Though not the tallest, nor the widest, giant sequoias—found only in California’s Sierra Nevada—are the largest trees by volume in the world. The largest of three sequoia stands in Yosemite, Mariposa Grove is a top destination for visitors to California’s most popular national park. As with basically anywhere, the best way to explore the grove is to hike—and Mariposa boasts an extensive network of trails that crisscrosses the woody hillside. While perhaps the most majestic sequoias lie farther along at the Upper Mariposa Grove, the far more visited lower grove also boasts some of the world’s largest tree specimens, including the famed Grizzly Giant. This short loop hike traverses a section of Lower Mariposa Grove, visiting many of the most famous trees, and takes roughly 1-2 hours to complete.
Access to Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove differs dramatically by season. From late November through mid-May, hikers must park at the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza and then walk two miles—either along the road (closed to traffic) or the more scenic Washburn Trail, which parallels the drive—to the Mariposa Grove Arrival Area. But from mid-May to November, hikers can take a shuttle from the parking lot to the arrival area, making a visit to Mariposa Grove far easier (though significantly more crowded). There are some restrooms and drinking water at the arrival area.
There are several loop hiking options from the arrival area, ranging from 1/3 mile to upwards of 10 miles. A modest choice that covers some of the most interesting and easily-accessible terrain is what I am calling the Lower Mariposa Grove Loop, a 2.6-mile circuit. (Note: This is a longer variant of the 2-mile Grizzly Giant Loop Trail, skipping a section in favor of a more interesting detour to an adjoined pair of sequoias called the “Faithful Couple.”)
The route begins on the Big Trees Loop Trail, a short, paved boardwalk that weaves through an impressive stand of the gentle giants. (Note: However, as of 2022, this hike was closed due to storm damage, which blew down several sequoias, obliterating large swathes of the trail. Hikers are asked to detour by instead taking the road to the Grizzly Giant parking area—used only by park staff and those with disability placards.)
Routing clockwise around the loop, bear left at the first junction on the dirt Grizzly Giant Loop Trail, which quickly crosses the road and begins to climb mildly up a woody hillside. The sequoias become sparser in number but reappear after about ¼ mile into the hike, followed by a pair of long switchbacks. Head up the switches, then pass another large sequoia on the right at about 6/10 mile. Off to the left is a water tank used by park staff.
At 7/10 mile, the path approaches a fork: head left on the Perimeter Trail, following the signs of the Faithful Couple. This path is narrower but still relatively mild. Stay right at the fork 1/10 mile farther, then snake up a sloping hillside to another route junction at 1.1 miles. Look off to the right, where there is a stand of young sequoias dedicated to Stephen T. Mather, the first superintendent of the National Park Service.
From here head right on the very wide road: this is the Mariposa Grove Trail and the main thoroughfare connecting the upper and lower groves. The winding path quickly comes between two mammoth pairs of sequoias; the one on the right is jointly called the Faithful Couple: once two different trees, these sequoias have since merged at the trunk. This could be considered a rare sight indeed—although interestingly the slightly smaller sequoias just across the trail to the left are also doing the same thing: fusing together into one body.
Stay straight on the trail as it drops gradually, heading east until crossing a modest streambed and tributary of Big Creek. From here it is a short walk south to a four-way junction: bear right, returning to a narrower singletrack path that descends steadily. The highlight of this section is a walk through the trunk of the California Tunnel Tree—an unfortunate sequoia with a base that was hollowed out in 1895 so as to fit stagecoaches. Today it stands as a reminder of how perhaps not to do nature tourism—but it remains somewhat amusing to pass through the trunk and out the other side.
Just beyond, there is a large sitting area and an interpretive trail map/sign, as well as yet another trail junction. Bear left, heading uphill to the base of the Grizzly Giant, the most famous tree in Yosemite and world’s 26th largest sequoia by volume. It was here, in 1903, that then-President Teddy Roosevelt spent the first of three nights camping with famed naturalist John Muir, a visit that helped inspire Roosevelt to extend federal protection of Yosemite and designate several other national parks.
Today, Grizzly Giant stands out for its stout base and stubby branches—many of the latter approximating the size of large tree trunks in themselves. At 209 feet tall and 34,005 cubic feet, the Grizzly Giant is neither the tallest nor the largest sequoia in California—but it is perhaps one of the most peculiar-looking.
At Grizzly Giant, hikers will rejoin the masses, many of whom have travelled here as an out and back from the arrival area. Bear right, wrapping around to the tree’s west side, then head right again as the Mariposa Grove Trail diverges from the wheelchair-accessible path and drops down a series of steps. Now heading back toward the trailhead, the route passes a final named set of standing sequoias called the Bachelor and Three Graces. These deep orange trees are some of the prettiest on the hike.
After winding down to the road, cross it and continue on the Mariposa Grove Trail until it reaches the Big Trees Loop Trail again. (Note: As of May 2022, this section remained close, and hikers were to divert onto the road, following it back to the start.) Head straight at the next junction and follow the wide path back to the arrival area through a denser set of sequoias. At last, after about 2.6 miles of hiking, the route ends where one started an hour or two prior.
Head back on the shuttle or Washburn Trail to return to the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza and parking area. Ambitious hikers could alternatively continue farther up the Mariposa Grove Trail to the upper grove, although hiking in winter/spring (when the shuttle is not running) pushes such a hike to over 10 miles or so.