Sequoia National Park
Every journey has to begin somewhere, and ours began kind of late, in September of 2008. We moved to the United States in 2003, and although we went camping a few times, the Sequoias somehow didn't come into play. We both heard about the park, saw pictures, read stories, and we both wanted to see the fabled giant sequoias, but it took a while to get there.
Some friends of ours visited the park in the summer, but they stayed in a motel in Three Rivers. We didn't want to do that, and after some research, our destination became obvious: Lodgepole, the place that would eventually become a big favorite and a departure point for so many great treks.
Day 1 - L.A. to Lodgepole
The first day we did the "tourist thing". Leaving L.A. very early in the morning, we got to the park entrance around 9am, and not much later, we were up in the thick of it. I can't describe our awe of the sequoia trees. You can look at as many photos or as much video as you want, you brain simply won't process their size until you see them. Us modern humans are used to big structures, but to see a tree grow that big just doesn't seem to make sense. Enough about this, if you haven't seen a giant redwood yet, make sure you do that before you kick the bucket.
First, we went to Lodgepole to unload our gear. The campground is huge, and it's very crowded most of the time, but it's in a fantastic place and we fell in love with it right away. Even years later, I can safely say that this is the only popular campground I really like.
Then we set out to drive all the way down into Kings Canyon. The first segment, the "road between parks" from Lodgepole to Grant Grove, follows the ridgeline and it's a great place to see bears. Over the years we've had three bear sightings in this park, each time along this road. At the other end, Grant Grove is a very nice little village, with a store, restaurant, hotel, cabins, and of course a campground. The rustic cabins can be very reasonable in fall/winter and they are a great place to stay at.
There's a big Sequoia Grove, with the General Grant Tree being the centerpiece. The parking area is pretty nice and accommodating (though it gets full in the summer), and the trail takes you past several giant sequoias, even in a tunnel formed of a fallen one. This was our first hands-on experience with the tree, and an unforgettable experience.
Having gotten a taste of the sequoias, we drove into the impossibly scenic Kings Canyon. Form grant Grove, the road climbs the ridge first (there's a nice campground called "Princess" here) then drops into Kings Canyon, following the river all the way past Cedar Grove (another restaurant/hotel/campground place) to Road's End, which - what a surprise -, is where the road dead ends. It's a big parking lot with a ranger kiosk and the trailhead for many great routes. This time, I had no idea we'll be doing some serious hikes from here. We stopped only briefly here, then drove back to Hume Lake, a scenic body of water not officially on park territory. There are quite a few expensive rental cabins here, but it doesn't look crowded. We spent an hour or so on the shore relaxing and fishing a bit - without any luck.
Driving back to Lodgepole, we had our first bear sighting, a solitary medium-sized specimen peacefully grazing by the road, seemingly oblivious to the people in the cars taking pictures of him (her?). At the campground, we made a nice bonfire and spent the night eating and watching the stars. It was cold, colder than we thought it will be, but we had plenty of warm clothing and we cuddled up nicely in the tent.
Day 2 - Lodgepole to Siliman Creek Junction and back
In the morning, we got up early (yeah, like at 8am) because we had big plans. At home I read about the hikes you could do from here and I boldly came up with the following grand plan: walk up via Cahoon Gap trail to Twin Lakes, spend an hour or two fishing, and walk back to Lodgepole before it gets dark. Oh, boy. I don't know what I was thinking. I knew this should be long with a lot of elevation gain, but somehow I completely misread the whole trip. In reality, this would be around 15 miles round trip with 3,000+ feet of elevation gain. We weren't in very bad shape, but there was no way this could work.
Oblivious to all this, we set out in the morning with our daypacks, making our way up the trail. First it goes west, gently climbing the wall of the valley next to Lodgepole Campground, then it turns north, crossing Siliman Creek and ascending to Cahoon Meadow. There was some smoke in the air from a controlled fire that made the meadow look misty. Not very good for your lungs, but very dramatic looking in the morning light.
If you're standing at the near (south) end of the meadow, take a good look at the big rock at the far side, because soon, you'll be looking down from there. Of course, "soon" is a relative term. The incline past the meadow is pretty steep, and being terribly out of shape, plus completely unaccustomed to the altitude, we took a few short breaks to catch our breath. That big rock I mentioned is a bit off the trail (you can hike out to it), the actual trail continues in the forest to Cahoon Gap. This is a relatively flat area in the middle of the forest with some space that looks like maybe people camped there - though there's no water, so I'm not sure why you would do that.
Past Cahoon Gap, the trail drops around 3-400' in elevation and it comes to Silliman Creek. A the creek, there's a bear box and some camping spots. It's a great place to get water and have lunch. This is where we had to turn around. I was tired but OK, Em however was exhausted and a headache started to develop. I thought the lake is not much further ahead (that's not so), but after she told me about the headache, we took a break, then started back up towards Cahoon Gap. Of course I was a bit disappointed not to have made it to the lake, but even my limited experience told me not to mess around with headaches at altitude in the middle of nowhere.
After crossing Cahoon Gap again, we went off the west side of the trail to a nice meadow that had huge smooth boulders in the middle, where we sat in the sun and had a long lunch break. It was a very peaceful, quiet afternoon, and lake or no lake, we were in a great place.
Unsurprisingly, going down was much, much easier, and not long after 4pm, we were back at Lodgepole again. We even reached the showers before they closed and washed the dirt off. Looking back, it's great we didn't try to go up to the lakes. That last section, though not much longer than a mile, gains more than 1,000' in elevation, and it's very, very hard. We would have been done, and I'm sure we would have only gotten back late at night. At least we had flashlights - even back then we had enough wits not to leave without them, day hike or not.
As we sat wide-eyed at the campfire at night, tired and feeling sure signs of muscle pains for the next day, we already started planning new adventures here. We didn't know it yet, but the Sierra bug has bitten us. Big time.
Day 3 - Lodgepole to L.A.
It was a Sunday, with no reason to rush home. First, we stopped at the General Sherman tree, the biggest tree in the world by weight and volume, and took a great stroll in the "Giant Forest". This walk is highly recommended, it takes you into a grove of sequoias and it's the best way to experience them up-close, even for people who can't hike very far. The trail is very easily accessible from the disabled parking lot on Hwy 198. From the main parking lot up on the hill it's a half-mile round trip walk.
If you continue on the road from where the Sherman Tree parking forks off, it takes you to Wolverton and Crescent Meadow, with the Buttress Tree and the Tunnel Log along the way. The Buttress Tree is a great place to experience the size of a giant sequoia horizontally. It used to be 272 feet tall, then in 1959, without any apparent cause, it fell. Now the main root system is sticking up high in the air and any picture of a person standing in front of it looks like some Photoshop trick. If you go a bit further up next to the trunk, it's very easy to climb on top.
Just a bit further down the road is the "Parker Group" a small grove of 5-6 sequoias growing together in close proximity. Usually, there are not too many people around here, so it's a great place to spend a bit of quality time with these trees.
Then there's the "Tunnel Log", a must-do tourist destination. A big tree is laying over the road, and they carved a big chunk out of it, so yes, you can drive your car through.
Before driving home, we wanted to check out Morro Rock, the great granite dome offering views of big sections of the park. However, there was another controlled burn going on, and its smoke enveloped the rock completely. There was no point in even trying. Sporting some muscles aces, but in great spirits, we were back in L.A. by the evening.
On the way to Cahoon Gap, we met two Italian guys, who told us they're going to Twin Lakes, too, but to spend the night. Em and I were discussing how much fun that must be, but we don't have the proper equipment, we're not in great shape, etc. However, this planted the idea, and next spring we started making plans for our first backpacking trip that eventually became a one-night adventure in Mineral King.
Aside from all this, the Sequoia National Park is truly amazing. It's a great place to discover by car and see natural wonders for people who can't go on long hikes. It's even greater if you can experience the wilderness part. Since this trip, we spent weeks and weeks here, mostly in the backcountry, we we still haven't explored even a small portion of it.
Official website (sometimes it's a bit hard to navigate).