We made it to California and had a good ol’ fashion threesome. That is, we visited three of the state’s national parks in succession. First the iconic Yosemite, then the lesser known Kings Canyon, ending with Sequoia. I’ll discuss in that exact order.
Yosemite National Park – the valley that has inspired so many throughout America’s short history. It was the catalyst for John Muir, “the father of the National Parks”, to begin his lifelong campaign to protect the country’s most precious lands. It led Ansel Adams, one of America’s most famous nature photographers, to dedicate a vast portion of his life to capturing the essence of the valley one photograph at a time. And it left president Theodore Roosevelt, the nation’s most notorious park founder, in utter awe of its grandeur. To say that we had high hopes going into Yosemite is an understatement. Unfortunately, we left Yosemite with a sour taste in our mouths. This has absolutely nothing to do with the landscape that is Yosemite. Yosemite is beyond gorgeous. The east-central part of the Sierra Nevada which houses Yosemite can rival any area of the world in brilliance and beauty. The problem for us: it felt more like we were entering Disney World than one of nature’s paradises. We knew going in that over four million people a year visit the 761,288 acre park, but we arrived in October, mid-October at that. We thought surely with the summer road trippers back in school we would be in the clear. Nope. A line of cars, over a mile long, waited for us as we entered the Yosemite Valley. And things didn’t get any better inside the valley. Just finding a spot to park the truck took multiple attempts circling the stadium sized parking lots. A little bit of a downer.
These opinions are coming from a bunch of backwoods hermits, so don’t let this discourage you from visiting Yosemite. It’s unavoidable to escape the crowds at the areas around the visitor centers and the more iconic locations within the park. But there is always the backcountry. The majority of park visitors stick to the areas that their vehicles can take them to. Get out and walk and you’ll be just fine. Eight hundred miles of hiking trails will lead you to solitude. Travelling with Apollo, our magnificent mongrel, greatly limited how far we were able to venture into the backcountry (dogs are limited to paved trails only). There will be a next time, puppy free, that we will explore Yosemite properly to give it the respect it deserves. As far as easily accessible attractions in the park go, seeing the Half Dome, El Capitan and Inspiration Point is genuinely inspiring. These lasting images left us feeling warm and fuzzy. Well these images along with the six bottles of wine we shared with friends around a campfire.
Still in the Sierra Nevada, Kings Canyon National Park was up next for us. Exactly what we needed. A park that the rest of the world has yet to take notice of (other than the million annual visitors it gets). Being later in the tourist season helped tremendously with the crowds here. We essentially had the place to ourselves. We were the only kings this canyon needed. Besides the true kings of the canyon – the 13,658-foot Mount Goddard, the 13,570-foot Mount Brewer, the 14,058-foot Split Mountain and the second largest tree in all the world, General Grant. Just to name a few.
We were honestly blown away by Kings Canyon. The sheer magnitude of it is sobering. We instantly understood the reason for it being christened with a name as powerful as Kings Canyon. To view this canyon properly you’re going to need to be okay with navigating some intimidating roads. The park’s only road, the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, coils its way through the canyon, climbing and descending arduous grades, alongside plunging canyon walls, before dead ending. From here you either must settle with the views that are provided or throw on a backpack and hit the trails. This was one of our favorite drives to date. With an original plan to only make a day trip out of the canyon, we ended up staying three. We found our own little personal haven in a campground called Convict Flats located right off the scenic byway. It met all our criterions for a great base camp: it’s free to stay at, it’s immersed in breathtaking nature and it has a vault toilet so no hole digging required. Kings Canyon was great to us and we loved the time we spent in it.
A very short drive later we made it to America’s second oldest national park – Sequoia. The third and final park we’ll be discussing. A short drive because Sequoia and Kings Canyon share a border. They are two separate national parks but are jointly run. Siblings in the eyes of the park system. People make the journey to Sequoia for one reason and one reason only – to walk among the titans of the tree world. And that is exactly what we did. To be with sequoias is dreamlike. They carry themselves with an elegance and grace. They are well-groomed and dashing trees. Their bark with its cinnamon hue that shimmers in the light is transfixing. Their bulk is immense, and their height is towering. After a day with sequoias, I’m starting to realize that the masterpieces that Earth can conjure up are unending. Utterly amazing.
The king of all trees, or I should say the general of all trees, is found in Sequoia National Park. The park is home to General Sherman, the largest tree on the planet. It’s not the tallest but is damn sure the bulkiest. It has an estimated volume of 52,600-foot cubed. No tree in the world has more wood in its trunk than General Sherman. One hundred and nine foot around and 275-foot tall. It is one big tree. Let’s put it this way, I’m 6-foot tall, me standing at the base of Sherman and looking up at it is equivalent to a mouse looking up at me. It is one big tree. Apart from the world’s largest trees there is much more that Sequoia National Park offers. Please don’t leave the park without a climb up Moro Rock to view the Great Western Divide. A ridge of peaks that “divides’ the Kaweah River drainage from the Kern River drainage. The panorama of peaks that fill your visual field from this vantage point is moving.
The Sierra Nevadas – we will miss you. We’re off now to more barren lands. Joshua Tree National Park is the next highlighted route on our map. A quick stop to fill our reserve water supplies; then to the desert we go.