The clouds greeted us on our way to Kings Canyon. The road from Sequoia to the adjacent national park goes over a high ridge where water vapor drifts up and down the hillsides in all directions, including right through where we stood.
From there the road mostly goes down, descending from an overlook of one of the continent’s deepest canyons right to its floor. The gorge is genuinely, shockingly deep, gouged by the Kings River and ancient glaciers into a complex of rough-hewn peaks and cliffs — great walls that enclosed us on all sides except above. It’s a wilder, rougher cousin to Yosemite Valley and perhaps the more spectacular demonstration of frozen and liquid water’s sheer power, in my opinion.
We took the Mist Falls trail from Roads End, a literal-named park service station, deeper into the canyon. The trail is a backpacking thoroughfare, busy with groups going to and from the Sierra wilderness. Our destination was Mist Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in these national parks. The Kings River’s South Fork, the canyon and a textbook U-shaped, glacier-carved side valley kept the journey lively.
The enticingly named Paradise Valley and other beautiful places lie just beyond the falls. Nearly all of the park and its wonders are inaccessible by road. I can only get a taste of these glorious places.
The trail: about 8 miles in all, there and back; level for the first half of the way, more rugged and steep after that.
The ravens’ calls — gravelly croaks and hollow-sounding clop-clops — echo through the Giant Forest. Western bluebirds flit among the giant sequoia trunks, living pillars that seem to hold up the sky.
Neon-green wolf lichen, fuzzy from a distance but intricately branched up close, coats living and dead pines. Cool, clear streams trickle through thickets and meadows of shoulder-high ferns. Morning and evening sunlight slants through the trees. A soft, low buzz of bees and flies and wasps going about their days sounds from every direction.
It’s the stuff of fantasy, and it’s real here in Sequoia National Park.
We got acquainted with a couple dozen sequoias at Yosemite National Park three years ago, but there’s nothing like walking around a true sequoia forest. There’s no mistaking them: sturdy, cinnamon-colored, knobby and spread at the base like the legs of a gargantuan elephant. Thousands of the trees fill these woods, many soaring 20-some stories up.
They are humbling things. Sequoias are the world’s biggest trees and among the oldest, reaching 3,000 sproutdays and up. No single person can watch them grow to maturity, and only indigenous nations have been in the area for the generations it’d take to do so.
We can learn from them. I don’t mean cheesy lines like growing where you’re planted — sequoias grow only in very specific conditions in fewer than 100 groves on the western side of this single mountain range. I mean the lessons in fire scars reaching up their trunks that are bigger alone than most trees east of the Rockies.
The scars can heal, but many don’t completely. Some yawn so wide their trees are essentially hollow. One tree had nothing left but the lowest branch (still green) on a half-incinerated trunk. Many bear car-size holes and windows. It’s incredible that many of them are still alive. Some aren’t — just tall, charred ruins.
Yet sequoias don’t just resist natural fires. They need them to unlock their cones and for the seeds inside to successfully sprout and grow. Since we’ve stopped suppressing all fire and the park began holding prescribed burns, normal-size, Christmas-tree-shaped sequoia saplings grow all over the place. Their dead elders and the flames clear out the space they need. Death, life, destruction and healing all meet within the sequoias, and the trees surpass all others in the sheer amount of living they do. Now there’s a lesson.
General Sherman Tree trail: 0.8 mile there and back, downhill to the tree and uphill back, though there is handicapped parking nearby; pavedand short but relatively steep.
Congress Trail: about 2 miles in a loop, easy.
The Giant Forest Museum and nearby.
Wolverton and High Sierra loop: about 10 miles beginning at Crescent Meadow and moving through Circle Meadow to the Alta Trail, Wolverton Cutoff and High Sierra Trail back to the start; lots of ups and downs.
It’s the end of summer and the driest time of year, but Kaweah River and its forks still flow strong and clear through house-sized granite boulders — demonstrations of how powerful these streams get in the spring. The greenery is most intense along the streams, where sycamore roots clutch the rocks like clenched fists. But all of the Sierra Nevada foothills are coated with dusty life: California blue oaks, scrub jays and acorn woodpeckers, jimsonweed, bats, golden hillsides of grass.
These hills are among the few places on the planet with a Mediterranean climate, according to the National Park Service, meaning a mild and wet winter and hot, dry summers. It seems like a tough place to make a living, but there’s more biodiversity on these lower elevations than any other ecosystem in the park. We might’ve missed it if we hadn’t camped there.
Among the hills’ inhabitants, until the last 100 years or so, were Native Americans, specifically the Mono or Monache. So far I haven’t found out much about the U.S. removal of these people from their homelands or whether it had to do with the parks. But they are gone from this place now; many live in nearby North Fork. Even John Muir, grandfather of the Sierra’s national parks, was an idiot when it came to them, writing that they had “no right place in the landscape.”
Only a few obvious signs of native peoples’ centuries here are left around Sequoia, mainly the pictographs and rock hollows for grinding acorn flour around Hospital Rock. There was once a village here. The rock remembers it.
Ryan and I drove one evening to the big overlook halfway up the foothills to see the twilight and night sky. The sky there is grainy from the sheer number of stars, and Saturn gleamed bright in the west.
After a little while, something as bright as Saturn moved directly overhead, zooming silently and steadily across the sky from west to east and fading almost completely when it neared the east horizon. I think it was the International Space Station catching the last sunlight before entering Earth’s shadow.
Where we went:
Hospital Rock trail, a short walk to the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River
Other turnouts and short spurs to the Middle and Marble forks near the road
Underground streams carved and redeposited Crystal Cave and its glittering ribbons, curtains and spikes inside a mountain of marble. But here and there a piece is missing. White domes are dulled and stained gray by human hands that climbed and grabbed during years of self-guided tours.
It’s a violation, one of many recorded in Sequoia.
One of the first non-native people to arrive at Giant Forest thought a grove of rare and colossal trees and glowing meadows was a great spot for a cattle-raising and slaughtering operation.
The forest’s Bear Hill got its name from a trash pit that attracted bears (and tourists) daily. As the Park Service knows now, bears with human food become aggressive toward humans and each other in their search for more, often meaning they must be killed.
Smog and ozone from the San Joaquin are so common above Kaweah that the signs and pamphlets point it out. Pamphlets also discuss climate change, which changes the environmental balance that the park’s inhabitants need and can make them move or become more vulnerable to danger.
Even our hair has to be cleaned from Crystal Cave. Our Sequoia Parks Conservancy tour guide through the cave noted all of these human footprints. She also asked what good our presence might be doing. Education, she and other group members suggested. Seeing this underground beauty. Valuing it and extending that feeling to other caves and natural places. Telling others about it and learning from our mistakes.
It was a very journalist sort of answer. My profession often intrudes into people’s lives and business, and our presence even as quiet observers affects our subjects. But it’s worth it, we (and usually they) decide, to hear stories, to share what we’re all doing and to learn.
The struggle and key is getting the right balance, or at least a right one. We experienced this when we spotted three black bears at different times in the forest.
We had seen a mother bear and her cub attract a roadside crowd in Yosemite three years ago, and we had seen countless people approach deer and feed squirrels right in front of signs imploring them not to. No one but us scared the animals off, as the signs asked, to try to keep them from acclimating to humans.
Our frustration with the others at the time came back when we saw the same roadside crowd in Sequoia. We parked and got out with a mind to immediately yell and scare away the bear.
But we saw it was about 100 yards away, the suggested minimum distance, and was oblivious to us. Scaring it from its search of food seemed as disruptive or more so than the crowd. So we left it alone. (Yell, don’t run, if a bear starts getting closer, or just move away from it before it notices you.)
The second bear we saw was in the road and bolted as soon as it saw us — the Park Service says many die in traffic collisions, so that’s good. The third came on another day near our trail, again a good distance away. At first we stood still and watched through binoculars. Then we quietly moved out of its way.
Crystal Cave family tour, $16 per adult, about an hour. Tours generally run May-September.
I couldn’t get to the top of Moro Rock.
Moro is Sequoia’s prime overlook: a granite big toe poking out of a forested sock above Kaweah Valley, broad from north to south and narrow east to west. Going up the short trail to Moro’s crown, you can see the flatness of the San Joaquin Valley 15 miles away in one direction and the barren, serrated wall of the Great Western Divide more than 10 miles away in the other.
It’s a fantastic view that triggered the most intense fear of heights I’ve ever felt. The trail goes up Moro’s narrow spine — 70-degree drops of smooth, bare rock fall away on one side or the other, and it might as well have been vertical. Sometimes the steps have a reassuring guardrail, but sometimes they have only a row of rocks arranged along the edge at knee-level — just high enough to trip over and fall to my death, my brain silently shrieked, a scenario it also visualized repeatedly. I shrank against the rock.
I made it most of the way before I had to turn around. I went back occasionally on all fours, feet first.
Yosemite Valley is full of superlatives – the world’s largest exposed granite monolith, some of its highest cliffs, the continent’s tallest series of waterfalls – but these remarkable things are only there because of what isn’t. Billions (if not trillions) of tons of the valley’s granite were ground away more than 1 million years ago. A river started the job before glaciers took over, scouring off Half Dome’s other half, carving El Capitan’s 3,000-foot heights and leaving cliffs tall enough to scrape the clouds. Granite’s a tough rock, and this specific granite is as ancient as the dinosaurs. But sculpting it into some of the biggest and most recognizable formations on the planet took the strength of water.
Yosemite National Park now is defined more by rivers of liquid water rather than frozen, with spring snowmelt tumbling down falls that fill every valley with mist and sound. Some are huge and iconic – Bridalveil Fall accents the image of Yosemite Valley every visitor sees, and Yosemite Falls drops almost half a mile altogether. Countless smaller falls are tucked away in hidden corners of the valley, glistening threads running down distant ravines or vanishing into vapor high above the valley floor.
Our first taste of Yosemite Valley’s scale was the football-field-size cliff that breaks through the forest across the valley near its entrance, streaked black from lichen and water. Tiny cars drove along the road at its base. On our side of the valley, another smooth granite outcropping sloped toward the floor at a gentle angle. Still, standing on it, seeing the earth drop away and looking out over a valley thousands of feet across was enough to get my heart pumping. The feeling didn’t go away during my four-day stay in one of our first national parks. “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” famed naturalist John Muir wrote a century ago. “Every rock in its wall seems to glow with life.”
Before seeing what Muir meant, we had to actually get there, with a stop in Arizona to pick up my mom. That meant a whole lot of driving, passing through Roswell (and stopping at the International UFO Museum, obviously), across the Rockies and a dust-blown desert in bloom, and between stands of wind turbines that often stretched to the horizon. In California’s Central Valley the turbine groves were replaced with miles upon miles of tree orchards and vineyards. Occasionally a semi drove past hauling trailers filled to the brim with garlic or oranges.
Then it was back up the mountains to Yosemite’s Wawona Campground.
More than 4 million people pile into Yosemite every year, and nearly all of them head to Yosemite Valley, which stretches across a paltry 1 percent of the park’s 1,200 square miles. I couldn’t blame them. I also couldn’t wait to see parts of the park many of them don’t visit. Wawona, which sits 30 winding miles south of the valley and was home base for four days, was the first of three non-valley stops.
We were mostly alone when we hiked partway up the nearby Chilnualna Falls trail one morning. The steep and rugged path wove between house-sized boulders and precarious trees up into some of the park’s official wilderness. The air was sweet from ponderosa pines and cinnamon-colored incense cedars that towered more than 100 feet overhead – even the trees are oversized in Yosemite. Chilnualna Creek’s rapids were never out of earshot. On the way back down, a group of a couple dozen seniors passed us looking as if they did this every day.
Next we swung back around to Yosemite Valley; though the valley visitor area is packed with thousands of people during the warmer months, a nearby, little-used trail runs 5 or 6 miles past Mirror Lake into the valley’s quieter upper end. Almost no hikers went further than the crowded lake shore. Half Dome soared almost a mile overhead, the occasional cloud hiding its peak. The sun was bright and the breeze was soft. An hour or so passed, the stream flowing quietly nearby. The path seemed to keep turning away from the rest of the valley as it passed stands of aspen and pine. We started to wonder if the trail was still actually going anywhere. Eventually we joined a family of four wondering the same thing. We kept going.
Near where the valley transitions into the smaller and steeper Tenaya Canyon, a sturdy bridge over gushing rapids came into view. Egg-sized granite stones formed little islands in the stream where more pines and cedars grew. Mosquitoes wouldn’t let us enjoy the scene for long. As we finally turned back toward the rest of the valley, we came across a few more hikers. Each asked us if the trail was actually going anywhere.
* * *
Last came the giant sequoias, relatives of the coastal redwoods. Of the two, redwoods are the giants in terms of height, soaring to almost 380 stunning feet in some cases and holding the record as the tallest trees in the world. Giant sequoias are their heftier cousins, slightly shorter than coastal redwoods but making up for it with their colossal trunks. They’re one of the largest known single organisms and can weigh in at more than 1,000 tons – that’s 10 blue whales to you. They can also be prodigiously old, living up to around 3,000 years. They’re so well adapted to forest fires that they actually need them to reproduce. In the meantime, they can get so big that their own tremendous girth is often what brings them down.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of being among a group of sequoias, even one as relatively small as Yosemite’s Tuolumne Grove. I could only crane my neck all the way back and try to take in how immense these living towers are. Even the young, “small” ones stand out from the surrounding full-grown pines, imposing and powerful. Yet their bark is spongy and soft, well suited to keeping out flames and the bugs that have decimated conifers throughout the Rockies (thanks partly to climate change, some researchers have found). Strength through softness, my mom said. Like the water that shapes the valley.
We took one last drive through Yosemite Valley before leaving. Long before Muir and others like me walked here, indigenous Miwok people and other tribes lived within the valley’s walls for some eight millennia. Settlers violently took it from them, with the last village removed around when my parents were born. Those people’s descendants are still around. I hope I at least honor their home well.
On the way home from this crazy road trip, New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument was the final major stop. Dust rose from the dune field like steam in the wind on the way to Yosemite. It seemed fitting, in a way, to venture into the field on the way home, almost a sequel to last year’s trek to the Great Sand Dunes. The two places shared the same odd, muffled quietness, though White Sands’ dunes are much smaller. The missile range where the first nuclear weapon was detonated is next door, and an occasional jet broke the silence. The wind-sculpted gypsum sand, pure white and soft as sugar, radiated heat in the sun but stayed cool to the touch. Shadows of puffy clouds sailed across sand waves.
A brief stop there, then it was back in the car. All in all, it was a trip full of beauty and bigness and way too much driving.