California Days – Kings Canyon

September 29th, 2017 3 comments

Kings Canyon Sequoia RedwoodsYou enter Kings Canyon National Park via California Highway 180. Just inside the park, you can either take the General’s Highway (198) south to go through Sequoia National Park or continue on 180 all the way to the bottom of Kings Canyon and the end of the road. That is what we decided to do…explore Kings Canyon down to the end of the road…after all it was only twenty-six miles one way. What the heck, we could do that in a couple hours and be back up to the visitor center in time for a late lunch. Easy-peasy.

Olive and Citrus Groves

Olive and Citrus Groves on the way to the National Parks. Where it is irrigated, it is green; otherwise, it is dry scrub.

What I didn’t realize or just didn’t stop to think about was that, if you’re going into a canyon, you’re gonna be going downhill…and later have to come back uphill. I suppose I was thinking that we were just going to go out about twenty-six miles and stand at the top at a marvelous scenic overlook and gaze down into Kings Canyon at all the beautiful trees and rocks and then slide into the car for a leisurely drive back. We were not actually going to drive down into the canyon, right? After all, the line on the map looked rather flat and went straight across the page. I just didn’t register that all those little squiggles might mean going downhill.

road to KCAnd, duh, I didn’t consider that we’d been driving on nothing but mountain roads – up and down – looking over one precipice after another since we started this adventure in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Yep, these mountains ain’t the Smokies that we know and love back east. In the Smokies you get lots of driving time on the ridge of the mountain where the road is relatively flat with lots of Christmas tree farms. In the Smokies, stopping at a scenic overlook doesn’t mean you’re on a tiny gravel pull-out trying not to look over the edge of infinity as you lean out of the car.  I really think the powers that be in California should look into getting more guardrails for those overlooks.

Ground Squirrel

Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel (and not a Chipmunk at all)

Now, let me back up just a bit. We had started our exploration of Kings Canyon with a visit to Grant’s Grove to see the Sequoia Trees (see my last blog here) but opted to drive down to Three Rivers to our hotel via Sequoia National Park on Tuesday and then come back and finish exploring Kings Canyon on Wednesday and then re-visit Sequoia National Park on the following days with each day ending at our hotel in Three Rivers. But Three Rivers is at the bottom of the mountains so coming back involves driving north maybe fifty miles up through the mountains to get back to the park entrance each morning and then back down through Sequoia National Park each evening. So every day it was a big loop for about an hour’s drive with a good bit of time on dicey mountain roads.

The Road Ahead

Checking out the road ahead.

To make matters worse, the Generals Highway through Sequoia was under construction…during its busiest tourist season…..because summer is the only time to make repairs to the road because the area is snowed in much of the other three seasons. So, the narrow two lane road was partially blocked in some places as the construction crews worked on building retaining walls and making roadway repairs. Timing was everything and delays were inevitable.

cairn

The building of cairns seemed to be a very popular pastime in the park as we saw several large groups of them. The cairns reminded me of the Inuksuks we saw in Alaska but these were just stone monuments and were not built to have a human shape.

Now, I have a question. Why does it seem that all the stops for construction delays are in spots where there is absolutely nothing to look at – no view at all? Here in a park with magnificent views around every curve but every time we ended up stopped for construction work, we were between two trees and three large boulders (at least) we couldn’t see around. We couldn’t see anything but the cars in front of us and the ones behind us. Do you suppose they planned that just for my benefit?

KC Restaurant

New Restaurant and Souvenir Shop at Kings Canyon NP

Oh well, back to Kings Canyon which I’ve decided is a cross between Sequoia with its giant trees and Yosemite with all the rocks and waterfalls. I got it into my head that Kings Canyon was a relatively new national park because I’d never really heard of it before and because they had several newly built concessions near the entrance including a lovely new restaurant, a packer’s supply & grocery store, and (of course) a brand spanking new souvenir shop. Now, I thought the souvenir shop inside of the official visitor center across the street had better stuff than the new place but both shops had plenty of the usual t-shirts, hats, walking sticks, and tchotchkes so that no tourist would ever have to leave the park empty-handed. Me – I’m into t-shirts and refrigerator magnets.

Kings Canyon NPBut Kings Canyon is not a new park at all. It was established in 1940 and includes 461,901 acres or about 722 square miles. That’s a big bigger than the acreage you could see driving on the 26 mile paved road. So, the part of the park we saw was very tiny compared to the rest of it.  To fully appreciate the park, you’d have to get out of the car and do some serious hiking. It might take a while and you might not make it back in time for lunch but the trails are there if you want to see it all and you can get a trail map right there in the visitor center with the souvenir shop next door.

Have a Seat

Rock-N-Chair?

The park is comprised of two sections – the first we had already visited which included Grant’s Grove of giant Sequoia Trees. The second part is everything else. The Canyon is about 8200 feet deep (so now I find this out!) and one of the deepest in the United States. Only about 10% is accessible by car along Highway 180. The park includes the headwaters of the Kings River and the San Joaquin River along with the very accessible Grizzly Falls. And that sounded good to me – something that was accessible without me having to hike long distances at high altitudes.

KC Hwy 180

Highway 180 crossing part of Sequoia National Forest and into Kings Canyon National Park. This is the section accesible by car.

So we grabbed a sandwich and munchies at the aforementioned camp store and headed out for that 26 mile journey down into Kings Canyon. The road was relatively flat at first but it wasn’t long until we were heading downhill. The driving was dicey but the views were magnificent.

Dying Trees

A section of dead/dying trees brought down by drought, fire, and Pine Bark Beetles.

 

We did note large sections of trees that had been devastated by disease, drought, and those dastardly Pine Bark Beetles. By the time the rangers notice that a tree is infested with the Beetles, it is too late to save it. It becomes very clear how wildfires can spread over thousands of acres in a short amount of time in hot dry weather. (Speaking of wildfires, we managed to stay south of the big fires this summer that were reported just north and west of Yosemite. We had passed through the area with the fires just a few days before they started.)

Rocky RoadKings CanyonAs noted, the views on the road down into the canyon were spectacular. But the highlight for me was the opportunity to see the continent’s geologic transition zone showing the seam where two continental plates had collided.

Geo Transition Zone

Geologic Transition Zone – Where the tectonic plates meet. The blue granite in the back and the golden sandstone up front.

I just never imagined you could see the two sides of the plates so clearly. And I also thought all that was further down south near San Andreas Fault…never occurred to me that the junction between the plates could be in the mountains too…even though that is what made the mountains in the first place. On the eastern side, magma had pushed up later cooling to form granite, basalt, quartz diorite, and granodiorite. (Yes, I looked that part up.) The western plate being comprised of softer sandstone was pushed under the opposing eastern plate. It was remarkable to see the higher gray-blue granite towering over the reddish-gold sandstone and to try to wrap your head around the action that was still taking place here in these mountains….slowly and surely year after year one tectonic plate pushing up and the other folding under.

Geo Transition Zone 2

Another shot of the Geologic Transition Zone.

Along the way, there were lots of beautiful wildflowers growing along cold rapidly flowing rivers. And there were waterfalls like Grizzly Falls to explore.

Grizzly Falls

Grizzly Falls

The 26 miles went by very quickly – it only took us three hours to get down to the bottom of the canyon and the end of the road.

End of the Road 2Let’s see 26 miles in 3 hours puts us at a breath-taking speed of just about 11.5 miles per hour…..lots of curves and lots of scenic overlooks before we got to the end of that road. We had our lunch sitting on a rock by the south fork of Kings River…lunch with a view indeed.

Kings River

Kings River – Lovely spot for a lunch break.

And then it was time to head back up the mountain. We made much better speed going back up….but not much. I drove while my sweet husband napped. After a good long snooze, he woke up and realized we were creeping along (did I mention lots of curves and almost non-existent shoulders on the road?).  He took back over and we were at the top of the mountain in no time. Then we breezed down the King’s Highway through Sequoia notwithstanding a few construction delays and got back to Three Rivers just about supper-time. Easy-peasy….well, mostly.

End of the Road KC

This was absolutely the end of the road. From here on in, you’d have to walk. In fact, there’s a six-mile loop that starts just past the rocks but you’ll need a permit to go there so the rangers can figure out who owns the cars left in the parking lot if you don’t make it back.

Sources for Factual Information:

  1. Wikipedia Kings Canyon – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kings_Canyon_National_Park
  2. Sequoia & Kings Canyon NP – https://www.nps.gov/seki/index.htm
  3. Cairn – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
  4. Inuksuk – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inuksuk 
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California Days – Big Trees

September 14th, 2017 5 comments

“You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.”  (Paul Theroux)

big tree 3It was always about seeing the trees – the big ones – I mean the really big ones in California. There were other places and things we wanted to see and do but, if we were not going to see those trees, then we probably weren’t going to go at all. We had wanted to see the Giant Sequoia Redwoods for as long as I can remember.  We had been close some years ago when we went to San Francisco on a business trip but just hadn’t made it to Sequoia National Park. We had promised that we, like McArthur, would someday return. (For those readers who are too young to remember General Douglas McArthur….or hearing about him in History class, here’s a link to give you more information about him and why he would want to return….to the Philippines, not to the California coast to see Redwood trees.)

And so, we did return to California to see the Big Trees. Our original plans had been to circle the Sierra Nevada mountains beginning with Yosemite, then moving down to King’s Canyon and then to Sequoia. So far, we were on track. We flew into Sacramento, spent a couple days making our way to Yosemite where we spent four marvelous, albeit crowded, days roaming around that park, then took a recovery (laundry, plan, and rest) day in Fresno, and then headed east to Kings Canyon National Park where we had our first encounter with the giant trees.

The Giant Sequoias are also known as Giant Redwoods, Sierra Redwoods, Wellingtonian Redwoods, or, as we think of them, simply as the “Big Trees”. Their range is a narrow band along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. These trees are not the more familiar Coastal Redwoods that many think of when one thinks of Redwoods. That’s a different tree although in the same botanical family (just another tree in the old family tree, I suppose?). Coastal Redwoods are known for being the tallest trees in the world; Sequoia Redwoods for being the biggest, by volume….although they can be pretty tall too.

We had seen Coastal Redwoods in Oregon….well, near the coast. But Sequoia Redwoods only grow at high altitudes – 5000-8000 feet above sea level….you know, up where I have trouble walking and breathing at the same time. There are currently between 65 and 75 groves of the big trees. The groves range from groups with hundreds of trees to the smallest grove with only six living specimens remaining.

big tree 1There are Sequoias in Yosemite too. In case you’re wondering why we didn’t see them there, there’s a simple explanation.  There are three groves in Yosemite – Tuolumne, Merced, and Mariposa Groves.  Mariposa Grove is, perhaps, the most well-known grove to visitors to the area since they are relatively easily accessible and a big part of the Yosemite attractions. But they were not accessible at all this year.  About a year ago, Mariposa Grove was closed to visitors to refurbish the area near the grove for the protection of the trees and to re-do the parking lot such that most visitors will be required to park personal vehicles off-site in the future and be shuttled into the site.

We had looked forward to seeing Mariposa Grove because that was the one that used to have the “tunnel tree” that a car could be driven through…before the tree fell. After all, carving out the middle of a tree cannot be good for it and it is bound to fall at some point. I have read that the tree was still there…on the ground….so you could still see it and marvel at its huge-ness…even in death.

dead giant

Dead Giant.

inside tree

Standing inside the trunk of a dead tree. There was plenty of head room even for folks much taller than me.

So, the grove was scheduled to be opened again in spring 2017…..and that became summer 2017…and finally, autumn 2017.  I’m not sure when the grove is scheduled to be opened again at this point. All I know is that we missed the opportunity to see it on this trip.

We considered going to Tuolumne Grove but when the ranger advised that the hike down (approximately a mile) wasn’t too bad but the hike back up to the parking area was not for the faint-hearted. He didn’t say much but he looked at my poor ole out-of-shape body with a knowing eye. I took the hint….after all, I wasn’t born yesterday.  He was right as I was later to discover – hiking a trail that runs pretty much straight up at high altitudes is not for me….and I discovered that almost all of the trails in the Sierra Nevada’s run on an incline…going down is okay, going up is misery.  Lastly, I never quite figured out where Merced Grove was, so we decided to focus our exploration of the big trees on those in Sequoia National Park.

drive thru

There is no longer a tree you can drive through…but you can certainly drive between them on General’s Highway.

We entered Sequoia from the north by way of Kings Canyon. Highway 180 out of Fresno runs due east and right into the mountains and Kings Canyon National Park (KCNP) which is where, as noted above, we first saw the Big Trees. Inside Kings Canyon you can continue on 180 to visit that NP or you can take a turn south on General’s Highway (198) to drive straight down through Sequoia NP.   We took this route several times – each time entering in the north and driving south all the way down through the park.

 

I have to say that everywhere we drove in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was a white-knuckle experience. Jerry focused on the forty feet on the road directly in front of him and I tried to see as much as I could while trying not to look straight down off the edge of the road on my side of the van…where there were few, if any, guardrails. We found it amusing that the highway department (I suppose) had dumped small mounds of gravel at some points on the edges of the roads right along the curves like that was supposed to stop a car from driving right off the road! I mean, seriously, I could have kicked those mounds of gravel off the road with one foot tied behind my back. But we survived and, by the end of the trip, I had gained a whole new appreciation for and an understanding of those people who are afraid of heights.

Grant Grove

Grant’s Grove in Kings Canyon National Park

But back to the trees and our first stop at Grant’s Grove in Kings Canyon. Oh my! The trees were everything we had expected them to be…and so much bigger than we had imagined them to be.

 

Sequoidendron giganteum – the scientific name is very appropriate. Let’s see – giganteum sounds about right – giants. They are indeed giants. Dendron comes from the Greek word for tree – δένδρον – which I immediately recognize as being a part of rhododendrons’ name also. Now, Sequoia has been said to relate to the Cherokee Indian Chief – Sequoyah – who is noted for being the individual who recorded and documented the Cherokee alphabet, one of the very few languages of Native Americans that was documented and recorded. However, it seems that the first part of the name – Sequoi – just might have been taken from the Latin word “Sequi” which means “to follow” and has to do with the number of seeds in the cones following a mathematical sequence with other species being discovered and identified at the time (mid-1800’s)….or something like that according to Wikipedia.  But doesn’t that sound so terribly scientific and boring? Hey, I’m sticking with the Indian Chief story – he was a really big guy to his people – standing tall as a tree perhaps, maybe even a giant.

dead crown

The top of one of the trees which may have been damaged by lightning. This damage did not kill the tree as it is still living. It is apparently not unusal for the tops to be damaged/destroyed and the tree continues to live.  You can see by the growth of lichen and moss that the top has been damaged for many years.

We noticed right off that many of the trees are fenced in to protect them…from us. I guess their biggest enemy might be people who try to “enjoy” them to death. At first we were a bit disappointed because we had been saving up for a long time to grab ahold of one of those trees and give it a big ole hug. Yes, we are both tree-huggers and have done lots of hugging in the past and plan to do lots more in the future. Fortunately, not all the trees were corralled off and protected…just mainly the bigger and older named ones so we did find great opportunities to show a little love to those trees.

first hug

Getting the Very First Hug. You can really sense how massive the trees are when you get up close and personal.  We hugged quite a few of the trees on our way through the park….and would have hugged them all if we could have.

General Grant is the second largest tree in the world…after General Sherman.  You will note that most of these named trees seem to be named after Civil War generals. That’s because many of the trees were discovered in the years after the Civil War when the west was being explored and settled….and being many of the explorers were military and part of the Union Army, most of the trees have names commemorating Union Generals.

 

rooting around

Just rooting around a bit.

But back to size and records…..as noted, the General Sherman is the biggest of the big in terms of volume coming in at 274.9 feet tall, 79 feet in girth at breast high and 1026 feet around at ground level. The first branch of the General Sherman is at 130 feet.

 

sherman

The Mighty General Sherman Tree. It is massive but difficult to get into one photo. Note that the photo only shows the bottom section of the tree. Those first branches are about 130 ft from the ground.

There were trees taller than the General Sherman – the biggest are not always the tallest. The tallest tree on earth – one of the Coastal Redwoods – is about 50% taller than the General Sherman.  Oh, when they calculate the volume of the tree they do not count the branches…so Sherman is the biggest without its branches. It is estimated to weigh in at about 2.5 million pounds or 2500 tons give or take a few hundred pounds.

 

The tree is about 2000 years old but there are some trees in the area that are estimated to be about 4000 years old. We found a slice of tree (smaller) that had been placed on end so you could see the rings but I was having trouble getting a good photo because a couple of little girls were busy counting the rings. So we waited…and waited….and waited but then decided to just take the picture and move on down the trail. We came back about 30 minutes later and the girls were still at it counting away.

counting rings 1

I’m not sure how long they had been at it before we got there, but these two children were there at least 30 minutes after we arrived counting away.

counting rings 2

Jerry finally gets a shot at counting the rings….but I think he was just standing amazed and not doing much counting.

Something else I found out when doing a little research on the trees….and there is a very good website for the Big Trees (see below for the link)… is that in the late 1800’s Giant Sequoia seeds (saplings?) were taken to Europe and planted there and they are thriving there. The tallest is now about 177 feet tall; the thickest is about 35 feet in girth. The largest grove of about 50 trees was planted in 1863 and is in a botanical garden in Benmore Argyll (like the socks) in Scotland. Now that gives me another place to add to my bucket list of places to visit.

big foot

This tree’s base reminded me of some ancient animal’s foot or those giant feet on the elephant like robot machines in the Star Wars movies.

We noticed right away that the trees have reddish brown bark….once you have seen one tree, you begin to be able to pick them out in the forest because of that red bark. The bark is soft and when you knock on it, a hollow sound is produced. It actually sounds and feels like the bark is not totally attached to the tree’s core. The trees seemingly live forever. What kills them? Drought and shading and sometimes fire although you can see the burn marks on quite a few trees that are still standing and surviving. The tree’s resin makes them pest proof and somewhat fireproof.  I think maybe we (humans) have killed them more than any other single thing in the past.

 

big tree 2The wood quality is rather low so the trees were not logged as much as you would think. Most of the Sequoias are in National or State Parks (Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Calaveras, etc.) now and are protected. Some were logged in the past but since logging the Sequoias is now prohibited by law in the US, even those outside the parks are mostly protected. God protect us and the trees though from loonies who want to destroy something just because they can.

The last big grove of trees we visited was at Crescent Meadows. We walked into the area in late afternoon when most of the people were gone for the day. We found a bench where we could just sit and admire the trees circling the meadow. There was a nice trail around the meadow that would have been lovely and given us more close up views of the trees but, at this time, we were just content to sit and marvel at the trees knowing we were at the lower end of the park and seeing the last big grove that we would see before making our way out of the area for good. We knew that we probably wouldn’t be back to this park to see these trees again in our lifetimes….maybe…but most likely not.

Meadows

Crescent Meadows in Sequoia National Park. The meadow is surrounded by Giant Sequoia Trees of all sizes and ages. It was beautiful and peaceful beyond imagination.

So we sat in the stillness of the evening in quiet solitude and admired the trees…some young and some very old. The impact of seeing and touching the trees had been so amazing…words just cannot express the emotions I felt at being in the presence of living entities that had been alive since the time that Jesus had walked on earth and may still be here standing on his return. I found that, sitting there, I could understand why ancient peoples would have marveled at the majestic trees and worshipped them as divine entities that could seemingly live forever.

 

But how then can we worship the creation without remembering the creator?

I saw Paul Theroux’s quote and said, “Exactly!”  Every trip we have taken has been an adventure and the memories we have made are simply amazing. But nothing prepared us for the experience we had in those few days we spent in Sequoia National Park with the Giant Sequoia Trees. And it is true that, indeed, we did not come all the way back……for we left a small part of us there with those big trees but we did bring back something with us that was even more beautiful in return.

baby tree

Another generation is born. Will he stand for 2000 years?

Sources for Factual Information:

  1. Monumental Trees https://www.monumentaltrees.com/en/trees/giantsequoia/california/

  2. General Sherman https://www.monumentaltrees.com/en/trees/giantsequoia/biggest_tree_in_the_world/

  3. Paul Theroux Quote https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/151596-you-go-away-for-a-long-time-and-return-a

      4.  Giant Sequoia  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequoiadendron_giganteum

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