Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park had always eluded us, as it seemed too far for weekend, but not far enough for a summer vacation. We decided to take advantage of the low precipitation year and relatively warm November to try and sneak in some late season hiking. Usually by this time of year there is some snow on the ground at these elevations, too much for comfortable hiking, but not enough for safe cross country skiing. This year, even above 10,000 feet there has been no accumulation in the Sierras.
We traveled east from Oakland into the central valley and then down route 99. This hard working piece of highway is often overlooked in preference of route 5 or 101 heading south, but it is inherently a more interesting and different piece of pavement. Just as all irrigation water eventually runs to a drain, the bountiful agricultural output from the central valley all heads to market through the Route 99 corridor – either by truck, or train. Usually there is a steady stream of all sorts of farm related trucks heading in both directions, carrying hay, feed, cattle, supplies, machinery, tomatoes, grapes, apricots, walnuts or whatever. The roadside is lined with machinery dealers, crop elevators, feed lots, and other end of the production chain facilities. However, today, being Thanksgiving, there was almost no truck traffic - just a hoard of overpacked, overused cars and light trucks heading to grandmother’s house for the holiday.
Two hours east of Fresno on Route 180, through November fruit laden orange groves, we reached the park boundary. The highway traverses the eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley, then climbs 5,000 feet from irrigated desert valley bottom through foothill chaparral to the sub-alpine zone. With each few thousand feet of elevation gain the vegetation and exposed geology changes. On the way up we passed about 6 open range cattle on the road– clearly a lost herd this high late in the season, and then further on a family of mule deer, male, female and fawn - also unusual for this time of year still all together. The low brush and sage of the undeveloped bottom land rapidly gave way to the mountain pines and glacial scoured granite mountainsides as soon as the road began to climb out of the valley. Thirty minutes later we pulled into the Lodgepole campground – one of the two campgrounds in the park that are open year round. We arrived at an almost deserted campground and picked out a spot on level ground. At this time of the year only one central bathroom is operational and all other sites are intended for self-contained campers. Even so, there we a handful of hardy tent campers setting up. Sprawling empty parking lots tell of the different story this place must tell in warmer weather. All the visitor centers and ranger facilities seemed closed for the season. The folks across the road from us tell us that a large bear was by earlier in the afternoon.
After a quick lunch and change into outdoor hiking clothes (42 degrees outside with a cold mist swirling about) we headed out for a hike up the Tokopah valley (which follows the Kaweah river) upstream to a wonderful braided waterfall half frozen already.
As we hiked upwards, we experienced the strangest sensation as everything around us began to get bigger. The rocks along the side of the trail grew to boulder size. The small trees gave way to monstrous sequoias, cedar, and doug fir. The wooded river edge began to tip upwards steeply and suddenly gave way to cliffs a thousand feet high on each side of the valley. Within 30 minutes we were in a different world of sub-alpine mature forest. Ferns covered the forest floor under the large trees, wearing their brown and shriveled leafs ready to be buried beneath the looming snows. Next spring, they’ll sprout fresh and green just as the snow melts. After 40 minutes, the trees suddenly came to a halt at the edge of a boulder field - giving way to polished and broken granite blocks stretching up and into the valley as far as we could see.
This was like a Yosemite Valley tilted upwards, with no roads, no lodges, no tour buses, and no people. We could not linger long at the falls at trail’s end because the sun had slid low below the trees by then, the sky turning a burnished pink. The wispy mist had returned and was chilling us down. We added all the layers, lightening packs and hustled back to the camper where a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner followed as darkness enveloped our site. Last night we had pre-cooked the turkey and yams. Tonight we cooked up cranberries on the stove, heated the yams and turkey in the microwave and reminisced about thanksgivings past. We certainly have much to be thankful for. Dinner done, the full moon beams in brightly through the skylight adding to the warm glow of candle lights on the table and the soft whirl of the cabin heater.
For a few more days, we “washed, rinsed, and repeated” our daily routine of a leisurely hot breakfast in the camper followed by a full day of hiking outdoors, followed by a relaxing “camper-cooked” dinner. We spent one day exploring the Giant Forest, which would have more aptly been named the forest of Giants.
“The sequoias are a link between the present and the past. They hark back to Eocene or earlier times when, in a comparatively young world, the trees and reptiles were gigantic. The more complex structure of the reptiles was unable to adjust itself to climatic and other changes, the age of the mammoth saurians passed, and there dawned the age of mammals. The dinosaurs are gone; the sequoias remain.”
-Walter Fry and John R. White, Big Trees, 1930
Mixed amongst the sugar pine, fir and cedar varieties are more than 8,000 giant sequoia trees. Some standing alone, some in clusters of two or three. Some looking completely intact, more than 2,000 years since they sprouted up from the under story. Others are partially burned. Still others are barely shells of gigantic trees, towering over the other species, but more cavities, and charcoal than living organisms. Surrounding the older and exfoliating giants in a veritable alluvial deposit of sloughed bark and branches making the trees look like they erupted from a mountain of wood debris.
We climbed the three hundred painstakingly carved steps up to the lookout atop Moro Rock, an exfoliated granite dome protruding from the forest covered mountainside at about 7,000 feet. At spots the trail is merely a flattened ledge on the side of a 1,000 foot cliff. There is a stout metal handrail embedded in the stone so anyone can make this excursion. Hold on to your little ones tight.
On our way back through the forest to the car one day, we mistakenly got off trail as we were climbing over a large fallen tree. We mistook a wildlife trail for the hiking trail. Within about 10 minutes we realized our mistake, but rather than backtracking, we pulled out the compass, took a bearing and soldiered on. Our reward was viewing a beautiful black bear, foraging for bugs in Huckleberry meadow. He would dig for a bit, rise up and sniff the air, trot off along the meadow and start to forage again. We were very quiet and downwind from him, so we could watch for quite some time before he was coming too close for our comfort and we ambled off along on our way.
Jut before returning to our camp one night, we stopped and almost accidentally came across “Beetle Rock”, another granite dome outcropping across from the Big Trees Museum. This perch affords a stunning vista to the south and west over the foothills below opening to the San Joaquin Valley. This is a great spot from which to watch the sunset.
This part of the park is accessible in the winter months during which the road is generally plowed – but sometimes not immediately after a big storm. With sufficient snow, the cross country skiing should be spectacular. Staff at the newly completed Wuksachi Village Lodge ( www.visitsequoia.com ) informed us that the snows are coming later and later each year and reliable skiing is only available in February and March. This scrumptiously crafted lodge has new hotel rooms, a nice restaurant, and comfortable seating around a stone hearth with wood burning stove. The menu had dinners around $22 per entrée. If we had not been on our way home we would have planned a meal here. Right from the lodge are great hiking and ski trails.
The Pear Lake ranger station coverts to a winter ski lodge in the snowy months. The rigorous ski in is about 7 miles up through the sub-alpine, and then out into the open alpine zone below Alta peak. Reservations can be made through the Sequoia Park Association. It costs about $24 per person per night and has bunks, a picnic table, a composting toilet, and wood heat. Snow must be melted for water, but the ski terrain surrounding the cabin is spectacular. Park at the Wolverton trailhead and get an early start. While in the woods the trail is marked with yellow triangles in the trees, but above treeline, be sure you can follow map and compass.
If you have time and inclination, consider stopping at the Cat Haven Wild Animal Park on route 180 east of Fresno, and west of the park entrance at about 2,500 feet, where we suspect there is a collection of rescued large cats. The sign has a leopard on it, but we did not stop.