Thursday, September 15, 2016

Kings Canyon National Park
(Sunny Meadows and Big Stumps)

After four awesome days in Yosemite National Park, Tori and I drove down to Kings Canyon National Park. For our first night, we stayed at The Branded Calf, a Bed and Breakfast in Squaw Valley near the northern Big Stump Entrance. Kings Canyon National Park is split into two parts, a small section that includes Grant Grove and Redwood Canyon and the giant area behind that includes the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River and extends back to the ridge of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Connecting these two areas through the Sequoia National Forest, winds the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. After checking in on Wednesday afternoon, we passed straight through Grant Grove sitting at high altitude and descended rapidly back down into the river valley where two forks of Kings River meet at the base of Junction Ridge. Kings Canyon is actually deeper than the Grand Canyon for a short distance at this spot.

Past the junction, the byway follows the South Fork of the river up into Kings Canyon. Just outside the second entrance to the park is Grizzly Falls. It was a small waterfall but it was easy to reach from the picnic area. Across the road was a pretty section of the Kings River with signs for trout fishing. After re-entering the park, we skipped the Cedar Grove Visitors Center and continued on to the Roaring River Falls. It was a pretty waterfall with the water rushing down a granite chute and into a deep pool but it was in the shade at this point of the day so I couldn't get any pretty pictures. We reached Road's End at 5pm, the farthest point you can drive in Kings Canyon. There is a permit station here with several bear bins for hikers to store there food before taking one of the many trails leading off into the back country .

Backtracking from Road's End, we parked at the trailhead for the Zumwalt Meadow Loop. The trail runs along the Kings River for a short distance before crossing over a suspension footbridge. The water meanders past the meadow in this flat area before picking up speed down a 50 foot step in the valley below the footbridge. The river got its name from the early Spanish Explorers who called it the "River of the Holy Kings".

After crossing the footbridge, we turned left at the fork and witnessed our first view of the grass-filled Zumwalt Meadow lying below the towering Grand Sentinel. (8,504 ft.) Meadows form out of silted up lakes and maintain their size based on the amount of water in the ground. If the soil becomes too dry, the meadow will slowly fill up with trees, but several wet years in a row can kill the trees along the border and allow it to expand into the treeline. This meadow is named after the attorney, D.K. Zumwalt, who worked to preserve this valley from settlement in the early 1900's.

On the south side of the meadow, the trail runs through a talus field of loose boulders that have fallen from the Grand Sentinel. The lighting was perfect as the golden meadow glowed under the setting sun. On the other side of the valley lay North Dome (8,717 ft.) rising 3,600 feet over the canyon floor, almost identical to the height of El Capitan in Yosemite. Like that more famous valley, this u-shaped canyon was also carved out by glaciers. The last one to fill this valley was over 1,600 feet deep. Driving back along Highway 180 at dusk, a huge buck ran across the road ahead of us and galloped straight up a sheer embankment. (Awesome!) On our way back to the The Branded Calf, we stopped for dinner at the Twin Valleys Restaurant in Dunlap. It was nice of them to serve us even though we arrived 5 minutes after the 8pm closing time.

Thursday morning, we walked the Big Stump Trail just inside the entrance to the park. Despite the name there are living sequoias on the hillside as it descends into the Big Stump Basin below. Near the top, we had our first encounter with a truly giant Sequoia. Tori looked tiny standing inside the huge burn scar and the branches up in the crown were thicker than most trees. Down in the basin, we started to find the many sequoia stumps from trees logged back in the late 19th century before the area was protected by the government. In the 1880's, the Smith Comstock Lumber Mill was located in the center meadow. Among the logged stumps is Old Adam, the gnarled and burned remains of a sequoia killed by fire instead of man.

In the smaller meadow down the trail we encountered the Mark Twain Stump from a 1,350 year old sequoia that was felled in 1891 after 13 days of sawing by two loggers. The Mark Twain Tree was 300 feet tall and 91 feet around at the base and cross-sections of this sequoia are still displayed in the New York and London Natural History Museums. Climbing up the small set of stairs to stand on the massive stump was an awesome and sad experience at the same time. The sacrifice of this tree led to the public demanding protection for the remaining giant sequoias. Near the end of the trail loop, we found the Shattered Giant. It is not-uncommon for these sequoias to shatter when they topple due to their massive size. The loggers would prepare a feather bed, an uphill trench filled with branches, to cushion the landing.

Before continuing on to the General Grant Tree Trail, we stopped to check out the exhibits at the Kings Canyon Visitor Center in Grant Grove Village and for Tori to satisfy her caffeine fix. (Good coffee, she declared!) After the isolated or spread out sequoias we saw on the Big Stump Trail and back in Yosemite, it was amazing to see so many giant sequoias growing side by side in Grant Grove. Along the short loop, we walked through the Fallen Monarch, a burned out sequoia log where the US Calvary stabled their horses. At the historic Gamlin Cabin, we listened to a Buffalo Soldier re-enactor tell us the history of the African-American Calvary Unit that was in charge of the park in 1903. They protected the land from livestock grazing and poachers while building many of the park's original trails and roads.

On the far side of the loop, we finally reached the humongous General Grant Tree, the Nation's Official Christmas Tree. While the 267 foot tall Grant is smaller in volume then the General Sherman Tree, it actually has a wider base at 29 feet. It is a fairly young sequoia (under 2,000 years) but its prime location allowed it to grow larger than its elders. Sequoia don't die of old age, instead most die from falling over. The General Grant is now the second largest in the world after the Washington Tree suffered a lightning fire in its crown and then cracked in half under a heavy snow load in 2005.

After seeing General Grant, we hiked down the Sunset Trail leading off from the General Grant parking lot. At the bottom of the hill, we turned onto the Dead Giant Loop Trail that followed the border of Lion Meadow. Bridging the center was a fallen sequoia, its decomposing red bark a strong contrast to the lush green around it. Past the meadow was the trail's namesake, the still-standing Dead Giant. It looked like it was killed by fire a long time ago. The trail climbed up a ridge and overlooked a large grove of burnt trees from the 2015 Rough Fire. The stand of blackened trucks running down the valley looked surreal against the blue sky. Before the trail turned back toward the Sunset Trail, a short spur led to the shaded Sequoia Lake Overlook with views of the reservoir sitting just below the park's border. It was a good spot for a snack.

Hiking up the Sunset Trail, we drove back over to the Grant Grove Village for lunch. Actually, this location at the Kings Canyon Visitor Center had surprisingly good food for a National Park. Their Chicken Burrito was very tasty and the salad was decent. Besides our dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel back in Yosemite, this had the best park concession food on the trip. I went into the post office hoping for some Kings Canyon Stamps but they didn't have any. (Missed Opportunity!) Since we were staying for the rest of the week in Three Rivers near the South Entrance of Sequoia National Park, we drove the Generals Highway out of Kings Canyon and through Sequoia National Park. Except for the Redwoods Overlook with views of the largest sequoia grove in the world, we didn't stop until we reached the Kaweah Park Resort.

I thought I had driven a lot of windy mountainous roads on our trip so far, but the last 13 miles of steep switchbacks on the Generals Highway was the most intense. To avoid burning out my brakes, I had to drive in 1st and 2nd gear all the way down until we reached the exit of Sequoia National Park. It was mentally exhausting. Our cabin at the Kaweah Park Resort was cute with a rustic 1960's camp style. The resort is right along the Kaweah River with cattle fields on the far side. We had dinner at Alferez Rustic Orchard and I would highly recommend their Carne Asada Tacos. Our friends, Kenny and Jill will be arriving late tonight in their RV to explore Sequoia National Park with us on Friday and Saturday.

Link to my previous post at Yosemite National Park.
Link to my next post at Sequoia National Park.

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