(CNN) — Quick -- what's the largest living thing in the world? And, no, we're not counting organisms like that 2-mile-wide fungus colony in eastern Oregon. The honor goes to the giant sequoia -- the "god of the woods" to conservationist John Muir -- and the best place to see it is in Sequoia National Park in California's rugged Sierra Nevada mountains. Located some 225 miles (362 km) north of Los Angeles, the park stretches across 631 square miles of jagged peaks, meadows bursting with colorful wildflowers, canyons that plunge thousands of feet, and marble caverns. But the park's most famous feature is the giant sequoia, a staggeringly massive species that grows naturally only on the moist, western slope of the Sierra Nevada above 5,000 feet.
Height-wise, the more-slender coast redwood leaves the giant sequoia in the shade; the former can reach 360 feet while the latter rarely tops 300 feet.
By total volume, Sequoiadendron giganteum has no equal. It can be wider than a city street, and contain enough lumber to build 35 homes. A single branch can grow 50 feet long. Some giant sequoia existing today were tiny saplings as far back as 1,000 B.C.
To the fortune seekers who descended on these forested slopes in the 19th century, the giant sequoia was timber ripe for the taking. (Among them was a colony of socialist utopians from San Francisco, who christened an exceptionally large sequoia the "Karl Marx Tree.") Many trees ended up as fence posts, shingles and matchsticks.
The lay of the land
To protect the unrivaled monarch of the forest, President Benjamin Harrison in 1890 designated Sequoia the nation's second national park, after Yellowstone. That put the kibosh on logging -- not to mention the socialists' utopian experiment -- and today Sequoia National Park is thick with thousands of magnificent specimens to see when you travel here.
Gape at these sky-grazing monsters is in a grove called the Giant Forest, home to three of the top five largest giant sequoia on Earth. The biggest of the big is the erstwhile Karl Marx Tree, renamed the General Sherman Tree in honor of the Civil War commander. This largest of all living trees stands 275 feet tall, with a ground circumference of nearly 103 feet.
The Giant Forest has a museum and a network of trails that wend past hulking masses of cinnamon-colored bark, arranged like colonnades in a temple.
The popular Big Trees Trail is a 1-mile loop, with trailside exhibits, that circles the lush Round Meadow. Keep your eyes peeled here for a big bundle of fur with a long snout, possibly feasting on dandelions. Sequoia is black bear country and sightings are common. Attacks on humans are rare but should a bear huff at you, make yourself big and yell loudly. Whatever you do, don't turn tail and run. You'll look like lunch.
The view from the top: You can't drive through any trees at Sequoia National Park, but you can climb some.
Try as it might, the park can't shake the persistent myth of a drive-through tree. (Yosemite had one, but it fell in 1969.) Driving through a fallen tree is doable, though. You can find Tunnel Log on Crescent Meadow Road in the Giant Forest. There are several walk-through trees, among them Black Arch Tree, scarred by fire but still standing, on Circle Meadow Trail.
On the southern edge of the Giant Forest, you can climb a massive granitic dome called Moro Rock using a 350-step concrete stairway with guardrails. The ascent to 6,725 feet is a huff 'n' puff affair, but leads to a classic high Sierra view of the Great Western Divide and its jagged wall of sometimes snow-capped peaks. (If not for these peaks, you'd be able to see the highest point in the lower 48, the 14,494-foot Mt. Whitney, on the park's eastern edge.)
Beyond (and beneath) the trees
What lurks beneath this majestic landscape? Marble caves -- more than 250 of them. Only one is open to the public.
Crystal Cave is at the end of a spur road off the Generals Highway, near Giant Forest. On a 50-minute tour, you'll see curtains of icicle-like stalactites and mounds of stalagmites, and walls of marble polished by a subterranean stream.
The Sequoia Parks Conservancy offers the tours late May through September. Tickets must be purchased in advance at recreation.gov or on-site at the park's Foothills or Lodgepole visitor centers. The tour requires a strenuous, half-mile hike from the parking lot. Bat sightings are a rare treat.
From late May through early September, the park offers free, ranger-led programs such as wildlife talks and moonlight walks. The Sequoia Parks Conservancy offers year-round guided activities such as stargazing, snowshoe walks and history talks that explore the park's fascinating early years.
Pay your respects: Sequoia is one place threatened by California's droughts, so be respectful of the environment when visiting.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
The park's first rangers drew stares wherever they went, not because of their horses or smart-looking jackets with shiny buttons, but because of the color of their skin.
Before the creation of the National Park Service, US Army regiments acted as park caretakers. At Sequoia, the job fell to buffalo soldiers, the all-African American regiments created after the Civil War. These descendants of slaves built wagon roads, suppressed fires and kept poachers and timber thieves at bay -- a challenging task, especially in an era of deeply entrenched racism.
Many visitors combine a Sequoia visit with a swing through the adjoining Kings Canyon National Park, whose most famous resident is a 267-foot-tall sequoia named the General Grant.
With a ground circumference of 107.5 feet, the General Grant holds the double distinction of being the world's second-largest tree and -- by order of President Coolidge in 1926 -- "the nation's Christmas tree." (The evergreen that the US president lights every year is the national tree, got that?)
The Chamber of Commerce in tiny Sanger, west of the park, stages an annual "Trek to the Tree" on the second Sunday in December. Park admission is free that day. The program starts at 2:30 p.m., and features singing, a bugler and a wreath laying.
Planning your visit
The park is open year round, but winter may bring road closures and chain requirements. The entrance fee is $30 per vehicle, good for seven days.
The closest commercial airports are Fresno Yosemite International Airport and Visalia Municipal Airport. Most of the park's annual 1.3 million visitors arrive by car. Especially during the summer, parking can be a big headache.
From late May through the summer, take the Sequoia Shuttle from the neighboring towns of Visalia and Three Rivers. Cost is $15 round-trip. A free shuttle runs inside the park from late May through mid September, and sometimes during winter holiday periods.
There are several lodging and dining options in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Just outside park boundaries, in Sequoia National Forest, you can stay at Montecito Sequoia Lodge or Stony Creek Lodge. More tourist accommodations and restaurants can be found in Visalia and Three Rivers, west of the park.
Stony Creek Lodge, 65569 Generals Highway, Kings Canyon National Park, CA 93262, +1 (877) 828-1440