Among the Giants

Taller than Cinderella’s castle, wider than a city street, the Sequoias of California are among the largest trees in the world and more than 3,000 years old.

Every year about 200,000 people stroll in their shadows at the Calaveras Big Trees State Park in California, and roughly 8,000 children visit with school groups to learn about them.

But for the blind and visually impaired, discovering the grove of giants and being among their beauty is a different experience. Many have visited the Three Senses Trail designed for the blind and disabled since it was developed 42 years ago. But over the years the trail had fallen into disrepair, and it needed to be restored to meet Americans with Disabilities standards.

Arnold Lion Rod Smith, who is also president of the Calaveras Big Trees Association and a dedicated docent in the park, saw the need for help. Led by Smith, the Lions in California’s District 4-A1, along with LCIF and the Arnold Lions, took on the US$225,000 job to repair the trail as a Centennial Project in 2015. Over three years, the work continued, and in October, the ribbon was cut and the trail opened by 9-year-old Ryder Sitch, who was blinded by cancer.

Sitch and Stockton San Joaquin Lion Jennifer Gass, who was introduced to the trees when she was just 7 or 8 and visiting the forest with her family and her Girl Scout group, helped the Lions and park staff understand what had to be done to improve the trail.

Gass was wearing glasses as a child when she visited the forest and enjoyed the trail where she could reach into boxes to touch and identify the pieces of nature inside. Now 45 and blind, she and Sitch told Lions how to improve the trail with an even rim for canes to follow, improved Braille signs, and more.

“I loved it then, not knowing I would come back as an adult with no vision, but this is wonderful now,” says Gass. “They’ve made it open to people with all abilities.”

Light breaks through the giant Sequoias at Calaveras Big Trees State Park in California.

The trail has been widened, and five new benches and viewing platforms make a place for visitors to sit and enjoy the birds and the creek that flows through the forest. Platforms with interpretative signs in print and Braille, and 11 new sensory stations are in place, one with brass images of the park’s birds that can be touched. And by summer a revised trail guide with a tactile map, a sensory garden, and an app offering an audio tour of the park will be available.

A bench is a welcoming place to rest along the park’s Three Senses Trail, designed for the blind and disabled 42 years ago and recently restored by Lions.

“What Rod did and what the Lions did was very forward thinking,” says park superintendent Greg Martin. “This is the only California state park created to protect the giants.”

Smith, whose wife, Vaughn, is also an Arnold Lion and a volunteer park docent, says, “Once you make a trail for the blind, you actually make it better for everyone.”