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General Sherman and the Three Bears

August 29, 2017

The upside of the ridiculous amount of driving I did on Sunday was that we woke up Monday morning just a few miles outside of the south entrance to Sequoia National Park.

As usual, we started at the Visitors Center. But unfortunately we got some bad news right away. Our plan was to drive north to the middle of the park (stopping along the way to see the main sights and do a bit of hiking) then head west and make our way out of the park.

We were hoping to do all this by 4 p.m. so that we could visit Cat Haven, a sanctuary for wild cats that’s also sort of a petting zoo. Cat Haven is just outside Sequoia NP to the west, but their last tour is at 4, so we had to hurry. I asked the Park Ranger for help planning our day under these particular constraints, and she immediately delivered the bad news: wildfires just outside the park’s west entrance had shut down that road, and if it wasn’t reopened, we’d be unable to reach Cat Haven at all, let alone by 4. In fact, when we were done touring the park we’d have to turn back around and exit the way we came in, which would not only be annoying, it would add an extra two hours to our evening drive to Fresno.

This was not the way we were hoping to start the day.

With less time pressure, we planned our stops and figured we would check in with a different Visitors Center that’s more centrally located once we got to that section of the park later in the day. By then, maybe the road would be clear and everything would fall back into place.

Almost as we got back in the car, we started encountering exactly the kind of natural beauty for which National Parks are best known, as well as some of the park’s namesake sequoia trees, and we spent quite a bit of time pulling over to appreciate the sights.

Sequoia National Park

Tunnel Rock

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

Auto Tree

Eventually we made our first planned stop, which was at Tunnel Tree, a massive sequoia that fell over decades ago. It’s called Tunnel Tree because a tunnel has been carved through the enormous horizontal trunk, allowing cars to drive right through. We did, of course.

Tunnel Tree

Tunnel Tree

If you’re wondering, these two photos were taken by Sam, who got out of the car to do so just before I drove through the tree. While he was taking the first photo (from behind the car), someone called to him to let him know that he was standing right next to a bear.

The park is home to several hundred black bears, and Sam had almost backed right into a baby black bear and its mama. Luckily, Sam was more bothered by the encounter than they were, and came running back into the car unharmed.

When we finished driving through the tree we circled back around to try to catch a glimpse of the bears (from a safe distance this time). We did more than that: the baby bear turned out to have two other young siblings, and for several minutes we got to watch all three play. And they were adorable!

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It’s hard to follow a show like that. Fortunately, our next stop was a showstopper in its own right: Moro Rock, a large, roundish rock that juts out a bit from a perch high above a picturesque valley. There’s a thin, winding path to the top that includes almost 400 stairs, but the breathtaking views from the top easily make the exhausting climb worthwhile.

Moro Rock

Moro Rock, as seen from far below

Moro Rock

The view from the top

Moro Rock

The Park Ranger we met earlier had recommended that we visit Crescent Meadow, so that’s where we went next. A stream runs along one side of the meadow, and the other three sides are surrounded by a sequoia grove. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

Crescent Meadow

The Ranger said that park wildlife can often be seen grazing there. Unfortunately, the only wildlife we saw there were a couple of squirrels and a very hungry woodpecker.

Woodpecker

Also, poor signage in the parking lot near the meadow led us to believe that, rather than just picking one vantage point, we were best off walking the relatively short path that loops around the meadow. This turned out to be false in the sense that the loop path is more than 2 miles long, and we could have simply observed the meadow from a couple of easily accessible spots near the parking lot and then moved on.

On the bright side, the path took us through the sequoia grove, and we got to see some impressive trees up close without any of the crowds that flow through the more popular hiking paths. To give you a sense of the size of the trees, look for us in each photo:

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

Chimney Tree

That last tree is called Chimney Tree because, if you walk through that hole Sam is standing in, you can stand in the center of the tree, which is hollow, and look straight up to the sky:

Chimney Tree

These, by the way, are not even such big sequoias. The biggest trees in the park get named, and they have well-trodden hiking trails taking people right to them. We were planning on taking one of those trails next (specifically, the very creatively named Big Tree Trail). But after climbing 400 stairs to the top of Moro Rock and then walking more than 2 miles around the meadow, I was developing a blister and Sam’s knee was throbbing.

(Sam, who has been going through a bit of a growth spurt this summer, has started having occasional knee pain while the various parts of his body catch up with each other. I had the exact same problem at his age, and the solution is simply to wear a knee strap. Sam left his at home because his knee had been feeling fine, but our National Park hiking has caused him some trouble.)

I was able to bandage my blister easily but Sam had no remedy for his knee, so I agreed to skip Big Tree Trail and Congress Trail, which is a 2-mile loop past many of the park’s named trees.

One thing I refused to skip, though, was General Sherman, which is not merely the biggest tree in the park but is the biggest tree (by volume) in the world. It’s the most popular spot in the entire park, and hundreds of people were already there when we showed up.

General Sherman

Again, for scale, find the tiny people by the base of the tree

Getting to General Sherman requires a relatively easy walk down a paved half-mile slope, and then back up, which would be no big deal if Sam’s knee weren’t bothering him. But he soldiered through, and after waiting on line, we finally got our photo op.

General Sherman

General Sherman

In case you’re wondering, General Sherman is 275 feet tall, and its base measures 36.5 feet across and 103 feet around. Its thickest branch is 6.8 feet across, and the whole tree weighs 1,385 tons.

After hiking back up to our car, we headed for the Visitors Center. There we learned that, yes, the wildfire had been contained and the road we needed was now reopen.  This was great news, except that it was already 3 p.m., and it would take us approximately 1.5 hours to reach Cat Haven, so we were going to miss it anyway.

Oh well. At least we’d have a relatively direct drive to Fresno before heading north toward Yosemite for our next adventure.

With less time pressure, we stayed at the Visitors Center a little longer to shop for souvenirs and watch a movie about the bears that live in the park. Inspired by the video, Sam declared as we got back in the car that he wants to be the head of the National Parks Service someday, so that he can take better care of the bears and all the other plants and animals throughout the country. On our way out of the park, we spent much of the drive game planning the career path that would get him to such a position.

We stopped only once more, this time to admire a scenic overlook of Kings Canyon once we had crossed into its namesake National Park, which abuts Sequoia NP and features similar sequoia groves and scenic vistas.

Kings Canyon National Park

Driving from one National Park to the next means smaller highways with no rest stops, and today we had to be creative about finding a place to grill dinner. (To give you an idea of the smallness of these roads, today we drove through the town of Merkins, CA. Population: 8.) Back in New York, Sarah came to the rescue, finding us Al Radka Park, a small public park in Fresno that has a beautiful baseball field, a small playground, and, most important to us, a picnic area. The park, of course, is named for the late, great Fresno radio personality Al Radka, but you already knew that.

One of the perks of visiting a park that features giant trees is that there’s shade almost everywhere. Yesterday we stood in 124-degree sun, but today stayed mostly in the high 80s–at least until we got to Al Radka Park. Apparently Fresno is going through a heatwave, and we sweated through dinner in 105-degree heat, even as the sun was setting. We spent the day gazing at trees, and as it ended, we needed one more than ever.

 

 

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