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  • Caltech students, staff, and alumni hiked this summer into Caltech Centennial Grove, the Institute's sequoia preserve in the Sierra National Forest, not far from Yosemite.
    Credit: Lee Fisher
  • This plaque, installed by the Caltech Alumni Association, shows the location in Caltech Centennial Grove of five trees named for key Institute figures.
    Credit: Lee Fisher
08/12/2010 07:00:00

Visiting Caltech's Sequoia Country

Every summer, campers head for California's fabled sequoia forest in the Western Sierra Nevada, and some of them encounter a living monument to Caltech along the way. Hikers who follow what's known as the "Shadows of the Giants" trail and then brave a tough climb up a steep hill will find themselves in Caltech sequoia country, otherwise known as "Caltech Centennial Grove."

The 20 acres of densely packed trees, some standing nearly 300 feet high, are located in a part of the Sierra National Forest called Nelder Grove, about 20 miles south of Yosemite National Park. Closely related to coastal redwoods, California sequoias tend to be more massive, not quite as tall, and according to the National  Forest Service, native only to the Western Sierra. 

"No description can give any adequate idea of their singular majesty, much less of their beauty," wrote the famed naturalist John Muir after he first saw the Nelder Grove trees in 1875.

How did Caltech, some 270 miles to the south, come to possess this pristine patch of forest primeval? The story dates back to 1922, when one of the Institute's earliest and most generous benefactors, Pasadena lumber magnate Arthur Fleming, sold his Sugar Pine Timber Company and donated the bulk of the proceeds to the Institute, along with a spectacular tract of Nelder Grove trees.

Four years later Caltech's Board of Trustees turned down a Forest Service offer to acquire the property and pledged to preserve the sequoias. Following a 19th-century pioneer tradition, the Board also named three of the most imposing trees for the Institute's founding triumvirate—physicist Robert A. Millikan, chemist Arthur Amos Noyes, and astrophysicist George Ellery Hale.  

For the next four decades, virtually no one, except an occasional Forest Service representative, visited the wilderness preserve, but in 1966, an intrepid and curious Caltech alumnus (and past Alumni Association president) Ted Combs, his wife, and another Caltech couple made what Combs described as a strenuous but rewarding trek into the property. 

"Those giant sequoias captivated us," he later wrote in an article urging the Institute to take a more active role in preserving "this historically and ecologically invaluable resource." Combs, incidentally, graduated from Caltech in 1927, a year after the trustees voted to retain the trees.

In 1991, partially as a result of Combs's efforts, the Caltech Alumni Association officially dedicated the spot as "Caltech Centennial Grove" in honor of the Institute's hundredth birthday. It also named two more sequoias, one for Amos Throop, who established Caltech's forerunner, Throop University, in 1891, and the other in recognition of Fleming himself.

A commemorative plaque now marks the spot and indicates the location of the five named trees.

Since 1991, many more Techers have followed in Combs's footsteps, making their way through rugged terrain not only to learn more about the site, but also to enjoy its unique secluded beauty and to install memorial markers honoring Caltech alumni, including Combs.

The latest excursion took place this past June, when about 40 Caltech community members, including a number of international students on their first camp out, hiked into the grove on a trip jointly sponsored by the Caltech Y—a campus community-service organization—and the Caltech Gnomes (NO-meez), an Institute alumni group. 

"It's an adventure, hiking off-trail and going what seems like straight up for 900 feet," says Y director Athena Castro, who has visited the grove on previous Y trips. "Part of the challenge is finding our trees, because it's so thickly forested up there.  But we found them pretty quickly this year."

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This plaque, installed by the Caltech Alumni Association, shows the location in Caltech Centennial Grove of five trees named for key Institute figures.
Credit: Lee Fisher

She credits Caltech alum Paul Graven, who led students, staff, and fellow alumni through the brush, with successfully locating the grove. Graven, who was president of the class of 1984, says luck played its part.

"The hike in is pretty much bushwhacking in the sense that there are very few landmarks and you can't really see your destination until you are almost upon it," says Graven, who has camped out in Nelder Grove annually with family members and fellow Gnomes since 2003. "In the years since I've been going up, there were at least two when we hiked around and never located the Caltech trees. But this time, we basically marched up and there they were."

Written by Heidi Aspaturian