National Parks Numbers: 49 & 50 of 59
Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are adjacent to each other and administered jointly; everything from the jr. ranger programs to the pamphlets are combined, so we’re combining our blog post about the two :).
The Sierra Nevadas are special, and I mean that in the least-cheesy sense that word can be used. The Yosemite Valley and the sequoia groves south of it were the inspiration behind the national parks idea, and that conservation movement is now global. But sequoia trees didn’t just inspire the initial idea of protecting landscapes and species; they have continued to change the face of conservation again and again. These incredible giants are, in many ways, the perfect representation of the national parks, and they’ve stood as a symbol on both the NPS arrowhead and every park ranger’s hat band and belt for over a hundred years.
In the beginning, there was the Mariposa grove. This stand of sequoias was protected as part of the original Yosemite Grant signed into law by Abraham Lincoln. Then, after Yellowstone became the first national park, the General Sherman grove and its surrounds were named America’s second national park in 1890. A week later, General Grant National Park was established (today, it’s called Kings Canyon.)
This was the first time a national park was created to protect a living thing, and it established a precedent of caring for biological species and their environments. But natural resources were viewed very differently in the 1890s—had the sequoias been useful for building materials, it’s likely they never would have been saved (you only have to look to the struggle to protect old-growth redwoods to envision the sequoia’s alternate future). Luckily, sequoias are extremely brittle and usually shattered upon hitting the ground. In fact, most logging of sequoias was undertaken just to make it easier to cut down the valuable sugar pines that grew in the same groves (and if that doesn’t make your heart hurt, I don’t know what will.)
Beyond setting a precedent that went on to influence the founding of Saguaro, Redwood and Joshua Tree National Parks (all formed to protect one particular species), Sequoia changed the mindset of those responsible for establishing national parks. Parks couldn’t protect landscapes alone without also caring about the species that lived in those landscapes and made them beautiful, functional and healthy. Over its first 50 years, the National Park Service would come to understand just how vital it was to pay attention to the living ecosystems within each area of protected land.
Part of that attention fell on the fact that since establishing Sequoia National Park, new seedlings almost completely ceased to sprout. What was the problem? As it turned out, fire suppression.
Sequoias grow from tiny seeds, about the size and shape of an oatmeal flake. The seed puts out a root about an inch long, and if there’s too much detritus built up on the forest floor, that root will never reach soil and a chance at growing bigger. So it’s vital that the forest floor be regularly cleared in a sequoia grove; low-heat fires accomplish this and don’t hurt the mature sequoias. But if debris is allowed to build up, not only will sequoia seedlings not be able to take root, mature sequoias are also at risk when the occasional fire comes through, as the bulky undergrowth fuels the fire and allows it to get much hotter.
Once the NPS became aware of this, they set a new precedent in conservation: active management of natural ecosystems. They began performing regular, controlled burns to manage undergrowth and, as if on cue, sequoia seedlings began to thrive.
In the late 1980s and 90s, Sequoia was the site of another conservation landmark, as one of the first parks to remove established visitor facilities in order to restore original ecosystems. The NPS removed over 282 buildings and 24 acres of asphalt, restoring as much of the original watershed as possible and setting an example of putting the needs of the environment of a national park over its visitation.
We drove into Kings Canyon late in the afternoon after a day of errands in Fresno. It had actually been an awful day, full of sad and bad news and heartache and no small amount of crying. We needed to be in the woods.
So when we drove through the park entrance and immediately began seeing sequoias, it was a gift. We looped around the park road and they were everywhere, dotting the roadside with enormous trunks, stretching to unbelievable, fictional-seeming widths. These were not the biggest trees in the park, but let me tell you, a giant sequoia is mighty impressive even when it’s a few feet short of record-breaking. Coming from the cloistered atmosphere of the Mariposa Grove, it felt unreal to be seeing the trees along the roadside. We loved it.
We headed to the General Grant Grove to see some of these giants from the trail and to learn more about them from the trail guide. One of the downed trees was hollowed out and the kids climbed through it, imagining themselves frontier explorers.
The General Grant Tree has the widest diameter of any tree in the world. Two Busters could park end to end inside the trunk. A three-lane highway could pass through comfortably. This tree is HUGE.
Though we visited Redwood National Park early in our trip and saw there the tallest trees on earth, the sequoias were more immediately striking. It’s hard to grasp how tall a tree is when looking at it from the ground; it’s easier to fathom girth.
After having our minds summarily blown by the grove, we drove to Panorama Point, the highest spot in this section of park, to see the sunset over Kings Canyon and to take in the trees from above. The light filtering down into the meadow was lovely and the sunset bright red through the pollution of the San Joaquin Valley (which, sadly, has some of the worst air in the country and hazes the park’s views.)
The next morning we took our leave of sequoias and headed into the belly of Kings Canyon itself. Second only to the Grand Canyon in size, this granite behemoth is wonderfully colorful, cut through with an emerald river and scattered with flower-filled Meadows. We meant to hike into the canyon to Mist Falls, but we took stock of the kids and decided a 9-mile hike was a terrible idea. Instead we put them in their swimsuits and went to the river. I set up a hammock, they made friends with some kids who had sand toys and we all whiled away the afternoon in bliss near Muir Rock. Later on, we took a short walk to the aptly named Roaring River Falls, then walked the loop around Zumwalt Meadow, looking for (but not finding) a bear. By the time we were leaving the canyon the sun was setting, and the lower light brought a rainbow of light out in the stone—it was a stunning drive.
We had better bear luck the next day on a hike in Redwood Canyon. This secluded grove of sequoias was misnamed by settlers who assumed the giant trees were redwoods. By far the quietest and most secluded of the sequoia groves, it was an absolute treat to stumble upon some of the world’s most massive trees without crowds or a guided trail. Along the way, we heard some snapping in the undergrowth; we paused and spotted behind a tree a mama black bear with her tiny spring cub, about the size of Margie and round with fluff. It was EXTREMELY CUTE. We stood there cooing at the baby and reassuring the mama; she looked at us warily, then the two ambled up the hill and out of sight.
Thrilled, but overheated, we headed next to the visitor’s center in Sequoia National Park for cold water and an ice cream. Then we drove on to Sequoia’s main attraction: the General Sherman Tree, largest living thing on the planet.
Sherman is, indeed, enormous. I’m not sure it looked any bigger to us than some of the other trees we’d seen, but it was certainly a different viewing experience than Redwood Canyon. Sherman attracts loads of visitors and the trail was packed with people, most of them carrying around one (or an armful) of sugar pine cones. I’m guessing most of them assumed the giant cones were from the sequoias; in any case, it’s illegal to take the cones and I was feeling a little peeved that, A) none of these people had read any of the signs that would have told them that the sequoia cone is actually very small and, B) that everyone was ignoring not only the rules and the interpretive signs, but also pretty much every tree other than the Sherman. And hey, it’s all fine—don’t take natural specimens or break other rules but otherwise, people should park how they see fit. Somedays we really love seeing the crowds and knowing how many people are enjoying the national parks, and then somedays we get kinda bugged by one thing or another. On this particular day, we were bugged. We probably shouldn’t have been, but it happens.
We spent the next day in Fresno running errands, working and catching up on laundry. That night we drove around to the south end of Sequoia, thinking that we’d drive in the next morning to see the rest of the park. Alas, this was not to be. While we knew that vehicles over 22’ weren’t allowed on the southern park road, we also knew that a shuttle services the park; we just assumed that the shuttle would allow us to access the road we couldn’t drive on. NOT THE CASE. The shuttle is more of a parking lot management system than any kind of actually useful access tool. After we figured this out we drove, thoroughly bummed, out to Visalia, where we ended up renting a car so we explore the rest of Sequoia. This took forever, as such things always do, and we got back into the park just in time for our after-lunch tour of Crystal Cave.
Crystal Cave is an incredible little cave system, carved out of marble rather than limestone like most caves, and has a good-sized stream running through it, which is absolutely incredible. There was spotted owl hanging out right in the entrance of the cave, which was a treat; otherwise, I have to be honest and admit that while the cave itself was spectacular, our tour of it was pretty lacking. Y’all know we aren’t usually negative about much of anything in the parks—they are constantly knocking our socks off and exceeding expectations—but we’ve had some excellent cave tours in the national parks that really took us in-depth in each cave’s formation, geology, history and exploration. This time, the tour wasn’t run by a ranger, but by a girl with only a few weeks on the job and no broader cave experience. She had the basic facts memorized, but our tour was super quick and not very educational. Our group was also comically ridiculous (during the requisite “black out” part of the tour, kids were screaming or running around with light-up shoes, the same kids were walking around off-trail and trying to climb formations, etc.). So it wasn’t our best cave tour ever, but like I said, the cave itself is fantastic.
Up to that point, we’d had sort of weird-ish experiences in Sequoia. Between cone thieves and a weird shuttle system and unusually salty employees and a rough cave tour, we were worried that we wouldn’t come away with the fondest memories of this park. The only other national park we’ve had a remotely negative experience with was Denali (for the reasons, see this post.) So though it was already getting to be late afternoon and we needed to be well on our way to Utah by the next day, we stuck around the park to see more.
We are so glad we did. In the last several hours of the day, we managed to hike up to the gorgeous Tokopah Falls, drive around the incredible Giant Forest as the sun set, and climb up Moro Rock to watch twilight descend over the valley. In the end, we had plenty of warm Sequoia fuzzies to remember this park by, and we were also reminded that while we are often lucky enough to get to spend several days in a park, many people can only visit for a day and two. And while we always recommend people stay as long as they can, we remembered on that afternoon that you can see and experience a lot in a few focused hours, especially when summer grants you long evenings of lovely light :).
Sequoias are my new favorite tree, and absolutely one of the coolest living things we’ve ever seen. I think I could happily stay in the Sierras just about forever.