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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Those Are Some Big Trees! Sequoia National Park

My long-time travel friend M (who doesn't like people knowing her business, so she shall be known only as "M") and her friend C make an annual visit to the giant sequoias in Southern California every year. This year, when I told M I would be in America all fall, she invited me to join them in late September.

I started by flying to Orange County, probably one of the most crowded, highest-income areas of the country. The three of us convened at C's house and went shopping for groceries at Trader Joe's. I love Trader Joe's, but we'll never get one in Utah because our cumbersome liquor laws would prevent them from selling alcohol. 

Orange County felt odd to me. The air was white and hazy and all I could see was houses, streets, landscaped road medians, and shopping areas all around us and at the same level. I couldn't see blue sky. I couldn't see hills to the east. I couldn't see ocean to the west. 

Much of California makes me feel uneasy. Not all of it, certainly. I like San Francisco. I like being up in the Sierra Nevada. I like Death Valley. But the Central Valley gives me the creeps. Even though there's plenty of open space in farms, it's as if people have modified every square inch. Even farm fields look industrial and feel unnatural.

The next morning, we purposely made a late start, in order to avoid morning traffic as we headed up the freeway through Los Angeles. This was my first time to travel this infamous stretch of freeway. But nobody shot at us and traffic was actually not too bad. It did feel crowded. I must have been twitching, because once we were north of the city, C pointed out to me all the farm fields and vineyards and commented that now we were out in the countryside and the wide open spaces. I was feeling uneasy again, because of that completely unnatural aspect. I don't know how it's possible to make grape vines and fruit trees look industrial, but California's farmers have mastered it.

We just kept heading north on "the ten," as Californians refer to Interstate 10, for quite some time. Actually, until we realized we needed to backtrack a bit to the south and look for a road heading east to the mountains. We wended our way through more industrial orchards and fields, and a couple of charming towns full of historic houses. 

We reached the foot of the mountains around dusk and headed up the road to Sequoia National Park. The road into the park at this end is a narrow mess of steep switchbacks. And it's been under construction for a few years now. We drove through that part in pitch dark. C was heroic as our driver. We'd wind around a corner and come up to a portable red light, sometimes alone, sometimes behind one or two other cars. We'd wait ten minutes for the green light. Then we'd ease over sections of road where the pavement was ripped away down to dirt. It seemed pretty narrow, but we couldn't see that much. On our way back out of the park a few days later we saw the whole situation. I'm glad I didn't understand the extent of it that first night in the dark. 

And then, even though we were creeping along in the dark, reading every glow-in-the-dark Park Service sign, we drove past Wuksachi Lodge and had to turn around and backtrack for the second time. When we finally checked in, we advised the young receptionist that somebody really should check on the missing sign at the entrance road. She was very polite, but was clearly thinking she had a group of crazy old women on her hands.

The lodge was quite posh. And it had an excellent restaurant. Both of those things go totally against National Park tradition (see my complaints about the food and lodges in Yellowstone here and here.) Our dinner reservation was for 6:00, but they let us squeeze in at 9:30 and cheerfully served us.

The next morning, after a quick, cheap breakfast from the mini-fridge in our room, we headed out to see the big trees. But first, we saw an enormous roadside sign marking the Wuksachi Lodge entrance road. No wonder the desk clerk looked at us like that. Looking at the sign in broad daylight, it was hard to believe we'd missed it.

But never mind the sign...look at the trees! This one is named the Sentinel, out in front of the Giant Forest Museum. A group of funny young women from San Francisco grabbed my camera and took this shot of M, me,and C.

Here's the view from Beetle Rock, a curve of glaciated granite that looks back the way we came, out towards the citrus orchards.

The view from Beetle Rock is almost always hazy, due to air pollution. Two rangers told us this is the most polluted National Park in America. I was assuming the pollution came up all the way from Los Angeles, but one of the rangers said the orchards at the bottom of the mountains generate most of it.

M riding a granite elephant. Or maybe it's a camel? Or a creature from a Dr. Seuss book?

The wind howled around us. We heard a tremendous crash from somewhere to the northeast. Everybody on Beetle Rock turned towards the sound just to make sure whatever fell wasn't anywhere near us. It sounded like one of the big trees had gone down. Rain pelted us, and we ran for the museum.

The gift shop was too small to occupy us for long, and the museum displays were only so so. But I did pick up this bit of information: the giant sequoias in this park are the world's widest trees. The redwoods, found in northern California near the coast, are the world's tallest trees. And bristlecone pines, found in Nevada and a few high elevation places in California and Utah, are the world's oldest trees.

Once the rain stopped, we headed to the Giant Forest area to hike the loop trail and see General Sherman, the world's largest tree (by volume). And, after spending four days in  Yellowstone (the park famous for bears) searching for bears and never actually seeing one....

...we saw three bears right next to the parking lot here in the sequoias!

They ignored the fifteen people standing around snapping pictures and the cars cruising by, and just went about their business.

Here's C setting off down the trail. She is a classic California blonde beauty. I took so many cute pictures of her, but she denies being classic or beautiful, and she hated every picture. So I'll just use a few where you can't see her too well!

Along the trail, we came across this...the tree we'd heard crash to the ground from two miles away at Beetle Rock!

The ranger said a father had pulled his little boy out of the way just in time as it fell. At least it's not a sequoia. I think it's a white fir. M and C suffered through a lot of tree and plant talk from me, as I relived my glory days as a forester and pointed out all sorts of interesting things along the trail.

 Farther along, there they are again...the funny San Francisco girls.

I wonder if they're stalking us? Look at the size of that tree! Their camera batteries were dead, so I took these pictures and promised to send them. But I lost their email address, so I'll just post their pictures on the internet instead.

This group tree hug reminded me that I, too, am a tree hugger, and I was really feeling a strong aura from these giant trees. I picked one and hugged it myself.

The bark is very dry and corky and at least a foot thick. When I hugged it, I came away with slivers and dust poking through my shirt and scratching me. Not to mention the many spider webs in the bark crevices.

The thick bark shields the tree from fire, so the big trees survive a lot of fires. Many have impressive fire scars.

Anyway, as I walked the trail, plucking at my shirt to dislodge the splinters, I understood that the sequoia aura comes from size and solidity and beauty and is one of utter indifference to many smaller organisms. It's good to be reminded of my puny place in the wild universe a few times a year. So then I enjoyed the aura by wandering among the trees and gazing adoringly from a splinter- and spider web-free distance.

Giant fire scar! Puny people!

The Park Service named trees for past presidents and groves of trees for political bodies. But it must have been a long time ago, because there's no way the American Senate this year can be compared to these stately, dignified trees.

Here's M lending scale to the roots of an uprooted sequoia.

 That's M and me at the General Sherman Tree, the world's largest by volume.

It's on the left in this more distant view. It's 275 feet (84 meters) tall. See all those tiny people standing at its base, to the left, for scale.

Next, we were off to a guided tour of Crystal Cave, one of several karst-limestone caves in the park. Crystal Cave is the one they've developed with trails and lights and tours. You could consider it a "sacrifice" cave for public consumption, while the others remain open only to researchers or otherwise serious spelunkers. A few years ago, M convinced me to to do a very serious spelunker's tour in an undeveloped part of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. It was terrifying. But also really fun! But that's another story for another time. This day, we just walked a paved, lighted trail.

In true Park Service fashion, this sign at the start of the 1/2 mile trail to the cave tries to give visitors a good scare. So if you have to pee alongside the trail, be sure you don't grab a handful of poison oak leaves, or you'll be sorry. The ratty-looking raven isn't real, just a toy available in the tiny gift shop attached to the ticket kiosk.

Really, the trail was lovely.

For some reason, the entrance gate is a giant spider web.

Still trying to scare us, I guess.

We toured with a group of 50! Way too big...

But the cave has some beautiful formations. The Sequoia Natural History Association, a non-profit organization, runs the tours. Our guide was a young man who loves caves. He looked as if maybe he'd been sleeping in this one for a few days. He gave a very good tour replete with in-depth discussion of chemistry, geology, biology and everything else. He made one joke about his girlfriend being jealous of the cave. M and I whispered to each other, "What! Do you believe this guy actually has a girlfriend?"

Fairies' Pool.

When all 50 of us sat in a circle for the obligatory lights-out plunge into total darkness, a Japanese man who didn't understand English took advantage of the break to scroll through all the pictures he'd taken. Which distracted us a bit from total darkness. An American man snarled at him, "Cameras off! Cameras off!" Our guide said, in a soothing voice, "No judgements, now. No pressure." The Japanese man was still scrolling, all unaware of the restless natives. When the lights came back on, the guide gave us a little talk about going out into the world to do good works for the environment. He made me think back to the 1970's and Earth Day and John Denver. Very gentle and earnest. But the tour was good, because he presented much more in-depth science information than you usually get on a 50-tourist cave tour.

Stream channel running through the cave. The gray and white part has mineralized from limestone into marble.

Aaah! Back into the light.

We still had some daylight left, so we headed back to Wuksachi Lodge and walked a couple of miles of the Twin Lakes Trail that starts behind the lodge. We spent about two hours walking the trail and saw not another soul. The shorter, easy trails that start at big parking lots and pass through sequoia groves were very busy. We had to reserve the cave tour a day ahead and walk in a big group. But this trail doesn't pass any sequoias and isn't paved and is steep in a few places, so nobody was there! It was lovely.

M and C crossing Clover Creek on the Twin Lakes trail.

Look! My shirt matches the lichens on the fir trees!

We finished the hike just as the light faded.

Another expensive, delicious dinner in the lodge and we called it a night.

Next morning, bright and not too early, we headed to the Tokopah Falls trail. Even less early because we passed a really good gift shop on the way to the trailhead and took a few minutes to shop. 

Bears are so active in the park that the Park Service provides these bear-proof boxes at trailheads. You're required to take all food out of your car and store it in the boxes. We carried our lunch with us, but that sack in the corner contains all our snacks and drinks for the rest of the day.

Bears here are expert at breaking into cars if they smell something good, or even if they see a cooler in the back. I suppose you could lose your food out of these bear boxes if another tourist stole it. I checked every time to see if anyone else had left something better than ours, but never saw anything worth stealing.

C and M hit the trail. This was a non-sequoia hike, through mixed pine and fir forest.

The highlight of the hike was a bear family about a hundred feet below the trail. Here's Cub Number One.

Here's Mama, keeping an eye on us humans up on the trail.

Cub Number Two.

Have you ever seen anything so cute? We so felt the urge to climb down and pet him.

But we didn't get too close. At least she's tagged, so the rangers would know which bear took us down.

We cut the hike off just below the top. We could see the waterfall and it wasn't too impressive and the last half mile involved picking your way through a rock field.

M was ready to climb over all those High Sierra rocks, but C and I talked her out of it.

On the way back down, we met a couple with the husband standing on a fallen log peering through the brush below the trail and the wife hanging back behind. She gave us the story. Not two minutes before, a large bear had crashed onto the trail only a few feet from them. It stopped for a moment, turned its head toward them, and growled! Then it moved on across the trail. We saw a blur of dark fur and the bushes shaking as the bear charged downhill. I was kind of happy that we missed the growling part.

After a nice lunch eaten on a scenic granite slab in the middle of the creek, we walked back to the car, retrieved our snacks and diet sodas from the bear proof box and headed down the road to Crescent Meadow.

Here's a Park Service classic-the tree tunnel on the road to Crescent Meadow.

The trail loops around a small meadow, passing through mixed pine, fir and sequoias, all underlain by a carpet of ferns. It was stunning in the late afternoon light.

We chatted for a few minutes with a woman, probably in her sixties. She had lost her husband only a few months before. The Crescent Meadow trail had been their favorite hike, one they'd visited every year. She was revisiting the place and remembering her husband. She said she could feel him there with her. Very touching, sad and sweet and happy all mixed up together.

That's either the worst case of cellulite I've ever seen, or someone's smuggling sequoia cones!

Back at the trailhead, I asked a young ranger about the signs placed in every intersection in this part of the park. They warned that, as part of the ongoing construction, this road system would close at 7:30 and remain closed for three days. Wouldn't they let us come back out a bit later if we were already behind the sign? Wouldn't they sweep the parking areas and check for stragglers? The ranger said no, they wouldn't, and we could spend the next three days trapped behind the gate, screaming for help, with no one to hear us. Or something almost that bad.

This was important because sunset would be at 7:30. M and C have a ritual of climbing Moro Rock to watch the sunset every time they visit the park. Moro Rock is a granite hill sitting at the top of a ridge with a long view to the west and a steep, 329-step stairway winding up to its summit. We decided we'd climb the rock and watch most of the sunset, but get back to the car by 7:15 to be sure we'd be outside the gate by 7:30.

It felt like the top of the world, with just the railing to keep us there.

Yes, indeed, America's most polluted National Park. We could barely see through the murk.

We watched the beginning of the sunset.

But, concerned with being locked behind the gate, we dashed back down the 329 steps before the sunset was complete. When we reached the parking lot, the road construction crew were there. A young woman  on the crew greeted us with, "Aren't you going to stay and watch the sunset?" They were sweeping the parking areas and making sure everybody was out before they closed the gate. Stupid ranger! But we couldn't see the sunset from the parking lot, and we weren't going to reclimb the 329 steps.

So we drove back to Beetle Rock to catch the end of the sunset there.

And as a bonus, on our drive back to the lodge after dark, when our headlights swept across the Wuksachi Lodge sign, it did not glow in the dark! So, we weren't crazy after all. Checking it out the next morning, it looked as if the sign was covered with dust or something that made it non-reflective.

The next morning was our last among the Sequoias. We had time for one more short walk among the beautiful giant trees. 

Look what greeted us at the start of the trail...

 ...a marmot, just waking up and coming out for the morning. We watched him for several minutes from only 10 feet away. He was slow to wake up, and even fell asleep for a minute while dangling half out of the tree like this.

This trail, a meadow loop across from the Giant Forest Museum, finally gave me the chance to get a picture of an entire tree.

 By the time we finished the loop, the marmot had made it to the ground and was basking in the sun.

 All good things come to an end. We had to leave the park so that M and C could get back to the icky part of California and report back to their jobs. But leaving the park was quite a job.

 Here's the road construction in daylight...

 ...with lots of traffic to back up.

We were first in line, and we waited for an hour. We hung out with the retired couple from the Midwest who were behind us in line, and heard their travel stories from the whole summer. You can make a nice shade awning for yourself by flipping up the back window of your car and huddling under it. They gave us chocolate, too.

 Ah, here's the traffic from the other end. Shouldn't be long now.

 Here we are following the pilot car through the construction zone.

 This is why I said I was happy I couldn't see this when we came up the mountain in the dark. There's a long drop off just the other side of the pilot car.

And here are the cars on the other end waiting for us to get out of their way.

During our five-hour drive back to C's house in Orange County, we got to talking about movies, and then about Africa. So of course "Out of Africa" came up. I said I'd seen it years ago when it first came out, but that I'd like to see it again now that I'd spent so much time in East Africa. C set us up with the DVD in her living room. And that's how I ended my trip to Sequoia National Park feeling homesick for Tanzania.


  1. Barb - those trees are amazing. You've always been a happy tree-hugger (as have I). Carol

  2. Just who knew they would give you back splinters? They are the most beautiful trees I've seen...

  3. This park was actually on our summer to-do list before we found out we were moving to Seoul. Still is, but we'll have to delay a while, I guess.I'm not sure if I'm more impressed by the trees or the bears, although I think I would have passed out with fear if a mama bear had growled at me! I'm bookmarking this in my 'National Parks' folder so when we finally make the trip I'll be able to go back and find it. I bet you *are* homesick for Tanzania....but am really enjoying your US travels!

  4. I highly recommend it- it's beautiful. Whenever you get there, it'll be interesting to see if the road construction is still going on!

  5. Oh, probably...that stuff goes on forever! On another note... just wanted to let you know I've left you a Liebster award over at my blog. Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays/Good Yule/Happy Festivus! ; )

  6. Never been to that park but my DH and I spent some time in northern California with the Great Sequoias up there. They were amazing. Great pictures and tales as usual. Merry Christmas.