California’s Iconic ‘Drive-Thru’ Tree Succumbs to Storm

CC BY 2.0. Tom Purcell/Flickr

The historic Pioneer Cabin tree, a beloved 1000-year-old giant sequoia at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, was toppled by an onslaught of rain ... and human folly.

If this were an ordinary obituary, we’d talk about where the deceased was born and raised and the highlights of their life. In this case, it’s different – though the life was no less extraordinary than most dignitaries.

The giant sequoia known as Pioneer Cabin – one of the Golden State's best-known trees – was unable to bear the brunt of the winter storms that pummeled California over the weekend. It fell to the ground, shattering on impact.

A member of the giant sequoia grove in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, Pioneer Cabin stood among 250-tall trees estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. Pioneer stood apart, however, thanks to the tunnel carved into the trunk – which brought the towering tree much acclaim, but may have been the cause of its demise as well.

The tree was hollowed out in the 1880s – an attempt to lure tourists in the fashion of Yosemite’s famed Wawona tunnel tree. At the time, the Pioneer Cabin grove was part of a private resort.

Visitors could drive through the tree and it shot to fame, but, no surprise, the giant gaping hole in its trunk was not easy to endure.

“Because of the huge cut, this tree can no longer support the growth of a top, which you can see lying on the ground if you walk through the tunnel,” a park guide notes. “The opening also has reduced the ability of the tree to resist fire.”

At some point, the tunnel was closed to vehicular traffic and only open to hikers.

A volunteer at the park, Jim Allday, said the beauty fell down about 2 p.m. on Sunday and shattered on impact.

"When I went out there (Sunday afternoon), the trail was literally a river, the trail is washed out," Allday says. "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."

Allday’s wife and also a volunteer, Joan Allday, says the tree had become increasingly weak and has been listing to one side for several years. "It was barely alive, there was one branch alive at the top," she says. "But it was very brittle and starting to lift."

The final cause of death has not been confirmed, but reportedly the giant sequoia's shallow root system was unable to withstand the rain which has flooded the park. (And ... maybe that giant hole carved out of its trunk?)

"This iconic and still living tree – the tunnel tree – enchanted many visitors. The storm was just too much for it," says the Calaveras Big Trees Association.

While it's heartbreaking to think about the human folly of boring a tunnel into a tree (carving one’s name into the trunk during the 19th century was also encouraged), Pioneer Cabin nonetheless brought countless visitors to the woods and is surely responsible for some transformative thinking. It’s hard not to be changed after standing among the giant sequoias. But hopefully we’ve gotten to the point where the majesty of these giants alone is enough to bring people to nature, that tunnels and gimmicks are no longer required. Because really, what’s more novel than a soaring 250-foot-tall tree that has lived since the Middle Ages?

RIP Pioneer Cabin.