Great news! Our three days in Sequoia were action packed, so there’s a ton of information and pictures in this post. You can skip to some park basics, our hail-studded trip to the biggest tree in the world, Camping at Buckeye Flats, a foothill hike to Marble Falls, and our day hiking in the Giant Grove.
Sequoia National Park is the second National park, after Yosemite, and was established in 1890. The park is famous for the groves of giant sequoias and General Sherman, the biggest tree in the world by volume.
Like many other parks, Sequoia is huge and you have to drive in up the mountain from the southwest or northwest. Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks are adjacent, and share a central high-mountain Visitor’s center. The high altitude roads in the park close often in the winter.
The park can be generally split between “foothills” and higher elevation mountain areas where the giant sequoias grow. It’s ~20 miles (~1 hour) to the grove from the entrance to the park, so we organized our days accordingly. (It’s also too far and steep to bike between camp, sights, and hikes as we’ve done at other parks.)
While the sequoias are amazing, the foothills also have beautiful hikes through lush forests along scenic rivers with pools, rapids, and falls.
- The park is about 4.5 hours from San Francisco, or 5.5 hours from San Diego. It’s also 2.5 hours from Yosemite.
- They give you a lot of paper when you show up. It’s frustrating because there’s not a good free map of the paths through the groves, so we shelled out for a trail map. The trails are impossible to lose and well marked, there are just a lot of small loops so you might get mixed up but you would be hard pressed to get lost.
- We came in early May. Roads are almost all open, though signs warn you may need chains for certain roads year-round. While we did beat the crowds and the bugs, we also got snowed on and almost slid down the mountain in the Mazda
- Fees were $30 to get into the park and $22 a night to camp
Our Trip: After taking the scenic route northeast from San Jacinto to avoid L.A. and find an AeroPress coffee maker (more on this one later), we arrived in Sequoia National Park on Thursday, May 7th in the afternoon. While the weather was sunny and warm at the base of the mountain, it gets colder as you climb. We were told a good rule of thumb for weather in the mountains is that you lose 10 degrees of warmth for every 1000 feet of altitude you gain. This happens because air pressure drops, and air molecules lose energy as they expand. Here’s the best explanation I found, from Scientific American. What that means for me, personally, is that I will be camping at low altitudes until the weather warms up a bit more. (For me, not warm enough is anything below 25-30 overnight or about 45-50 during the day. It just makes hanging around camp too chilly)
In the map above, you can see some campsites, trailheads, the General Sherman Tree and the Museum.
The windy road up the mountain is spectacular, even when the weather is a little gray. Adam really enjoyed pushing the limits of the Mazda on the curves. She’s a sporty little gal.
Our first afternoon, we drove up to see the famous General Sherman tree. This tree is the largest living tree in the world, by volume. It is 275 feet tall and almost 103 feet around at the base, and is approximately 2,200 years old. The photos do not do it justice. (I hope later in the trip we will also see the Redwoods, which are the tallest trees in the world.)
While we were in the grove, in an exciting turn of events, it started to hail. We did our best to just grin and bear it, and continue with our hike, but when it really started coming down, along with thunder and lightning, we gave up and headed for the car.
After taking the opportunity to refresh our cooler with free ice, we headed out. The first part of our drive back to the campsite was an icy mess, but once we made it down below snow line, at about 6,000 feet, the weather switched to rain.
Just down the hill from the Giant Sequoia Grove is a small museum with more info on the trees and the park. It took us less than 30 minutes but was a really nice stop. Once they reach full size, Sequoias are very difficult to damage. Their thick bark is resistant to insects, fungi, and even fire, though some do eventually topple over. Forest fires are necessary to grow new plants, as the heat opens the pine cones and clears out the competition on the forest floor.
Sequoias only grow naturally on the west side of the Sierra Nevadas, at about 5,000 to 7,000 feet of elevation, where the mountains trap rising moist air and cause precipitation. There are only 75 groves of sequoias in the world and most of them are in this park or in Redwoods National Park.
Camping: We decided to camp at Buckeye Flats, elevation 2,800, and found an amazing spot just on the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. We also saw the Potwisha campsite, which was even lower elevation but less wooded and less nice, and the Lodgepole campsite, which was also very nice, but at higher elevation. Lodgepole is right by a market with the most reasonably priced beer we’ve seen on our trip so far. Potwisha is on a reservation basis, but Buckeye Flats and Lodgepole are first come first served through May 20, so we got there just in time. There were tons of spots on Thursday afternoon, but the place was completely full by Friday.
This is the first park on the trip where all the campsites and trail heads have bear boxes for your food, as well as any trash or personal care items that might smell like food (toothpaste, deodorant, anything smelly really.) Bears have been known to tear cars apart to get at the food inside. I guess if you eat a lot of grubs, anything smells better. It was only a little embarrassing how many snacks I had to dig out of the car and relocate to the bear box.
Marble Falls Hike in the FoothillsOn our second day at the park, we tackled a ~7.4 mile hike out to Marble Falls and back, along the Marble Fork of the Kaweah river. We chose a hike in the foothills because we were worried the road back up the mountain would still be icy, and the forecast called for more precipitation. This was the one upside of the weather, since we might have otherwise skipped this area for the sequoias.
We saw white mariposa lilies, mating border plant bugs that looked like they were dragging each other around by the butts, stinky white “mountain misery” flowers, pink globe lilies, and orange and ogre wallflowers.
The hike was beautiful. We passed through forests and meadows, while overlooking the river with its occasional rapids and falls. It was our slowest hike ever, taking us over 4 hours to go 3.8 miles to the falls and back. Adam did not want to get sweaty and we were really enjoying the scenery. This is the first time he has EVER told me to slow down, except for when I’m driving.
We also walked along Paradise Creek Trail for a while in the afternoon and enjoyed more forest and waterfall scenery.
We spent almost six hours wandering through the Giant Grove. Unlike a lot of our other hikes, there was no major elevation change, so this was really a walk through the woods. Maybe it was the weather, but we hardly saw anyone along the trails. We tried to capture the awesomeness of the forest in photos and largely failed.
Most of these paths are paved or otherwise extremely easy to follow. The grove is full of crisscrossed trails though, and the signs are occasionally different from the map.I am going to make a PDF of the map we used and add it here eventually for reference.
And of course, a few extra photos that didn’t fit anywhere else in the post…