Sequoia National Park has been at the top of my list of parks to visit from the beginning, but I thought I might be making a mistake by visiting in February. It is often covered in snow until late Spring, which means large parts of the park are closed, but I figured I could at least hike around the foothills. What I discovered when I got there was that there was so little snow this year that most of the park never closed for winter, so I got to experience all the beauty without the crowds.
Every picture I had seen of Sequoia National Park prepared me to see giant sequoia trees the minute I entered the gates, but instead I discovered a natural landscape that looked more like every picture I have seen of Yosemite National Park. You do not see a single sequoia until you drive up a few thousand feet, but the foothills are beautiful and there is a river that runs through them and several creeks as well.
On my first day in the park, I figured I wouldn’t have much time before the sun would go down, so I stopped at the historic sign and then Tunnel Rock before I decided to keep driving to see how far I could get before I was turned around by snow. I was surprised as I kept climbing higher and higher to see no snow at all. The roads through the park are winding and beautiful, and I could imagine FDR being driven through. I stopped at several points to admire the view and take pictures.
When I finally made it to Giant Forest (giant because of all the giant sequoias), there was a little snow on the ground, but nothing that affected the roads. I made it all the way to General Sherman, which is not the biggest tree on Earth, but is very close. It is really hard to get a picture of the sequoias, because they are so big you can’t get far enough away to fit them in frame. They look straight out of Middle-Earth.
As I was driving up to the sequoias, I kept seeing this huge rock formation jutting out of the mountains, and I was curious about how you got to it, but imagined it required rock-climbing experience. As I was driving back down, the sun was setting, which made the rock glow this red-orange color. I never could get a picture of it, but I took so many of the sunset, which was full of different colors and had this hazy quality that looked magical. The forest below with the sun setting behind the mountains reminded me of home.
The next day my first stop was the river. A strange thing about the National Parks is that the effort to keep them natural means they can be dangerous as well. Sometimes there is not a guard rail to keep you from driving off a mountain or a sign that says to watch your step or fall to your death. My experience with the parks so far has tested my limits and intuition, because it is not always clear what is safe. The one area where Sequoia National Park does not leave the question of safety unanswered is by the river where at every access point there are pictures of a hand sticking out of the water and a warning that people die in the river every year. I was appropriately cautious when I climbed onto huge rocks to watch the rapids.
I drove down the road further to a campsite where I parked my car and then followed what I hoped was the right road to the Paradise Creek trailhead. The trail starts at another campsite that is not open in the Winter and the road that leads to it has a beautiful view of Castle Rocks, which is a rock formation that stands up on the mountain and looks like castle ruins. I made this deliberate decision to start traveling to National Parks instead of going to see castles in Europe, but the castles keep finding me (both in Death Valley and Sequoia).
The abandoned campsite on the river was kind of creepy, but I am interested in camping this Summer, so I checked it out. I was particularly intrigued by the large metal boxes where you have to store your food to keep it away from bears. The possibility of seeing bears delighted and terrified me the whole time I was in the park.
The trail from the abandoned campsite was abandoned itself and after seeing zero humans for so long, it would have been terrifying to come across one miles later. I hiked to a bridge that crossed the river. Just as I was pulling out my pocket knife (I don’t have a pocket knife) I noticed that “AR” had already been carved into the wood (that part is true). Across the bridge was Paradise Creek, which was mostly calm and had these pools a braver person who hadn’t noticed all the signs about drowning would have approached. I just sat on the rocks and ate Goldfish crackers. I kept hiking until the trail grew faint and the possibility of poison oak stronger.
Sequoia National Park shares a border with Kings Canyon National Park, so after my hike I attempted the winding road back up to the sequoias and followed it into Kings Canyon National Park. The big attraction in that park is Kings Canyon itself, which is closed during the Winter, but I enjoyed more beautiful views and walked through a hollowed-out sequoia. I plan to come back in the Summer to hike Kings Canyon.
By the time I was driving back, I was hungry and tired, but there was still a bit of daylight left, so I thought I would take in one more sight. I saw Moro Rock listed in my guidebook, but had not researched it at all. It wasn’t until I was walking up to the first set of stairs that I realized it was the rock formation I had been seeing all weekend. It turns out that the only thing that separates you from the top of the dome is 400 stairs. Also maybe your fear of heights. I started climbing and could not believe what I was seeing. The stairs themselves were beautiful and then the views were insane. Even after all the climbing, it was the view from the dome that took my breath away. It is one of the coolest places I have ever been.
I wanted to sit there forever, but then also it was terrifying. There are railings to keep you from falling, but I did not trust them. The sun was starting to set and reflect off the fog, and it was weird to be above it all. For a while, the girls and I had a thing about visiting an observation deck in every major city we visited (Seattle, Chicago, New York), and I felt like they should have been with me there. On my way out, I wanted to hang my own sign under the one that just said Moro Rock, and add, “YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS.” More impressive than a Giant Sequoia and worth the risk of getting hit by lightning.
On Sunday I drove back home, taking the route from I-5 that I took when I first moved to California and have not taken again since 2007. I had this weird nostalgic moment thinking about the difference seven years can make and how my feelings about California have changed so much. I never meant to stay here so long, and for the last couple years I have considered that some kind of a failure, but I wouldn’t be having these adventures if I had moved East. I am going to get there eventually, but I’m not done with the West Coast yet.