Thursday, July 20, 2017

Twin Parks, Ancient Trees, and a Beautiful Canyon: A National Park Odyssey Days 20-21

Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park

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Park #10 - Kings Canyon

The John Muir Lodge, which is where we spent the three nights we were exploring Kings Canyon and Sequoia, is located in Kings Canyon National Park.  You almost always hear these two parks mentioned together, but they are actually separate.  Well, sort of.  Let’s just say that if they had a Facebook relationship status, it would read, “It’s complicated.”  They are side by side, they share the same Junior Ranger program, they have separate signs, and both of them have giant sequoia groves within their boundaries.  Kings Canyon is far less crowded (with the exception of the General Grant Grove), and both are surrounded by a national forest.  For our first day, we stuck to Kings Canyon.
We LOVED the central location of the John Muir Lodge inside Kings Canyon National Park.

We woke up on day 20 relieved to find that no bears had broken in to our car overnight, so we climbed in headed for a nearby driving trail to Panorama Point.  From the lookout area you would expect to be able to see Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states which is located nearby, but you’d be wrong.  Oddly enough, Mt. Whitney is hidden behind other less-tall mountains from pretty much every angle.  Nevertheless, our effort to climb up the short but steep-ish paved trail to the lookout was rewarded with a sweeping vista.
See Mt. Whitney in the distance? Yeah, me neither.
The snow-capped mountains in the distance were beautiful.

Our next stop was the General Grant Tree, a giant sequoia which is the third largest tree in the world and is located in one of the groves in Kings Canyon.  It is 267 feet tall and more than 1500 years old.  (In case you’re wondering as we were, Coastal Redwoods are the tallest trees, but sequoias grow far bigger around.)  The area was overrun with tourists like us, and the line to get a picture standing in front of the tree was longer than I was willing to face.  Instead we walked the loop and got some decent pictures from the side and the back.  We walked through the Fallen Monarch tree and contemplated the extraordinary lifespans of these magnificent plants. 
The majestic General Grant tree is so impressive that it won't fit into a regular camera shot without being too far away to see the sign.
The Fallen Monarch has been hollowed out by forest fires so you can walk through it.

Sequoias have no known upper lifespan limit.  They can withstand forest fires that wipe out less-resilient species, and many of the trees within the two parks’ boundaries were alive at the time of Christ.    Sequoias often die because the soil surrounding them becomes too wet and soft, making their top-heavy forms no match for gravity.  Many of the trees we saw were leaning like living towers of Pisa, but, of course, they could stay in that seemingly precarious position for years before eventually toppling over.
Giant sequoias start out as tiny pine cones like this one in Knox's hand.

In the 1950s, a campground with cabins was located right in the middle of the General Sherman Grove of ancient giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park.  At the time, one sequoia was leaning severely and threatened to fall on one of the cabins.  The decision was made by the NPS to cut down the tree to ensure the safety of tourists staying at the campground.  While I understand that no one wants to be smashed in their sleep by a 2,000 year old tree, the idea that one of these majestic trees would be sacrificed just so a bunch of tourists could spend the night in a protected grove gave me pause.
Knox reads about the fate of this downed giant.

Based on the way Knox and I felt whenever we passed a sequoia stump or an interpretive sign explaining how many of the giants had been felled during logging, we decided not to do the Big Stump Trail.  We agreed that it would be far too depressing.

We returned to the visitors’ center to finish up the Junior Ranger booklets and were thrilled to have a very charming and entertaining ranger swear in Kinley and Knox.  We’re still repeating some of his corny jokes weeks later.  A brand new restaurant inside the park had opened up the day before, so we decided to have lunch there.
We have had so many pleasant interactions with park rangers on this trip.  Almost all of them have been generous with their time and attention, but this ranger was especially memorable.

That afternoon, we drove down into Kings Canyon, a drive that took about an hour and ten minutes.  The scenery along the way was beautiful, a very different kind of canyon from the Grand Canyon but grand nonetheless.  We pulled over to check out a waterfall on Ten Mile Creek before proceeding on to Zumwalt Meadow where we planned to hike a loop trail.  We arrived at dusk, so there were only a couple of cars in the trailhead parking lot.
Even if Kings Canyon weren't populated with Giant Sequoias, the breathtaking canyon alone would be reason to protect it.
Knox and I enjoyed the rushing water of Ten-Mile Creek.

The loop trail through the picturesque meadow crossed a river and included a boardwalk section affording a view of the surrounding trees and mountains.  Unfortunately, the boardwalk was flooded meaning that we wouldn’t be able to complete the loop.  We turned back after snapping a few pictures and enjoying the scenery.  We proceeded to walk around the loop in the opposite direction through giant boulders and past delicate wildflowers until the bugs forced us to retreat to the car.
At the beginning of the Zumwalt Meadow Trail is a bridge spanning a picturesque river.
Visiting the meadow in the late afternoon was perfect for us (except for the bugs).
You can see how the boardwalk was flooded in this picture.  We were really hoping to get to do the whole loop because the scenery was lovely and the temperature was pleasant.

Cedar Grove Lodge is another park lodge in the bottom of the canyon, and we had hoped to eat there for dinner.  Unfortunately, their restaurant was really more of a snack bar, and it had closed 15 minutes before we arrived.  We picked up a couple of things from the camp store and had peanut butter sandwiches in the car on the way back up to the John Muir Lodge instead.
In the little store at the Cedar Grove Lodge, I saw this sign.  I didn't see another one like it all summer long even though we visited MANY National Park shops.  It had never before occurred to me that shoplifting could be a federal offense, and I wondered if the sign was an effective deterrent.

We started day 21 with breakfast on the lodge’s second-floor porch which had ample seating and was peaceful and pleasant even if the view was partially of the parking lot.  Besides the porch, the lodge has indoor seating areas at both ends of the second floor which are nice for using wifi when the rest of the people in your room are trying to sleep, though we suspected that the suspiciously grungy and smelly people we saw sitting there often were actually backpackers and campers who’d sneaked in to use the free wifi.  This was the only place we encountered where the ice machine was accessible only with your room key, so we suspect that past backpackers and campers were helping themselves to ice, forcing the hotel crack down.  (We experienced a similar phenomenon at Yosemite’s campground where the showers were password protected.  But backpackers who weren’t paying to stay at the campground would just hang out by the shower doors until some kind soul held the door open for them, allowing them to grab a free shower.  I was never one of those kind souls.)
We have been blessed by ACMNP this summer!

For our first stop, we drove to the Lodegpole Amphitheater for a worship service led by A Christian Ministry in the National Parks (ACMNP).  We had been to one of their services at the Grand Canyon, and were glad to see that another group was working in Sequoia.  After a small but meaningful service, we did some laundry at the Wuksachi Lodge.  TRAVEL TIP:  Evidently, no one wants to do laundry at 10:00 on a Sunday morning, so we had the place to ourselves!  We were able to do all of our laundry at one time while we grabbed lunch at the nearby cafe.  Within an hour we were ready for the rest of our day!
Yay for empty laundry facilities!
At every Visitors' Center there is a donation box, but at this one, there was a little slot for each state so that you could see how much other people from your state had donated.

Since we had heard that parking at the General Sherman Grove was difficult, we decided to use the shuttle system for the day as we explored Sequoia National Park.  Practically speaking, shuttles are a pain.  They are crowded, slow, never there when you want them, and filled to the brim with people who don’t know what they’re doing.  But I completely understand the need to lessen the environmental impact of thousands of cars per day descending upon fragile ecosystems, so we used them frequently during our trip at several of the parks.  TRAVEL TIP #2:  Park at the Lodgepole Amphitheater and get on the shuttle there.  It is only a few steps from the Visitors' Center but your chances of getting a seat (or even standing room) are far higher at the shuttle stop at the Amphitheater than at the shuttle stop at the Visitors' Center.
There was standing room only on most of the shuttles we rode this summer.

We started with the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world, and then continued on to the nearby Congress Trail which winds through sequoias named for several US Presidents as well as the House and the Senate.  The area around the General Sherman Tree is just as crowded as the General Grant Grove, so we settled for pictures at a distance.  Far fewer people do the 2.9 mile Congress Trail, but we certainly didn’t experience solitude as we hiked.  I was annoyed with the kids who were both picking at each other, so Josh likes to tell me that this was my foulest hike of the trip.  Yep, folks, we Boyds are real people who get really annoyed with each other sometimes.  It is what it is.
This was the line to take a picture in front of General Sherman.  No, thanks.

A rear view worked just fine for us.

Josh took a panoramic shot to be able to get the whole tree in.   Forgive the distortions.

I was so ready to be done, in fact, that when we reached The McKinley Tree which usually would have made me excited since Kinley is named after President McKinley, I sat on a bench in a huff while Josh took pictures of Kinley strategically covering up the Mc on the tree’s sign.  Contrary to my mood, the pictures are adorable.
Kinley blocked out the Mc in the McKinley Tree since she's named after President McKinley.  I was somewhere off in a snit.
Just one of these trees can make you feel very small, but a cluster of them and you feel minuscule.

I love this one of Knox peeking out.

In Sequoia, cars are not permitted to drive to the Tunnel Tree, the famous fallen sequoia that has an opening large enough to drive through, until after 5:45 so that a miles-long back-up doesn’t occur as tourists wait their turn to inch through the felled tree, snapping pictures all the while.  We wanted to have our turn at the iconic photo, and we decided that we could drive through the tree and then on to Moro Rock for an evening view of the canyon.  On our way there, we saw several cars pulled over to the side of the road and slowed to see what was going on.  And there, down the hill, was a bear!  Our second bear of the trip!  And she had a cub!  I watched in awe as the little black ball of fur scampered (well, actually, it kind of slid and fell) down a tree to catch up with its mama and then disappeared into the underbrush before I could snap its picture.  But we got a nice clear shot of mama bear!  Other tourists were getting out of their cars to get a better look, and I said a silent prayer that these beautifully wild creatures wouldn’t develop any habits as a result of human interaction that would force them to be relocated.  Or worse.
Hello, mama bear!

As mama bear lumbered off to join her offspring, we made our way to Tunnel Tree and were shocked to find a long line of cars waiting for their turn to drive through.  Rather than just taking a picture and moving on, people were getting the entire family out of the car and staging ten minutes’ worth of group pictures (in the car, on the car, above the car, arms up, arms linked, sitting, standing -- you get the idea) before finally moving on so that another car could take a turn.  It was very frustrating, so we were very intentional about taking our picture quickly and moving on.  Except that we couldn’t move on because the families before us had parked instead of leaving.  I guess that they wanted to be in other family members’ pictures or to watch the process or something, but we had a serious traffic jam when we were trying to get out of the way.   It was nutso.
This was at least their twentieth pose.  All those people still had to climb down and get back in their car before anyone else could go through.
For our turn, no one got out of the car but me.
We tried to move but we couldn't because of all the other cars!

Once we finally extracted ourselves from the Tunnel Tree turmoil, we drove on to Moro Rock where we had planned to watch the sunset.  We hadn’t banked on having to wait so long to drive through a tree trunk, so we missed the sunset but decided to climb up the 364 steps anyway.   As we drove to the Moro Rock parking area, we saw another bear!  And this one had two cubs!  Mama bear gave her cubs just enough freedom to wander and learn and forage on their own, so we weren’t able to get a picture of the three of them together.
Can you spot the bear's rear end?

NOTE:  Is it possible that this was the same bear who had wandered a bit farther away from her first spot and maybe I just didn’t see that second cub the first time?  Well, maybe.  But we Boyds are still counting it as a separate sighting.

Finally at Moro Rock with the sun officially set, we started our climb.  It’s not a strenuous climb, but it is a narrow staircase that makes passing people who are on their way down difficult in places.  And, while I never had a fear of heights before, once I had children, that all changed.  Now, whenever we are near a cliff or on a precipice – which has occurred frequently on this trip --my mind begins envisioning all of the horrendous ways my children could die.  I hate it.  At the top, I worked hard to tell my brain to be rational, and it helped.  Mostly.  I kind of did make Knox hold my hand or hold the guard rail pretty much any time he wanted to move from place to place on top, but I’m still calling it a win because I didn’t grab both children and sit in the center of the massive monolith, rocking back and forth in the fetal position while holding them with a death grip.
Proof that you don't have to be there at sunset to get a great shot.
Such beauty!
Can you tell how nervous I am that Josh is leaning on that railing?  

But that’s how parenting while traveling goes, I guess.  In the morning, your kids’ bickering makes you want to just walk off down the trail by yourself and let them kill each other.  But by nightfall you want to wrap them up and protect them.  So I try to take a lesson from that mama bear – give them just enough freedom to wander and learn on their own.  I’m working on it.

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