Surrounded by Giants
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” John Muir
When you think about California, what springs to mind? Sunshine. Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Pacific Coast Highway, deserts and Yosemite National Park are a few places that I’m sure that some of you think of. They are all superb and wonderful destinations.
Anyone planning a California or West Coast USA road trip may be considering taking in the above destinations, but have you considered Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks? No? Well, I want to tell you a little secret. Sequoia National Park is probably the place I look forward to returning the most in California. If you have been reading my blog before now, you’ll be no stranger to the knowledge that I am a fan of mountain landscapes and scenery. Yosemite National Park is jaw dropping, have a look here if you don’t believe me. But, you know, being so beautiful brings tourists to the park in their hordes. If you want to appreciate the park in all of it’s glory you really need to work around that. Sequoia is a little bit different. Yes, there are tourists, that’s kinda the whole point, but it doesn’t seem as crowded which makes the experience of visiting so very much better.
A trip to Sequoia feels like a true escape to the wilderness.
So, where is it?
Sequoia National Park is located centrally in California, to the south east of Yosemite National Park and directly to the west of Death Valley National Park. It’s worth noting, the only access by car into the national park is from the west, via Fresno or Visalia. Sequoia National Park was founded in 1890 covering 631 square miles, whereas the adjoining Kings Canyon National Park was founded in 1940 covering 722 square miles.
Unsurprisingly there may be a giveaway in the park names as to their redeeming features. Sequoia NP features a collection of the worlds largest trees (those giants I speak of in the title), including the largest living tree in the world – the General Sherman Tree. We’ll get back to that later. Kings Canyon NP, on the other hand, features a canyon – Kings Canyon (no surprises there) in fact, which at 1,600m deep is the deepest canyon in the USA. As if that’s not enough, it’s also home to the tallest mountain in the USA – Mount Whitney.
Add to all of this some lakes, lush green meadows, waterfalls, fantastic wildlife and miles and miles of hiking trails and you can see why this place is worth a visit, and we haven’t even got to the photos yet!
So, where should we stay?
For a great place to base yourself, I would 100% recommend the Wuksachi Lodge.
Wuksachi Lodge is located centrally in Sequoia National Park. Despite feeling like a remote location, it is close to many of the parks tourist destinations. Focused around the main building – a large mountain lodge which houses the reception area, a retail store, the Three Peaks Restaurant and a bar / lounge, it’s has a cosy and welcoming feel, and is great place to spend the evenings after a day exploring everything the parks have to offer.
The accommodation is housed in three separate buildings which are located 100-200 yards away from the main lodge, featuring stylish guest rooms which are decorated to compliment the surroundings.
The view from the accommodation buildings looking down at the main building, with the backdrop of Kings Canyon is spectacular, before you even have a chance to explore any further. Look out of the windows of your room and you are likely to see deer roaming around. Lovely stuff.
One thing worth mentioning, is that if you visit any of the national parks in this part of North America, is that it’s important to make sure that you leave no food in your car overnight. Why, I hear you ask? Well, simply put, BEARS!
American black bears live in these parks and you have a good chance of spotting them. The time you don’t really want to see them is when they are tearing open your hire car to get at the yummy smelling food that you have left in the boot (or trunk)! There is also plenty of information of how to deal with a bear encounter, if one were to occur.
We did have a bear encounter at Wuksachi Lodge, which wasn’t quite as terrifying as you may think.
Meet Bear Bearington, a full time resident of the lodge. On both our stays at the lodge, he was present, although on our second visit it turned out that his name wasn’t Bear Bearington (as we had christened him) after all, his name was in fact Eddie! Eddie ‘Bearington’ would pop up in various places around the lodge. We saw him at breakfast one day, sitting at a table reading a newspaper. Another afternoon he was lounging in the bar area. I hope Eddie is still about – if anyone has visited recently, do let me know!
There is a lovely little trail to the rear of the property. The Wuksachi Trail is a 3 mile trail that leads in the direction of the Lodgepole Visitor Centre. It’s a fairly easy hiking trail through the forest, that seems to be mostly overlooked by visitors.
So, what should we see?
You have a base for a few days. Where should you go? What should you see? Well, there is a lot to cram in as both parks area so vast, but the road systems are good and it’s fairly easy to get around.
We spent a lot of our time in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia NP, where a lot of the main tourist destinations are focused. If you are visiting these parks, chances are that you want to see trees. Big trees. So, the aptly named Giant Forest is the place to be. The Giant Forest is home to five of the ten largest trees in the world. The Giant Sequoia or Sequoiadendron gigantium also commonly known as the Giant Redwood can reach up to 280 feet in height and is among the oldest living thing on earth, the oldest known by ring count is 3500 years old!
Currently, the largest of these trees is the General Sherman Tree, standing at 275ft tall and 36ft in diameter, and is one of the most popular destinations in the park. Ironically, this is the point where I should show a photo of this magnificent tree, but without having a wide angle lens available on my trips, I would just be showing you the photo of a tree stump!
There are plenty of short hiking trails around the Giant Forest area which give you access to the largest collection of sequoias, as well as few other fantastic vantage points of the parks and surrounding wilderness.
General Sherman Tree Trail
From the parking lot, the trail is approximately 1/2 mile downhill, with steps at some sections (an accessible trail is also available). It’s a leisurely walk down, but bear in mind you have to come back up, and whilst it’s not steep, given the high elevations of the park, it might leave you a bit breathless when you get back to the top.
Big Trees Trail
This circular trail of 3/4 mile takes you around the edge of Round Meadow on an accessible paved trail starting from the Giant Forest Museum (which is also worth visiting).
Crescent Meadow Loop
A similar hike to the Big Trees Trail, this hike takes in a 1.8 mile circular route around Crescent Meadow, a beautiful clearing surrounded by sequoias and firs. It’s a little further off the main route, so generally a bit quieter but equally as beautiful.
Moro Rock Trail
Moro Rock, is a granite dome that sits perched on the edge of a ridge overlooking the valleys below. The trail to the viewpoint at the top consists of 400 steps that twist around the giant rock. The hike is only 0.3 miles, but is definitely not for the faint-hearted. The steps are narrow, sometimes steep with sheer drops to the sides. The views of the Great Western Divide when you reach the top are absolutely stunning and well worth the climb.
General Grant Tree Trail
At 0.6 miles round trip, the General Grant Tree trail is a simple hike along a paved pathway, leading to park’s second famous tree and the second largest tree in the world. at 267 feet. Interesting fact. The General Grant Tree was proclaimed at the Nation’s Christmas Tree in April of 1926 by the then president, Calvin Coolidge.
Yet again, no spectacular photos of this specimen as I could only get boring photos of the base of the tree! I’m totally taking a wide angle lens on my next visit, so you can all marvel at it from the comfort of your home!
Tokopah Falls Trail
Slightly different from many of the hikes above, this one takes you away from looking purely at massive trees, and leads you along the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River to the spectacular Tokopah Falls, with some amazing scenery along the way. Starting at the Lodgepole Visitor Centre, the trail is 1.7 miles one way, and is fairly easy with only a few sections that are a little tricky. The final 1/2 mile is quite rocky and involves making your way through some large boulders before the view opens up to the falls – at 1200 feet the tallest waterfall in Sequoia National Park. Unlike other free-falling waterfalls, the Tokopah Falls cascades down the canyon side.
Here’s a little story about our return journey from the waterfall. When you are wandering through the wilderness of the national parks, there always something rustling in the undergrowth. You get used to it. During this hike we encountered some chipmunks, some squirrels, a snake of some description and a beaver proudly sitting on a rock. Pretty good going don’t you think?
Well, it was getting late once we got to the waterfall, so we didn’t spend too long there. Who wants to get stuck in the wilds when it’s getting dark eh? Not me, that’s for sure. As we were heading back, we noticed a handful of people just ahead of us had come to a complete stop and were standing around silently. As we approached them, and followed their gazes off to the left, we realised why they had stopped.
A real life, living black bear just off the main trail. Was this bear alone? It didn’t look huge. What if the giant mother bear was lurking around nearby? Oh god!
The bear was minding it’s own business, taking no notice of a bunch of gawping humans, but didn’t seem in a hurry to be moving away from the trail either. Knowing from our intensive training in how to handle a bear encounter (i.e. a quick scan of the information provided in the hotel guest brochure), we stood quietly. The bear was not in attack mode (this is where you have to make yourself very loud and very big to scare them off). So there we stood, whispering to each other and all quite fascinated to be in this position. We stood a while longer, and finally the bear wandered a little way further from the trail. This was our moment. Naturally, being very brave, we let a man with a baby strapped to his back go first. He looked young and fit, he could run quicker that us if he needed to. We all walked quietly and slowly past the section of trail that the terrifying bear had been lurking, and we escaped. Phew. The bear didn’t even glance up.
During our encounter, I managed to quietly grab my camera and take a shot. I don’t claim to be the best wildlife photographer, but was tempted to send this in to a ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ competition. I chose not to as I felt I should give the other amateur photographers a better chance! What do you think?
The advantage of staying in a remote national park location is the clear night sky for photography. I had looked forward to taking my camera and tripod out late in the evening to capture some shots of the sky and maybe some star trails.
The disadvantage of being in a remote national park location however, are those pesky aforementioned black bears. Following our chance meeting on the Tokopah Falls Trail, I didn’t much fancy wandering the darkness with my camera and tripod in tow. Every rustle in every bush had me jumping out of my skin. So I chose to stay in the relative safety of the parking lot of the Wuksachi Lodge and took my chances, despite there being some artificial light.
The moon was out, the sky was clear and after many failed attempts I think I managed to get a photo that I was very pleased with.
So there you are, in a nutshell, this is what you should expect from a visit to Sequoia National Park. We didn’t really cover anything from Kings Canyon National Park here at all, but there is always next time and I would definitely like to explore more when we next visit. Oh, and I’ll be taking a wide angle lens with me for those tall trees!