California’s Magnificent Trees, at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

I’ve written about this previously, but it deserves repeating: California has spectacular trees. To fully appreciate them, my wife and I went to the Sierras for a weekend camping trip, a trip that was spectacular, but also awful. Read this post to learn all about it!

DAY 1 – Inna worked all day and then we were off. First stop, Kings Canyon National Park, a four hour drive from home.

For those who’ve never been to King’s Canyon, it is a giant glacier-carved canyon in the southern Sierra Nevadas. John Muir visited in 1873 and immediately noticed similarities to nearby Yosemite Valley; Kings Canyon has received attention ever since. In 1905 what is now highway 180 was built into the canyon, and in 1940 the canyon was designated a National Park (neighboring Sequoia, the second oldest national park in the US, was designated in 1890).

Other than back country wilderness, the majority of Kings Canyon lies along Highway 180. For our first night, we drove 25 miles into the canyon, to Cedar Grove. Cedar Grove had the only open campground in the park (we visited two weeks before all the campsites opened), and we arrived to find it completely full, so we slept in our car.

DAY 2 – We awoke to more bad news: our car’s rear passenger tire was flat. I tried changing it only to find even more bad news: the wheel was rusted to the axel. So we called AAA, and because we were in such a remote location, it took them four hours to arrive. While waiting, we snagged a newly available campsite, then explored nearby portions of the canyon.

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Our campsite. Look! We have Leia with us!

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Kings River near the campsite. This is one of the calmer portions of the river in Kings Canyon.

Once AAA arrived, the helped us change our tire (they had to use a sledgehammer to knock the flat one off), and we discovered a huge hole on the inside!

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Look at the size of that thing! How did that happen? We think it was from a rock we hit while driving in; Highway 180 was an amazing drive but we definitely don’t recommend doing it at night, lots of rocks spill onto the highway and if you don’t see them, they might cause something like this!

With our donut spare in place, we drove 25 miles out of Kings Canyon, to the nearest tire shop. They didn’t have tires that fit our car, so we went to the next closest tire shop, another 20 miles away. They fixed us up (or so we thought).

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We drove through the San Joaquin Valley to get to the tire shop. It was another beautiful place.

With our new tires in place (we replaced all four tires, something we were planning to do anyway), we headed back to Kings Canyon. But unlike yesterday, today it was still light out, so we made lots of stops along the way.

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Our first stop: General Grant Grove. General Grant Grove is a four acre giant sequoia grove located outside of Kings Canyon. Originally designated as General Grant National Park (it was designated to protect the trees from logging), it was incorporated into Kings Canyon when the latter was made a national park in 1940. The above panorama is from the parking lot.

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A giant sequoia in General Grant Grove. Giant sequoias, the largest trees by volume on earth, are huge! Seriously, it’s hard to even fathom how big they are.

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Inna walking amongst the giant sequoias. Maybe this gives some perspective on their size?

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General Grant Tree, the tree this grove is named after, is the second largest tree in the world.

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After California’s giant sequoias were discovered, rumors of their size made their way east, where they were dismissed as false. It wasn’t possible for a tree to be that big, east-coasters believed. To combat this, two loggers cut down this tree (it took them nine days to do it) and shipped a portion of the trunk to the east coast. People still didn’t believe it; they thought the stump was part of a “California hoax.”

Our next stops were inside King’s Canyon, where we arrived just as golden hour was approaching. The lighting was spectacular and so was the scenery, allowing for some amazing picture opportunities.

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This is Kings Canyon. It’s like a cross between Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. It is awesome.

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Highway 180 through Kings Canyon is one of the most spectacular drives I’ve ever been on. I highly recommend it, but only in daylight!

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Rock formation in the canyon. Look at the colors!

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For the last half of the drive, Highway 180 parallels Kings River. It is awesome. (You know what else is awesome? Check out that golden hour light!)

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Inna and myself alongside the river. The rapids in this river are really rough!

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Grizzly Falls, located where Grizzly Creek meets Kings River, just off Highway 180. This 80-foot waterfall has a highly variable flow rate, and we were lucky to visit in spring because that’s when it is largest.

Golden hour ended around this time, which meant it was getting dark. So we made our way back to our campsite, where we spent the night.

DAY 3 – Today was the last day of our camping trip, so we packed our things, then headed to Roads End, the end of Highway 180, seven miles from our campsite.

Roads End turned out to simply be a wilderness access area (lots of the Sierra Nevada’s most famous trails cut through Kings Canyon), but we did find a couple nice spots along the way.

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View from a picnic area near Roads End. As previously mentioned, the river is much calmer up here.

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Roaring River Falls, where Roaring River meets Kings River, is only a quarter-mile’s trek from Highway 180.

After finishing at these stops, we turned around and left Kings Canyon. Our next stop: Sequoia National Park.

Sequoia National Park is located right next to Kings Canyon National Park. Seriously, right next to it: the two parks share a border and in many ways they are treated as one park.

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Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks share a border, but there are no roads that cross it. To get from one park to the other, you have to travel through the Sequoia National Forest, as seen here.

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Lake Hume, located between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, was created in 1905 to provide water for the logging industry. Today, the lake is used for recreation, primarily by Lake Hume Christian Camps.

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Lake Hume Christian Camps, taken from the same location as the previous picture, but looking the opposite direction.

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Inna, Leia, and myself, resting near a creek by the lake.

While Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are right next to each other, their climates, at least when we visited, were very different: Kings Canyon was warm and sunny, while Sequoia was cold and cloudy. The fact that our elevation at Sequoia was 3000 feet higher probably had something to do with this, as does the fact that the two parks are separated by the Great Western Divide, one of highest-peaked mountain-ranges in North America.

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Sequoia wasn’t just cloudy, we were actually in the clouds! The wet air was the main reason it was so cold.

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We found some snow off the side of the road, so we introduced Leia to it. She wasn’t a big fan.

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Alright, time for the main event!

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At 52500 cubic feet, General Sherman Tree is the largest tree by volume in the world. For comparison, the largest tree in the US east of the Rockies, the Southern live oak, is ~5000 cubic feet (hence why easterners thought giant sequoias were a California hoax). 

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This tree is so large… in 2006, a branch from the tree fell and smashed the concrete path below it.

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Looking up from near the base. It is almost impossible to capture the entire tree in one shot.

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General Sherman wasn’t the only giant sequoia around here. This area, known as Giant Forest, contains tons of them, including five of the ten largest trees in the world. And every once in a while, there’d be a fallen giant like this; seeing them was like witnessing a great one lying dead.

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This great one fell across an access road, and so a work crew made it into a tunnel. It is now one of the most popular attractions in the park.

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Another giant sequoia, in vertical panorama mode. It takes a lot to get these trees fully in frame.

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The trunk of the tree in the previous photograph, next to the trunk of a “normal” tree, for reference.

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Crescent Meadow, in Giant Forest. With all the fog, this place felt like Middle Earth, or a giant horror movie set. It was one of my favorite places on our trip.

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Less than a mile from Crescent Meadow is Tharp’s Log, a home built into a fallen giant sequoia. The home was built by Hale Tharp, a friend of John Muir’s and the first non-native to enter Giant Forest.

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The meadow next to Tharp’s Log, which Tharp used to raise cattle.

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Also in Giant Forest are Hanging and Moro Rocks, two lookout spots that normally offer spectacular views of the Sequoia National Forest, the San Joaquin Valley, and the Great Western Divide. All we saw were clouds.

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Exiting Sequoia along Highway 198, another amazing drive, although not as spectacular as Highway 180. The peak at the top of this photograph is Moro Rock.

After leaving Sequoia National Park, we drove to Bakersfield, where we met one of Inna’s friends for dinner. Then we drove home.

But we’re not finished. Remember that final car issue I hinted at? Well, it happened on our way back. I won’t get too much into it, but lets just say it involves a missing wheel, lots of repairs, and potentially insurance companies getting involved.

It is this last part that made our trip awful. But car problems aside, we had a great trip!

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Inna’s car with a missing wheel, being towed to an autobody shop, where it is now.

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A map of our trip. ~670 miles driven, 4 miles towed, 2 tires and 1 wheel destroyed, 24 miles traveled by Lyft, and 1 campsite, 2 national parks, 1 former national park incorporated into a current one, 1 national forest, 1 lake, 2 waterfalls, 3 named giant sequoias (we also saw the Booker T Washington Tree), and 1 friend visited.

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