My first national park - Sequoia National Park
Check out my blog post on What to Bring When Visiting A National Park here.
My dad loved to build things with wood and one day he decided to make some bookshelves to create a study space for myself and my siblings. One could even find the infamous Britannica Encyclopedia set ( Yes, I'm that old) ,which was a must in every household, on these bookshelves. I'm not sure where my parents got the majority of books that they lined these bookshelves with, but on a dull, rainy day I went searching through the many novels to whisk me away from my boredom and if there is one pinnacle moment in my life, this was it! I stumbled across a coffee table book titled "America The Beautiful." This book was very large and had numerous photographs of gorgeous vistas in the United States. While looking through the many photos I was amazed by a picture of a giant sequoia tree. The little blurb about the photo mentioned that giant sequoia trees can stand up to 325 feet high and measure up to 25 feet in diameter. I was determined at one point in my life to visit these amazing trees and see for myself these sleeping giants.
Born and raised in midwestern Indiana I never thought my dream of visiting sunny California would ever come true, but as fate would have it, my family and myself relocated to dreamy California.(Thank you recession). Over thirty years have now passed since I looked at that coffee table book, but that dream of visiting those sleeping giants never evaded my mind. I immediately planned our getaway to Sequoia National Park. We lived almost 5 hours away so I mapped out the nearest cities to Sequoia N.P.
The city of Visalia was a great location and only 45 minutes from the park. We stayed at the Marriott Fairfield Inn Visalia Sequoia . I love staying at Fairfield Inn's because they always provide a great continental and hot breakfast, which is essential for a day of hiking and exploring outdoors. I always plan to stay the entire day in a park, therefore,I always pack a picnic lunch, snacks for hangry family members and plenty of high quality H2O ("The Waterboy" quote aka.. water) If you're thrifty like we are one can always bring some extra fruit, nuts and bread/peanut butter from the continental breakfast, or visit the nearest grocery store and pick up some ready made sandwiches.
So now you've awakened, had your coffee, eggs and toast, piled the family, food and water into your car and you're ready to explore Sequoia National Park and see those giant trees! The anticipation is building and you're almost there, but wait, there's a sign ahead. It reads:
Seriously!! Yes, seriously, but only during the months of November - March. Unfortunately, we were visiting during Thanksgiving break, henceforth, chains were needed. As luck would have it, there is a store right after the sign that rents snow chains. Thank you random store that rents snow chains! If you'd like to be proactive, you can check out the Sequoia National Parks Service website for information about snow chains and how to put them on your auto.
There are a few ways to get into Sequoia, however, since we were coming from Visalia we chose the Ash Mountain Entrance (see map below). As you can see on the map the line going into Sequoia begins to look like a snake. This is due to the fact that these roads are primarily switchback roads (A switchback is a road that goes up a steep hill in a series of sharp bends) Back and forth, back and forth and so on, for almost 60 minutes! Let me just say that when one does this in a car for that period of time it will almost inevitably become upset. Which, in everyone's case (except the driver) it did. Needless to say, learn from my mistake and bring motion sickness medication or something equivalent that would help with motion sickness.
Upon entering the park you will meet a ranger at the entrance gate where you will pay an entrance fee to get into the park. In addition, if you don't plan on visiting the visitor centre one can request a map of the park at this gate.(I highly recommend getting a map at this point for the fact that most national parks does not get cellular service). A vehicle fee runs $35 and is valid for 1- 7 days. If you are current U.S. Military, a U.S. Veteran or are a Gold Star Family you can request a free pass that will get you in to all National Parks for free. Also, there are discounted annual passes if you think you may visit more than two national parks in one year.
I personally enjoy visiting the visitor centre upon entering any national park to discuss with the park rangers which trails might be the best to visit for our time frame and for the degree of difficulty each hike contains. At this entrance the closest visitor centre is the Foothills Visitor Center. On most national parks maps one can find trails that are easy, moderate and strenuous and will also list the amount of miles and how long each hike should take. Our family prefers the easy and moderate hikes and we can usually pack in a few different areas to hike in one day and in that way explore more of each park. The visitor centre also sells or rents bear spray and any ranger can explain to you how to use bear spray and what to do when in the rare instance one stumbles upon a bear. In addition, one can purchase most items that are necessary for your trip at the visitor centre. My personal favourite items to buy are a souvenir t-shirt and a magnet (It's the little things that make me happy). Now we have a map laid out and a list of which trails to visit and we're ready for our adventure, well almost, don't forget to make use of the facilities here. One can never be too sure if a restroom is at your destination.
Sequoia National Park is located in bear country! Plan to store all of your food in a food storage container. These containers are conveniently located at most parking sites. Doing this provides safety for you and for bears. Once again, carry bear spray with you at all times and learn how to properly use it. The chance that you see a bear are very slim, however, it is better to be safe than sorry.
First, we planned to visit the Giant Forest and Lodgepole Hiking trail. On the car ride to this trail we traversed the road called Generals Highway. At one point we noticed a huge boulder on the left and decided to pull off the side of the road (there are many pullout areas to park and enjoy the vistas) to get a better look at this interesting boulder. Conveniently named Tunnel Rock, this boulder rock is perfectly situated on top of the earth creating a perfect tunnel. At one point in time one could drive under this rock but now you can walk up to it and stand underneath for a cool photo opportunity.
After taking a quick picture by Tunnel Rock we hopped back in the car and restarted our journey. After only a few miles we spotted another interesting spot to explore named Hospital Rock. Conveniently along the road towards the giant trees we decided to pullover into the parking lot and check out this interesting area. At this area one can find picnic tables, interesting exhibits and bathrooms. This spot is along the Kaweah River and was once the home to many Native American Indians, which is still used today by local tribes. There are many exhibits that provide information about the Native American Indians that once lived here and their connection with the surrounding land. This site is a beautiful, ancient site where one can learn about the life of the original settlers in this serene haven.
On the road again.....I just can't wait any longer to see those colossal trees. Just a short 30 minutes later we pull into the Giant Forest and Lodgepole parking lot. Generally there are parking lots near every trailhead so we found ourselves a cozy spot to park, unloaded our food and packed them into the nearby food storage container. In addition, we always bring a small backpack with us to carry one water bottle per person, our wallets and phones. Within a few minutes we were ready to embark on our hike to the giant trees.The main attraction here is General Sherman. This tree is thee worlds largest, measured by volume. It stands at an astonishing 275 feet high and is over 36 feet in diameter at the base of the tree. There are two trails that lead to General Sherman. Signs are visible to guide you to this massive tree. One option, which we took, is just half a mile down a paved road along with a few stairs and soon you will be walking among a grove of Sequoia trees. Once you enter the trail all of your senses will come alive. You'll smell the sweet, refreshing pine, feel the crisp cool air surround you and gasp at the astonishing size of the trees. The park does an amazing job educating the public about these trees with many exhibits explaining the history of the giant sequoia. Immerse yourself in nature and meander through the trails, touch the thick bark and read about these remarkable trees. In all, plan to spend about a half an hour just looking at these beauties.
Next, we decided to hike the Congress Trail. This trail starts near General Sherman and is a two mile loop. This trail is paved and is very easy to walk on, which I do love, (no need to look down and see what you could trip on) because then I can look up at the trees and have a carefree hike. Do remember that you are at an elevation of 7,000 feet, which can be difficult to walk if you are not accustomed to it. Take your time and enjoy the scenery. This trail is about 1.5 hours roundtrip.
After spending nearly seven hours in the park and dusk coming upon us we decided to head back down the mountain to our humble lodging in Visalia. The distance to our hotel was nearly 1.5 hours away so we bid farewell to the towering trees and began our descent. While there are many trails to visit in Sequoia, we chose to visit only a few since we had kids in tow with no cellular service. I have visited this park twice now and am looking forward to visiting it again. I can't describe my feeling of fulfilment after visiting a rare and extraordinary place such as Sequoia National Park. I hope you feel as much excitement as I did and desire to explore this park, you won't be disappointed.
There are a few other things I should mention. We visited during the off season of November when the park would not be very crowded. In the summer months the park can be very crowded and during the winter months some of the roads may be closed due to snow. Remember some of the areas in this park are at an elevation of 7,000 feet where snow is not uncommon through June. Always be prepared and check the National Park Service website for the park you are visiting to see what roads may be closed and what the weather is like. Enjoy your journey!
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