The Drive-Through-Tree: A Car Spotter’s Delight

Conservationists and nature lovers were saddened by the collapse of the Pioneer’s Cabin Tree in Calaveras Big Tree State Park on January 8, 2017. It had been among a dwindling number of pass-through trees and stumps fashioned by the axe and saw of mortal man along the old highways of America’s western forests, and its loss reduced the number of living “tunnel trees” to three.

The Pioneer’s Cabin, sculpted by a thousand years of rain, wind and lightning, and gouged through by humans in the late 1800s, had been listing as of late, and foot traffic alone was allowed through for decades. Nevertheless, it held its broken head high for over 150 years after it was first used for a photo op, kept alive by a single gnarled branch until it fell.

Saddened by the demise of yet another millennial giant felled by human folly, my inner child still guiltily admits to a fascination with the iconic souvenirs that had a principal role in bringing it down.

The Pioneer’s Cabin was well known before it was broken through at the behest of a hotelier to compete for tourists with the Wawona Tunnel Tree, itself bored out in 1881. If the invention of photography wasn’t the main driver in the scarring of big trees by men, it vastly increased the number of people who visited them. This group poses in a Yosemite National Park White Motor Bus around the time of the first World War. The Wawona tree was easily identified by the short left “leg” on its uphill side. It fell under an estimated ton of snow in 1969.

Once upon a time, many tour busses were car based. The ride was better and the step-in height, lower. Here is a ladies’ group in a stately 1937 Cadillac Series 75 8-door V-8 with dual side mount spares. There were reportedly 20 of these beauties tooling around Yosemite, and a restored example frequents car shows in California today (Inset photo by Jack Snell).

I don’t know about you, but this image has me wishing I had a thirty-foot-deep garage. I can just see myself cruising on a comfortable summer’s evening with 11 close friends along the Pacific (or New Jersey) Palisades in this nifty 1957 Chevy Two-Ten sightseeing wagon.

As the tour bus gave way to the private car in its thousands, the Chevrolet 210 wagon remained. You could put a volume together of just Chevys photographed in tunnel trees. This is the Shrine Tree, notable because most of the pass-through occurred without human intervention. It is so-named because of its church-like natural opening. The car looks to be a Two-Ten Townsman six passenger wagon in Dusk Pearl Poly, a fancy way of describing the attractive metallic grayish-pink available in 1957. The Shrine Tree still stands.

As long as we’re doing Chevy wagons, we’ll hang in Sequoia National Park to check out a ’47 woodie being admired under Tunnel Log.

A ’58 9-passenger Brookwood passes under the Log, one of the few drive-throughs that is in no danger of falling. The wagon has its tailgate window raised so the kids can get a good look as the car rolls under. Wonder if they also got a “beep” of the horn as they went through.

This ’59 Plymouth Custom or Sport Suburban with “observation car rear facing third seat” sports the luxury of an electric, roll down rear window and twin rubber bumper bumpers.  Kids loved riding in the way back of a 9-passenger wagon, although, “Judy won’t stop touching me!” was a lament that a parent often heard.

When the Wawona Tunnel Tree toppled in 1969, the heir apparent to the “big tree” throne became the magnificent Chandelier Tree, a redwood drilled through in the late 1930s, and named for its resemblance to a dining room light fixture. Another Mopar, this cool 1973 Dodge Charger Rallye must have sounded good going through.

“It’s time to check out the great new “73 Charger at you local Dodge Dealer!”

How about Volkswagens? Vintage Vanagon and Microbus owners are attracted to tunnel trees like Yogi Bear to a pic-a-nic basket. What could be groovier than truckin’ through a tree hole with your 8-track playing the Grateful Dead’s, “Franklin’s Tower”?

…or, for that matter, “Casey Jones”?

This is the Confusion Hill miniature railroad in Piercy Hill, CA. It may or may not be running (online blogs can’t confirm), but the right side trunk in this photo fell in a storm in 1962. I don’t know about the other one.

Now that we have, literally, become sidetracked, we will visit some of the wacky and wonderful sideshows that have rolled under tunnel trees over the years. How about this example of the pride of Belfast? It has just breached the Shrine Tree (unless it simply appeared there in a flash), the only redwood with a mostly natural passage still standing.

Keeping it silver, but back in time and back from the Continent is a vintage Tatra Type 87, slipping under the Klamath Tour Thru Tree, last of the redwood giants to be holed through, in 1976. The car is twice as old as the tunnel.

Not the 3 million mile Volvo, but a nice P1800 owned by Dick Garson in 1965. Classic eyeglass frames, too.

The Kcurt Kroc,  aka Cork Truck was an art car project by Minnesota artist, Jan Elftmann, whose husband came up with a way to utilize the many bushels of wine corks she collected waitressing her way through art school. She glued the first stopper onto it in 1996. It now sits in her back yard with a blown engine. One assumes a curious patrolman never waved a breathalyzer over its surface. The brand of truck remains unidentified. Anyone want to hazard a guess?

I’ll Hazzard one about this Ford. The owners of a Starsky & Hutch Torino have posted many pics of their tribute car bouncing around the country. According to, 1300 examples were built in 1976.

Not to be outdone by a TV car, Hollywood contributes the Wagon Queen Family Truckster tribute, National Lampoon style, passing through the Shrine Tree.

The Renault  Dauphine has room to spare.

From parody to pariah, the Chandelier Tree cradles a controversial Elio, which, with its manufacturer deeply in debt (at this writing), embodied the latest automotive slogan, “Orange is the new Red Ink”.

And, at the end of its time,  an image of the sublime. We leave with a memory of the Pioneer’s Cabin Tree while it still stood, dusted with a fresh layer of snow.