Exploring Sequoia National Park – California, U. S. A.
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
The state of California has nine national parks and contains some of the most stunning, incredibly fascinating, and diverse natural wonders the world has to offer. One fascinating national park in California is Sequoia National Park. This gigantic Sequoia trees are the highlights of the park. You will be awed standing beside these cinnamon-colored trees. How can you not? They are the third longest-lived tree species and were already standing here as long as 2,000 to 3,000 years ago.
Sequoia National Park contains a significant segment of the Sierra Nevada, a mountain range in the western United States a vast majority of which is located in the state of California. This mountain range is also home to two other national parks - Yosemite National Park and Kings Canyon National Park.
Sequoia National Park is located in the southern Sierra Nevada east of the San Joaquin Valley. The “God of the Woods”, according to John Muir, is the second national park in the United States. It was designated a national park by President Benjamin Harrison on September 25, 1890 to protect one of the world’s largest and oldest tree species from logging. This is the first park created to protect a living organism.
John Muir wrote of the giant sequoia. "I never saw a Big Tree that had died a natural death. Barring accidents they seem to be immortal, being exempt from all diseases that afflict and kill other trees. Unless destroyed by man, they live on indefinitely until burned, smashed by lightning, or cast down by storms, or by the giving way of the ground on which they stand."
The park is also home to the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, Mount Whitney with an elevation of 14,505 feet. The vast majority of the park is wilderness, supporting diverse vascular plant species, sugar pine, ponderosa pine, foxtail, white barks, as well as wild animals such as black bears, peregrine falcons and types of blue birds.
Sequoia National Park was first home to the "Monachee" (Western Mono) Native Americans. Pictographs can be found at several sites within the park, as well as mortars used to process acorns, a staple food for the Monachee people.
TO GET TO THE PARK
When we visited this park, we stayed in the town of Three Rivers. From there the Sierra Drive (198) road becomes the General’s Highway (198) as you enter the park at the southern entrance, the Ash Mountain Entrance.
Past the Visitors Center, your first stop in the park will probably be at the Tunnel Rock. It was our first stop, of course. This tunnel was the original route through the park before big vehicles were invented;it was dug by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930's - back then they did not anticipate the big cars of the future. To increase tourism, the park-to-park highway was built connecting Sequoia and Kings Canyon (formerly Grant National Park). The newly named Generals Highway was dedicated on June 23, 1935. The road was named after two Giant Sequoias found in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, the General Sherman Tree and the General Grant Tree.
If you are camping, up ahead is the Potwisha Campground and information center. From this campground you can hike to Marble Falls. Continuing on Generals Highway past the Potwisha campground is the Hospital Rock Picnic Area and Hospital Rock Trailhead/Middle Fork Trail. From the road, it is 0.6-mile to Buckeye Flat Campground.
From Hospital Rock Picnic Area to the Giant Forest is a half-hour drive. Stop along the way at several viewpoints as you drive the switchback road. Vehicles longer than 22 feet are not recommended to use this road, between Potwisha Campground and Giant Forest. The road is narrow, winding and steep, you have to be really careful driving this road, 10mph is recommended on some of the curves.
THE SEQUOIA TREES
The Sequoia tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is found only in the western part of Sierra Nevada, growing at an elevation between 5,000 and 8,000 feet. They have a very specific climate requirement which is dry summers and cold, snowy winters. They can live for over 3,000 years and can grow up to 180 to 250 feet high - as high as 26-story building, with a diameter of 20 to 26 feet. A single branch can grow 50 feet long. By volume, a single tree has enough lumber to build 35 homes.
In the 19th century, the Sequoia trees were ripe for the taking. Unfortunately, many ended up as fence posts, shingles and matchsticks. Giant Sequoia trees splinter easily and are not suited for use as timber. Thousands of trees were felled before logging operations were stopped, the year the National Park Service incorporated the Giant Forest into Sequoia National Park in 1890.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FIRE IN SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK
The importance of fire in the ecosystem in Sequoia National Park is crucial. In Sequoia forests, there are fire scars in the tree rings dating back to 2,000 years. It shows that fires have occurred naturally in the area. Sequoias are adapted to periodic fire. So, prescribed burning started in Sequoia in the 1960’s, not only to ensure the survival of the Giant Sequoias but also to maintain a healthy forest by burning undergrowth and trees that compete with young Sequoias.
Sequoia trees are giant but their cones are small, just about the size of a chicken egg. They produce cones at about 12 years of age, but the cones retain their seeds for about 20 years, until the tree reaches maturity.
The heat from fires helps the mature cones to dry out and release their seeds onto the soil - the soil that was swept bare and enriched by fire with minerals is important for the seeds to germinate. Sequoia trees can only reproduce from seed and each tree needs only to produce one offspring, over its lifespan of several thousand years, to succeed.
Sequoias' fibrous bar,k which can grow up to 3 feet thick, not only resists burning but also insulates the tree against the heat of a fire. The tree heals itself if a fire penetrates the bark by growing half an inch of new wood and bark each year. That's one wonder of nature.
A major factor contributing to the longevity of Giant Sequoias is a chemical called tannin. The high concentration of tannin in its bark gives the Sequoia resistance against rot, boring insects and fire.
- EXPLORING THE GIANT FOREST -
The Giant Forest contains three of the top five largest Sequoia trees and half of the world's largest and longest-living trees. Named by naturalist John Muir in 1875, it has the most impressive collection of Giant Sequoias. Exploring throughout the Sequoia trees is fun.
The Giant Forest has a network of trails, so you can make your hike short or longer. Some trails are paved, which makes for easy walking, nothing strenuous and family friendly. You just have to be careful with bears. If you find these trails only "a walk in the park", there are other trails that are remote and require more strenuous hiking.
Right across from the Giant Forest Museum is the Sentinel Tree. With a height of over 257 feet, it is the 13th largest tree in Giant Forest, the 21st largest in the park, and the 43rd largest in the world. This tree is about 2,160 years old. This is just the introduction to other giant trees you will find in the park.
The largest tree in the park and the world’s largest living thing, in terms of volume, is called the General Sherman Tree, 275 feet high and 102 feet in circumference. This tree is dated between 2,300 to 2,700 years old. It was formerly called Karl Marx but was renamed in honor of the famous Civil War commander, General Sherman.
The paved Sherman Tree Trail is less than a mile round trip. It starts from the parking lot and goes to the base of the General Sherman Tree and meanders through a grove of other Giant Sequoia trees.
Following the Rimrock Trail, you will find other Giant Sequoia trees named McKinley Tree, The President Tree, Lincoln Tree, The Senate Trees, Chief Sequoia, and many others.
Following the Crescent Meadow Road, you will find Bear Hill Trailhead, Hanging Rock Trailhead and Moro Rock Trail.
On this road you will go through the Tunnel Log. Tunnel Log is a fallen Giant Sequoia tree that measured 275 feet (84 m) tall and 21 feet (6.4 m) in diameter. It fell across a park road in 1937 blocking the road. A year after it fell they cut an 8-foot (2.4 m) tall, 17-foot (5.2 m) wide tunnel through the trunk so cars can drive through it and pass by on the road once again.
At the end of the road is High Sierra Trailhead and Sugar Pine Trailhead, as well as Crescent Meadow Picnic Area. From here you can go to Tharp’s Log, an easy hike from the parking area.
At the end of the road is the Crescent Meadow - from Generals Highway to the parking lot is about 2.6 miles. John Muir called this meadow the "Gem of the Sierra".
Tharp’s Log is a cabin built out of a hollowed-out fallen Giant Sequoia tree. Hale Tharp was the first European settler to homestead in the area. He led an early battle against logging in the area. John Muir, who visited him from time to time, stayed at this cabin.
BLACK BEAR IN THE PARK
While exploring the park, we got lucky to see a mama bear with her three cubs by the meadow. We stopped and watched but we did not go near them - these photos were taken with a long lens. Mama bears are at their most dangerous when separated from their brood so we did not stay long. As soon as they started to walk in our direction, we were out of there, walking fast but not running. You can't outrun a bear and bear can climb trees as well. Better stay at a distance for your own safety.
On the southern edge of the Giant Forest, in the center of the park, is a massive granite dome called Moro Rock, elevation 6,725 feet. To get to the top, you have to climb 400 steps, but you will be rewarded by the view of the High Sierra mountains. The stairway, built in the 1930's by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The view from the rock encompasses much of the Park, including the Great Western Divide.
OTHER SITES TO VISIT IN THE PARK:
We did not go to Tokopah Falls but if you have time the trail starts just beyond the Marble Fork Bridge in Lodgepole Campground. It is an easy 1.7 mile (one way) walk along the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River to the waterfall.
Farther north are more picnic areas and trails, the Wolverton ski area and Lodgepole Visitor Center. Past the visitor center, State Route 198 connects to State Route 180, going to Kings Canyon National Park.
Crystal Cave, located in the Giant Forest, between Ash Mountain entrance and Giant Forest Museum, is one of the least known caves in the park. This cave is accessible by Park Service guided tours and tickets must be bought at the Foothills or Lodgepole Visitor Center.
On this road trip we visited three national parks in the area. If you are visiting Sequoia National Park, you might as well visit the adjoining Kings Canyon National Park to the north. You can bag two national parks in one trip which is well worth your time. If you have more time, to the south of Sequoia National Park is the Sequoia National Forest.
Going to Sequoia National Park there are shuttle buses that you can take from late May to early September. If you are interested in reducing car emissions, or take some time off from driving, click the link for info.