Walking along the trail behind the Wuksachi Lodge I stumbled repeatedly because I just couldn’t get enough of the views of the Great Western Divide with its craggy peaks etched against the blue sky, a tiny puff of pure white cloud forming like whipped cream on an upside down pointy sugar cone. I didn’t pass a soul though I was only steps away from the only lodge in the park as I perused the wildflowers along the trail’s edge. Startling a deer that bolted into the underbrush I came to a rushing river, its flat rocks inviting me to lie on them to soak up the sun, for at 6,700 the morning air was chilled. There was no time for lollygagging as there were so many sights I wanted to see so I pressed on.
When Steve and I visited Sequoia National Park recently I was greatly surprised to discover a wonderland in my very own home state of California. All this gallivanting around the world in search of adventure, and there are still undiscovered wonders right under my nose. I think I may have visited as a tiny tot but Sequoia and her close sibling, Kings Canyon National Park (known as SEKI, they are administered together by the National Park Service) have been a fuzzy geographical spot in my mind. Located south of Yosemite it just never occurred to me to push further when Yosemite has so many grand vistas that I never tire of seeing. Sequoia is known for its groves of giant sequoia trees, but having been born in California and traveled through many parks that are loaded with redwoods and sequoias perhaps I thought I had been there and done that. That may be true, but the trees surely are immense and are worth another look, and what really blew me away was the surrounding scenery. The massive peaks of the Great Western Divide, a solid wall of granite that separates Sequoia NP from Kings Canyon National Park, dominate most of the vistas around the main visitor’s center in Lodgepole. Spiky pinnacles bear witness to the colossal upheaval that took place here and the sharpness of the edges speaks to the relative youth of this mountain range, a mere 10 million years ago. Jagged mountain tops that rise to 13,000 feet tower over deep canyons such as the Kern Canyon, which is more than 5,000 feet deep for a protracted 30 miles. Not only that but there is marble everywhere—in caves (200 of them), on high mountain summits and forests—big and small chunks of bright white marble can be found in the oddest places. A geological phenomenon, the marble was created in a complicated scenario involving shallow seas, limestone and a lot of heat and pressure.
We stayed a few nights at luxurious Wuksachi Lodge and saw the main attractions. I loved the huge trees and while I got used to seeing the broad trunks at eye level I was continually startled to see how incredibly tall they were when I remember to look up in the Giant Forest. The General Sherman tree is the largest tree in the world but was anticlimactic after seeing so many other big trees because its top is lopped off so it’s big around but not that tall. Moro Rock was a favorite because it didn’t take that much effort, in comparison to mountaineering or climbing Half Dome, to walk up 400 steps to stand to top of a 6,725 foot dome of granite, with the sides dropping away into airy nothingness, to gaze at the full range of the Great Western Divide. Crystal Cave, made of marble, is interesting, with lots of stalagmites and stalactites, and it’s a pleasant, though steep, ½ mile hike down to it on a paved trail. My favorite part of the cave, however, is the large spider-web gate, complete with sculpted spider in the center. It looks like it belongs in a bat cave, and indeed the cave is inhabited with bats, but I did not see a bat-mobile.
The Sequoia Natural History Association provides educational programs for visitors and we were quite impressed with the knowledge and passion of the young guides we had, mostly college students working summers. Mitch Springer took us on a tour of Crystal Cave and provided a thorough overview, while Tara did a great astronomy program one night, going through several constellations with her high powered pointer and giving lots of tips of how to key off one star after another in a connect-the-dots exercise. Tara also demonstrated her familiarity and interest in the carpets of wildflowers that line the trail on a guided trek to Tokopah Falls on the Tokopah Valley Trail (3.4 miles roundtrip). The falls are pretty in early summer, but are reduced to a trickle by early fall; however, the marmots are prevalent all the time.
One thing I really liked about the park is that it’s so quiet and peaceful. While visitors do concentrate around the major attractions near the Lodgepole Visitor Center the 404,051 acre park only receives 1 million visitors a year compared to 4 million for Yosemite. The park is open year round, with sledding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snow camping in the winter, or lounging by the fire at Wuksachi, and I can’t imagine the wonderful solitude then. With all we hear in the news about our national parks being loved to death it’s nice to experience a national park without such a crush. On the downside, one thing that is hard to see in Sequoia is the air pollution. Its location on the edge of the San Joaquin Valley and a vortex known as the Fresno Eddy means that a whole lot of smog gets pushed into the valley, shrouding the sharp peaks in a mantle of grey on some days. On a couple of days we were there they were doing prescribed burns which mixed in with the smog so that the view down valley was obscured. Later, the thunderstorms that pop up frequently in the afternoons came along and cleaned things up quite a bit, revealing many more peaks in the distance.
While the trees were wonderful the mountains were calling so I was glad Steve and I had packed our backpacking gear. After getting our fill of the giant sequoias, not to mention the hearty breakfast buffet at the Wuksachi Lodge, we examined our map, shouldered our (too) heavy packs and set off for Alta Peak.
See related articles on Alta Peak (coming soon) and Top 10 Things to Do in Sequoia National Park.
Sequoia National Park
86724 Highway 180
Sequoia National Park, CA 93262
SEKI is the combined Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Lodgepole Visitor Center
63204 Lodgepole Road
Sequoia National Park, CA 93262
Open early spring through late fall, may be open weekends in winter.
64740 Wuksachi Way
Sequoia National Park, CA 93262
Coming in from Fresno a narrow, twisty road ascends to the Lodgepole Visitor’s Center at 6,700 feet elevation. On the way up, traveling through the adjacent Sequoia National Forest and Sequoia National Monument before reaching the park, many campgrounds can be seen. Sequoia National Park has over 550 sites in several campgrounds.
Most of the attractions are within a short drive of Lodgepole Visitor Center, but guided tours are available through Sequoia Sightseeing Tours.
To reach Sequoia National Park from San Francisco by car (approximately 5 hours, depending on traffic and weather):
- Take the Bay Bridge to Hwy 580 East
- Continue onto I-205 East
- Merge onto I-5 North for a short distance
- Merge onto Hwy 120 East
- Take Hwy 99 South to Fresno
- Take 180 East (King’s Canyon Road)
- Turn right on 198 West (the Generals Highway), following signs to Sequoia National Park
- Arrive at Lodgepole Visitor Center at 63204 Lodgepole Road, Sequoia National Park
See Google map
Notes on getting there:
- The entrance fee to the national park is $20
- There is no gas station within the park and the lodge is a 45-60 minute drive from the entrance to the park.
- There are two entrances: The north entrance is approached from Fresno via Highway 180 East, while the south entrance is near Visalia via Highway 198.
The support of the DNC Parks and Resorts is gratefully acknowledged for hosting a visit, though the opinions expressed are solely the author’s.