I know of no better place than the wild loveliness of some chosen spot in the High Sierra in which, when you have lost your physical self, you have found your mental and spiritual re-awakening – Susan Thew
After a predawn walk along the beach, watching heavy white-tinged waves burst against a dull brown shore, I left the Pacific Ocean behind. I had been pointed west since the Atlantic Ocean and it felt oddly disconcerting to head east. As the sun rose, weakened stars slowly faded back into the sea. Once clear of coastal traffic and the congestion of homes and buildings, the countryside settled in. To the south, Simi Valley lay still, her vines anticipating spring, the return of leaves and lush berries. Orange groves spread out on either side of the highway. Meticulous shapes of green, adorned with millions of delicately textured orange fruit. Lemon trees jealously interwove yellow. As the sun climbed higher, haze left the grey mountains hulking to the east. The Sierra Nevada range, her majestic 14,000 foot peaks shouldered in green. Floating among the clouds, deep in her heart, stand the oldest and largest living organisms on earth. In granite soil, five thousand feet above the sea, giants rule the forest.
I arrived in Sequoia National Park in the early afternoon and checked into my home for the next few days, Potwisha Campground. Hugging the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, surrounded by leafless oaks and bear boxes, Potishwa sits at 2,100 feet. I hadn’t planned on visiting Sequoia this early in my trip, anticipating a large snow pack that would essentially close most of the park. But I had been following the National Weather Service reports and could see the southern Sierra’s had not received much snow and there was none in the forecast. Not a hint of snow was on the ground when I arrived and I didn’t encounter any until I was well above 8,000 feet. Even then it was minimal.
The southern portion of General’s Highway leading north through the park is one of the most twisting, hairpin filled stretches I have ever encountered. Continuously turning to face itself, there are countless turns where 10 miles an hour is testing your driving skills. I can’t exaggerate the number of times I passed warning signs or ‘Use Low Gears’ posts. The further north you drive, the greater the elevation gain. I remember driving a road in the Swiss Alps many years ago that may have been its rival in terms of the number of turns, the angles and the height at which you are performing. Here you find yourself at 5,500 feet on a narrow road in an uphill turn where 15 miles an hour will toss you against a granite wall. To say that I enjoyed the drive is a vast understatement.
It takes a while before you encounter your first giant sequoia. I remember growing impatient. The landscape was magnificent. Around every turn, views of snow-topped peaks teased their height. Chaparral shrub vegetation gave color and dimension below a vast green expanse of conifer forests. With each turn I expected a maroon-hued giant. Then, as if reading my thoughts, I came over a rise and there on my left were two giants, side by side. I pulled off the road and caught my breath.
The first time you see a giant sequoia, it is very difficult to place in perspective. Being from Michigan, I have been surrounded by mighty oaks and maples most of my life. That’s the scale I inherited and it was no match for what stood in front of me. Standing at the base looking up, it appears as though someone has taken a massive tree and placed it 200 feet up the trunk. I paced off the diameter. Thirty three feet. The giant maple in my back yard was about twelve feet at its base. Thirty three feet. I placed my hands on the reddish-brown, unusually smooth bark, touching a tree that was alive when gladiators fought in the Coliseum. I sat with my back against the tree for an hour. I felt the awe and amazement that comes with seeing something magical the first time. I felt like a kid.
A few miles north is the home of General Sherman, the largest living tree on earth. Having just spent an hour leaning against a giant sequoia I thought I was ready to see larger trees, but per usual, I was wrong. When you pull into the lot, you are met with hulking sequoias obviously larger than my new forest friend. Again, I try to place this into some type of reasonable scale. Something my brain can process. I thought of the trees in Lord of the Rings. Otherworldly. Fiction. But they are standing in front of me. As I walk up the winding trail to see General Sherman, I can’t imagine a tree larger than the ones I had just seen a few moments earlier.
The General Sherman Tree was named after the Civil War general. According to historical reports, Sherman was in the news quite a bit at the time the tree was named and for no other reason it was given his name. General Grant’s tree is north in Kings Canyon National Park. As you walk the winding path to General Sherman, other massive sequoias line the forest. Their large cones sprinkle the ground. Suddenly there it is. Its gnarled, elephant toed base spreads over one hundred and three feet. Openings in the base could hold several people. The ridged, vertically creased trunk soar hundreds of feet upward before a single branch appears. You have to lean all the way back to see its top. Green moss flows into his pleats and folds. He is quiet. Breathing but quiet. Lording over the land for centuries, he feels no need to speak.
There are a few places in Sequoia National Park with large concentrations of giant sequoias. You have to hike up and into the forest. After seeing these giants up close I didn’t have a choice. I had to hike into the giant forest and mingle. The sign at the base of the trail says to be aware of mountain lions and bears. No mention of snakes so I’m comfortable. The trail leads up a winding, soft path. Pine cones are everywhere. The only sounds are the wind and the crisp short bursts of woodpeckers. It is a perfect day to hike. Mid-50’s and dry, even though deep in the woods the sun only reaches the floor in small slivered rays. I am alone in search of giants. James and the Giant Peach slides into my head.
At the top of a small bluff, there is a gathering of giant sequoias. Dozens of them. I have found their meeting place. As I walk slowly from one to another, my head at an achingly backward angle, I have the sense of entering a cathedral. A sacred place. A forest where mother nature clearly displays her dominance over mankind. Where she gathers her work as if to say, “What are your creations compared to mine? If man is divine, what am I to be called?” I lean my walking poles up against the base of a tree and rest on her feet.
Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Forest all flow as if one park. They share several borders and in places you have to drive through one to get to the other. On this day I was heading north on Generals Highway to see what roads were open. After a brief stop at Monticeto Sequoia Lodge, where I was told the snow pack was 6-8 feet thick on the same date one year ago, I turned east on an unmarked road that lead into the backwoods of the National Forest and Hume Lake.
Nestled into the forest, 5,200 feet above the sea and several thousand feet below the white peaks of the Sierra range, rests Hume Lake. To get to the lake you once again have to brave roads that would test Jackie Stewart. Roads that offer magnificent views around every curve. Views that unless you are stationary, can lead you directly to the edge and over. Typically this road would require heavy chains on a vehicle to even attempt the drive. Today there is not a trace of ice or snow on the road as I wind my way down to the lake and enter Hume Lake Christian Camps. I wasn’t ready for this. Beautiful homes, cabins, buildings and even a gas station tucked into the terrain. I took a brief hike around the edge of the lake and then drove on. Religious camps tucked in the woods kind of scare me. They all had perfect haircuts.
From Hume Junction east, Kings Canyon Scenic Byway was closed for the winter. It runs across the top of Sequoia National Forest to the eastern portion of Kings Canyon. I saw no snow on the road, even at 8,000 feet, but several rangers told me they get a lot of ice and services are closed for the winter as well. It will reopen in the spring, which means I have to come back at some point. The road west and south into Kings Canyon was open and I was looking forward to seeing General Grant’s tree. Another fella who was in the news when they were naming trees.
Wandering around Grant Grove, walking through a felled sequoia that has been hollowed out, I met Toni and Steve. My philosophy when meeting people in the parks is simple. We are both in a park – we obviously have something in common. And in this climate, there are probably a few people we mutually dislike. As is almost always the case, our conversation began with an offer to take photos. My very conventional line is, do you want me to take a photo of the two of you? It seems silly to me that a couple would go home with dozens of photos of each other. Of course I typically get a photo in return, which beats the hell out of the ones I have to take of myself that all look like I have my right arm extended. We traded photographs and a conversation ensued.
The conversation ranged from TheMountCo Project, to a variety of parks we’ve explored, to issues with the parks to politics of the day to wrestling. WTF – wrestling? As it turns out, Steve was a wrestler in college and once wrestled the Olympian and Hall of Fame member, Dan Gable. I was in awe. I wrestled briefly in high school (I stopped when it dawned on me that you couldn’t punch anyone) as did my older brother, Ron, who wrestled on the same squad as Glenn Frey who later started a small band called The Eagles. But I digress. Steve wrestled Dan Gable! The conversation was easy and we had a few laughs. Toni was lovely and had a beautiful smile. I received an email from them a few days later with a few suggestions for places to see close to Death Valley, my next stop. They also extended an invitation to spend a night in their home if I am passing through their neighborhood. Which I will take them up on and they will inevitably regret. Thanks for the invitation guys. I am so glad we met.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon should be explored in small bites. It is a land of great wonder. I managed six hikes into their forests and among their rocks. Each gave me brilliant views of the Sierras and the mighty rivers and canyons below. Little Baldy and Moro Rock come to mind. Golden meadows at 7,000 feet. Beetle Rock. Lost Grove. All have personalities and greatness in their own right. But make no mistake. Sequoia National Park takes it’s name from the grandest inhabitant of the park. They are the stars. The silent giants who tower over the forests.
It’s impossible to write about the western national parks without mentioning John Muir. When he discovered giant sequoias were being logged, this was his response. “As well sell the rain clouds and the snow and the rivers to be cut up and carried away, if that were possible.” He thought the big trees to be immortal. On the Sequoia National Park web site, they pose the following question with a series of answers. What is Wilderness? Wilderness is untrammeled. Wilderness is natural. Wilderness is undeveloped. Wilderness offers outstanding opportunities for solitude. John Muir shaped these answers. It has often been said that Muir’s three-night camping trip with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 could be considered the most significant camping trip in conservation history. It created an awareness of the power of nature. Her spectacular beauty and timeless rhythms. I believe everyone who visits our National Parks owes this man a debt of gratitude. Muir Woods National Monument, a grove of redwoods north of San Francisco, is named in his honor.
NOTE: For more information on Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park and all the National Parks and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with or without cell phone service.