Sequoia and Kings Canyon

Our first full day in California started at 5am thanks to a little jet lag, allowing us a decent night’s sleep, while simultaneously giving us an early start. The Best Western we’re staying at does not participate in the Great Make-Your-Own Waffle Survey that we saw so much of last year in Wyoming and South Dakota, so the continental breakfast was a little smaller, but the hotel is pretty small anyway. We were on the road early and made it to the front gate of Sequoia National Park by 8am.

The drive up through the parks supposedly can be done in two hours if you don’t stop anywhere. We stopped plenty, so we didn’t even make it to the Giant Forest until 10. On the way we saw a few scenic overlooks and took the kids pictures at the Tunnel Rock and various other roadside diversions, and then veered off the main path to the road that takes you to Moro Rock. There were several places to stop along the way, including the “Auto Log”, a fallen tree that had long ago had a groove cut into the top that you could drive onto, although you can’t any more. Moro Rock itself is a hike of 300 steps up one of the those rocky outcrops that sticks up out of the mountains, with some nice scenery at the top overlooking many of the peaks around the Sequoias. The kids bounded up the steps with great enthusiasm, Beth wheezed her way to the top behind them, and I brought up the rear with the backpack. The trip back down was much easier, of course, and we spoke briefly to a park volunteer along the way who was picking buds off of weeds that were not indigenous to the area to keep them from taking over and choking out the real plants. The park had been pretty empty up till now, but by the time we were back in the car suddenly there were people all over the place.

The Giant Forest contains the General Sherman Tree, the largest redwood in the world. We drove past it and got some lunch at the Lodgepole visitor center, which had a small restaurant and snack bar that seemed to be completely staffed by exchange students from eastern Europe. The menu was just standard burgers and pizza fare, marginally overpriced but not anything beyond what you would expect in a National Park. There’s a big gift shop there too, which includes a market to get supplies as well as a Laundromat, all for the campers who are in the neighborhood.

After lunch and a look round the premises, we double backed to the Giant Forest to check out the trees, which is after all what we came here for. Driving up the mountains to get there, you see plenty of trees, and there are even stands of redwoods here and there, particularly along the road to Moro Rock. In some respects those smaller collections of the big trees are more appealing, because you can get right up next to them. The big groves are now all blocked off, so you can walk around the paths, but the fences have gotten a lot taller to keep the riffraff off the star attractions.

In spite of that restriction, nothing compares to walking through a huge grove of redwoods, with the trees looming over you in every direction. The smell alone is like the biggest stack of cedar shingles you ever encountered. The General Sherman tree is neither the tallest nor the oldest necessarily, but is the biggest by volume. As the trees age, and this one is over 1500 years old, the tops of them start to lose their tree shape, so they don’t taper up to a point any more, they just kind of stop. A huge branch had just fallen off the tree this past January, and it was still lying on top of the fence it had demolished. By this time it was early afternoon, and there were lots of people around. The parking lot has recently been relocated to a brand new setup north of the grove, and it’s a quick walk down a brand new path to the trees, but a relatively steep climb back up.

We brought the pictures from the ’68 vacation to do our video scavenger hunt, and were able to identify relatively easily that the area where Jill pushed over some little kid just off the edge of the camera was indeed in front of the General Sherman tree. The fence in front of it is much larger now, but the base of the tree was distinctive enough for a positive match. However, we couldn’t definitively say that any of the other pictures matched any of the other trees we saw there, even though Chloe kept desperately pointing to similarities that weren’t there (they’re earning five Disney dollars for every one we match).

The grove has a few trails that loop around the big trees, which are right by the “Generals Highway” main road, where the original, much smaller and handier parking lot was located. These trails were all fairly busy with people, mostly foreigners, milling about. We went beyond this a bit to do some of the Congress Trail, which was much emptier of people but still had plenty of trees, including some spectacular fallen trees that had just disintegrated on hitting the ground however long ago. The kids’ crankiness factor was ramping up by then, so we didn’t go as far as we could have, still needing to climb the hill back to the parking lot, and we made it back to the car by 3pm or so.

The drive up the Generals Highway continues north for quite a ways, actually leaving Sequoia the National Park for Sequoia the National Forest, and then finally crossing over into Kings Canyon, which is a national park but best known for having the other big grove of redwoods. Chloe snoozed for a while along the way, we stopped once or twice for a photo op but otherwise it was about an hour’s drive from one to the other. We made it to the northern visitor’s center at Grant’s Grove and killed some more time between hikes by watching the movie there, which shows you what the canyon part of King’s Canyon looks like. It’s another hour’s drive further up the road, and then you have to hike a ways to really see the canyon, too far and too late in the day for this trip, but enough to make you wish you could go back.

Grant’s Grove contains the General Grant Tree, the 3rd largest tree in the world (not sure what’s #2, it doesn’t appear to be here), in a smaller grove that may actually be an older part of the park. Quite a bit of logging of redwoods was done near there back in the 1890’s, while the remaining grove contains some spectacular examples of surviving trees. Some of them you can’t imagine how they got to look the way they do, with large chunks of them missing near the base, or two trees that have grown big enough to merge into one at the bottom. As with the Giant Forest, the path through this area was also completely fenced off, and part of it was close, making positive identification of some of the other vidcaps impossible, but it would appear that the vast majority of the original film of the redwoods was done here and not in the Giant Forest. The tunnel through a fallen tree was part of the area that was blocked off for safety reasons, but it was distinctive enough and unique enough that it had to match the video. Sadly there is no comparable video of this trip though as the camcorder battery died on me before we got to the trees, although I did get a minute or so of Chloe at Moro Rock trying to remember the name of the park she was in, which is always good for a laugh.

After Grants Grove everyone was done with trees for the time being, so we drove down the mountains towards Fresno, but turned left and headed south to Visalia and had dinner al fresco at a Mexican restaurant right on Main Street. It was a short trip back to the hotel and everyone had to hose their feet off in the tub before climbing into bed and immediately passing out. Tomorrow is a rest day (for everyone but the driver at least) as it will be primarily spent racing through the desert to Las Vegas, so the movie theatre on wheels will be pressed into service.