Every year, I like to get out of town for my birthday. Last year, the hubs and I headed down to our surf shack in Baja. The year before that, we hiked and hot tubbed in the wilderness around Florence Lake. And the year before that, we trekked through the snow in the Mammoth Basin.
This year? After an exhausting five months of cooking, shooting, and writing, I didn’t even want to think about organizing an outing. I was very much content with bumming on the beach with a beer in hand, and had planned to do so up until two days before we decided to drive up to Sequoia National Forest.
As a California resident for the last 12-plus years, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t made it to the sequoia groves yet. I’d driven through the park many times on my way up to Kings Canyon or down to Kern River, and had heard of giant trees you could drive through and bears that freely roamed the roadside, but since it was right in my backyard, so to speak, I always set aside the trip for “one day.” It’ll still be there, I’d say.
And of course, a grove of 2,000- to 3,000-year-old trees isn’t going anywhere. But “one day” is a silly rationale when I could be doing it today — and that today happened to be on my birthday last weekend. (High-five to all the other Flag Day babies out there!)
I turned 34. But compared to a sequoia, I haven’t even outgrown the baby stage yet! Ah, nothing like a giant sequoia to make you feel young.
Since we had a short weekend, we spent most of our time in the Giant Forest, an area spanning almost 2,000 acres and boasting 5 of the 10 largest trees in the world. The giant sequoias are tucked in and among a forest of Jeffrey, sugar, and lodgepole pines, nearly incognito, until you look up and realize you’re standing next to tree trunks 10 to 20 feet across.
Trees are measured not by height or width, but by total volume of all the wood above ground. That’s why the great General Sherman tree, named after the American Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, currently holds title to the world’s most massive tree, even though it’s neither the tallest nor the widest tree on earth. But with a height of 275 feet, a width of 25 feet, and a bole volume of 52,513 cubic feet, it’s certainly a biggie.
And this tree is right here in California, just a quarter-mile stroll from the road? Blows me away.
We saw some other no-less-impressive sequoias along the Congress Trail, including the President, named after President Warren G. Harding. It’s considered the third largest tree in the world by measure of volume of its trunk, but if measured by the total amount of wood in the tree, it’s actually the second largest. Honestly, it looked a lot like the Sherman tree, but without the crowds.
The Chief Sequoyah, named after a Cherokee silversmith, ranks on the list as number 26.
Then there were two separate stands of smaller sequoias, the House and the Senate, which form — you guessed it — the Congress cluster.
We passed uprooted sequoias and burnt sequoias, and even stood inside a hollow sequoia that had been completely gutted by fire.
We made it all the way to Crescent Meadow, the kind of idyllic grassy meadow that I love. It was filled with corn lilies and rimmed with sequoias, and so quiet compared to the Sherman stop.
The trail looped around the meadow to the Chimney tree, an old sequoia that was ravaged by fire in 1914, leaving behind a blackened hollow trunk.
Further up the trail was Tharp’s Log, a rustic cabin built by pioneer woodsman Hale Tharp and lived in for 30 years until Sequoia National Park was created in 1890. When people talk about sustainable building and recycled materials these days, they could stand to learn something from Tharp; his abode was contained almost entirely within a 50-foot-long hollow sequoia trunk. He constructed a door, window, staircase, and even a stone fireplace and chimney inside the log. The adjoining meadow was where he grazed livestock and grew food crops. What a life.
Coming out of the sequoias, we climbed up Moro Rock, a granite monolith in the center of the park between Crescent Meadow and Giant Forest.
At 6,725 feet above the forest floor, we had expansive views of the Giant Forest to the left and the Great Western Divide right in front. All those snowy peaks were part of the Sierra Nevada range that formed the border between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. On one side flowed the Kaweah River, and on the other, the Kern. It was fascinating to think how I’ve been on both sides at some point, looking up at the same summits.
On the other side of the dome, we looked down over the relentlessly curvy Generals Highway and the Kaweah River.
Sequoia is known for being bear country. And in all the years I’ve been in the backcountry, whether it be Yosemite Wilderness or John Muir Wilderness, I’ve never, ever seen a bear. Not even from a distance. Strange as it sounds, I’d always wanted to see one up close with my own eyes.
That day, we saw not one, but four bears within a three-hour period! The first two were frolicking right by the roadside. We couldn’t believe it. We’d seen them from the shuttle, just a few yards from the museum, and immediately got off and crept back to where they were. Two American black cubs were no more than 30 feet away, looking at us curiously when we approached, but otherwise uninterested. We marveled at them from our perch on the road before they lumbered off.
The other bears appeared near the end of the day, also cubs, and also uninterested in the dozen or so people that had pulled over to the side of the road to watch them.
We ended the weekend with a quick climb up Beetle Rock for some beers with a view, and drove out the southern park entrance to do something I’d always wanted to do since I moved to California — drive through a fallen sequoia log!
With zero cars around, we of course had to drive back and forth through the “tunnel” a few times, just to make sure we got a good shot. That experience alone was worth the trip! And one that every Californian — scratch that, every American — needs to do at least once.