Thursday, October 13, 2016

Sequoia National Park

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.

One of the best things about living here in Bakersfield, California, is that there are no fewer than seven National Parks within a five hour drive. (Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Channel Islands, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and Pinnacles.) If you expand the travel time to nine hours, you can add in four more. (Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon, and Lassen.) And that is before you count all of the numerous National Monuments and other NPS sites within that circle.

Narrowing it down, however, there are four that are close enough that we have visited them as a day trip, leaving early in the morning to hike, and driving back the same day. Those would be Yosemite, Pinnacles, Kings Canyon, and the one we visit more often than any other, Sequoia.

The foothills of Sequoia are around two hours drive, and you can get to the big trees in about three. The most commonly visited sites are in a fairly small area, but the park itself is far bigger. Most of it is wilderness, accessible only on foot or horseback.

The big draw is, naturally enough, the sequoia trees, which are the largest trees by volume. These are close relatives of the redwood, which are the world’s tallest trees. Not only are sequoias big, they are tall - reaching about 250 feet. They are also old, with many specimens in the 2000-3000 year range. And by big, I mean big. The stumps of these trees are about the size of an average swimming pool. And they stay thick most of the way up. (Interesting fact: sequoias grow tall first, then wide. So a young sequoia can be 200 feet tall, and not fill out for a few hundred years…) Sequoias are long lived in large part because of their resistance to the things that tend to kill trees. They have no known diseases, are immune to most insects, and have fire-resistant bark. In fact, the usual cause of death for a sequoia is falling over due to their shallow roots.

The sequoias are amazing, no doubt about it. I never tire of standing below and looking up. They occupy only a small portion of the park, however. They thrive in a narrow altitude range on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, require specific conditions as far as water, sunlight, and shelter from the wind. Thus, they are scattered in a band across the mountains. Groves are found in Kings Canyon and Yosemite as well as throughout the national forest land to the south and north. The biggest grove, though, by far, is the Giant Forest in Sequoia.

The attractions of Sequoia National Park are not limited to these trees, however. Green meadows are filled with flowers in the spring and early summer. Higher in altitude, firs and pines grow large and green. Above that is the high country, where trees give way to shrubs and then to bare rocks. There are gorgeous mountain lakes, numerous peaks 12,000 feet and higher - including Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. Hundreds of miles of trails await, and one could disappear for weeks at a time before reappearing on the other side of the mountains.

One lesser known place is Mineral King, a fairly recent addition to the park. Decades ago, the Disney corporation planned to build a ski resort there, but a combination of effort from the Sierra Club and regulatory and logistical challenges (the road in is pretty insane, and would have cost many millions to improve to where it could bear the necessary traffic) put an end to the plans. Instead, there is a simply delightful set of valleys and peaks and other amazing destinations for the hiker and backpacker.

If you are into wildlife, Sequoia is one of the best places in California to see bears. (Don’t be a stupid tourist and chase them with your camera, though.) On our last visit, we also saw grouse, peregrine falcons, and marmots. Ah yes, marmots. Despite the portrayal in Polly Horvath’s book, marmots are plenty smart and fairly cooperative for the photographer. The best way to describe them to people who have never seen them is that they are the offensive linemen of the squirrel family. Easily bigger than the average house cat, they live at high altitudes among the rocks and meadows.

The Giant Forest and the high sierra are best visited (at least with kids) during the warmer months. We have been up there after a late storm, and the snow can be pretty deep. But the winter months are the best to visit the lower elevations. While nights are cold, the days are usually pleasant - typical Central California.

Oh, and there is also a cave you can tour, rivers to wade in, places to camp, and viewpoints that let you see for as many miles as the air quality down in the valley will permit. It’s a magical place.


A Few Recommendations:

  1. If you plan to hike, the Falcon Guide for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is outstanding. Falcon guides vary in usefulness, but this one is a winner.
  2. My mother-in-law gave us the John Muir Laws Sierra Nevada Guide, which is a perfect book for identifying any living thing you find in Sequoia. (And also Kings Canyon and Yosemite and the rest of the Sierra Nevada.) Ours shows signs of hard wear over the years. It has traveled in backpacks, been touched by many sticky fingers, and yet has survived.
  3. If you plan to visit any of the California National Parks, you should probably make reservations well in advance. Particularly on weekends and holidays, things are booked. For camping, reservations open six months before your arrival date. Likewise, if you want to visit the cave, get to a visitor center early in the morning, before tours sell out.


 Sherman Tree - the world's largest tree (2016)

 Big trees from below. This is the Senate group. Too bad our own Senate isn't this dignified. 
Sequoias often grow in groups, because the cones only open after a fire. (2012)

A Cinnamon variant of the Black Bear. I got this picture on the Little Baldy Trail, at around 9000 feet. (2016)

 This is the falls at Ladybug Camp, on the South Fork of the Kaweah River. 
This hike is in the foothills, at about 3000-4000 feet. I took this picture during my youngest kid's first camping trip. (2013)

 Upper Monarch Lake, near Mineral King, at 10,500 feet. I took this on a backpacking trip. (2014)

From the same backpacking trip, this is my brother and me near the top of Sawtooth Pass, 
with the iconic Sawtooth Peak in the background. (2014) 

Marmot near Tokopah Falls. (2016)

Circle Meadow, and some hikers to show the scale of the trees. (2016)

    Snowplant. These parasitic plants feed on fungi which have a symbiotic relationship with tree roots. (2016)



  1. you have a really long zoom, or did you really get that close to that bear? :-)

    1. It's a 20x zoom, so we weren't *that* close. Although, to be honest, here in Sequoia, simply standing still rather than chasing after the bears like the Asian tourists tend to is usually enough to avoid trouble. This one was out in the middle of nowhere, though, and we were alone. My older daughters were up ahead and saw it first. They came back to me with wide eyes, saying, "There's a bear up there!" I shot the pictures while I waited to see where it would go. When it stayed there and tore apart dead trees to eat the ants, we decided to go off trail and skirt around it. (By several hundred feet at least.)

      I myself have run into a LOT of bears out here, particularly in the Kings Canyon side of the park. One backpacking trip I had to lob pinecones at one to get it off the trail - and there were people everywhere at the time. I've also had ones wander through our campsite in the wilderness, passing maybe 20-30 feet away. Even car camping, we have had ones leave piles of poop right next to the tent or trailer. Fortunately, black bears are not aggressive, and injuries are extremely rare. Usually, it happens when someone does something stupid. Like chase a bear.

  2. Great forests like this one resemble cathedrals. Maybe the cathedral builders took their original inspiration from forests primeval...?

    We have marmots in the Colorado Rockies too. They're a little shy of humans, at least the ones around the trails, and seem to like hanging around rock scree, like the one you photographed. I'd guess that's where they like to den up; good protection from snow, but if the rocks ever started sliding again..!

    Do you have current estimates about the General Sherman Tree's size?

    1. Here is the official NPS info:

      For more on the candidates for "most" in various categories:

      My in-laws (who lived in Giant Sequoia National Monument for years) have a book about the various candidates for largest, and how to find them. (Some require miles of hiking and routefinding.)