One of the most popular and photographed U.S. trees in Calaveras Big Trees State Park in California -- a giant sequoia with a tunnel cut into it from the 1880s -- succumbed to recent severe winter weather and rain, toppling over Sunday and splintering on impact. Called the Pioneer Cabin Tree, this sequoia is believed to be hundreds of years old. Many admirers of the tree are posting on social media their photos of driving through the tree.
Since it was first hollowed out in imitation of Yosemite's Wawona Tunnel Tree, thousands of tourists and vehicles have passed through the sequoia. The Wawona tree was killed by the process and later fell during a winter storm in 1969 at an estimated age of 2,100 years, but the Pioneer Cabin Tree clung on, showing signs of life well into the 21st century.
The other remaining sequoia tunnels are dead or consist of logs on their side, the Forest Service says.
"The pioneer cabin tree was chosen because of its extremely wide base and large fire scar," wrote park interpretive specialist Wendy Harrison in 1990. "A few branches bearing green foliage tell us that this tree is still managing to survive."
This huge tree and park are located 100 miles southeast of Sacramento.
On Facebook, where the tree's death was first announced, park visitors shared generations of memories involving the giant sequoia. Calaveras Big Trees Association representatives, however, offered a simple message about the tree's return to the earth it sprouted from so many years ago. "This iconic and still living tree -- the tunnel tree -- enchanted many visitors," wrote the association. "The storm was just too much for it."
The Pioneer Cabin tree's exact age and height were not immediately available, but sequoias can measure their ages in millennia and grow taller than 100 yards, or more than the length of a football field, reports NBC News. They are the tallest trees in the world, said Mario Vaden, a tree expert who has worked with the Save the Redwoods League in California.
At first, only hikers passed through the Pioneer Cabin Tree. Then people took horses through the tree. Then cars, once they were invented, were allowed. But more recently, passage was again limited to pedestrians only.
Over the weekend, a powerful winter storm slammed into California and Nevada, prompting flooding and mudslides in some regions, according to NPR. The Associated Press reports it might be the biggest storm to hit the region in more than a decade.