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.
General Sherman Tree
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.
After the morning’s solar eclipse, Sean and I decided to spend the afternoon of August 21, our final full day at Great Basin National Park, exploring one of the only remaining major sections of the Park that we hadn’t yet visited: the Snake Creek Canyon area. Like most of the other reasonably accessible portions of the Park, it is reached from the Snake Valley side of the Snake Range.
The nice thing about giving ourselves ample time in a relatively small National Park is that by the morning of our third day in the Park we had done quite a lot of the must-do experiences. Now any Park could withstand a visit of a week or more, but staying a couple nights (as we had at Badlands, Wind Cave, Bryce Canyon, etc.) can at least be a rock-solid introduction to the main features of a Park. But we had allotted more time to Great Basin than we had to Yosemite…or Grand Canyon…or Death Valley. We’d allotted it the same amount of time as Denali. The result was that we were able to get a little more off the beaten path.
On Sunday, August 20, that meant getting off the beaten path and on to the destroyed path to Lexington Arch.
August 19 was our Saturday at Great Basin National Park. While we had not mapped out any day-by-day approach to exploring the Park, we suspected that if the weather were nice, we’d likely climb up something. From the campground at 10,000 feet, Wheeler Peak at 13,063 feet looked intimidating. Being unused to elevation was clearly an issue for us at this point in the trip. I suggested that we do the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail from the campground and also hike up to the saddle between Wheeler Peak and Bald Mountain. From there we’d have a view of Spring Valley on the other side of the range. Then if we felt like it, we could hike up Bald Mountain to its 11,562-foot summit.
On the afternoon of August 18, after our lunch and a rest in camp, we decided to go on an afternoon hike to the Bristlecone Pine Grove beneath the Wheeler Peak Cirque. The Bristlecones are accessible three miles and six-hundred feet up a winding forest trail that begins at the entrance to Wheeler Peak Campground. The trail continues another mile to the remnant of a glacier. On the question of whether we’d go all the way to the glacier, we decided to see how we felt once we’d seen the Bristlecones, which were our main objective.
Our final morning at Death Valley National Park dawned with the sun pushing away the shadows from this vast place. It was Tuesday morning, February 28, and we’d have to start back to San Diego by noon at the latest. The following afternoon, Sean and I would fly home to Chicago.
The previous night as we found our campsite, everything was a rich black. In the morning as we looked out of our tents into the sunrise, we found the foothills of the Cottonwood mountains, where our camp was nestled, gloriously lit up. As were the quickly departing clouds. Although other parts of the valley had felt the drop of rain overnight, our tiny corner of it hadn’t.