Our recent travels took us to the great state of California and exploration of some iconic National Parks. Over the next few weeks I’ll highlight some of central California’s sights and offer some suggestions for bucket list trips. California is an enormous place, with an economy larger than most countries.
Over 40 million people call the Golden State their home, and it truly has something for everyone: coastlines, mountains, valleys, high tech, skyscrapers, cowboys, agriculture, diversity and more professional sports teams than any other state in the union. So, in the land of “big,” let’s start the journey in the home of the giants — Sequoia National Park.
Located in the Sierra Nevada range along the western side of California, Sequoia National Park is home to the largest living things on earth — the sequoiadendron giganteum. Speculated to be nearly 3,000 years old, these conifers, members of the cedar family, survived fires, all types of weather, and have seen animals and early peoples come and go — a history that is only available to archaeologists and anthropologists.
The sequoias need heat to release their oatmeal-flake sized seeds, so the long practice of fire suppression by the forest service has been stopped to allow natural and controlled burns so that the sequoia may reproduce and survive. All over the groves, sequoias exhibit fire scars which, over time, heal by themselves. The groves are very open with minimal underbrush, making it very easy to walk amongst the giant trees. Since the sequoias use up all the nutrients in the area, it makes for a dramatic setting in which the trees look like enormous dinosaur legs, a la Jurassic Park.
In fact, they are so large, one can’t easily capture a whole tree in a photo. Tourists lay on the ground or crane their necks upwards to capture an image in a single frame. It is just jaw-dropping how large the trees are.
Sequoia National Park is suited for all types of visitors, whether just driving, walking, or hiking into the groves. Areas of interest are well signed and most walkways are paved, though the park service is trying to revert back to more natural earthen paths. Trails are wide and passable, and restrooms are somewhat plentiful, though primitive.
Since Sequoia is a national park, every attempt is made to keep the environment clean and the human impact minimal. Use of convenient shuttles are encouraged to keep the traffic and pollution down, and visitors are reminded to carry in/carry out their trash.
The roadways in the park wind up and down the canyons and are slow and curvy. The mountains afford visitors dramatic views of the Sierras from Panoramic Point, where the peaks are still covered in snow this late in June. Big Stump Basin is the site of a logging operation that was undertaken in the 1880s but quickly halted by the government. As it turns out, sequoias are not very good lumber trees, and given their enormity and rarity, the park service rushed in and stopped the operation and was able to save the rest of the groves in the area.
The western slope of the Sierras is the only place on earth where the incredible trees grow, so we are thankful for the wisdom of early environmentalists who lobbied to save the trees. Other hikes include Little Baldy and Big Baldy Ridge provide spectacular views, while there are also several flat meandering trails through a few different sequoia groves. Grant Grove and Tokopah Falls are near to Lodgepole, one of several amenity areas for visitors and campers.
The General Sherman tree is a must-see. The largest living organism ever recorded, the tree is 275 feet tall and estimated to be 2.7 million pounds, according to the National Park Service. Sequoias are often confused with redwoods, which live along the coast and are the tallest trees. The sequoias are the largest trees by volume, with bark up to three feet in diameter and bases so large that some early settlers have lived in them.
Any visit to Sequoia should be researched and planned. Make a list of items you wish to see and add extra time as roads are winding and slow and traffic can be heavy during peak season. For example, we saved the General Sherman for the end of the day when there was still light but crowds had thinned. Keep the car filled with gas and bring lots of water and snacks as stops are few and far between. The mountains are not developed and services are not readily available outside the park.
Cell service is also quite spotty so a traditional paper map is recommended. The temperature is also worthy of note; for a June day with temperatures at the parking lot in the high 80s, once in the woods on the way up the trail, the temperature dropped to the 70s and 60s as we gained elevation and walked closer to rushing water. Layers are best, and it is recommended to bring a whistle and headlamp, even if hiking during the day.
The spring and early summer is a good time to see waterfalls running full, as snowpack melts and provides life to the valley below. Sequoia National Park is an amazing place to see the majestic sentinels of the Sierras so I hope you add it to your list of places to explore.