For our Fourth of July day hike in Kings Canyon National Park, Sean and I chose the popular trail to Mist Falls on the South Fork of the Kings River. From the parking area at Roads End, the trail gains about 800 feet of elevation in just under four miles, with most of the elevation gain at the end.
General Grant National Park was established in 1890 to protect 154 acres of the General Grant Grove of Giant Sequoias. Then, fifty years later, General Grant National Park was transformed into Kings Canyon National Park, 461,901 acres of mostly wilderness. The push to protect a greater portion of the Sierra Nevada as a wilderness Park was led in large part by Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. The lands that would become Kings Canyon National Park were held by the Forest Service. In the 1930s, advocacy organizations like the Sierra Club and the National Parks Association were becoming increasingly concerned that development in the Parks was destroying their wilderness qualities. They felt that the lands in question may be better off managed as wilderness by the Forest Service rather than developed for visitors by the Park Service. This led to Ickes’ lobbying the organizations for support in the creation of a new National Park, the reverse of how these things usually happened. As the 1930s drew to a close, FDR’s enthusiasm for the new Park grew after Ickes shared with the president a book of images of the Kings Canyon region by famed photographer Ansel Adams. By early 1940, Ickes and Roosevelt had swayed Congress, and the president signed the establishing legislation for the Park on March 1. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed legislation that further expanded the Park to its present boundaries.
At a little after 1pm on July 3, Sean and I reached the southern edge of the plateau on which Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest sits. We were at the junction of Trail of the Sequoias and High Sierra Trail. In front of us to the south was the gorge of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, some 3,700 feet below. Beyond were the ridges and peaks of the southern Sierra Nevada.
Between the heavy pine and silver fir zones towers the Big Tree (Sequoia[dendron] gigantea), the king of all the conifers in the world, “the noblest of the noble race” … It extends, a widely interrupted belt, from a very small grove on the middle fork of the American River to the head of Deer Creek, a distance of about 260 miles, its northern limit being near the thirty-ninth parallel, the southern a little below the thirty-sixth. The elevation of the belt above the sea varies from about 5000 to 8000 feet … Southward the giants become more and more irrepressibly jubilant, heaving their massive crowns into the sky from every ridge and slope, waving onward in graceful compliance with the complicated topography of the region. The finest of the Kaweah section of the belt is on the broad ridge between Marble Creek and the middle fork, and is called the Giant Forest. It extends from the granite headlands, overlooking the hot San Joaquin plains, to within a few miles of the cool glacial fountains of the summit peaks … and is included in the Sequoia National Park.
– John Muir, The Yosemite, 1912
It was not yet 10:30am as we turned from the throng at the base of the General Sherman Tree and started into the Giant Forest on the popular, paved Congress Trail. I had a general sense that we would ultimately end up at the Giant Forest Museum (where at 6:30pm, the shuttle would return us to Three Rivers) by way of Moro Rock. But our exact route through the grove was yet to be determined.
Sequoia National Park was established on September 25, 1890 as the second National Park in the system. Its original primary function was to protect a number of groves of Giant Sequoias in the southern Sierra Nevada from logging. One grove of the famed trees had already been protected in 1864 when Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove were given to the state of California for permanent protection. On October 1, 1890, several days after Sequoia National Park was created, another grove of Giant Sequoias was protected as General Grant National Park (which in 1940 would grow to become Kings Canyon National Park). General Grant National Park protected the grove around the General Grant Tree, thought to be the largest in the world until 1931 when Sequoia National Park’s Sherman Tree was discovered to be larger. On that same October day in 1890, hundreds of thousands of acres around Yosemite Valley were also protected as Yosemite National Park, although the Valley and Mariposa Grove wouldn’t officially join the National Park until 1906.
All told, a flurry of legislation in early autumn 1890 began a process that would eventually set aside over 1,615,000 acres of the Sierra Nevada as National Parks. Over 404,000 of those acres were Sequoia National Park.
Our ten days in California began with three nights in Los Angeles visiting Charlie and Kevin, who had just moved there from Chicago and were still settling into their apartment in Marina del Rey. Sean and I were excited to see them in their new life.
In late May 2017, my cousin Andrew, who had been our fellow adventurer in Death Valley National Park, proposed to his girlfriend, Yesenia. This happy development ensured a fifth return to California for Sean and me in barely two years. At first, we’d assumed that this trip would be separate from any National Park adventures, but then our Chicago friends Charlie and Kevin announced in late 2017 that they were moving to Los Angeles in early 2018. As the wedding plans came together, Andrew and Yesi chose July 6 for their nuptials in San Diego. And as we began to put together a trip that would include some time with Charlie and Kevin in LA and the wedding celebration in San Diego, Sean pointed to the two National Parks in southern California that remained unvisited on the map that hangs in our home office. “Which are those? Can we visit them when we’re in California for Andrew’s wedding?”