is located next to the start of Shadow of the Giants Trail. The trailhead is just above Forest Route 6S90. Across the road, you’ll find a picnic table by a giant sequoia named Sierra Beauty. No permit is needed to hike Shadow of the Giants Trail and Sierra National Forest does not charge a fee to reach Nelder Grove. Hikers are welcome to bring dogs with them on Shadow of the Giants Trail. Bikes appear to be permitted too, although this is not a particularly appropriate loop for bikes. Sequoia-seeking hikers may also wish to check out nearby Big Ed Tree Trail or Bull Buck Tree Trail.
To get to the trailhead: From Oakhurst, take Highway 41 north for 4 miles and bear right on Road 632 (signs for Sierra Sky Ranch). Proceed up this road, which winds into the mountains for 6.6 miles, becoming Forest Road 6S10. Come to a T-intersection and turn left onto Road 6S47Y. Drive 1.2 miles to a fork and turn left on 6S90. Go 0.6 miles to a Sierra National Forest sign for Shadow of the Giants National Recreation Trail (22E06) and turn right to drive up to the trailhead parking area. The trailhead’s driveway is labeled 6S90G. The trail begins next to an information kiosk with a map.
From Yosemite National Park, exit through the south gate on Route 41 near Mariposa Grove and drive another 11.7 miles to Road 632. Make a sharp left onto Road 632 and follow the directions above.
Trailhead address: Forest Road 6S90, Oakhurst, CA 93644
Trailhead coordinates: 37.4262, -119.5962 (37° 25′ 34.3″N 119° 35′ 46.3″W)
|Big Ed Tree Trail |
This 0.2-mile hike is quite short, but visits a tree that is quite big - part of the Nelder Grove of Giant Sequoias in Sierra National Forest.
|Bull Buck Tree Trail |
This 0.8-mile loop leaves from Nelder Grove Campground and leads to a single giant sequoia with an incredibly broad base.
|Lewis Creek Trail to Corlieu Falls |
This 0.8-mile round trip hike travels down along a rushing creek to a viewing platform in front of an enthusiastic, cascading waterfall.
|Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias |
This 1.6-mile hike (or longer) visits the biggest trees in Yosemite.
|Wawona Meadow Loop Trail |
This gentle 3.9-mile loop passes through forest encircling a verdant, mostly-natural meadow near Wawona Hotel at the south end of Yosemite National Park.
|Wawona Swinging Bridge |
This 0.8 or 1.4-mile hike leads to a suspension bridge spanning a charming stretch of the South Fork Merced River in the Wawona Area of Yosemite National Park.
|Chilnualna Falls Trail |
This 8-mile round trip hike ascends 2,200 feet past a raucous string of cascades to the top of a waterfall alongside Wawona Dome.
|More trails in the Sierra Nevada Mountains |
Explore other destinations around Yosemite National Park and the rest of the range.
|North Grove - Big Trees Trail in Calaveras Big Trees State Park |
This easy 1.5-mile loop explores the first giant sequoias discovered by settlers in California.
|General Grant Tree Trail in Kings Canyon National Park |
This 0-8 mile loop in the Grant Grove passes through a Fallen Monarch to reach the General Grant Tree, one of the world's largest sequoias.
|Trail of 100 Giants in Giant Sequoia National Monument |
This paved 0.5 to 1.3-mile loop visits a grove of giant sequoias alongside Western Divide Highway.
|General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park |
This one-mile hike visits the world's biggest tree, a 275-foot tall Giant Sequoia that is 36.5 feet across at the base.
|Big Trees Trail in Sequoia National Park |
This 1.4-mile stroll explores giant sequoias around Round Meadow on a paved nature trail that is easy, educational, and beautiful.
|Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park |
This level 1.6-mile loop visits a Sequoia you can stand inside (Chimney Tree) and another that someone used to live in (Tharp's Log).
|Nelder Grove Campground |
This 7-site campground offers cozy nights in a partially logged grove of giant sequoias in Sierra National Forest.