Why California’s Ancient Sequoia ‘Tunnel Tree’ Toppled

The drive-through giant was part of a group of trees estimated to be over 1,000 years old.

An iconic living tree with a tunnel so big that visitors could once drive through, toppled on Sunday during a winter storm.

The sequoia, nicknamed the Pioneer Cabin, was located in Calaveras Big Trees State Park in Arnold, California—a park where trees are estimated to be over 1,000 years old.

The 150-foot tree had sported its giant tunnel since the 1880s, when the landowners at that time carved into a fire scar at the tree’s base to create the tourist-attracting feature. Though the tunnel was eventually closed off to cars, it remained a renowned landmark for hikers.

Visitors pose beneath Pioneer Cabin, a famous sequoia tree in California, in 1899. The opening in its trunk was large enough for a four-horse stage-coach to drive through. On Sunday, the tree was felled by winter weather. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY BENJAMIN LLOYD SINGLEY, THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

The Pioneer Cabin survived with a tunnel in its trunk longer than the Wawona, a competing sequoia tunnel tree in Yosemite National Park that toppled in 1969. According to Travis M. Andrews in the Washington Post, their popular tourist tunnels may have contributed to the trees’ decline.

“These trees are made to burn, their protective bark healing itself over time,” Andrews writes. “Carving into a fire scar slows this progress.”

Although these sequoias have fallen, there are still three redwood tunnel trees in California that cars can drive through. Those trees are privately owned, and one even appeared in a Geico ad. However, these trees might see similar fates in the future.

Last week, the owner of the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree in Underwood Park in Leggett told the Los Angeles Times: “It could fall over any minute, and we all go home.”

The collapse of the Pioneer Cabin adds to a growing list of natural icons that have been lost recently, including the Duckbill, a famous stone pedestal at Cape Kiwanda in Pacific City, Oregon, and a white oak near Mansfield, Ohio, that was featured in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. The Shawshank tree fell over due to natural causes, but the Duckbill was allegedly pushed over by vandals.

Header image: The Pioneer Cabin Tree in Calaveras Big Trees State Park in 2007. PHOTO BY TOM PURCELL, Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

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