Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks

Climbing up Moro Rock into the fog

After our weekend in Sedona I dropped Sandy off at the Phoenix airport so she could fly home. I'm sure Laney was glad to see her. From Arizona I drove directly to California for the GMT Weekend. That's a four day wargaming event held in Hanford at the GMT Games warehouse. I'll do a post on it later.

Since I got there Tuesday night and the convention didn't start till Thursday morning I had a free day. Hanford is close to the west side entrances to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. With all my mountain travels I had never been to the west side of those parks. I had hiked into them from the east side of the Sierras several times (climbing Mt. Whitney, climbing Mt. Gould from Kearsarge Pass, etc.). But the parks are large and mostly Wilderness (that's Wilderness with a capital W on purpose). There are a lot of trail miles between the trailheads on the east and west sides of the range. Since there are large National Forest Wilderness areas to the north and south there is almost a 200 mile stretch of the Sierra Nevada that does not have a road that crosses from east to west. That means it is a long drive to get to the west side from Boise and that is why I had never made it there before. This was a perfect chance to explore the west side of the parks. It was a lot of mountain country that I had never seen.

Unfortunately the weather wasn't cooperating. The extended forecast had looked good but as the time got closer it changed to rain and snow. I was debating if it was even worth going up to the park but when I got up in the morning it was overcast but not raining. It was only about seventy miles so I thought that I would give it a try. Things were looking good by the time I reached the entrance to Sequoia National Park. The clouds looked to be breaking up and I could actually see some blue sky. I was getting psyched.

Summit of Moro Rock and the incredible view - of fog

Just inside the park entrance I stopped at a visitor center. I picked out a good hiking guide on the area, and a tshirt of course. While I was paying I overheard one of the rangers telling someone about road construction delays. There was major repair work in progress down the road from the visitor center. Since it was a weekday during the offseason, they were closing the road so that they could get some real work done. They only opened it for a few minutes right at the hour. The ranger said that it took about twenty minutes to reach the construction from where we were. Oh oh. It was ten minutes to twelve. I wasn't going to to be able to get through until one oclock. Now I had about forty five minutes to wait. I went back and read all of the visitor center exhibits another five or six times to kill some time before continuing up the road. Sure enough. The road was closed. But since I had stalled at the visitor center I only had to wait ten minutes before they let us through. As we were driving through slowly in single file I noticed something unusual in the other lane. As I passed I looked closely and it was a big old tarantula, just walking down the other side of the road, happy as could be. I wonder if they made it wait till the hour to go through too.

A bear sightseeing in the Giant Forest

My next stop was at Moro Rock. Unfortunately by now the weather had deteriorated. From the visitor center I had a nice view of it and was anxious to take the trail up it. Now the clouds had moved in. Looking from the base the top was lost in the clouds. But it was a short trail and looked like fun so I went up anyway. After only a few hundred meters two people passed me going down advising me that the trail ahead was crazy and no sane person would want to go up. I guess that means that I can keep going though. The trail wasn't really that bad. It was somewhat exposed but had railings on both sides. The trail up Angel's Landing in Zion National Park is more exposed and less secure. So I went all the way to the top. There was a nice sign identifying all the mountains that you could see from the summit. I guess the view is spectacular but all I saw was fog. That meant that I didn't waste a lot of time hanging around before starting back down. I was impressed by the settlers who first climbed Moro Rock in the nineteenth century without cut steps and handrails. They weren't mountaineers or rock climbers. That would have taken some nerve.

A sequoia is a Really Big Tree

I wasn't going to see any views today but it was still a good day to visit the sequoia groves. Giant sequoias are the largest trees on earth by volume. Redwoods are much taller but the sequoias are truely impressive because of their bulk. They grow only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada between 5000 and 7000 feet in elevation. There are about seventy five groves of them and many are in Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, or the adjoining national forest land.

I took a short hike in the Giant Forest grove to see the General Sherman tree. This is the largest tree on earth, by volume. Here's a trivial fact from one of the displays that I read - every year the General Sherman tree grows enough new wood to make an ordinary tree 60 feet high. The tree is 275 feet tall, 102 feet in circumference at the base, and has an estimated volume of over 52,000 cubic feet. It's largest branch is almost seven feet in diameter. Yup. It's a big tree.

There was a paved trail to the tree and it was loaded with tourists. At one point lots of them had stopped and were taking pictures of something in the woods. When I was able to see through the crowd, there was a bear walking along calmly about fifty meters from the trail. He was just going about his business (not THAT business that is typically attributed to bears in the woods though) and not paying any attention to any of the people. In fact, he had about the same attitude that the tarantula that I had seen earlier had. I guess that is because the animals live in the park while the people are only visiting.

Canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kings River

After I got back to the car, before I even had started the engine, drops of rain started to hit my windshield. As I started driving it started to rain pretty hard. Talk about good timing. It's better to be lucky than good. So no more hiking, even in the sequoia groves. But no big deal as by now I was getting pretty hungry - I had left without any breakfast and it was midafternoon already. I drove on to Lodgepole Village which is one of the only spots in Sequoia National Park that has concessions. There was a snack bar but it was already closed for the season! All I could get was a small bag of potato chips at the gift shop. I kept driving to the Kings Canyon overlook but the weather was still totally socked in and there were no views. Shortly after that I reached the junction with the highway that went west to Fresno. I had explored the west side of Sequoia National Park but hadn't even really gotten into Kings Canyon National Park. Bad weather and no food made it an easy choice though. I took the turn toward Fresno and left Kings Canyon for another day, hopefully one with better weather. I didn't get back to Hanford till after six oclock. I went straight to Subway and got the biggest sandwhich they had.

Even though the weather had not been very good I had fun. The sequoia groves were still very impressive. Moro Rock was a fun little climb even if I didn't see any views. And I got a Sequoia National Park tshirt so it was a good day. I was anxious for a chance to go back though.

Near Road's End in Kings Canyon

Of course the weather cleared up the very next day. But I was at the wargame convention which was also a lot of fun. But by the end of the weekend I decided to trade one day of wargames for another day in the mountains. Since people start to leave on Sunday I figured it was only a half day anyway. The forecast was for perfect weather so I checked out of the hotel early and headed for Kings Canyon National Park.

I would have liked to retrace my route through Sequoia National Park to see the scenery that I had missed in the fog. I really wanted to go up Moro Rock again on a bright, sunny day. But that would add about two hours of driving on the narrow winding roads as well as dealing with the construction delay. Since I was looking at a twelve hour drive home after I finished my day in the park, I opted to drive directly to the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park, essentially picking up where I had left off on Wednesday. I skipped the Grant Grove, another famous group of sequoias, and took the road to Kings Canyon. Soon I was getting glimpses of impressive mountains through the trees. But I was in heavy forest which didn't allow a clear view and on a narrow road with nowhere to stop anyway. Frustrating. Finally I broke out into the open. There was a big pull out and I could see Canyon Junction - the place where Kings Canyon and the Canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kings River join. Far to the east I could see the impressive peaks of the Great Western Divide. The Sierra Crest was even farther away and blocked so peaks like Mt. Whitney were not visible.

Grizzly Falls - its name is no longer apt

After climbing over a high ridge the road dropped waaaayyyy down to the bottom of Kings Canyon. It followed the canyon for about twenty miles to Roads End (named that because, well, that's where the road ends). The views in the canyon were pretty but not as spectacular as Yosemite Valley or Zion Canyon. And the impressive peaks of the High Sierra were hidden by the walls of the canyon. I had expected more as there is a famous passage from one of John Muir's books that praises Kings Canyon as much more spectacular than Yosemite. Not the part I saw. But it was a beautiful place.

From Road's End I drove back to the junction with the highway to Fresno. Then I drove a few miles south. I stopped at the Kings Canyon overlook that I had visited Wednesday in the fog. Sure enough, there was a beautiful view of the canyon. Then I took a short hike up Buena Vista Peak. From the higher vantage point the distant High Sierra peaks were visible and looked spectacular. I would have liked to get closer for a better view but it was a lot of trail miles to reach them from this side of the park. The Sierras rise very sharply from the Owens Valley on the east side but they have extensive foothills on the west side. Still it was a nice view. I certainly expected a nice view from the top of a mountain named Buena Vista Peak. I hiked down and started the long drive home. I must be getting old because I stopped for the night about 11:30 in Lovelock Nevada - about halfway home. Normally I would have driven straight through. I stayed at a cheap motel that just might have been the most rundown place I have ever stayed at. But surprisingly the bed and mattress looked new and it was clean. Next day I continued home. Total drive from Fresno was just under twelve hours.

I enjoyed my two days exploring Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. I had always wanted to go in from the west side and never had the chance before this. They were almost the last national parks in the western US that I had not visited (only one left is Redwood National Park in Northern California). My impression of them is that they were pretty but the east side is a much shorter and easier approach into the spectacular high country. That's a good thing for future trips as it is easier to reach that side when driving from Boise. But at least I got a chance to explore the west side.