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.
I woke up around 4am on July 3, chilly from the open windows despite how hot it had been the day before. I turned off the ceiling fan and went back to sleep. At 5:30 I climbed out of bed. Out the window to the east, dawn was approaching from behind the mountains. Frys Point stood out in silhouette, beckoning us to join it in Sequoia National Park. I roused a very groggy Sean from the sofa, where he’d fallen asleep since it had been cooler there the night before, and we began to get ready for our day in Sequoia National Park.
By 6:35am we were out the door and driving into downtown Three Rivers to catch the 7am shuttle.
We parked in a designated area of the dirt parking lot at the Three Rivers Historical Museum. As we sat and waited for the shuttle to come on its way from Visalia in the Central Valley, we watched a bevy of California Quail go about having their breakfast.
Just after 7am, the shuttle pulled into the parking area. This was the last stop before the shuttle entered the Park, but we nevertheless were able to take two seats next to each other. The passengers ranged from a twenty-something girl to a group of senior citizens. Everyone seemed sleepy, and the ride was quiet as we drove up the highway to the Ash Mountain entrance station. I spotted our little cabin across the Kaweah River as we went by.
Shortly after we entered the Park, the shuttle stopped at Foothills Visitor Center for a bathroom break. At only 7:15am, the center itself wasn’t yet open, but Sean and I got off the bus to take a few photos and have a look.
If we’d had more than one day in the Park, I’d have loved to explore the foothills habitat more. I love this rolling landscape of grass and oaks, coyotes and quail.
Soon we were back on the shuttle and beginning to rise parallel to the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. Then the road turned and began to climb the northern side of the Kaweah River Canyon twisting 4,700 feet up into the mountains in 15.5 sinuous miles. Foothills Visitor Center is at 1,700 feet and the Giant Forest Museum is at 6,409 feet on a plateau full of Giant Sequoias.
Now I definitely have a touch of acrophobia. It’s not debilitating, but my body physiologically reacts to heights, particularly in moving vehicles. Sweating palms, churning stomach, sometimes dizziness or panic, I can get it all. I mostly held it together on the road except for one blind switchback curve when I had to close my eyes.
A short way up the road after that curve, we had to stop for about ten minutes. In the summer of 2018, the road was under construction and down to one lane for a portion, so we had to wait. The shuttle driver said it would be about ten to fifteen minutes, so we could get out and look at the view.
Down below, the blind curve didn’t look quite as scary.
And the green mountains were gorgeous. They put me in mind of the rolling hills of Shenandoah National Park except on steroids (or not eroded down, the Sierra Nevada being an extremely young range and the Appalachians being an extremely ancient one).
All told, it was quite a relaxing traffic jam.
Once we were able to continue on our way, we passed the construction and left the shrubby foothills vegetation behind. Soon we reached the edge of the plateau on which the Giant Forest sits. Suddenly Giant Sequoias began to be mixed in with the pines and firs of the conifer forest we’d entered.
At about twenty minutes after eight, we’d departed the shuttle and were standing in the cool morning in front of the Giant Forest Museum. The museum was one of the transit hubs for shuttles in this front country part of Sequoia National Park.
This was the farthest I’d ever gotten into a National Park without really having a plan for what we were going to do there. I mean, I knew we were going to walk around the Giant Forest for most of the day, but I didn’t really have a plan of attack.
Sean was starving and I was hungry, so we decided to hop on the shuttle for the short drive to Lodgepole Visitor Center to get food.
At Lodgepole, we got breakfast BLTs and sat on the patio watching more visitors arrive and the adjacent campground come to life. The visitor center across the patio opened for the day and people began streaming in.
A delightful pair of families (clearly family friends vacationing together) were babbling happily, except for one little boy who was worried that they didn’t have enough chips in their packs.
After we ate, we checked out the visitor center and stamped our passports.
What to do next?
Instead of hiking back to the Giant Forest proper from Lodgepole, we hopped on a shuttle that dropped us off at the short trail down to the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree on earth. It had been named in 1879 by James Wolverton, who had served under Sherman in the Civil War. The General Sherman Tree and the General Grant Tree, among others, were why the highway through Sequoia National Park to Kings Canyon National Park is known as Generals Highway.
We started out onto the paved trail that runs half a mile down to the base of the tree.
About halfway down, we came to a terrace that overlooks the part of the grove containing the General Sherman. The brickwork gives visitors a sense of the tree’s massive size at the base.
Shortly after, we were standing with dozens of others visitors at the base of the largest tree on earth. It was gratifying to see so many people of different ages and ethnicities making the pilgrimage to such a special living thing.
The General Sherman Tree is the world’s largest tree, measured by volume. It stands 275 feet (83 m) tall, and is over 36 feet (11 m) in diameter at the base. Sequoia trunks remain wide high up. Sixty feet above the base, the Sherman Tree is 17.5 feet (5.3 m) in diameter.
It was now not yet 10:30am. The shuttle to return us to Three Rivers departed at 6:30pm. We had eight more hours of exploring and proper hiking to get in. So off we went.