Giant sequoias, the Stanislaus river, hiking, camping, and stargazing with a side stop to climb 165 feet down into the earth…that was our weekend adventure in Calaveras! Camping at Calaveras Big Trees State Park gives you the advantage of being inside this amazing playground any time of day! The first night was spent watching the sunset behind the trees as the river rushed by us. The second day was filled with hiking the South and North Grove’s, exploring the visitor center, watching the sunset over the trees, and the stars above. On our way home we stopped by Moaning Cavern to walk down a spiral staircase 165 feet into the earth…we were surrounded by amazing sights of nature that aren’t found near home!
Calaveras Big Trees Camping
We reached Calaveras Big Trees SP just before 5 pm to check-in for camping. We headed straight to the visitor center to pick up interpretive guides for our Saturday hikes and to ask the people that know the park the best what we should see while there. Love chatting with the people that work/volunteer at visitor centers because they know all the best spots and are so passionate about the park.
The Oak Hollow campground, that we were in, is sort of in the middle of the park and definitely away from the road noise. The North Grove campground is right along the highway which probably helps with lessening the chance of a bear encounter but we opted to be in the quieter part of the park. A little side note about the Oak Hollow Campground, the campsites are close to each other with little privacy or sound barriers. Some of the campers here were a little louder and rowdier than we have previously experienced at other campgrounds. The 10 pm rule of being quiet didn’t work on everyone which was ok with us since we were enjoying the fire and playing Uno until late in the night but other campers weren’t so happy. Oh and the stargazing at night here is AMAZING! We left the top cover off our tent and just had the netting and fell asleep watching the stars.
The showers and restrooms are a bit far apart. We were next to a set of restrooms that didn’t have showers and had to walk a ways to take a shower, thankfully they were warm ones! Our bear box was great since we could access it from both sides and the fire ring and picnic table were just fine. There are a lot of mosquitoes during the summer so go prepared!
We woke up in the middle of the night to rustling in the bushes near our tent and we moved and must have scared the critter. We heard running of little feet (thankful not bear feet!) and then loud screaming. Have you heard a fox scream? Google it. It’s creepy! We weren’t sure what it was until we got home and Googled it. Mystery solved! Did you Google it yet?
The North Fork of the Stanislaus River flows from the Sierra Foothills through the forest and around large outcroppings of granite rocks. While cruising through the park for our perfect spot to watch the sunset we picked the river to explore.
There’s a small parking lot with a short trail to the river or there’s another parking area along the river near the bridge. We explored both and loved being out of the mosquito’s path down on the large granite rocks under the bridge. There are stairs to access the river on both sides or a small path to get down to the large flat outcroppings of the granite. Because the bosslady deals with FOMO (fear of missing out) she often encourages exploring all angles. 🙂
We had the river all to ourselves…and a few birds. It was amazing!!! The river was rushing over the boulders in one spot and rapidly moving in another. The sound of the river flowing and nothing else was so relaxing. The rocks we sat on acted sort of like our own private beach. The tops of the trees started turning golden as the sun went down. We climbed back up to the bridge and as we were walking back to the truck the sky turned a bright shade of pink. A lovely start to our camping weekend!
We arrived at the south grove trail around 8 am on Saturday and were 1 of 3 cars in the parking lot. We didn’t go early for parking, there is plenty, we went early to try and enjoy the hike without the huge crowds that come to Calaveras Big Trees SP during the summer. There are said to be over 1,000 giant sequoias in this grove and we wanted to spot them all! 🙂
The trail starts off at Beaver Creek. Cross over the bridge and continue along the trail. The trail to the South Grove begins to climb and you can see the tops of the trees down below that follow the creek. A large sugar pine cone had dropped on the trail. These are huge! Giant sequoias live in mixed conifer forests and aren’t the dominant species like their relatives the coastal redwoods. It was great to see so many other types of trees! It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference in the trees because they are so tall, knowing what their cones look like help identify them!
Cross the old logging road and continue on the trail.
South Grove Loop
At approximately 1.7 miles we turned onto the South Grove loop trail. Highly recommend taking this little loop! It was full of giant sequoias!! We first one we came across was right on the trail! Wondering how there could be a bigger one than this, we paused to take photos and admire this giant that is older than our country.
The trail was wide in spots where you could walk around the giant sequoia and narrow in others as it went back downhill a bit. Some giants were standing tall off the trail but we were able to get up close and personal with several along the loop.
After dipping down into the creek where there was a large fallen sequoia that was hollow in the middle, then the trail starts to head back up a little. Careful here as there are a ton of blood-sucking buzzing little flying vampires that attack any human with or without deet on. When you reach a trail junction, head right to see the largest tree in the park or head left to return back to the parking lot. We chose to go to the right!
Still cruising through a mixed forest dotted with giant sequoias along the trail we made our way to the largest tree in the park. Stopping at a tree with the middle of the bottom completely burned through while the top is still growing and healthy we paused to enjoy the beauty and remind ourselves that life still goes on even after a major tragedy like this. It’s very humbling to be in nature and see that she still moves forward and continues to grow.
The Palace tree was named after the San Francisco Palace Hotel because it also has a nice wide entrance. This tree had also been burned but was still thriving. We could live in this one it was so big! Not far after this, we reached the Agassiz tree.
In awe of the sheer size, 25 feet around and 250 feet tall, we took our time here to enjoy this very old giant sequoia. You can walk all the way around it and see on the backside there are signs of fire. There are also a lot of mosquitoes back there since a small creek flows through. From here, you can continue on the trail to find more giants.
We had more of the park to explore so we headed back out. On the way out, people were coming in by the group-ful! Some were prepared and some had no water. PSA: you are at elevation and need to hydrate more and it can get very hot even in the shade so be prepared with plenty of water!
North Grove Loop
After a shower and a nap, we headed up to the North Grove to walk through the museum in the visitor center. Yes, we shower and nap while camping…sometimes. 😉 The parking lot at the North Grove was packed but the trails were not. The 1.7-mile stroll through the North Grove helps to spread people out.
We had our handy interpretive guide with us that went through all 26 numbered stops. The first part was a bit crowded as that area was the highlight of the trail. The 1,254-year-old Discovery Tree, the tree that was first discovered in the park, was cut down using plumbing augers over multiple days to kill the tree which then fell. The large stump was then used as a dance floor. Another tree in the park, the Mother of the forest, is one of the several trees in the park harmed by human activity. She had her bark stripped for the show which then made her more susceptible to fire. A fire occurred in 1908 and burned her.
The native Miwok and Washoe Indians lived in this area in peace with nature and each other until the gold rush in the mid 1800s when they were pushed out. They cared for the trees and the land until we took over with greed and the need for a circus show of the trees. Thankfully groups of concerned citizens and the state of California declared this a preserve in 1931 and saved the rest of the trees from human harm. It was very difficult for us to learn of what happened to the trees in this park. Hopeful that we have learned our lesson and will not repeat we continued along the trails.
At stop #11, there is a great bench that is reclined so you have a great view of the Mother and Son trees. They believe these two trees started life at about the same time but one grew much bigger than the other over time. This is a great little stop with a wonderful way of view the giant sequoias.
By the end of the loop, you will have learned about sequoias, the critters that live in the forest, and the history of the area. The sun was just going down behind the trees as we ended this hike. One of the rangers here suggested heading up to the overlook parking lot to watch the sunset so off we went!
Getting to the overlook about an hour before sunset, we walked around the parking lot and down the road to the environmental campsite. This dirt road (blocked by a gate) takes you in a loop around and back to the overlook parking lot. While the sun sets in the opposite direction of what we can see from the overlook, it does (on a good day) light up the western Sierras and the top of Yosemite with pinks and purples! This would also be an amazing spot to watch the sunrise over the mountains!
A ranger was getting set up for an astronomy class that was free and open to the public. We thought about staying until she mentioned we would be there at least 1 more hour, sitting on the ground with mosquitoes flying all around us. We didn’t bring our chairs with us (note to self to do that next time!) so we headed out before the festivities got started. Check the calendar at the park for astronomy nights and take a blanket, chairs and spray down with bug spray!
The next morning we took our time packing up and headed back toward home. We had a reservation at Moaning Caverns Adventure Park in between Murphy’s and Angels Camp to explore the cavern.
Moaning Caverns Adventure Park
When we pulled up to the Moaning Caverns Adventure Park it was very unassuming. We knew we were going to be going underground but you wouldn’t know there was this giant cavern underground that is large enough to house the Statue of Liberty! They also offer ziplining and a 3-hour long expedition tour. We just did the Spiral Tour.
The spiral tour at Moaning Caverns Adventure Park was approximately 45 minutes. They take you into the gift shop to start and end the tour. Smart! The first part is a narrow steep staircase that takes you down the first 65 feet. Reaching the platform at 65 feet below the surface the space opens up to this enormous cavern filled with stalactites and stalagmites. This is the largest single cave chamber in California per their website.
Our guide was amazing! He totally made us feel at ease as we stood on this platform looking down into the cavern. Then we started climbing down the 100-year-old, 100-foot tall metal spiral staircase. Going down was more difficult with regards to balance than going up. We got to walk around a bit and then the guide told us about each of the formations we were looking at. This would be a geologist’s playground! It was so incredible to see! Neither of us has been in a cavern this big or with so many interesting formations! Highly, highly recommend making this a stop on your way along Highway 4! It’s great for kids too!
Happy with our weekend adventures with this spectacular ending, we hopped back in the truck hoping to beat some of the weekend traffic back home.
Did we miss seeing something? Leave a comment with suggestions! Oh, and if you are going to suggest going into the town of Arnold to eat and check out a couple of cute shops, we did that too! It was just before our shower and nap 😉
South Grove: 6.5 miles with 817 ft elevation gain. Easy to moderate hike mostly shaded, take bug spray! Plenty of parking with pit toilets in the parking lot. Parking is free with your entrance into the park. Dogs were seen on a leash. Recommend the interpretive guide.
North Grove: 1.7 miles with little elevation gain. Easy hike, wheelchair accessible, mostly shaded, take bug spray! Plenty of parking with toilets int he parking lot. Parking is free with your entrance into the park. Recommend the interpretive guide for this one as well!
Things We Love:
Bug spray! Oh and also our Hydroflask 10oz wine tumbler with lid. On a hot summer day, this keeps your rosé cold all day! It’s like a sippy cup for wine lovers! The fit in your hand is perfect. Not too big, not too small. We each have a different color so we don’t get them mixed up and always take them camping or to outdoor concerts in the park! They are BPA free and insulated just like the Hydroflask water bottles! If you haven’t checked them out, click on the Amazon link below and pick out your favorite color!
Where else can you find us?
Check out our video of the South Grove trail on our YouTube channel or click below!