“The big tree is Nature’s forest masterpiece… the greatest of living things.” – John Muir
Out of the 61 national parks in the United States, California is home to 9, which is more than any other state in the nation. The most famous is naturally the majestic Yosemite, but the others are just as wonderful. Some well-known California National Parks include Joshua Tree, Death Valley, the Redwoods, and of course, the Sequoias.
I’ve lived in California for a little over half my life, and always wrongly assumed the Sequoias were very far and a major trip (this is, in fact, the truth for Yosemite ☹️). In fact, due to its central location, the Sequoia National Forest is remarkably accessible for most Californians, as well as Southern Nevadans. From the San Bernardino and San Francisco areas, which are opposite to each other, the drive to Visalia is approximately 3 ½ hours for both. From the Los Angeles area it is a little less than 3 hours. San Diego gets screwed, as the drive is closer to 5 hours.
I took this trip for my 30th birthday with my friend Jim, as well as my then-3 ½ year old daughter. Please understand that when I post pictures with or of her, I will block out her face. The internet is less than safe for children, in my opinion.
While this wasn’t the 30th birthday banger I had planned (thanks to 2020), it was still a pretty good birthday considering we were still in the beginning of a pandemic. We went at the very end of June, in the small window where everything was “okay again” (wrong) and things opened back up in California for about 2 weeks. We even got to eat *gasp* inside an Applebee’s (socially distanced, of course).
We stayed at the Marriott in Visalia, which I recommend except for the noise factor. We must have stayed there during a family reunion (we strongly suspect this, as there were about 40 of them who completely took over the pool area for one big party, essentially banning my child from enjoying the pool – that was super cool of them), and they were incredibly loud. They were on our floor and we would hear constant door banging from inside our rooms. I suppose if you stay there with “normal” travelers, it wouldn’t be so bad. Either way, just a heads up about that hotel (I will likely choose a different hotel when we eventually go back).
But enough of the boring stuff, time to move on to the reason you’re reading this.
The grand and supreme Sequoias.
The drive to the sequoias is not an easy or quick one, especially if you stay in Visalia. There are closer hotels more up the mountain, but they are more of “motel” types and just not our style. Our hotel was about an hour away, so it is a journey to make it to the trees, to say the least. If coming from Visalia, you first must take the highway, driving towards the mountains. You then start your ascent, traveling around a large lake (Lake Kaweah), eventually finding yourself in a small mountain town called Three Rivers (you can stay here, however, again, you will not find any Marriotts, Hiltons, or even Best Westerns).
Nonetheless, Three Rivers is a cool, small, historic little old mountain town that I’m sure was popping in the Gold Rush. Located at the base of the Sierra Nevadas in Tulare County, Three Rivers was established far back in the 1800’s, with the original habitants being the Yokuts, and white Europeans arriving sometimes in the 1850’s. It currently has a population of about 2,400.
**Note: If you want to stay in a town-like setting, as close to the base of the Sequoia National Park as possible, then Three Rivers is the place, as it is the last settlement of any type. This website lets you see the handful of lodging choices, restaurants, and entertainment options: https://threeriversvillage.com/**
Again… last stop! So, if you need to use the bathroom, better go here.
That is because as we come to find out, the entrance to the park is NOT where the sequoia trees are located. Nope, not even close. In fact, the trees are about an hour’s drive past the entrance and straight up. They are located at the top of the mountain, and the entrance to the park is located relatively far down towards the base (still not flesh with “ground level”, but definitely not that far up). We were completely unaware of this until we got there.
The drive from the hotel to the entrance of the park was only about 10% of the hour-plus drive, with 90% being after we already entered the park. The road is extraordinarily curvy, to the point where my brakes wore out and had to be replaced a few months later. There are turns that jackknife and people fly down them like they’re invincible. I was amazed at how many Kryptonite People went well over an appropriate speed limit, like one mistake wouldn’t send them flying over the side of a mountain, crashing hundreds of feet down to their death (Darwinism, I guess).
Fret not though, the hour-plus-long drive to the trees is not boring, and there are plenty of opportunities to veer off and snap some cool pics. However, the road is precarious and not very wide. While there are little turnouts to stop at, they are rarely large enough to fit two cars, sometimes barely fitting one. There are larger spots at various points on the mountain, but sometimes they are impossible to get to, depending on which side of the road you are on. We had to wait to turnoff on some coming down the mountain, while others we could only turnoff onto while going up. While you can do anything you want, I say “impossible” because it would be very dangerous to try and turn into the turnouts from the opposite side. Many are in areas that have blind spots and corners, and a car could be easily careening down the mountain, ready to T-bone you during your illegal U-turn. It’s just not worth it.
One place that has a rather large and roomy turnout/parking lot is the lookout point for Moro Rock. An impressive large mound of a rock, it jets up high from the trees and you can see it from miles away. You can drive to a parking lot that will take you to the base of the rock, where you hike up hundreds of stairs; however, we did not as we had a very grumpy and tired toddler with us who would have never survived a climb up a 400-step staircase, and quite frankly, I did not feel like lugging her either.
The park is massive, with many different areas to stop, hike, and frolic. We kept driving upwards, until we made our way to the “general public” parking lot near the famous General Sherman tree. There is a smaller, far-closer parking lot located near the General, but that is reserved for the handicapped. The general parking lot is quite far away, and you do have to walk about a mile (maybe slightly less??) down to the trees (which means you also must hike a mile back UP). The path is called the Sherman Tree Trail, located inside the Giant Forest, and it is very wide, flat, and paved. If you bring a stroller, be advised that there are numerous staircases along this path, with zero wheelchair or stroller accessible ramps. There are numerous benches and areas to stop off at along the way, so if you get tired, or have a tired toddler with you, no worries.
There are numerous educational placards along the trail, highlighting information about the history of the area/trees, measurements of trees, and just general information about the forest and earth. You can hike off the trail, but I get the vibe that it is strongly discouraged. The Forest Service would like to preserve the giant sequoias and the surrounding ecosystem. You can probably sneak your way into touching General Sherman or Sentinel, but there are fences around these trees, so I think that’s a pretty clear sign not to be a terrible human and just leave the trees alone.
Now, if you just cannot resist and help yourself, there are different trees you can easily access and touch. In fact, the trail goes right through or by many trees. I think they just want to preserve the really famous ones, for obvious reasons. Not to mention, the General Sherman is the largest tree on earth by volume, sooo it’s kind of a big deal. In fact, the Giant Forest contains 5 of the 10 largest trees in the world.
***History nerd-out time. If you hate learning new things and expanding your worldly knowledge, please skip this paragraph: The Sequoia National Park (and Kings Canyon) was established in 1890 by the 23rd President, Benjamin Harrison, and it covers 404,064 acres or about 631 sq miles. This park holds the title of containing the highest point in the lower 48 United States: Mount Whitney. As the internet puts it, “The parks preserve a landscape that still resembles the southern Sierra Nevada before Euro-American settlement”, which is kind of majorly depressing if you really stop to think about it. The area was first home to the “Monachee” (Western Mono) Native Americans. After wiping out the N.A. population with smallpox sometime in the early 1800’s, as was customary of European settlers, the rest is history.***
We decided to leave The General Sherman to last, as it was clearly the most popular and crowded spot in the area. As we finally made our trek to the G.S., it was clear our assumption was correct, as there were hordes of people surrounding this tree. Listen… as someone who has traveled to many very popular tourist spots/objects (the Rosetta Stone, Stonehenge, Plymouth Rock, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution… the list goes on and on), please just take your pictures and step back. It is so incredibly rude and frustrating when someone decides to have an entire Instagram shoot or professional level family portrait when all you’re trying to do is see the thing you came there to see. Snap your pic and move. You can admire from afar.
The General is impressive, but I am still confused on how it is the “world’s largest tree” (by volume). Maybe someone scientifically inclined can explain it to me in the comments!
After seeing “The Tree”, fighting and waiting to take pictures unencumbered by other tourists, we decided to head back up the hill and call it a day. My friend and I could have gone on, but my toddler had something to say about it. I don’t take her on a lot of trips for this exact reason, as she is simply not old enough to endure day-long hikes or activities.
The trek back up to the parking lot is 100 times more awful than the trek down. It’s straight up hill, with numerous stairs, so save your energy (or be smart and send the sacrificial lamb to get the car and meet you in the handicapped parking lot).
After a non-refreshing night’s sleep (thanks to some extremely rude fellow hotel guests), we got up early and headed back up the mountain, as we were going home later that day. Today we were headed to a different part of the park; but nonetheless, it was still all the way back up to the top of the mountain, so it was yet another long drive (my poor, poor brakes).
We stopped first at one of the larger parking lots located along the route up the mountain; a lookout point for Moro Rock. Here is where you can get the best view of it from the ground. You can see Moro Rock as soon as you enter the park, but it is far, and rather tiny, so if you want an up-close-and-personal photo with the famous rock, you’ll need to make your way up higher and to the lookout point. The entrance to the staircase to ascend up to the top of Moro Rock is not located at this parking lot, it is much further up, near the Sentinel Tree.
We didn’t have an exact location in mind. We just knew we were going to see a different part than we saw the day before (great planning, I know). We landed on the area by the Sentinel and Big Tree Trail. The Sentinel is impressive, but not as impressive as the General Sherman; hence why it is probably not as popular or crowded.
Big Trees Trail was pretty cool. Here you can walk between the giant trees, and even go up and touch them. They feel rather odd, super soft and almost fake. This is just the outer bark, as I’m sure the inner bark is quite strong and hard (must be, to survive hundreds and hundreds of years, right?). It’s quite something to touch thousands-year-old trees that you know have been around longer than anything you’ve ever known or could know to exist. It’s also something to bask in their grandness, both height and base-wise. It’s mindboggling how large these trees are. They easily made my 6-foot 4-inch friend look like a hobbit.
This part of our visit was relatively lonesome (in a good way), encountering only a few people along our walk. I’m not sure if it was normal for that time of day, or if everyone was at the General Sherman, or if the park is just so massive that people are able to spread out. Either way, I liked it.
The path is again quite easy and smooth, very well maintained, and clean. It did eventually end, turning into a typical, dirt path that you’d see on a forest hike. We went on this way for a bit; however, we eventually came across two hikers coming towards us, who said they were coming back this way because there was a black bear up ahead. Our butts turned around really quick.
We began to head back towards the car, as we’d been hiking for a few hours at this point, and again my toddler was already about to reach her limit. We crossed the small road inside the park, leaving the area of the Big Tree Trail, and walking along the opposite sides trail, back towards the parking lot. There are a lot of smaller trails that jet out at various locations along all the big trails, but due to toddler-life, we did not.
Our drive back to Southern California was rather uneventful, aside from the GPS taking us a back way through central California, to places I’d never been and would likely never see if I wasn’t doing exactly what I was doing. I had no clue how…. flat.. Central California is, just miles and miles of farmland.
One really cool thing we came across on the drive home was an oilfield. If you’ve never seen a legit oilfield, it’s a sight. Miles of these little dinosaur-looking oil pumps, just going up and down, up and down, over and over. I’ve seen oil pumps in the Midwest, but they are always solo, with maybe a grouping of 2 or 3, but that’s it.
Overall, like most of my trips, I feel like I didn’t get to see or do near enough, and fully intend on going back. We did do and see a lot, but there is just sooo much to do that I’m not sure you can accomplish everything even if you’re there for a few days. Most things cannot be done in one day, or even one weekend, especially if you have young children with you. For example, we couldn’t make it to Kings Canyon because it was another approx. 45-minute drive further up, starting from Big Tree Trail, and that’s just to get there, never mind actually hiking. The next time I come back, I’m coming childless and for at least 3 FULL days!