Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sequoia National Park (Giant Trees and Marble Caverns)

After the two days spent exploring Kings Canyon, we drove down to Three Rivers on Thursday to be closer to the southern Ash Mountain Entrance of Sequoia National Park. While we rented a rustic cabin at the Kaweah Park Resort, our friends, Kenny and Jill, drove up in their RV that night to explore Sequoia with us. In the morning, Kenny cooked us breakfast in the RV before we all climbed into our car to drive up 6,000 feet of elevation along 13 miles of steep switchbacks.

Our first stop in the park was the Big Trees Trail, circling the edge of Round Meadow. The meadow lies in the middle of Giant Forest, the second largest sequoia grove in the world. While the park was established in 1890, the area around the meadow was privately owned until purchased by the National Geographic Society and added to the rest of the park in 1916. The surrounding cabins, campground, gas station and restaurant were finally removed in the 1970s to help protect the Giant Sequoias. Even though the giant trees can grow over 300 feet tall, their shallow roots do not descend deeper than 14 feet into the soil. At the beginning of the 0.8-mile loop, lies the conjoined twins, Ed by Ned. These two sequoias grew so close together that they joined at the base. The massive combined footprint of Ed by Ned is 34 feet long and 25 feet wide.

All along this trail are many informative display panels describing the sequoias and the meadow habitat. While the giant sequoias need the water that collects in the meadow's basin, if they grow too close they develop flared bases to remain upright in the moist soil. If the meadow expands around a sequoia, it can topple due to root rot. On a smaller log that had fallen out across the meadow, Tori and I attempted an AcroYoga Shoulderstand. It was much tougher to base with a rounded surface under my back. On the east side of the loop was a Sequoia that fused to a giant boulder as it grew over the centuries. I called them The Odd Couple. Nearby was another fallen sequoia, with a juvenile growing in the exact former spot of the toppled giant.

After leaving Round Meadow, we drove up Generals Highway to the General Sherman Tree Trail.  Even though the half-mile trail descends 200 feet in elevation, the trailhead still sits lower than the crown of the largest tree in the world. General Sherman is 275 feet tall and 36.5 feet across at the base. Standing at a distance behind the perimeter fence, it is harder to judge it's enormous size without someone standing next to it for scale. The giant tree continues to grow almost a half inch in diameter each year, equal to adding the volume of a normal 60 foot tree. Nearby is the cross-section of a giant sequoia that was cut down in 1950 when it began leaning too far and threatened to topple. Counting its rings showed that the tree lived about 2,210 years, which means it started growing before Julius Ceasar turned the Roman Republic into an Empire.

After passing Moro Rock on the Crescent Meadow Road, we arrived at the famous Tunnel Log. In 1937, this giant sequoia fell across the existing road and instead of chopping up the giant tree, the rangers bored a tunnel 17 feet wide and 8 feet high through the log instead. For taller vehicles, a bypass road circles up and behind the exposed roots. It is also useful to avoid a wait if other tourists are posing with their vehicle inside the tunnel. Before it fell, the 2,000 year old sequoia stood 275 feet high and had a diameter of 21 feet at the base. Driving through the tree was a bit anti-climatic so we circled around and did it twice.

At the end of the winding road we parked and hiked the loop trail around Crescent Meadow. Called the "Gem of the Sierras" by John Muir, this golden meadow in the Giant Forest is surrounded by more towering sequoias. At the beginning of the loop we passed the trailhead of the High Sierra Trail. I have hiked to the peak of Mount Whitney from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada's but hikers can also reach the summit from this 49 mile long trail that meets up with the John Muir Trail for the last 12 miles.

When we planned this trip, Tori and I really wanted to find a spot where we could practice our AcroYoga underneath a giant sequoia. Taking a side trail away from Crescent Meadow, we found a nice flat area at the base of a beautiful tree. After six days of hiking, my legs were super tight so it was much harder to balance my wife up in the air on my feet. It was tough but fun. Normally, I need to stretch out my hamstrings and hips for about twenty minutes beforehand. From my position on the ground, the giant sequoia overhead made the other trees look like toothpicks.

After playing under the trees, we followed the trail as it crossed over to Log Meadow. At the far end stood Tharp's Log. Hale Tharp was a cattleman who built this cabin in 1861 as a summer residence inside a fire-hollowed sequoia log. He was the first non-native to enter the Giant Forest and later sold his land to the government. Below is my favorite picture that I shot of a giant sequoia on the trip. The high levels of tannic acid gives the bark its red color and makes it more resistant than other trees to insects, disease and fire.

On our drive back from Crescent Meadow, we finally saw a bear. It was small cub and it quickly jumped off the road and disappeared into the underbrush. Very cool! We then parked at the base of Moro Rock and hiked to the top of the 6,725 foot tall granite dome. The winding staircase climbs 300 feet over a 1/3 of a mile and crisscrosses the rock for amazing views of the Kaweah River Valley descending toward the Sierra Nevada foothills below. A wooden staircase was first built in 1917 but was replaced by a more permanent trail in the 1931. Near the top, a stunted tree grows out of a crack in the granite beside the trail. Nature always finds a way to grow in the most unusual places.

At the summit, we had our best view of Castle Rocks across the valley. Visible at the top of the valley to the east, lies the Great Western Divide. This high sierra ridge separates the Kaweah River Watershed from the Kern River on the other side. Mount Kaweah at 13,807 feet is the highest mountain within the group. Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, lies hidden behind this ridge. To the west, the view overlooks the steep switchbacks of the Generals Highway descending into the haze from the Central Valley. Leaving Moro Rock behind, we drove back down to Three Rivers and Kenny cooked dinner for us in the RV.

On Saturday, we had a noon tour of the Crystal Cave planned. We thought we gave ourselves plenty of time to get there but there was a huge line at the park entrance. When we finally passed the gate we got stuck behind a Tesla going up the long winding highway. The driver was going 5 miles under the speed limit and never used one of the many pullout areas despite have a line of cars stacked behind him. It was frustrating, but once we reached the turnoff onto Crystal Cave Road, I was able to make up for lost time by driving like a rally car. We joined the tour with two minutes to spare. After cleaning the soles of our shoes with disinfectant to protects the bats, we hiked down the half mile trail to the Crystal Cave entrance, passing several waterfalls along Yucca Creek.

Crystal Cave sits under Marble Ridge, formed out of an ancient sea bed pushed up by the Sierra Nevada Range. Out of 240 known caves in the park, it is the only one that allows visitors. Inside, our guide led us alongside an underground stream into a marble cavern filled with crystal clear pools. After describing the biology of the different cave dwellers, she led us upward through tight passages into a series of larger caverns filled with all kinds of rock formations while telling us the history of these caves. Despite the heat outside, it was a cool 48 degrees inside. As we entered the final cavern, our guide asked us to turn off our flashlights. We all sat silently in pitch darkness for a few minutes, listening to the drips of the flowing water that created these caves before she turned on the lights to reveal a giant natural cathedral. It was beautiful!

After hiking the trail back up to the parking lot, we drove to the Lodgepole Visitor Center for a late lunch at 2:30pm. I wanted to hike the 1.7 mile trail up the glacier-carved canyon to the Tokopah Falls, a 1,200 foot cascade, but a ranger said it was dry so the others talked me out of it. After exploring the museum in the visitor center, we said goodbye to this beautiful park and headed back down the mountain to Three Rivers. After a relaxing nap, we all went out for Mexican food at Casa Mendoza and then spent the rest of the evening playing board games in the RV. In the morning, we drove back home to San Diego.

Link to my previous post at Kings Canyon National Park.
Link to my previous post at Yosemite National Park.

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