A popular California sightseeing destination in Calaveras Big Trees State Park has been destroyed. The Pioneer Cabin Tree, a giant sequoia whose trunk was hollowed out in the 1880s for the novelty of allowing tourists to pass through it, fell during this weekend's storm, a weather event caused by a so-called atmospheric river that the National Weather Service called a once in a 5- to 25- year occurrence. The hole in its trunk might also be to blame.
The fall of the Pioneer Cabin Tree was discovered on Sunday by park volunteer Jim Allday of Arnold, California. "The trail was literally a river," he described the scene to the San Francisco Chronicle, "I could see the tree on the ground, it looked like it was laying in a pond or lake with a river running through it."
Joan Allday, Jim's wife and another park volunteer, concedes that the tree was weakening and leaning for years. "It was barely alive, there was one branch alive at the top," she told the Chronicle. "But it was very brittle and starting to lift."
The area of Calaveras Big Trees State Park has been a tourist attraction since the 1850s. In the words of the famous naturalist — and patron saint of California trees — John Muir, the Calaveras sequoias "were the first discovered and are the best known. Thousands of travelers from every country have come to pay them tribute of admiration and praise."
The Pioneer Cabin Tree was chosen to be hollowed out because it already bore a scar from a forest fire, and for some time it was possible to drive through the tunnel in its trunk. Several other trees in the park were also hollowed out, but they didn't last as long — once they died, they became brittle and fell. The fact that the Pioneer Cabin Tree was reportedly still alive, at least a little bit, was part of what made it so impressive, although the lesson here might be to not cut car-sized holes in trees and expect them to survive.
Other similar trees remain standing in California, like the "Chandelier Tree" in Mendocino County. That coast redwood is one of several that still allows cars to drive through them like tunnels — with a $5 toll for autos, $3 for motorcycles, bikes, and pedestrians, and $25 for tour buses — should they be able to fit through the trunk.
Beyond human meddling, and the massive rains and heavy winds of the weekend, there's another factor to blame for felling large local trees. As the Calaveras Big Trees Association wrote recently, "Drought stress has caused an increase in mortality in many conifers across the West, with Ponderosa pine, sugar pine, white pine and incense cedar being major examples." Further, "Vulnerability to drought stress increases with tree height because tall trees have to lift water to a greater height against the pull of gravity and therefore face greater hydraulic challenges."Calaveras Big Trees Association via Facebook