As a traveler, I’ve been lucky to see a lot of incredible things. And yet, there are still sights that amaze me to the point that I will struggle for words to explain them, something that can be a big problem as a writer. I have been to Sequoia National Park, and its neighboring Kings Canyon National Park, before, and yet my recent journey there with my family again left me speechless.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon are in the High Sierra, the tall peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental United States, lies within the park boundary, though it isn’t visible from most of the park itself, lying all the way to the east. Stunning mountains, deep wooded valleys, boulder-lined creeks, and granite monoliths abound, inviting exploration from visitors who flock to the parks.
Entering the parks involved driving up steep grades. The boundaries of Sequoia National Park sit around 3,000 feet up, but the main road climbs quickly to 7,000 feet. It is slow going, but driving the main road from Three Rivers, one is treated to gorgeous views of the Moro Rock around each curve.
Moro Rock is one of the most visible features in the southern portion of the park.
Reaching the upper elevations, hikers will rejoice at the countless miles of trails. One of my favorites is Buena Vista Peak, just inside Kings Canyon, a quick two mile round trip for a great view of the canyon.
The vista up here is indeed good!
However, people make this journey for one thing: the trees. Giant Sequoias are the largest single trunk trees in the world. They can grow up to 320 feet tall (after roughly 300 feet, their water circulation systems are too weak to maintain new upwards growth and new growth is solely gained by girth), can live thousands of years, and can reach forty feet in diameter at the trunk!
Fully mature giant sequoias are called monarch trees, typically at the point where upwards growth has stopped. The largest cluster of monarch giant sequoias lies in the Giant Tree Grove Of Sequoia National Park. There is a visitors center there, as well as a museum, and hundreds of the wondrous trees. The Sentinel tree stands just outside the museum, and ranger talks happen in its shadow regularly. It is important to note that, while it is huge, this is not nearly the largest around.
The Sentinel tree, with people in it for scale.
When these trees were first discovered by Americans migrating west (they had been known to the native populations for centuries), one was cut down and sent to the World Fair in pieces. Nobody could believe there were such large trees, and it was called a “California hoax.” However, loggers, intrigued by the size of the trees, moved in and began to cut them down. The mass of the trees was so great that they would shatter upon hitting the ground, so smaller trees were cut down to break their fall. The trees were logged heavily, and the thought of losing such a treasure was one of the impetuses behind the creation of the National Parks system. Sequoia National Park was dedicated in 1890.
The trees have still had hard times, both due to too little protection, and also to too much. An example can be found exploring the giant trees loop, a 3/4 mile paved walkway close to the museum.
The giant trees loop circles this meadow.
In the early days of the park, this was the location of the main lodge (and for nearly 100 years after). Buildings were built in and among the trees, and a restaurant was even located between the four trees in the above photo. Damage to the giant sequoias was extensive due to this. Their water supplies were diverted to make pathways accessible, branches were cut off for safety of structures, and saplings were cleared. That damage has only recently begun to be undone.
On the flip side, conservation itself actually hurt the sequoias. Giant sequoias need fire to reproduce, as it opens their cones and seeds. They themselves are adept at surviving flames, as the tannins in their bark is naturally fire resistant. (You will notice many of the monarchs have huge fire scars.) Rangers didn’t want fire in the park, but as a result lost a generation of new growth. Today, each section of the groves is fired in a controlled blaze every decade or so.
You can see fire damage on this monarch sequoia.
The highlight of the Giant Trees Grove is the General Sherman tree, the world’s largest single trunk tree by mass (more than 12% larger than the next largest, also a giant sequoia, the General Grant). Photos cannot do it justice, but I will try.
The people are so tiny underneath the tree.
General Sherman is not the tallest giant sequoia (it stands about 280 feet tall), nor the one with the biggest trunk (General Grant holds that title), but its trunk contains more mass than any other in the world, and the wood it adds each year in girth would create a large tree in most other forests.
The General Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park also contains a number of monarchs in close proximity, focusing on the namesake, the world’s second largest tree.
The General Grant tree
These trees are fairly easy to see. The parks lie only a few hours’ drive north from Los Angeles or southeast from the Bay Area, and many of the monarchs can be seen from the car, or via a short walk on a paved trail. Some remnants of the trees can even be climbed on or walked through!
This is named Giant Stump for some strange reason.
Other wildlife is also abundant. Deer, squirrels, birds, bears, and more can be found inside the park boundaries. But it is the enormous giant sequoia trees that tourists and nature lovers journey to see. Hug one! You’ll feel the majesty!
I named this one the General Jonathan