Leaving Moab, we flew by Spanish Fork toward Salt Lake City, where we saw the many colors of the salt beds in the Great Salt Lake. From there we simply followed Interstate 80 to Sacramento. The Great Salt Desert is very large, very flat, very desolate.
We spent our first California night in Sutter Creek, where the gold rush began in 1848. Of course, the first meal there had to be at a wine bar, where we could sample California's other famous natural resource.
Adapted from a sign at Sacramento's Discovery Museum:
John Sutter, the first European immigrant to settle in the Sacramento area, should have become one of the world's wealthiest men. He dreamed of founding an empire, but died disappointed.
He arrived from Switzerland in 1834, reaching California five years later. Getting a land grant from the governor, he and a small group of followers sailed up the Sacramento River and landed at its confluence with the American River (today's Sacramento).
In 1848, Sutter's partner James Marshall found gold in the tailrace of their sawmill. Sutter tried to keep the discovery secret, but word got out and he was a ruined man within a year. Gold seekers killed his cattle for food, and stole his horses and mules. His land was overrun by squatters who ignored his claim to the land.
In debt and unhappy, Sutter and his wife moved to Washington DC. He spent his last years asking Congress to pay him for his lost land and property, but he died without receiving any compensation.
This is Sutter Creek – the town. It's mostly boutiques, these days. The Monteverde General Store is a museum. Typical of old country stores, this one opened in 1898. It served as a meeting place for housewives, provided an audience for aspiring politicians, and had penny candy for the children. Rose Monteverde, last of the store's owners, closed up shop in 1971 and gave the property to the city.
Amador City is a few miles up the road from Sutter Creek. It has the same essential flavor (boutiques), but is smaller. The hotel was open on Monday, but its restaurant wasn't. We couldn't get into the garden, either.
Sutter Creek was just our jumping-off place on the way to Calaveras Big Trees State Park. The park has clear, refreshing streams and wildflowers, but the attraction is sequoia trees.
We headed directly for the South Grove because that's where the biggest trees are. The trail meanders through a pine forest for half a mile before reaching the South Grove Trail. Even here, it was quickly obvious that we would be spending a lot of time looking up.
Besides being some of the largest organisms on Earth, redwoods are also among
the oldest. Some are known to be over 3000 years old. This is not as old as
the Bristlecone Pine, which has living specimens over 4000 years old. But
it's a lot older than you and I.
There are three kinds of redwoods, all belonging to the swamp-cypress family: coast redwood, Sierra redwood or giant sequoia, and dawn redwood. The first two are evergreen; the dawn redwood is deciduous (unusual for a conifer). In general, the coast redwoods are the tallest, but the Sierra redwoods are the most massive. The General Sherman Tree, a Sierra redwood, is estimated to weigh 12 million pounds.
Dawn redwoods were thought to be extinct until they were discovered in China, their only known habitat, in 1944. The other two types are easy to find in the Pacific states and elsewhere, either on the coast or in the Sierras. Calaveras Big Trees are Sierra redwoods.
These aren't even the biggest of the trees. We're just getting warmed up. The tree in the second photo is the Keyhole Tree. It's also called the Bear Slide Tree. Local folklore has it that the inside of the tree is smooth because bears use it as a slide.
Just for perspective about the size of these trees, there's a lady standing next to this one, barely visible in the lower left corner of the first photo.
Caution: The first photo is very tall (there's a smaller version here).
The Kansas Group. Sierra redwoods often grow in groups of two or three because an area of mineral soil opened up where many seeds took root. They can't sprout from roots or stumps like coastal redwoods. The percentage of seeds that find the perfect conditions for germination and seedling survival is very low. Some experts estimate that one in a million seeds germinate, and even fewer make it to maturity. The trees compensate for this by producing an enormous number of new cones every year.
This tree was also called the Chimney Tree because it burned so severely that
a chimney was formed in its open top. In the 1870s, hikers named the tree
after San Francisco's newly opened, seven-story Palace Hotel. The large
opening at the base reminded them of the hotel's elegant central courtyard
Caution: This photo is very tall (there's a smaller version here).
To appreciate the size of this tree, let's get progressively closer. In the first photo, notice a little jagged piece at the base inside the burned-out opening. Then notice how big that little piece is with a person standing next to it.
The Agassiz tree is named for Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz. He was a 19th-century pioneer in American natural sciences. This tree is the largest in the park; it is also one of the ten largest trees in the world. Six feet up, it's 25 feet in diameter; it is over 250 feet tall.
on to Sacramento