Pay Homage to Nature’s Royalty at Sequoia and Kings Canyon

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PAY HOMAGE TO NATURE’S ROYALTY AT SEQUOIA & KINGS CANYON
by Debbie Stone

 

BIG BLEND RADIO: Travel writer Debbie Stone talks about her adventures in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Listen to her interview here in the YouTube player or download the podcast on PodBean.com or SoundCloud.com.

I’m standing next to an ancient giant and I am humbled to be in its presence. Neither the tallest nor the widest, the General Sherman Tree is considered the largest living tree in the world because of its volume, a whopping 2.7 million pounds. This immense titan of the forest resides in Sequoia National Park, along with other esteemed members of its family. 

Located in central California, Sequoia and neighboring Kings Canyon are treasured gems in our country’s national parks system. Extending from the San Joaquin Valley foothills to the eastern crest of the Sierra Nevada, these parks are a testament to nature’s size, diversity, and beauty. They are home to alpine peaks, deep canyons, vast caverns, and tree monarchs. 

As the parks are adjacent to one another, connected via the Generals Highway, it makes practical sense to explore both during one trip. I recommend spending a few days in each to fully experience all the grandeur. Just know, you probably won’t have enough time to hike the more than eight hundred miles of marked trails! 

Established in 1890, Sequoia, named for earth’s largest living things, is California’s first national park and America’s second-oldest, after Yellowstone. Kings Canyon, named for the deepest canyon in North America, received its national park status fifty years later. Together, the two create a nearly million-acre recreational wonderland, crowned by Mt. Whitney, which at 14,494 feet, is the tallest mountain in the Lower 48.

 

Trees take center stage in both parks. Sequoia has the Giant Forest, known for its bucolic meadows and famed sequoia grove. The grove contains more than 8,000 colossal sequoias; many named for presidents, generals, and other individuals, who made significant contributions to society. 

There are several trails that allow you to get up-close and personal with these stalwart beauties. You can also find out more about the grove and its remarkable denizens at the Giant Forest Museum. 

Within the Giant Forest is the Near Sherman Tree. At a dizzying height of 316 feet, it has the distinction of being the tallest giant redwood. And its crown contains a jaw-dropping one billion leaves and over 767,000 cones. I’m glad I wasn’t the one tasked with all that counting!

President, another notable resident, is the oldest known living redwood. At nearly 3,300 years of age, this primordial sentinel has probably seen it all and then some.

The General Sherman Tree guards the northern fringe of the grove. Believed to be around 2,200 years old, the tree is 275 feet tall and boasts a circumference at ground level of 102.6 feet. And it’s still growing, as each year, it adds enough wood to make a 60-foot tree.

My senses were overwhelmed as I gazed at these soaring-to-the-stratosphere trees. Getting good pictures was a real challenge, as it’s difficult to fully capture them in all their glory, top to bottom.  

The Giant Forest area is also home to Moro Rock. This granite dome, which rises 6,725 feet above sea level, offers unparalleled views of the Great Western Divide and its spectacular canyons. Thankfully, you only have to climb the last 300 feet of the rock to reap the rewards of this mesmerizing panorama. It’s a short, but steep and narrow ascension, comprised of over 350 stone steps. There are railings in places for safety and you can hang on to the rock walls if heights make you nervous. 

Crescent Meadow is another highlight of Sequoia. Take the loop trail around this idyllic landscape, and incorporate some of the spur trails for unique sights, such as Tharp’s Log and Chimney Tree. The former is a rustic cabin built by Hale Tharp back in the 1860s. Tharp, a cattleman, was the first non-Native American settler in the area. He made the crude dwelling from a hollowed sequoia log and it’s the oldest pioneer cabin remaining in the park. Chimney Tree is a damaged hollow tree with a little hole in the bottom that allows access inside.

Centuries before Tharp came along, as early as 1350 A.D., the Potwisha Native Americans inhabited the region. They left behind pictographs on what is known as Hospital Rock. This archaeological site is worth a quick stop to see these painted messages, though their meanings continue to be a mystery. Nearby, is another large rock full of mortar holes, which were used by the women in the tribe to grind acorns into flour. Several outdoor exhibits depict what life might have been like during the time these people lived here. 

The credit for Hospital Rock’s name goes to Hale Tharp. Twice he brought injured explorers to the rock to be treated by the Native Americans and after the second time, he gave the place its apt moniker.

Though I wanted to get to Mineral King, a separate section of the park, I ran out of time. It will take top priority on my next visit. This glacial valley, an add-on to Sequoia in 1978, was a hot spot for silver prospectors in the 19th century. It’s reputed to be a “hiker’s heaven,” with wild meadows, forests of stately trees, and a rocky landscape of shale, marble, and slate. To reach Mineral King involves good driving skills, as the 25-mile road is narrow, steep, and curvy. 

The Giant Forest’s twin is Grant Grove in Kings Canyon. Here, the star attraction is the General Grant Tree. It’s the second-largest sequoia in the world and in 1867, it was named to honor General Ulysses S. Grant. Later, it was coined the “Nation’s Christmas Tree” by President Calvin Coolidge. Eventually, it was declared a National Shrine, as a memory to all those who sacrificed their lives for our country. Every year, since 1926, a service and special ceremony are held at the base of the tree on the second Sunday in December. 

 

These Big Trees wouldn’t be here today, if not for the efforts of dedicated conservationists, such as John Muir and George W. Stewart, who worked tirelessly to condemn the wholesale cutting of sequoias. It’s hard to imagine that these ancient sentinels were being chopped down and their wood used to make such things as pencils and stakes for grapes in vineyards. 

To see the remains of early logging and the destructive sequoia timber boom, take the Big Stump Trail into Big Stump Basin. Ginormous weathered stumps and logs dot the wide, circular meadow, which once was the site of the Smith Comstock Lumber Mill. Most notable is the Mark Twain Stump. It’s all that’s left of a 26-foot-wide, 1,700-year-old tree that reportedly took two men nearly two weeks to cut down back in 1891. It was distressing to learn that this sequoia was cut in order for a cross-section of it to be displayed in the American Museum of Natural History. Climb the ladder to the top of the stump for a close up look at the growth rings. 

A side path uphill goes to the Sawed Tree, a tall sequoia marked with the scars of deep cuts from a saw made over a century ago. It is healthy, though, showing the tree’s remarkable ability for healing and renewal. 

From Grant Grove, take the steep drive to Panoramic Point, where a short trail leads to a striking view of the Sierras, Hume Lake, and in the distance, Kings Canyon. You can also get other exceptional vistas of the scenery, provided you’re willing to hike up to one of the summits. However, if a strenuous climb is not your style, you’re in luck. Buena Vista Peak is just two miles round trip with only 420 feet of elevation gain, making it one of the easier summits to reach in the park. And the rewards are worthy of a much greater exertion. 

Kings Canyon has often been described, most famously by John Muir, as “a rival to Yosemite.” The canyon is a marvel, with its steep, glacially-carved walls rising up from the mighty Kings River. This river contains sections that are designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers, preserved for their natural, cultural and recreational values. The Junction View Overlook along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is the best place to see the confluence of two major forks of the river. 

This forty-mile byway offers memorable views of the canyon at its narrowest and widest sections. Along the way, you’ll find other picture-perfect scenes of babbling creeks, plunging waterfalls through granite chutes, emerald meadows, and even an historic cabin. 

Knapp’s Cabin is the oldest building in the Cedar Grove region of the park. Built in 1925 by businessman George Owen Knapp, the simple, one-room dwelling served as storage for the wealthy Californian’s camping and fishing trips. The place, though abandoned for many years, is in surprisingly good shape, and you can walk inside to check it out.

 

Stretch your legs when you reach Cedar Grove with a hike to Roaring River Falls, Zumwalt Meadow, Sheep Creek Cascade, or Mist Falls. You’ll find plenty of splendor at every juncture. 

Sequoia and Kings Canyon boast hundreds of caverns, but only Crystal Cave in Sequoia is open to the public. Known for its beautiful and varied formations, this marble treasure can only be explored via a guided tour. Unfortunately, due to health restrictions, as of now, all tours have been canceled. If you are still interested in exploring a cavern, however, Boyden Cave is open. This privately operated cave is located in Sequoia National Forest, off of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. 

I highly recommend staying inside the parks at one of the lodges or campgrounds, primarily for convenience sake. Driving to and from the parks each day would be very time consuming, allowing less opportunity for exploration. Trust me. These natural gems deserve your dedicated attention. 

If you go:www.nps.gov/seki 

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, and regular contributor for Big Blend Radio and Big Blend Magazines, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries and to all seven continents. 

 

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