While vacationing in California last September, we spent two days and nights exploring neighboring Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Depending on how you look at it, we were either very fortunate (my view) or unlucky in the timing of our visit.
Much of the state was experiencing drought conditions. That was quite evident during our days wine-tasting in dry and hot Paso Robles. All the ranch and grazing land looked brown and parched. On September 9, 2021, there were severe thunderstorms. More than 200 lightening strikes occurred within the two neighboring parks! Fires were discovered the following day — as we arrived in Sequoia National Park.
We had left Paso Robles early, for the three-hour plus drive to Sequoia. Fortunately, our day and overnight at the park lodge proceeded mostly as planned. But, by the time we left for Kings Canyon, the fires had exploded –closing the park entrance, lodge and highway behind us!
By December 2021, Sequoia and Kings Canyon were devastated by the KNP Complex and Windy fires. As many as 2,380 giant sequoias burned to death, or are expected to die within several years! Mr. Buzz and I are heartbroken by the destruction of those majestic trees.
But, I also feel blessed to have been among the last people to have seen the sequoias, redwoods and parks before the fires. Let me share them with you.
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Sequoia: America’s 2nd National Park
Debbee at base of Sentinel tree in Sept 2021, with old scar from a previous fire.
In September 1890, President Harrison established America’s second national park to protect giant sequoia trees from logging. Sequoia National Park was the first formed to protect a living organism. Just a week later, General Grant National Park was created and Sequoia was enlarged.
U.S. Army Cavalry troops were tasked with protecting the parks for many years, since the National Park Service wasn’t established until 1916. Public access, however, was extremely limited. Later, popularity of automobile travel led to building the Generals Highway in 1926, with Ash Mountain the main gateway to Sequoia. Today, more than 1.5 million people visit each year.
Neighboring Kings Canyon National Park and it’s glacially-formed splendor was established in 1940. It also took over the General Grant Park. Since then, Kings Canyon and Sequoia have been administered jointly. Over the past 125 years, these parks have grown to encompass 1,353 square miles — with 97% designated and managed as wilderness.
Travel Alert: The pandemic and 2021 KNP Complex Wildfire led to unprecedented changes that affected how people visited the parks. Today, nearly all wilderness areas, facilities, and exhibits have reopened, and shuttle services have resumed. Unlike Yosemite, no reservations are required to enter.
Ash Mountain Entrance
Before entering the park, we stopped for lunch at the gateway village of Three Rivers. Located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the village’s businesses and homes follow forks of the Kaweah River.
Sierra Subs & Salads was highly rated and did not disappoint. Not only were the subs delicious and filling, we enjoyed eating them on the tiered back deck, overlooking the river.
After lunch, we entered Sequoia via the Ash Mountain entrance. There, we also picked up a lifetime senior park pass.
Senior Tip: US citizens or permanent residents 62 years or older are eligible for the Senior Pass. It provides access to more than 2,000 recreation sites managed by six federal agencies. A limited number of traveling companions can also enter for free. That’s why hubby and I only needed one pass for both of us. An annual pass is $20, or $80 for a lifetime.
Travel Tip: Always ask for a map of the park and schedule of activities as you enter any National Park. Rangers are usually helpful at citing attractions, trail heads, and routes. This was especially important during pandemic restrictions, because National Park visitor centers (other than restrooms) were closed.
Mr. Buzz poses after climbing to the top of Tunnel Rock.
Our first stop in the park was at Tunnel Rock. Until the road was rerouted, this granite boulder created a tunnel over the Generals Highway. If you want to take a closer look, accessible parking and a paved path provide easy access.
Since we were there, the KNP Complex Fire affected the vegetation around Tunnel Rock and across the river. Now, a mosaic of live trees and shrubs, patches of fire-killed vegetation, and other areas of only blackened ground remains.
Travel Tip: Mountainous roads near and within the park are narrow and windy, and there are speed and vehicle restrictions. Summer visitors can also experience traffic congestion and full parking lots. Unavailable last year, you might want to park once at the Visitor Center, and take advantage of the free shuttle that runs between May and mid-September.
Next, we took the turnoff road to head towards Moro Rock.
As you enter Sequoia, Moro Rock continues to grow in size, until it looms overhead. This large granite dome is a spectacular geologic feature that can be enjoyed from above or below.
It’s also the parks’ best non-tree attraction. For those who choose to climb the nearly 400 steps to the top, there are panoramic views.
That concrete and stone stairway is so impressive and twisty, that it’s on the National Register of Historic Places! Handrails along the way make the climb relatively safe, but there are steep drop-offs along the entire route.
Worth the Climb
Estimated to take about 40-minutes, the .6 mile roundtrip hike can be strenuous — particularly with thinner air at higher elevations. I had to stop and take a breath numerous times.
But it was worth the effort to reach the summit!
Overlooking Middle Fork Canyon, the 6,725-foot summit provides spectacular vistas of the Great Western Divide and wilderness area.
While at the summit, we first detected the fire that would lead to the closure of the park.
On the way back onto Generals Highway, we made a quick stop to see Tunnel Log. It’s a brief detour along Crescent Meadow Road.
Mr. Buzz poses on top of Tunnel Log.
In 1937, this 275-foot tree fell. The following summer, a tunnel was cut through the fallen log as a visitor attraction. When it fell, the tree was 21 feet in diameter, and probably over 2,000 years old! You can still drive through the tunnel, although there is a bypass for larger, taller vehicles.
Shortly after, we found the access road to Crystal Cave closed, “due to fire.” Hubby and I were really disappointed, having planned our entire day in Sequoia around a mid-afternoon pre-booked tour. Actually an excellent example of a marble cavern, it is a unique attraction and very popular.
A half-mile loop trail leads through the cave, and there’s also a steep half-mile walk to and from the parking area to the entrance. Because of fragile formations, the only way to visit the cave is on a guided tour. Allow about half a day to drive to the cave, hike to the entrance and take the 50-minute tour. Tickets must be purchased online, at least 36 hours in advance.
Travel Alert: Due to impacts from the fire, the road and trail that lead to Crystal Cave, are closed for the 2022 season for repairs.
Big Tree Trail
Continuing along Generals Highway takes you into the more forested sections of Sequoia. It’s where the biggest trees are concentrated and accessible via relatively easy or moderate hikes.
Not-to-be-missed, is the Big Trees Trail, a 1.2 mile self-guided loop. One of the most accessible trials in Sequoia, it takes about an hour, round-trip from the trailhead at the Giant Forest Museum parking lot.
Travel Tip: For a better understanding and appreciation of the big trees, It’s best to visit the Giant Forest Museum before the hike.
Afterwards, we made the short drive to the Lodgepole Visitors Center. There, rangers (posted outside) apologized for the cancellation of our cave tour. They also reassured us that our other planned hike and lodging were not in any danger from fire.
Had the museum and visitor centers not been closed due to COVID restrictions, we would have definitely taken the time to watch the movie and look at the exhibits.
Land of the Giants
Huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and the world’s largest trees exemplify the diversity of landscapes and nature in both Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Located in the mid-sierra zone of 5,000-8,000 feet, creates ideal conditions for giant sequoia growth. Mild winter and summer temperatures, deep winter snowpack, and a rich fire history have made it possible for the world’s largest trees to grow in these parks.
Although climate change droughts, and the intensity and scope of fires in recent decades, have led to significant damage and loss of some of the most ancient and largest sequoias.
Sequoia’s General Sherman Tree is the largest tree in the world by trunk volume, although it is not the tallest or oldest. Every year, it adds the equivalent of a 60-foot tree in weight!
Until 2003, the park’s Washington Tree was the second-largest sequoia. Sadly, after being reduced by fire, it no longer ranks among the top 30. Also located in Sequoia are the current third and forth largest — President Tree and Lincoln Tree. Coming in eighth is Franklin Tree. Along with General Sherman, these colossal sequoias are all located in the Giant Forest Grove.
Another not-to-be-missed hike is the two-mile, paved Congress Trail that starts just off the Generals Highway at the General Sherman Tree.
Looping through the heart of the Giant Sequoia Grove, the path has a 200 foot elevation gain and takes an hour or two, round-trip.
Another giant in the same grove is Sentinel Tree. Standing directly in front of the Giant Forest Museum, it’s possible to get close to the base (see earlier picture). Featuring a lush canopy, Sentinel also has two prominent burn scars at the base of it’s trunk.
Because neighboring trees are so large, it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate the size of the giant sequoias.
The largest sequoias are as tall as an average 26-story building, with diameters at the base exceeding the width of many city streets.
And they continue to grow, by an average of one foot in diameter a year!
After finishing the hike, we took the short drive along Generals Highway to reach accommodations. Located at the upper edge of the park, Wuksachi Lodge is Sequoia’s signature hotel. Built in 1999, the stone-and-cedar mountain lodge is surrounded by big trees and soaring Sierra peaks, at an elevation of 7,200 feet.
All 102 guest rooms are actually located 100-200 yards from the lodge, in several buildings across the highway. Our room and bath were very nice, but it was a bit of a schlep to get our luggage to the second floor. We also had to wait for over an hour past check-in time for our room to be available. I think they were short of housekeeping staff?
Also located at the lodge are a restaurant with massive picture windows, an outdoor deck, giant fireplace, and retail shop. Because of the pandemic, there was a limited menu, and all meals were severed as take-out — another disappointment. At least indoor seating was allowed.
The next morning, we got back on Generals Highway for the short but scenic drive to Kings Canyon National Park. Unbeknownst to us, was that fire and smoke conditions had worsened significantly overnight as we slept. By that evening, Generals Highway was closed from Sequoia’s Ash Mountain Entrance to Giant Forest.
A Perfect Fire Storm
Fires discovered on September 10th, were in extremely steep terrain, lacked trail or road access, and posed a risk to firefighters by the already high density of standing dead trees . Poor visibility due to smoky conditions sometimes prevented aircraft from flying. Additionally, the prolonged drought had killed thousands of trees in the parks, providing fuel for fire. And, live plants and trees had a low percentage of moisture and likely to ignite.
By the morning we left Sequoia, the fires had grown significantly with 0% containment. Within five day, the Paradise and Colony fires merged to form the KNP Complex Fire. Brush was eliminated and many of the biggest tree trunks — including General Sherman Tree — were wrapped in foil to protect them.
A high priority during the fire was the protection of park resources, including giant sequoias, historic cabins, and archeological sites. Some sequoias are more than 3,000 years old, and their only natural range is within California’s Sierra Nevada. While giant sequoias are a fire-adapted species, special efforts were made to protect iconic groves from burning at high intensity.
Declared 100 percent contained on December 16, 2021, many areas are burned along Generals Highway from the foothills of Sequoia to the timber of Grant Grove. Cedar Grove was the only area of of Kings Canyon that did not experience fire last year. Thankfully, fires came close, but did not burn through the Lodgepole or Wuksachi Lodge areas.
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