Drive-Through Redwoods Are Monuments to Violent Deforestation

Saying goodbye to the age of tunneled trees

Pioneer Cabin Tree at Calaveras Big Trees State Park (Christa Lamoureaux / Getty)

This weekend, amidst a torrent of rain, one of California’s most iconic sequoia trees fell and shattered. Pioneer Cabin Tree was likely over a thousand years old. It had endured the last hundred as a hollow living tree, through which tourists could walk and once even drive.  My first thought was, “Oh no.” I was there just a couple years ago. My second thought was, “Oh wait.”

Because, I remembered after furiously scrolling through my phone, the drive-through tree we had squeezed our rental car through was actually not Pioneer Cabin Tree. It was the Chandelier Tree in Leggett, CA. Not to be confused with the other Shrine Drive Thru Tree in Myers Flat, CA. Or the other other Tour-Thru Tree in Klamath, CA. Or the tunnel log. Or the original drive-through tree made famous in black-and-white photos of Yosemite National Park, which toppled under a heavy load of snow in 1969. These drive-through were all tunneled in the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

A quick scan of social media showed I wasn’t the only one who confused the many hollowed-out trees. Today, when redwood and sequoia trees are endangered, it seems grotesque to bore through millenia-old trees just to enchant tourists. We might imagine it to have happened once or twice—but four, five, six times? How many of these mutilated redwood trees turned Instagram bait are there? And we’ve only talked about the trees with holes so big you could drive through.

In recent years, you were only allowed only walk, not drive, through Pioneer Cabin Tree, putting it in a lesser but still impressive category of mutilated big trees. There’s the living Hercules Tree, where a series of steps lead to a room inside the tree. There’s the dead and burnt giant sequoia that you can walk through in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Grove. There’s Discovery Stump, left behind by a tree so big that five men labored for 22 days to cut it down. Its vanquishers smoothed the stump into a dance floor big enough for 40 people. This so angered John Muir, he wrote the essay titled, “And the Vandals Then Danced Upon the Stump!”

Muir—the naturalist and father of our National Parks, was of course one of those few dissenting voices in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As Muir spoke about the majesty of sequoias to save them, others talked up the giant trees to entice tourists out to see them. It’s hard to convey to a would-be tourist familiar only with oaks and maples exactly how otherworldly in size a sequoia is. Bore a hole and drive a car through it, and that’ll make some headlines. “What began as a crude effort to promote private toll roads and sell railroad tickets,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, “has now evolved into a whimsical tourist trade.”

Pioneer Cabin Tree in 1933. Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.

It’s a cliche to say that photos cannot do justice to redwoods and sequoias. If you’ve seen one in person, then perhaps you too have felt that urge to throw your arms around the tree, taking measure of it with your own body. But even this does not properly convey its size. Should the tree be big enough, this feels not much different than pressing your body up against a barely curving wall. No wonder we yearn to go inside and through these trees, to experience their vastness in all three dimensions. These hollowed out redwoods and sequoias, carved out long ago, still satisfy this primal urge.

The irony in mourning Pioneer Cabin Tree is that the tree would likely still be standing if the tunneling had not weakened it. But an untouched sequoia eventually falling in the woods would not been remarkable either. By carving into through them, we stamped the vastness of these trees in our imaginations. The hollowed out trees still standing now are relics of another time, when human destruction of them was casual and common. That they have endured this destruction only adds to their wonder.

In 1920, Muir took to the Sierra Club Bulletin to rail against the mutilation of a tree known as the Mother of the Forest. Nearly half of its bark had been stripped off, sent to the Crystal Palace to educate Londoners in the giganticness of sequoias.  The stripped tree stayed in the ground at the Calaveras Grove. “This grand tree is of course dead, a ghastly disfigured ruin,” writes Muir, “but it still stands erect and holds forth its majestic arms as if alive and saying, ‘Forgive them; they know not what they do.’”