Sequoia National Park: 125 Years in the Land of Giants

Credit: Melissa Wiese

Credit: Melissa Wiese

Feature

Author: Steven Shaw
Date: 09.24.15

Sequoia National Park was established 125 years ago (September 25, 1890) in a measure that would protect the "Land of Giants" for generations to come.   The Park is a rugged and majestic wonderland encompassing a wide array of life and landscapes.  Earth’s largest living things soar towards the heavens, spectacular displays of wildflowers light up meadows like a fireworks show, fish jump from crystal clean alpine lakes and jagged peaks scrape clouds. Check out our all trails in Sequoia National Park here.

Only Sequoia's history is older than its colossal trees.  For thousands of years prior to the Spanish arrival in the late 1700's Native Americans called the area home.  At least three distinct tribes are known to have live amongst the giants.  To date, hundreds of Native American archeological sites have been preserved and protected.

The mid to late 1800's brought settlement and agriculture to the area.  Hale Tharp was the first non-Native American to settle in the area.  He set up a cattle ranch in Sequoia's lush meadows and built a cabin in a hollowed sequoia, the cabin can still viewed by visitors to this day.  Tharp's relationship with Native Americans in the area was quite good, saying the Chief and people were wonderful and honest.  However, soon more settlement arrived bringing with them disease and little respect for the land.  The native populations were gradually forced out by the increasing number of ranchers and prospectors looking to strike it rich in the greater Sierra.  Mining and grazing were not the only industries too scar the land.  New technology and the passage of the Timber and Stone Act propelled logging to the forefront.  The legislation allowed anyone to purchase 160 acres of timberland from the government for $2.50 per acre.  Many people took advantage of the generous offer and the buzz of sawmills spun out of control for decades, traumatizing the forest and mountains forever.  This did not go unnoticed, and efforts to conserve Sequoia picked up steam.  Led by famed naturalist John Muir and George Stewart, Sequoia and General Grant National Parks were established on September 25th 1890. 

Modern day Sequoia is very different than the original; most noticeably, General Grant National Park no longer exists.  It was absorbed into neighboring Kings Canyon National Park, which borders Sequoia to the north.   Today, visitors to Sequoia quickly understand why its preservation was so important to so many.  It's beauty and splendor continues to inspire all who set foot within its boundaries.

A visit to Sequoia National Park can take as little as a few hours or as long as a few months.  Recreation opportunities are seemingly endless.  The park features excellent fly fishing, world-class rock climbing, an incredibly diverse range of wildlife and plants and hundreds of miles of hiking trails.   

Generals Highway runs through the park and is incredibly scenic.  The notoriously steep, narrow and winding road is named after the General Sherman and General Grant giant sequoias. Once you enter Sequoia on Generals Highway you are almost immediately greeted by the "Lost Grove." 

The largest Sequoias are right by roadside pullouts, making it easy to get a feel for just how big these massive trees are!  Continuing south you will come upon the Muir Grove of giant sequoias, named after John Muir.   The Muir Grove is off the beaten path; consequently, it gets significantly fewer visitors than some of its more popular counterparts.  A 4-mile round trip trail leads to the grove from the Dorst Creek Campground.  The hike is a pleasant forest stroll that ends at the impressive grove.  This hike is perfect for stretching your legs and getting away from the likely crowds to come. 

After your hike head south on the Generals Highway as a visit to Sequoia would not be complete without exploring the "Giant Forest."  This grove of giants is the most accessible of all of the groves in the park and boosts more than 40 miles of hiking trails.  Plan on spending some time in the Giant Forest area, as there is a tremendous amount to see.  The Giant Forest accessibility makes it ideal for those visitors traveling with small children or the elderly.  Half of the ten largest trees on earth are located in the grove.  A few highlights that can be reached by car include the Parker Group, which is widely considered one of the best clusters of sequoias reachable by vehicle.  A drive through "Tunnel Log" is sure to please small children.  In the winter of 1937 a sequoia fell across the road (from natural causes) and the Civilian Conservation Corps cut a tunnel through the fallen tree. 

Once you've had your fill of roadside scenery and it's time to get your boots dirty a wide variety of amazing trails await.  The hike to the General Sherman tree is a crowd pleaser.  The massive sequoia is considered the largest living thing on earth.  Once you've taken your pictures at General Sherman, get away from the flocks of tourists and continue on the Congress Loop Trail. 

This easy two mile loop begins at the General Sherman tree and leads hikers through a beautiful forest with amazing views of both the President and Lincoln trees, which are both in the top ten biggest sequoias alive.  The Big Trees Trail is another easy hike in the Giant Forest that takes you past massive sequoias as it circles Round Meadow.  Interpretive signs along the way provide hikers with an ecology lesson.  For those that want a longer hike head to the largest waterfall in the park, Topopah Falls. The trail is about 3.4 miles long (round trip) and takes hikers to the thundering falls that tumble 1,200 ft. 

Next up is Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow trails.  Hiking to the top Moro Rock is a must for any visit to Sequoia.  The hike is short but steep and in the end nothing short of amazing.  The trail is only a half-mile long (round trip) but climbs up some 400 carved stairs to the top of the massive granite dome.  Once hikers have made the climb, they are rewarded with spectacular views of the Great Western Divide and the western half of the park.  If it looks like a storm is brewing skip this one!  You don't want to be a lightning rod.  The Crescent Meadow Loop is a wonderful family friendly hike. The trail is just over a mile and a half, but what it lacks in distance it makes up for in scenery.  Hikers can expect incredible displays of wildflowers, giant sequoias and a healthy dose of history.  Along the way make sure to look for Chimney Tree and snap a picture or two of the kids standing inside of it!  Also, make sure to check out Tharp's Log, which Hale Tharp, who was the first non-Native American to live in the area, called home. 

As you travel south on the Generals Highway take a right to Crystal Cave and explore what lies beneath Sequoia National Park.  Of the park’s 200 plus caves, Crystal Cave is the only one commercialized.  The cave is only accessible through guided tours from mid-May through November.  A few things to remember when planning a visit:  All tickets excluding the "Adventure Tour" must be purchased in advance.  You can get tickets at the Foothills or Lodgepole Visitors Center.  The cave maintains a constant temperature of about 50 degrees, so you may want to bring a light jacket.  Non-flash photography is permitted but you are not allowed to bring tripods or backpacks.  Lastly all cave visitors must comply with NPS White Nose Syndrome preventative measures. 

With the red tape out of the way, here are a few options for tours.  The "Family Tour " is as it suggests, best for families.  It leads you through beautiful formations, astonishingly large rooms of marble polished by a subterranean stream.  (~$15 per ticket)  The "Explorer’s Lantern Tour" shines a different light on the cave.  (~$16 per ticket) Each person is given a lantern during the guided tour.  Lastly the Adventure Tour (We recommend this one) will give you a lifetime of memories.  Plan on spending up to 6 hours crawling through remote sections of the cave with your guide who gives you an in-depth tour and teaches you basic proper caving technique and etiquette.  Space is very limited on Adventure Tours so plan accordingly  (~$135 per ticket).

After exploring the underbelly of Sequoia, head south on the Generals Highway to the Foothills area of the park.  Make sure to take a break from the drive at Amphitheater Point.  From this spectacular viewpoint you can see all three life zones of the Sierra.  Looking down you see the foothills which are filled with oak and brushy forests. Straight ahead are the mixed conifer forests, which house the sequoias.  Lastly, looking up you see the rugged alpine environment of the high sierra.  A little ways down the road is Hospital Rock.  Nearly 500 Native American artifacts were discovered in the area.  Anthropologists estimate Native Americans lived near Hospital Rock as early as 1350.  Today you can see ancient rock art and bedrock mortars used to grind acorns. 

If you are ready to stretch your sticks, the foothills area of Sequoia offers some fantastic hiking opportunities.  The trails in this area some of the most rugged in the park so plan on getting an early start.  The trail to Marble Falls in Foothills is tough, but a truly wonderful adventure.  The hike is saturated with wildflowers, wildlife and a spectacular waterfall!  Another great hike is to the Garfield Grove of giant Sequoias.  This a tough trail with quite a bit of elevation gain and distance, but the end result makes every switchback worth it!  Garfield Grove houses King Arthur, which is a massive sequoia that rivals General Sherman in total mass. 

The last section of Sequoia easily accessed is Mineral King in the southern portion of the park.  This glacier-carved valley is extremely popular with hikers and backpackers.  The trails in Mineral King are rugged and some of the longer hikes in the park.  The Monarch Lakes Trail is one tough hike in the area.  The trail climbs more than 2,000 feet in just over four miles, ending at Upper and Lower Monarch Lakes, which lie at the base of Sawtooth Peak (at 12,343 ft.).  Along the way hikers are rewarded with meadows bursting with wildflowers, thick forest, stunning vistas of the southern Sierras and Monarch Creek Canyon. If you are looking for a shorter hike, take a trip into the Atwell Grove.  Part of the grove was logged in the past, so it provides an interesting look at part of the park’s history.

No matter if you spend a few hours driving through Sequoia or days exploring its backcountry, one visit and you will understand why the "Land of Giants" was preserved for generations to come as our nation's second National Park. 

Sequoia National Park Quick Facts

  • Sequoia National Park is the 2nd oldest National Park, established in 1890, only Yellowstone is older
  • Largest Tree: General Sherman - 52,508 cubic ft./volume, 274.9 ft. tall.
  • Largest Grove: Giant Forest ~ 1,800 Acres.
  • 3 of the 10 oldest tree species in the world live here: Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) ~3,266 years, Western Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) ~ 2,675 years, and Foxtail Pine (Pinus balfouriana) ~ 2,123 years.
  • Sequoia is home to Mt. Whitney.  Soaring to 14,505 ft., it is the tallest peak in the Lower 48.
  • Plants: # of species: 1530; 22 deciduous & 26 evergreen tree species
  • Wildlife:  # of species: 331; Endangered Species: Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep, California Condor;  Extinct Species: Foothill Yellow-legged Frog, Tundra Swan, Grizzly Bear, Elk

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