California: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
A 2-day itinerary exploring spectacular sequoias and mountain vistas of these two amazing National Parks in California
We hit the road just as the day is warming up and head south towards Fresno in California’s Central Valley. There is nothing too exciting about Fresno, except that it has two “Sweet Tomatoes” restaurants, which is just about our favourite restaurant chain. Our timing is perfect as we arrived at the restaurant at 1:00 pm, and as usual, we proceeded to eat far too much. Can one eat too much salad? After our gorging, we set out for our final destination, the twin National Parks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon. We pass out of urban Fresno into the hot, dry and fertile farms lands of the Central Valley. The grasslands are already parched and bleached a pale yellow by the fierce sun. In among the dry grasses are vivid green groves of citrus trees, although it is too early in the season to tell what fruit these trees were yet to bear. This valley is famous for its fruit plantations. It is too early to taste the oranges and lemons but there are plenty of fruit stands selling tasty cherries and succulent plums and peaches, so we had no option but to buy some of these fruits.
Soon after leaving the fruit stand we began to climb into the mountains. The temperature in the Valley was in the mid-90s and it was not too much cooler on our climb, which resulted in our poor Jeep beginning to overheat. Cautiously we pressed on and the views across the valleys many thousands of feet below us were stunning. The scenery changed along our route from low-lying scrub plants in the valleys to tall pine trees and mountain pastures. Knowing that petrol was not available in the National Park we pulled into a gas station to refuel. This was not your typical gas station but more of a rustic Indian Trading Post, and expensive at that! With little choice, we filled up and moved on.
Finally, we reached the National Parks entrance and found our accommodation, a small wooden cabin at Grant Grove Village. To call this a cabin would be to give an unwarranted Illusion of grandeur. A more appropriate description would have been shed! Our “shed” was sparsely decorated with two beds, with rock hard mattresses, a table and chair and bedside table. Also being in a forest and with postage-stamp-sized windows, it was as a dark as a Hobbit’s burrow! Anyway, it was home for a couple of nights.
We didn’t hang around our cabin for too long as the day was drawing to a close and we wanted to do some exploring. A short drive from Grants Grove Village is Grants Grove, where there are some magnificent specimens of the giant Sequoias after which the National Park is named. These monstrous trees live only in a narrow stretch of alpine real estate on the west-facing side of the high Sierra Nevada Range in California. They are the largest trees in the world when measured by the volume of their huge trunks. Starting from tiny seeds these magnificent trees grow to over 200 feet in height, with trunks up to 40 feet in circumference. The giant Sequoias also have a long life span, with some living to be over 3000 years old. The coastal Redwood trees which we had seen over on the California coast reach over 300 feet in height, but have much narrower trunks, so in terms of volume or mass are much smaller. There was a short trail that took us through the Grove where as well as finding live, upright Sequoias we came across some fallen giants, which gave us the opportunity to see their sprawling root structures. Surprisingly, these structures are small relative to the size of the tree and it easy to see why there are quite a number of toppled trees throughout the Park. The headline tree of the Grove is the General Grant Tree, a majestic monarch. The Sequoias have five stages of development; seedling, sapling, spire-top, mature and monarch. At the mature stage the Sequoias have reached their maximum height but continue to add thickness to their trunk, and also their branches begin to contort and become less regular in shape. After a quick photo opportunity, we head off to make the most of the remaining daylight.
Our final mission of the day is to drive down to and along Kings Canyon. This is a deep canyon that has been sculpted by the erosive flow of the Kings River and long-gone glaciers. It is deep and is surrounded by steep granite cliffs. There is only one road in, which winds its way down several thousand feet to the valley floor and from there it follows the Kings River to a point appropriately known as “Road’s End”. This point is the start of many hiking trails into the back-country wilderness of the high Sierras. We were not planning to be that adventurous today so instead were intending a simple road trip. The journey to “Road’s End” took quite a while as the road twisted and turned down the side of the cliff, offering glorious views and precipitous drops. We also loved the sight of tall spikes of flowers shooting from the yuccas which clung to the sides of the granite slopes. On reaching the valley floor we pass alongside the bubbling, turbulent waters of the King’s River, swollen by the continuing melting of snow from the Sierras. Some miles further down (the road from Grant Grove Village to Road’s End is about 40 miles long) we reached a pull-in for a waterfall. Never ones to miss a waterfall opportunity we piled out and took the few steps to where the falls dropped some 50 feet into a pool. The force of the tumbling water threw out a spray and gusty wind, soaking us all in just a few seconds. Exposure was short, and we quickly beat a cold and damp retreat back to the warmth of the car. Reaching “Road’s End” there was not much to see, and by this time we were getting hungry so we turned the car around and made our way back up along the King’s Canyon, and climbed the mountain to return to Grant Grove Village.
The mattresses on the beds in our cabin were so uncomfortable and the night temperatures had dropped considerably from the day before, that we woke stiff and cold. Breakfast was a cobbled-together affair from provisions we had bought at the pricey market in the Village. Barely refreshed, we ventured out to explore the delights of the Sequoias. Our first port of call was the Visitors Center at Lodgepole, one of the two main National Parks complexes in the Park. Perusing the schedule of events for the day it became apparent that it would be difficult to fit everything in that we would like to have done. After some debate, we decided to do the tour of the Crystal Caves and skip the Ranger programme talks scheduled for that day. We had some time before our tour so we headed out to drive through the Forest of the Giants, the main Sequoia Grove in the Park. It was wonderful to see the numerous Sequoias scattered throughout this area. Just a short drive from the Visitor’s Center was a turn-off for “Moro Rock” and “Tunnel Log”.
As with many of these forests of giant trees, there are all sorts of “feature” trees. Along this drive, there were two main tree exhibits; “Autolog” and “Tunnel Log”. The former is a large fallen Sequoia which during the early years of the Park was used as a parking driveway for visitors to the park. Today cars are not allowed on to the “Autolog” but it is easy to see the evidence of its past life; grooves have been made in the tree’s trunk by the passage of numerous vehicles. Whilst cars are no longer allowed up on to the tree, people are, and it took no encouragement whatsoever for Jack and Emily to run up and down its length. The most fun part for them was to reach the root end of the tree and stare the 20 feet or so down to the ground below.
The second feature tree is “Tunnel Log” which is, as its name suggests, a tunnel carved out of a tree. Unlike some other “tunnel” trees this is not carved out of a live standing tree but is made from a prone Sequoia which obviously has fallen across the path of a road. We had some fun driving backwards and forwards through the tunnel taking pictures. Probably more impressive overall is a cluster of eight giant Sequoias called the “Parker Group” after the eight members of Captain James Parker’s family. Captain Parker was a former Superintendent of the Sequoia National Park.
A short distance from “Tunnel Log” is “Moro Rock”. This is an impressive granite monolith that has been pushed out of the surrounding mountain to form a dome-like structure, similar to the famous “Half-Dome” at Yosemite National Park. Just as we arrived at the car park Emily had a bit of a melt-down, so she decided to stay in the car while the rest of us went to explore the Rock. The climb to the top of “Moro Rock” is via a set of some 400 stairs which wind their way up sheer rock faces, with a vertical drop-off of several hundred feet to the sides. A short way up Mark decided he did not fancy the climb so he came back down to read the information boards on the geography of the Rock. Unbeknownst to him Emily had decided to rejoin the family and began to climb the stairs to find us. She got about halfway up when she realised she did not like the heights, or more likely the drops, so she just sat down and began to cry. At this point, Jack and Karen were on the top of “Moro Rock” enjoying the spectacular views across the valleys to the distant Sierra Nevada mountain range. Luckily some other visitors took pity on Emily and went back up to the top to find Karen. Jack descended to meet up with Emily, followed by a more cautious Karen, who herself was feeling a nervous of the walk back down. Finally, the whole party was reunited, much to their relief, and started their descent to the bottom. I was unaware of all the drama was patiently waiting at the base of the Rock and was most surprised to see Emily in tears when she reached him. It took quite some time for her to recover her composure. The photo on the next page shows the widest, safest part of the trail … further up there were passing places on a narrow trail and a rock wall at knee height between a walker and certain death!
It was by now getting close to the time of our tour of the Crystal Caves, so we jumped into our car and headed on the winding road to the trailhead for the Caves. It was a 15-minute walk from the car park to the Cave’s entrance. It was a very pleasant walk down into a verdant, luscious valley along a steep trail path. Coming from the other direction there were people from the previous tour, who looked very red-faced from the exertion of climbing back up the hill. The altitude here at the Park is somewhere in the range of 6000 to 7000 feet, so any form of exercise is much harder here. Finally, we reach the bottom of the path to the cave, passing by a pretty set of waterfalls. As this is a guided tour we had to wait in the cave entrance for our tour party to form. This was to be a special tour as the lighting system in the caves had failed so we had to use torches (flashlights) to illuminate our way through the Cave.
The usual tour party is made up of around 50 people, but for our tour, there were only 10 people, so we had easy access to the Tour Guide. Our guide gave us a brief overview of the history, geology and ecology of the Cave. He explained that the Cave was home to nine species of bats, but that they tend to stay away from areas where the tours passed through. On cue, a bat flew into our part of the cave and did several aerobatic manoeuvres before heading back out! Almost embarrassed, the Guide ushered us into the first of the Cave’s chambers where we got to see the usual range of formations, such as stalactites, stalagmites, curtains, popcorn etc. We had been to many caves, but the experience of doing this under torchlight gave it a more spiritual feeling. The most special moment was when we all switched off our torches and listened as our guide gave us more information about the Cave. All too soon it was time to leave the cool 50-degree subterranean temperatures to return to the 80-degree temperature of the forest. The journey back up the hill only served to show us why the people we had met on the way down were red-faced.
We decided that to end our day we’d revisit the Forest of the Giants to see the museum dedicated to the Giant Sequoias. Outside the museum is a magnificent specimen of a Sequoia monarch, called “Sentential”, which is deemed to be an average tree, but it is still impressively huge. Inside the museum, there are a number of exhibits that cover the ecology of the Sequoias.
It turns out that the perfect conditions that have resulted in the establishment of the Sequoias have only been around for 4,500 years, which is only 1 ½ Sequoia lifetimes. Sadly as the scourge of global warming works its damaging effects on the environment it is unclear as to what the long term prognosis is for these arboreal giants. Never mind we were here to live in the moment and enjoy these trees. As we discovered some of the Sequoias in this forest have been around for 3000 years and have survived droughts, vast temperature swings and forest fires, so they are tough and adaptable so perhaps they might be around for some time to come.
A short drive from the museum is another signature tree, the “General Sherman” tree”. This is purported to be the largest living tree in the world, with a base diameter of approaching 36 feet. We took the ½ mile walk from the car park to the “General Sherman”. Jack, in particular, loved these giants of the forest.
We left the “General Sherman” behind and returned to Grant Grove Village and our “lovely” cabin. The final event for our day was to attend the fireside Park Ranger programme talk. The Ranger gave a presentation about the potential impact of global warming (or cooling) on several National Parks; Joshua Tree, Glacier and Sequoia / Kings Canyon. It was not the best Ranger talk we had been to, but it was still a pleasant way to finish our visit to these twin National Parks. So there was nothing more to do but to return to the cabin, pack-up our belongings and prepare ourselves for an early start the next day on our trip down to Death Valley National Park.