Walking Among the Ancients: Highlights of Our Sequoia National Park Trip

It was hard to put into words the humbleness I felt as I stared up at this leviathan.  It loomed above me, dwarfing me as if I was an extra in Honey I Shrunk the Kids. But then not many things in this world can make feel you as tiny and insignificant like the mighty sequoia. They are, in simplest terms, giant. Although shorter than the towering heights of the coastal redwoods, these behemoths make up for it in volume. They are so vast that to walk around the circumference of one can leave you feeling as if you took a stroll in nature rather than simply walked around the base of a tree. It was June and the summer season was still fresh in the sequoia groves of the Sierras. Patches of snow still remained on the mountaintops, the days more mild than the traditional hot summer months, and the crowds had not yet descended upon the woods. In the famous words of John Muir we were in one of “God’s first temples” surrounded by groves of sequoias, or as he so eloquently called them, the “noblest tree-species”.  In the world there is one only special place that is dedicated to the preservation of these ancient monoliths, Sequoia National Park.

The sequoia, or as it known in its Latin form, Sequoia gigantea, is only found on the western flank of the Sierra Nevadas. In terms of population there are a mere 75 groves, with most living between 5,000 and 7,000 feet in elevation (Muir 114). It is easy to understand Muir’s fascination with the “Big Tree” just by looking at the facts listed on the park’s information handout:

  • Height: up to 311 feet
  • Age: up to 3,200 years
  • Weight: up to 2.7 million pounds
  • Bark: up to 31 inches thick
  • Branches: up to 8 feet in diameter
  • Base: up to 40 feet in diameter

All of this is created from a seed the size of an oat flake. Time and time again Mother Nature proves herself to be quite the miracle worker and this case is no exception. As I read these statistics it was easy to see how a grove of trees had earned itself a national park title.

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The most famous example of these fascinating statistics is the General Sherman Tree.  In terms of volume, it is the largest tree on Earth. At 100 feet in diameter and 275 feet tall it is a humbling show stopper.  It annually grows enough new wood under its flaky orange bark to make a 60 foot tree. Impressive is an understatement. I guess you could call it the mic drop of the tree world. It is protected by a low-lying fence so there would be no hugging this gentle giant during our park visit.  The General Sherman Tree also bears the scars from it’s 2,000 years on Earth with a blackened scorch mark surging up its knobby side and the occasional missing branch. But these are all part of its history which dates back before we began counting years in A.D. No doubt all of us would bear some battle wounds if we had been around that long. The history these trees have borne witness to throughout time astounds me.

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The General Sherman Tree is conveniently located by the Congress Trail, Giant Forest Museum and a nearby meadow loop trail. It is also wheelchair accessible and can be reached via a park shuttle if you prefer to avoid any parking challenges.  While the museum is not big, it offers a tremendous amount of information and opportunities for purchasing all the souvenirs your kids could ever want (or need). It was a handy place to visit before heading to the General Sherman Tree where we all took a crash course in sequoia education.  Many of the displays were interactive which was perfect for Lucas who is still learning to “look with his eyes and not his hands”. This region of the park can easily eat up several hours with visits to General Sherman Tree, the museum, and hikes through the House and Senate groves and a stroll along the meadow trail. It all depends on how much you want to get back on your investment of time.

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The meadow was a short, paved walk from the Giant Forest Museum.  It’s thick, lush grasses were surrounded by fragrant pine and sequoia trees as if they were sentinels standing guard over the hushed wildlife haven.  Meadows just have this ethereal and calming pull to them. They beckon you toss a blanket to the ground and lay down for a while, meditating to the gentle flicker of the grasses as they wave in the breeze.  The lupine and cow parsnip added a playful dash of color to the normally monochromatic environment. Our evening stroll along the paved trail was the fitting end to our first full day exploring the heart and soul of Sequoia National Park.

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While the sequoia groves in the park left us awestruck, it was a pleasant change of pace to break away from the giants and head underground to Crystal Cave during our second day in the park.  We purchased our tickets for the tour at the Lodgepole visitor center. Some advanced planning is a necessity as tours do sell out. During our drive to the cave the trees began to change and the landscape quickly traded the towering sequoias for sturdy oaks.  From the parking lot there is a one mile hike down to the cave so it is best to arrive early and plan for a twenty-minute stroll. Hiking to the cave was a breeze, but on the way back it is all uphill.  It’s not like hiking the Grand Canyon, but come prepared with water and remember slow and steady wins the race.  The entrance to Crystal Cave is through an imposing spider web gate that the kids loved. As we crossed the threshold into the bowels of the cave the air grew damp and smelled of earth.  Slowly our eyes began to adjust to the dimness. A new world of crystals, stalagmite, and rimstone pools began to unfold before us. It is one thing to learn about these formations from a textbook, but for our kids to experience them in real life was far more enriching.

The cave tour can take close to half a day with the driving, hiking and touring, but our goal of camping has always been to have an element of relaxation.  There was no better way to do that than by perching ourselves on a granite rock along the Kaweah River and dipping our toes into the frigid mountain runoff.  The rush of the water instantly brought me back to my childhood where I spent countless summer days playing in mountain rivers when we visited my grandparents.  During those years all I wanted to do was play and splash in the water, but these days my only requirements are a pair of sunglasses and a good book. The hypnotizing swirl of the water, our rocky pulpit baking under the warm June sun, and the laughter of the kids was all we needed to satisfy that desire for a lazy mountain afternoon.

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Few things end an afternoon at the river quite like a dinner cooked outside followed by an evening of stargazing in front of a campfire. Cooking outside will never have the convenience of preparing a meal at home. Dishes can’t be tossed in the dishwasher and there is no hot water readily available, but there is something soothing about being outdoors while you prepare a meal.  Standing over a camp stove while mindlessly stirring our meal while I stare at the trees, the clinking of other campers’ dishes off in the distance, the fragrant sizzle as the food hits the skillet, and a family meal enjoyed at a picnic table while we discuss the day’s highlights, this is what many campers live for and we are no exception. Follow that with a cocktail next to a campfire while the kids roast marshmallows under a dark night sky and the result is perfection.  

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For our final full day in the park we set our sites on exploring a part of the park we had yet to see: Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow.  We had skipped a trip to Moro Rock during our two previous visits because we felt Lucas was too young. After hiking it I can assuredly say we made the right choice.  Although it is a safe trail, it was definitely questionable for a squirrelly toddler with zero impulse control and I was convinced the experience would have quite shaved a couple of years off my life due to anxiety.  But at nine he was great and I had no fear of him climbing any barriers only to plummet hundreds of feet to the valley floor. The hike is a steep 0.6 mile ascent up 350 stairs. Just enough to really get you huffing and puffing and make your body feel maybe not quite as young as it used to.  Once we arrived at the top, the valley below becomes our own personal topographic map; the highway reduced to a mere squiggle. Although not an insane hike, there is something that just feels good about accomplishing these fetes as a family. There’s the group high-five and euphoria that we did it together.  Another memory created for the treasure chests in our minds.   

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On our way to Crescent Meadow we opted for a quick trip to the drive through tree.  These trees always have us holding our breath and saying a little prayer that we will fit.  But isn’t that part of the thrill? It is as close as we will ever get to an amusement park ride while in the woods.  Beyond the drive through tree was a another grove of sequoias. These allowed us the opportunity to get out of our car and truly take in their grandeur.  There were no fences or barricades. We could feel their rugged bark, running our hands over the fibrous strands as they shed to forest floor. As we gazed up, our necks craned back as far as they would go so in hopes we could catch a glimpse of the towering tree tops.  Even if the four of us linked arms we still could not make it even halfway around the base of these sequoias. As we got back into the car, I stared longingly at the trees wishing I could curl up against one with a book, feeling its ancient energy as I turned the pages.

When we approached the meadow I saw it was a worthy trade off.  Picnic tables were nestled in amongst the trees beckoning for a picnic lunch.  An al fresco lunch under a canopy of pine trees? OK! We inhaled our picnic lunch of melting PB&J sandwiches and salty potato chips and I could not help but reflect on June in the Sierra Nevadas.  The way the season is still new and fresh, tentatively \ entering into summer like a toddler taking their first steps. Slowly creeping along until the confidence sets in. The rivers are full and the marshes thick and soupy. The days are warm enough for shorts and hikes in the sun are bearable as temperatures haven’t reached baking.  Families in the distance talked over their meals and I watched children turn the forest into their own personal playground. Sometimes it’s nice to just be present, to sit and let the experience seep into your soul.

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After our stomachs were full and the drunken haze of food set in we began a leisurely stroll around Crescent Meadow.  On the trail the calm, tall grasses of the meadow had an enchanted quality about them. The whispered hum of the cicadas and the bluebird skies all were reminiscent of story books.  I could feel the clock begin to slow down as the quiet loomed large; the flora and fauna suffocating all sound to a mere whisper. Our footsteps created a quiet thump, the earth padded by decades of needles dropping to the worn trail.  We ambled along, running our hands along the tops of the frothy ferns until we came to a fallen sequoia, its roots seemed to grasp at the air while its base towered above us. It was a rare opportunity to see what the underside of these mighty giants.  The length of the big tree crossed the entire meadow offering a shortcut to the other side. All it took was a bit of scrambling and grasping at roots to climb to its side and begin our balanced journey to the trailhead.

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As our day came to an end and we prepared to bid a fond farewell to Sequoia National Park the following morning I reflected on our time in the land of sequoias, the thoughtful words of John Muir, and his passion for the big tree.  His words echo in my mind months later, “They fill the woods and for the principle tree, growing heartily on solid ledges, along water courses, in the deep, moist soil of meadows, and upon avalanche and glacial debris, with a multitude of thrifty seedlings and saplings crowding around the aged, ready to take their places and rule the woods.” (115)  Rule the woods they do.

Cited works:  

Muir, John.  Essential Muir:  A Selection of John Muir’s Best Writings.  Berkeley, California, Heyday, 2006.

Helpful Links:

Sequoia National Park

Crystal Cave

Lodgepole Campground

 

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