Driving to Sequoia National Park from the south on Highway 198, you traverse the flat, fertile San Joaquin Valley, often called the “food basket of the world,” and begin your mountain ascent on The Generals Highway over continuous hairpin curves to a hiking and camping paradise almost 7,000 feet above sea level.
Word to the wise: Don’t trust your GPS or MapQuest. You’ll still have 23 winding miles left to go from the park entrance to Wuksachi Lodge, the only lodging in the par — a beautiful mountain lodge with guest rooms located in groves of trees, blending into the forest.
With every modern convenience and mouth-watering high country cuisine, you will be encountering the splendor of Mother Nature in pristine and peaceful perfection.
Surrounded by a gazillion trees, the first thought that popped into my head was of Joyce Kilmer’s saccharine but well loved poem, “I think that I shall never see …”
The very first thing I would do upon arrival is to call Paul at Sequoia Sightseeeing Tours for a half- or full-day tour to acclimate yourself to the vastness of this national wonderland. He is such a delight to be with that I would have paid him just for the company, but boy, does he know his way around these trees.
We stopped first at the Giant Forest, named in 1875 by famed naturalist John Muir. When topography and climate are in sync, sequoias reproduce and grow. Reaching heights of 311 feet and weights of 2.7 million pounds, these giants live more than 3,200 years, producing 31-inch bark and bases up to 40 feet in diameter and drinking 400 to 500 gallons of water per day.
Herein lies the world’s largest tree by volume, The General Sherman Tree. Nearby, you’ll stop in the Giant Forest Museum and Crescent Meadow, where you might spot a black bear feeding in the open grasses. Whether black, brown, tan or red-coated, all the bears found in the park are black bears. Able to smell barbecue ribs or canned tuna from a mile away, you must never leave food or anything scented unattended.
Paul will take you to one of the favorite places in the park, Moro Rock, a gigantic granite dome with 400 steps up a steep, narrow trail for a breathtaking view (especially at sunset) of the Great Western Divide. He’ll show you baby sequoias, Tharps Log, the first house built from a fallen sequoia, Tunnel Log and hollowed trees, making for a great photo-op.
On your own, you’ll want to tour Crystal Cave; walk among the wildflowers at Tokopah Falls; watch for wildlife including badgers, bobcats, coyotes, mule deer, mountain lions and the adorable, darting Alvin chipmunks. Bird watching includes mountain chickadees, golden-crowned kinglets and red-breasted nuthatches.
The mid-1800s brought the Gold Rush to California along with loggers who tragically cut down more than 300 sequoias, using the wood to make pencils and grape stakes for vineyards. Sequoia wood is brittle and breaks against the grain when it falls, making it almost unusable for timber. Still, they continued to destroy the giants taking over a week to chop down a single tree.
Finally, in 1890, President William Harrison established the park as America’s second national park, thanks in large part to the combined efforts of George Stewart and Muir. Muir’s appalled response to this devastation was that we “might as well sell the rain clouds and the snow and the rivers to be cut up and carried away, if that were possible.”
Every American owes a great debt of gratitude to America’s first naturalist, Muir, for saving these kings of the forest and for giving us this hallowed walk through the trees — nature’s own cathedral.
So, the least I can do is to end with another lofty Muir quote: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” So true.