In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m a little bit obsessed with trees. Sometimes I joke that I only married Brady so that my last name could be “small forest,” which obviously isn’t true, but I’d be lying if I said that I’m not super obsessed with having a name that is rooted in nature. (Heh heh, get it? Rooted? …okay. I’ll stop.) It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that gigantic trees like the ones in Sequoia make me cry. Perhaps it’s karma for being mortified as a child every time my mom would cry when she was overcome with emotion, but the deeper I get into adulthood, the more easily the tears come flowing – especially when I find myself in the midst of jaw-droppingly gorgeous scenery. However, there is, and always has been, something extra special to me about gigantic trees. (I’m grateful at least to have a husband who doesn’t roll his eyes when I burst into tears randomly over nature… but my poor future children will inevitably think I’m a freak.)
I have to admit, though, that our trip to Sequoia got off to a kind of weird start. After getting a little lost while getting gas (well, not lost per se, but just a warning that gas stations in Porterville are a bit strange) and getting a later start that anticipated, we rolled into the park a tad later than expected and ended up getting into the visitor center right before it closed. This has happened a few times and generally we’ll get our stamps and peruse a bit before heading out, but promptly at 4:31 (it closed at 4:30) the ranger irritatedly informed us that “um, we actually closed at 4:30, so…. [unspoken ‘GTFO’]” Don’t get me wrong- having worked in customer service for far longer than is reasonable for a person of my temperament, I get being tired and crabby at the end of a long day, but it was really off-putting for our very first interaction with a park ranger immediately after entering the park to be less than pleasant. I’m sure the ranger is normally an excellent employee, but it definitely got me feeling pretty prickly. After a few brief stops at Tunnel Rock, Hospital Rock (which does have some admittedly lovely pictographs- we don’t see that red color much in Utah since the rock is already red), and the only spot on the Generals Highway where you can currently stop, we headed up the road.
This road, aside from being completely gorgeous, made me really appreciate my tendency to do excessive research before leaving on a trip. The Generals Highway owes most of its construction to a young man named Charles Young. A Captain in the Army at the time of his station in Sequoia, Charles was instrumental in the development of the road, which in the three years prior to his arrival in the park had only progressed about five miles. However, with Captain Young’s supervision and the help of his Buffalo Soldiers, the road not only had been built all the way to the Giant Forest by mid-August 1903 (an absolutely incredible feat that can really only be truly appreciated by driving the road), but was built the road to the base of Moro Rock by the end of the summer- more advancement than the previous three years combined. Driving the road with this knowledge filled me with an added sense of wonder and awe. A giant sequoia near Moro Rock today bears the name of Colonel Young (as he was eventually promoted after his time in Sequoia).
There is something extra magical about a sudden “entrance” to a park- coming through the Tunnel in Yosemite is certainly the most dramatic example of this, but coming into the Tetons from Jackson is excellent as well as the hike to Delicate Arch in Arches. Sequoia was happily no exception to this. After miles of climbing through brushy foothills interspersed with trees and boulders, you round a large hairpin turn and suddenly, there they are- those massive, stunning, gigantic trees. Perhaps it was because of our weird start to the park, but finally seeing those beautiful trees struck me with a bit more emotion than such things usually do. It is nearly unbelievable how absolutely gargantuan those trees are, and they’re growing right alongside the road- close enough to touch. It seems corny and trite to say that photos never do these trees justice, but they honestly and truly do not. Sequoia is (perhaps both fortunately and unfortunately) a park that truly can only be fully experienced in the moment. A lot of other places we’ve been can be partially captured with photographs, but putting giant sequoias in a one-dimensional format strips them of a large chunk of their gravitas. There is just something about them, and about their sheer physical size (seriously y’all, I’m using ALL of the size-related superlatives here and none of them are adequate), that just cannot be captured- in photographs, in words, in anything. I spent a decent portion of this park caught between being completely speechless and bemoaning the fact that I don’t have adequate vocabulary to express how incredible these trees are. Personally I’m convinced that adequate language to capture these trees simply does not exist.
But enough of my poetic waxing! After driving through a small chunk of the park with my jaw in my lap, we rolled into camp (Lodgepole Campground, which is spectacular and an excellent spot for basecamp), got set up, and relaxed by the river before having a fire (an actual campfire! For the first time in nearly two years we got to have a campfire) and heading to bed.
The next morning, we headed out to meet what some would consider the main attraction of Sequoia National Park – General Sherman, the largest living organism in the world. And I really have to say it, photos of that tree just simply do not do it any justice whatsoever. It just can’t be captured. It is absolutely massive, a point driven home very well when you see the swarms of people milling around its base. I think, perhaps, that those swarms of people kind of tainted my experience with Sherman. Was it amazing to see it? Yes. Did I have deeper and more meaningful experiences with other giant sequoias elsewhere in the park? As Strongbad would say, very yes. For this reason I would urge everyone considering a visit to the park to do the entire Congress trail. It is a two mile loop, but it is a very leisurely, reasonable loop, with incredible giant sequoias at every turn, including the very impressing Senate and House groups and the President tree, which is the second largest (if you count branches as overall volume- if you don’t, the Grizzly Giant in Yosemite takes the silver).
I don’t really have many words for the experience of strolling along the Congress trail, because in all honesty the experience was too transcendent to really capture. It was topped off with an incredible experience of watching a doe and her two tiny fawns (I’ve never seen fawns that small, but my little heart felt like it might explode from the sheer cuteness) drink from one of the streams that runs through the grove. Well, the doe drank from the stream, while her two tiny babies zoomed around her up and down the hillsides surrounding the stream.
After that (which sounds so simple, but we spent HOURS wandering through that grove), we headed to the Giant Forest Museum to peruse and do the short Big Trees loop. We lucked out on a parking spot, which are hard to come by during the day, but I’m admittedly kind of public-transportation-averse so it was worth the minor inconvenience of seeking parking spots. The museum was small, but excellent, and provides a great rundown of what I think is one of the most interesting aspects of the evolution of the Park Service- the regular controlled burns in Sequoia.
Normally, National Parks are all about preservation and protection of resources, but many years after Sequoia National Park was created, researchers started seeing a decline in the seeding and growth of new giant sequoias. Originally this was very puzzling, as the trees were being protecting from logging and forest fires and should have had no difficulties thriving, but it was eventually discovered that protection from forest fires was the very thing that was preventing the growth of the giant sequoias. The problem was multi-faceted: first and foremost, giant sequoia cones require extreme heat to open and release their seeds, so there were simply no seeds to sprout in the first place, as all of the cones that were falling off the trees were staying locked up tight. Second, the few cones that did manage to release seeds for one reason or another were being choked by dense underbrush that wasn’t being burned out by regular wildfires. Giant sequoias require a LOT of sunlight to thrive (perhaps that’s another reason I feel such kinship with them 😉 ), and the underbrush was preventing those baby seedlings from getting enough of the sunlight they desperately needed to take root and grow strong. When the park started doing regular controlled burns, almost as if by magic the giant sequoias began to sprout, seedlings took root, and new baby sequoias started to flourish once more. It provided interesting conversation to consider that sometimes “conservation” isn’t as straightforward as “protect at all costs from all things.” True conservation is complex and manifold.
We finished up our Giant Forest excursion with a wander through the meadow, which was really lovely. I have never seen cow parsnip as tall as it grows in that meadow! It was so interesting to be able to observe the giant sequoias amongst other trees and see the various stages of growth of giant sequoias. One thing I found really interesting was that “monarch” giant sequoias have rounded tops as the crowns of those trees typically die and fall off due to lack of water, so rather than being sharp and pointed to the very top like a lodgepole pine or similar pine tree, they’re more similar in shape on top to a deciduous tree.
A quick dinner break later, we headed to Moro Rock to catch the sunset. We had intended to head up to that area earlier, but during peak hours in the summer they close the road to private vehicles- a very wise choice in my opinion, especially after I drove the road and saw how narrow and twisty it was (and also was almost t-boned by a person who doesn’t understand how yielding works). So, if you’re planning to visit Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow/etc during the summer, be aware that the road does close until typically about 6pm (which is also when the last shuttle runs, so be aware that if you take the shuttle into the area you’ll need to be out by 6pm or figure out a contingency plan), so you’ll either need to get there early and spend the entire day there or get there late. This did throw a bit of a wrench in our plans as I had wanted to hike Crescent Meadow, but hadn’t known about the road closure. In the end, I’m not too sad as we will certainly be going back, and driving through the area in the evening was gorgeous.
The hike to the top of Moro Rock isn’t necessarily hard, but it is steep! (I’ll admit that maybe my “old lady” is showing, because the kids racing up and down the super steep steps in flip flops freaked me out- not to be dramatic, but one misstep in that place and you’re toast.) We powered up it a little faster than I’d anticipated, and ended up getting to the top over an hour before sunset. We debated staying up there and waiting, but ultimately decided to head down as I assumed that the smoky/murky air quality wouldn’t result in much of a sunset (spoiler alert- I was super wrong, but I’m not mad that we weren’t on top of the rock). We did a little hike to the Roosevelt Tree, on which I repeatedly attempted to use all of my nature-summoning juju to bring us a bear sighting (unsuccessfully), and then drove back to camp through a forest that gradually came aglow with a seriously incredible sunset. It was pretty magical.
The next morning we headed to the reportedly more secluded Muir Grove trail, which leaves from Dorst Creek Campground. As a heads up, this trail is not really signed, and we drove the whole campground once in confusion before going to the check-in office and asking where to go. They’ll tell you to park at the amphitheater and take the trail from there, but a more direct/shorter option is to park at Group Site B in the group site loop. Obviously you’ll want to be aware and considerate of people camping in the group sites and not take up any parking spots needed by the site, but there’s plenty of parking in the group loop (we parked right at B as there wasn’t even anyone in it) near the trailhead.
The trail is pleasant and quiet (though admittedly very dusty, my feet were filthy by the end) and covers an excellent variety of terrain before culminating in a lovely grove of giant sequoias. It was certainly less busy than the General Sherman area, but it was also not quite as secluded as I had expected, especially when we were the only car parked at the group site trailhead when we arrived and we hadn’t seen more than 3 people on the trail to the grove. There were at least two large groups there, one with very loud and raucous children. Not necessarily a bad thing, as kids are kids and they deserve to play uninhibited, but if you’re going in expecting to have the grove to yourself in quiet solitude, you may not get that experience.
We walked a bit up the small hill to the north to a small cluster of sequoias and just sat at the base of one, soaking up everything we could. It was really interesting to me to see how, up close, the bark of the giant sequoia is much more fibrous than it looks from a distance. We enjoyed watching (and hearing) all of the bumblebees buzzing through the fields of lupine surrounding the grove. (And I say fields because there was so much lupine, which brought me intense joy as it’s my favorite wildflower.) It was gorgeous. We even made friends with a little bumblebee who was determined to hang out with us- he landed on both of us repeatedly and at one point even crawled between my Chaco strap and my ankle to just sit in the shade.
We could have stayed there forever, but eventually our snacks ran out and we got hungry, so we headed back to camp for lunch before heading to hike to Tokopah Falls. A word to the wise here – if you’re going to hike to Tokopah Falls, be aware that 1. the hike is much longer than advertised- our GPS clocked it at 2.4 miles one way, as opposed to the 1.7 miles one way the NPS claims. After doing a 6 mile hike earlier that day, we didn’t think just over three miles would be a big deal, but nearly five miles was a LOT; 2. if you go in the afternoon, the last stretch along the rocks will be HOT- be prepared for that, and for the somewhat sketchy boulder-hopping at the end; 3. if you have the time, make a whole day of it and make lots of stops to play in the river. It would be much more enjoyable that way.
It wasn’t a bad hike, and the waterfall was gorgeous, but we were feeling a bit frustrated that we kept hiking and hiking well after the 1.7 mile mark had come and gone. We’re by no means “mondo” hikers, but we have a reasonable sense of distance and even without the GPS we would have suspected it was longer than advertised- we were not the only ones to feel that way! I think the hike would’ve been more enjoyable if we’d expected a five mile easy-moderate hike instead of a three mile easy hike, which is why I share this.
After Tokopah Falls, we made ourselves another big dinner before heading over to “brave” the showers- and that’s where our spot of not-so-great luck continued. Both of the change machines were out of order, and we only had bills, so we went to the cash register in the market to get quarters. Of course, because we are cursed, he only had three dollars in quarters left- and showers were 3 minutes for a dollar. If you don’t know me, I’ll just tell you- my hair cannot get washed in 6 minutes. It’s very fine, but there’s a ton of it, and it’s a right pain in the rear to wash. Exasperated but desperate (and not wanting to wash our hair in the river at camp like the many others we saw- please don’t do that, people), we split the quarters 2/1 and I sent up a prayer to the camp shower gods that I could pull off a hair wash in six minutes. Miraculously, I did, thanks to the excellent water pressure in the shower (about the only thing it had going for it since it was lukewarm and sprayed so much that the shower curtain separating my dry stuff from the shower was pointless and my stuff all got wet), but only just. Oh well, at least we were clean- it’s certainly not a luxury everyone gets.
We had a great night with another fire, hot dogs, and staying up late talking about a huge variety of things. In spite of a few little snags, our time in Sequoia was overall really excellent, and we were sad to leave it behind to head to Kings Canyon the next morning.
Our Sequoia National Park “Must-Do”:
For once, it’s easy! The Congress Trail cannot be missed- especially the House and the Senate.