Scratching the Surface of Sequoia National Park

Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park, located in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains of California, is a park of giants – giant Sequoia trees, giant granite peaks soaring skyward, and giant smiles inspired by breathtaking, stunning scenery all around. Home to Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States at 14,494′ tall, there are several other peaks over 13,000′ within the park. The Great Western Divide runs through here, creating a rainshadow to the East toward the Basin & Range. Perhaps most notable of all are the Giant Sequoia trees, Sequoiadendron giganteum, that reign over the forest like sentinels. Among them stands stoically General Sherman tree, the largest living tree in the world at 275′ tall, about 103′ circumference, and nearly 37′ diameter at its base.

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General Sherman, Sequoiadendron giganteum

There are two entrances into the park; from the North is Highway 180, and the South is Highway 198. Both are winding drives with lots of viewpoints along the way. Coming from Santa Cruz, we took Highway 180. There are several beautiful viewpoints West across the Central Valley.

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Kings Canyon Overlook
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Giant Sequoia Trees

I’ve done three ten-day backpacking trips in Sequoia Kings Canyon when I was a student at UC Santa Cruz with Wilderness Orientation (WO!). We trekked through The Tablelands region and I fell in love with this place. A 24-hour solo fast, replete with marmot squeaks echoing across the canyon, and I felt completely at home here. We rock-climbed, climbed peaks, and pushed our comfort zones in ways we weren’t aware we were capable of. It was inspiring, empowering, and grounding. I returned twice the next year as a volunteer to help new incoming students, and found my niche in the wilderness. Programs like this make such a positive difference in so many people’s lives! I know it solidified my outdoor, active lifestyle that has only grown stronger over the years. It also furthered my passionate interest in Natural History, especially Geology and Ornithology.

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The Tablelands

When it came time to plan our family Summer camping trip this year, I chose to come back to Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park. We camped at Upper Lodgepole Campground for its central location and convenience. My sister, her husband and three kids, my Mom, stepdad, Dad, and my husband Ron made Lodgepole our home for three nights. It’s nice having a general store and showers down the road from your campsite, especially with kids in our crew.

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Upper Lodgepole Loop Sites #106-107

We spent the first day of camping exploring the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River, which was flowing strong and cold. Our campsite was right along the river, so it was awesome to walk down for a refreshing dip. There are several pools perfect for swimming, and cascades that have smoothed over the rocks to a slick. Be careful exploring the river here; people have died from falling and drowning here. Wear close-toed river shoes with good grip, stay low when walking on rocks, and keep others in sight. It’s a lot of fun to play here, but never forget the power of moving water. Warnings aside, this place is pure bliss! We spent hours soaking up the sun, warming our bodies like lizards on rocks before venturing back into the river to cool off again, on repeat. Heaven!

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Swimming Holes

SequoiaNationalPark103General Sherman Tree was the main highlight of our first day camping. This tree will blow your mind! The perspective it gives you is so humbling. I love feeling small like that. It’s a short hike through the forest, and there are many other Giant Sequoias standing tall over a lush understory. You can’t help but wonder how this forest must have looked before nearly all of these magical old-growth trees were felled by humans in the 1900’s. It is a wonder to stand here and experience their sacred beauty.

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275′ Tall

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General Sherman, Ron, & I

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Humbled by the General
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~103′ Circumference

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Footprint of General Sherman’s Trunk

SequoiaNationalPark78On our second day, we explored Crystal Cave, a marble outcropping that’s been eroded by Yucca Creek over millennia into intricate, dazzling speleothems, or calcite deposits. Stalactites grow down from the ceiling, and stalagmites grow up from the ground (remember it like mites crawling up your legs). Crystal Cave is one of dozens of caves within the park, but it’s the only one open to the public for tours. It’s about a forty-five minute drive from Lodgepole Campground, and well worth the hour-long tour. There’s a good half-mile hike downhill to the cave. The rooms inside the cave are large and there aren’t many tight, low-ceiling sections on the tour. This is both a family-friendly and claustrophobia-friendly cave (relatively speaking, of course).

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Crystal Cave Entrance
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Crystal Cave Entrance

Upon entering the cave, the temperature drops to about 50°F, a welcome relief from Summer temperatures outside. The first stop is the Junction Room, where water flows over marble. The tour moves relatively quickly, so take pictures and enjoy it as you go.

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Calcite Stalactites

After the Junction Room, we ascend a staircase and meander toward the Dome Room, a major highlight of the tour. This was a grand, spacious room with a large calcite dome. Erosion of caves is part of karst topography, regions where limestone or marble rock are shaped by water. Marble is metamorphosed limestone, and both are composed of the mineral calcite. They are the calcium-rich shells of ancient oceanic creatures, compressed and lithified over millions of years.

As water from Yucca Creek flows over the marble rock here, carbonic acid within the rainwater chemically weathers the marble; calcite is then deposited and crystallized into speleothems. Cave geology is super interesting! There’s a lot more to it, of course, but that’s the main gist. Try putting a weak acid, like distilled white vinegar or diluted HCl, on a piece of chalk, limestone, or marble for a good demonstration of this weathering process. You will see fizzing, and bubbles of carbon dioxide gas being released. Imagine this on a gargantuan scale over thousands if not millions of years, and complex cave systems are made into masterpieces.

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Crystal Dome

The tour culminates with the Great Room, the largest of the tour. A large slab of fallen marble lies in the middle, a reminder of the active nature of the cave. The fun part was when the tour guide turned off the lights for about a minute. It was ink black and quite enveloping, kind of like Downieville on a New Moon.

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Great Room
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Water Eroding Marble

Here is a video of our cave tour with David:

After the cave tour, the half-mile hike uphill back to the parking lot begins with a beautiful waterfall. There were several wildflowers and vistas along the path as well. The temperature increased over forty degrees by the time we’d made it back to the car! All the more reason to go in the river again.

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Clarkia unguiculata (Elegant Clarkia)
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Yucca Creek Waterfalls

Next, we had some more river time at the campsite. It is so nice to jump in, cool off, and get clean in the process. A red-tailed hawk even graced us with its presence. After swooping down and catching a fish from the river, it ate it in front of us on a nearby log!

In the afternoon, my father and I headed up the Tokopah Falls Trail for a hike up to Tokopah Falls. This is a roughly five mile hike round-trip from the campsite, and takes you up a well-maintained, gradual ascent to the falls. The Kaweah River flows alongside you, so it’s nice to take breaks and enjoy it. Views of the granite Watchtower were phenomenal.

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Log Crossing Over the Kaweah
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The Watchtower Over the Kaweah River
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Tokopah Falls Trail
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Fleischmannia incarnata (Pink Thoroughwort)

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Tokopah Falls
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Eagle Face In Granite
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The Watchtower
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Tokopah Falls
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Valley Oak Over The Watchtower
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Taking a Rest
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Lupinus latifolius (Broadleaf Lupine)

This was a short trip, and definitely just a scratch of the surface! There is so much more to explore here, and I am excited for future trips here to really delve into it; I’d also love to head out into the backcountry again for a trip. My family loved it here, so I’m stoked for another camping trip together! There are so many amazing places in California to explore, providing recreation, renewal, and fun.

More importantly, these places are special in their own inherent right, and deserve both preservation and reverence. We shouldn’t take their presence for granted. Many have fought hard before us to safeguard these hallowed lands – not merely for us to enjoy, but for the multitudes of flora and fauna that depend upon them. The ecosystems that have evolved over thousands of years are far more important than human greed for its precious resources. We ought to tread lightly and leave no trace. Though homes aren’t built out of air, old-growth forests like this aren’t the place to harvest lumber. General Sherman tree, in all its girth and glory, could have been felled if not for the work of people who cared. It’s important to experience these places firsthand to gain a true appreciation of Nature’s miracle. Only then can we know how imperative it is to protect them, and just how much more there is to explore.