On Friday, our fourth and final full day in the parks, we had a full day scheduled. First, it was back to Lodgepole to hike to Tokopah Falls, then back to the Giant Forest to see the General Sherman Tree (the largest tree by volume in the world) and hike the Congress Trail. Later in the afternoon we were scheduled to tour Crystal Cave. And finally, if time permitted, we’d visit Moro Rock.
Lodgepole has a very large year-round campground and we drove through most of it as we searched for the trail head for Tokopah Falls. The trail to the falls is about 2 miles with a little bit of a climb. Bugs were not quite as bad as earlier in the week. You are hiking alongsisde the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. At 1200 feet, Tokopah Falls is the highest falls in the park and one of the highest falls in California (outside Yosemite). As you approach the falls the trail becomes mostly granite rocks, and that makes it a bit tricky. Yellow Bellied Marmots are said to live in these rocks near the falls, but we didn’t see any. And unfortunately for us, we didn’t see the falls either. Mid September was too late in the year to see any falls or cascades, at least it was this year. You can see where the cascades and falls would be, and some of the rock faces were wet, but no falls on this day. If you go online you can see pictures taken in the spring.
Next we headed for the General Sherman parking area in the Giant Forest. To get to the General Sherman tree you descend a bunch of steps and then take a paved trail downhill for about half a mile. The tree is to your right as you descend, and there is an observation area on the right side of the trail. An accurate depiction of the base of the tree (36 feet diameter) is found on the pavement of the observation area. Rather than join the crowd at the base of the tree, Bob and I continued along the paved Congress Trail back to McKinley Tree Junction so that we could see more of the famous named trees. We saw The President, The Senate Group, and the House Group. The President is the third largest tree in the world after General Sherman and General Grant. There had been some controlled burning between the Senate and the House groups and Bob and I may have taken a path that was supposed to be off limits, but we managed to see them all. Then it was back to the junction with the Alta Trail where we found the General Lee tree. General Lee is quite large and doesn’t seem to have the fire scars that many trees in the Giant Forest have. Having seen the bulk of the named trees in the Giant Forest, we headed back to General Sherman for the obligatory pictures at its base before heading back to the car. As I have said before, it is hard to capture the majesty of those big trees in one picture.
Then we drove to Crystal Cave. It takes about 45 minutes to get there because the road off of Generals Highway is a winding one. We had purchased sandwiches at the Grant Grove market and planned to eat them in the parking area at Crystal Cave. I drove as fast as I could, and we made it to the parking area about 40 minutes before our tour. There are some picnic tables at the end of the parking area, and Bob and I managed to wolf down our sandwiches while initial instructions for the cave tour were given to those assembled. The cave is a constant 48 degrees,so Bob and I planned to change into long pants and sleeves before our group headed down the 1/2 mile paved trail to the mouth of the cave. I retired to the men’s room to change while Bob stashed the food items and back packs in a bear lockers. Then it was off to the cave. As you head down the trail you have to step on a mat that disinfects your shoes. You also have to acknowledge that your clothing and anything else you take into the cave has not been in a cave in the eastern U.S. because White Nose Disease affects bats in the east and we don’t want it spreading to the west any faster than it will naturally. As you head to the cave mouth you pass a very nice waterfall. You are then addressed by your cave guide who tells you up front that you are not going to be lucky enough to see any bats while in the cave. The bats stay in parts of the cave that are not on the tour. Crystal Cave was discovered in 1916. It was not developed for tourism until the CCC cleared and paved the area of the cave where the tours are performed in the late 1930s. Tours began in 1940. Air circulates naturally through the cave, and water is constantly running through it. The water is channeled away from the tour path. The path was dirt, but has now been sealed with concrete to keep dust from getting on and obscuring the walls. The paths were originally designed to accommodate 200 people at one time, but the tours are now limited to 50 people per tour to reduce the effects on the cave. The tour winds around two levels with many beautiful formations that are illuminated. The tour eventually stops at a large area on the second level, and once all are gathered together the guide turns off all the lights so that you get an idea of how devoid of light being in a cave can be. It is eerie, and even when your eyes have had time to adjust, you still really can’t see anything. One member of our tour passed gas in a noisy fashion just after the lights were turned out, and everyone had a good laugh at that. Even after the tour was over, you could hear folks blaming each other for it. You aren’t supposed to touch anything while in the cave, but I did have to hold onto an outcropping while going through a narrow stretch that inclined. I only scrapped my head on the cave ceiling once. The tour and waterfalls were well worth the $13 price. The 45 minute tour ends up taking 90 minutes as you linger along the path back to the parking area.
Finally, we headed for Moro Rock, which is Sequoia National Park’s Half Dome. Just like Half Dome, Moro Rock is 4,000 feet above the valley it towers above. Unlike Half Dome, there are steps you can use to climb to the top. Although it got a bit tiring, and some of the 400 steps have been worn down a great deal, Bob and I made it to the top and took in the magnificent vistas. The divide you are looking into can be a bit hazy, but it was still a nice vantage from which to view the Sierras.
Then it was back to the trail across the road to see the Roosevelt Tree, which is not the Roosevelt Tree named for Theodore Roosevelt that is located in the Redwood Grove (where we would be hiking the next day), so this one must have been named for Franklin. Friday was a full day, but it was filled with memorable experiences.
On Saturday morning, as I was taking my walk into Grant Grove Village, I saw 4 California Highway Patrol pickup trucks and one CHP Police Interceptor (Crown Victoria) parked at the old gas station. The officers were milling about and were wearing dark blue CHP uniforms and not the khaki uniforms you normally see their officers wearing when on the California freeways. As I completed my walk the CHP officers had been joined by two law enforcement Park Rangers and their SUVs. I have no idea what they were going to be doing that morning. Bob and I proceeded to pack, and we exited our cabin and drove into the Village. The law enforcement vehicles and officers had disappeared from the old gas station.
We ate our final meal at the Grant Grove Village restaurant, checked out at the desk and headed for the Redwood Canyon trail head. Although the turn off for Redwood Canyon is located in the National Forest, as soon as you leave Generals Highway a sign tells you that you have entered Sequoia National Park. No Sequoia cones could be gathered for personal use here. Redwood Canyon Trail runs through the Redwood Mountain Grove of Giant Sequoias. Despite the name, there are no redwoods in the Sierras but both giant sequoias (sequoiadendron gigantium) and their coastal relative the redwood (sequoia sempervirens) are large trees with red bark. Redwood Mountain Grove is the largest grove of giant sequoias on earth, and I can attest that you are continously surrounded by giant sequoias all the time you are hiking through the grove. Located here is an unnamed tree that at 311 feet tall is the tallest giant sequoia on earth, the Hart Tree, the 24th largest giant sequoia by volume, and Roosevelt (named for Teddy), the 21st largest giant sequoia by volume. We may have seen Roosevelt and the unnamed 311 foot tall tree and not realized it. We did visit the Hart Tree along the way. Once again, the magnificence of these mamoth trees renders words inadequate when trying to describe the experience of being surrounded by them! We started out hiking 4 miles through Sugar Bowl Grove, and all around us were huge clusters of the giants. There had been a lot of controlled burning recently in this area. Directly to the east you could see the bare face of Big Baldy peak. Heading downhill and into a wooded area that includes pines and other trees, you cross a stream and head uphill to the Fallen Goliath. What a massive tree this must have been, as its fallen trunk resembles a medium-sized passenger boat! About 2 miles beyond Fallen Goliath we paused at a small waterfall to eat lunch. At the top of the falls was a very large giant sequoia whose roots seem to be precariously holding onto the open hillside. I didn’t get the thought of those roots giving way out of my mind the entire time we stayed there. Back on the trail we reached the cut off for the Hart Tree. Although the side trail to the Hart Tree is marked, there is no sign pointing out the tree itself. There are two massive trees along this side trail, and it is only by matching the fire scar on the Hart Tree with pictures on the internet that I eventually figured out which was which.
As we headed along the trail towards Barton’s Post Camp (a fallen giant sequoia which humans had made into a dwelling), Bob got ahead of me on the trail. At about that time I heard and then saw a formation of three F/A-18s flying above me in the “missing man” formation. And in keeping with the theme, as I watched the aircraft and did not watch where I was going, I accidently left the trail and temporarily became the missing man myself! It only took a few minutes to backtrack onto the trail, and I met up with Bob at Barton’s Post Camp. We re-crossed the stream and then ascended back to the parking area. And with that, our final hike in the parks was done. Back in the parking area, I noticed a pickup truck with Virginia plates. I decided to look at the windshield to see if it had a local decal indicating where my fellow Virginian was from. Not only did it not have a local decal (and not all Virginia locales issue the decals anymore), but its inspection sticker expired in April 2008! The truck owner obviously no longer resides in Virginia (this truck certainly hasn’t been in Virginia in over 4 years) and uses an address for his/her registration where someone forwards the paperwork to them. And that address must be in a part of the state where emissions certification is not required for registration renewal. We made one last stop at Stony Creek Resort so I could buy souvenir tee shirts, and then it was time to head back to Fresno.
As we descended from the parks (about 6000 feet) on CA 180, the outside temperature steadily increased. Bob predicted that before we got to the base of the valley it would be 100 degrees outside, and sure enough just below 1000 feet the outside temperature gauge read 100 for the first time. As CA 180 flattened out, we passed a parked CHP pickup truck parked on the opposite side of the road. I wondered if that had been one of the pickup trucks I had seen that morning at Grant Grove Village. Just as CA 180 makes its right turn to head the 19 miles west to Fresno we stopped at a large fruit stand. An elderly gentleman was slicing nectarines for samples, and they were marvellous. Bob and I bought nectarines and plums. You’ll never get fresher fruit anywhere. As we were gathering our fruit selections, the CHP pickup truck from down the road pulled into the fruit stand parking lot. I recognized Officer Assamonte as one of the blue clad CHP officers who had been at the old gas station in Grant Grove Village that morning. I wanted to ask him what had been going on, but he was in the middle of conversing with the owners, and I didn’t want to interrupt. So, we put our fruit in the car and headed to the LaQuinta Inn in Fresno.
As we arrived, so did two buses filled with German-speaking tourists. We checked in and showered as we would be heading to Mike’s Grill, a sandwich place I found online in an article from the Fresno Bee about “Places that We’d Like to See on Diners, Drive-ins & Dives if it Came to Fresno”. We had to hurry, since Mike’s closes at 7 pm. Mike’s was about 8 miles north of the LaQuinta. It is just a small grill with a few card tables outside, located in a mall parking lot next to a vacant bank. We arrived just before 6:30, and while we were there locals continually drove up to get take out. I ordered the pulled pork sandwich, and Bob had the Tri-tip – both of which Mike’s is supposed to be famous for. We were not disappointed! As we were eating and the sun was setting, I thought that even though it was still 97 degrees, Fresno didn’t seem to be a bad place to me.
And with that, my trip to Kings Canyon/Sequoia was over. I will never forget my first encounters with bears in the wild nor the incredible abundance of the giant sequioas. And that first view from Panoramic Point with Hume Lake encompassed by the Sierras set the stage for the wonderful hikes we would take that week. I would like to come back to visit some of the meadows and falls that we didn’t get to this time around.