Top of the Rock West Coast Style
[Sequoia National Park, Aug 26, 2020]
On day 2 of this trip, we decided to devote our time to Sequoia National Park. It was established the same year as Kings Canyon (1890) to protect over 400,000 acres of forests. The park contains the highest peak in the contiguous US, Mt. Whitney at 14,421 ft (4,441 m) above sea level. Sequoia and Kings Canyon are adjacent and the National Park Service treats them as a single entity, which you will notice when you go to the joint park website. They’re also on the UNESCO list of biosphere reserves since 1976.
We headed out early, knowing it’s a longer drive to Sequoia from Dunlap, and that construction on the winding mountain road inside the park could add another half-hour. The embers of dawn were starting to burn as we approached the forests, illuminating the layer of smoke billowing in from the NorCal fires.
Moro Rock is a must see. The crest lies just above the 400 steps carved by the Civilian Conservations Corps in the 1930s. The tiny parking lot at the bottom of the stairs fills up fast – only an early start will help you get (but not guarantee) any solitude at the top. We got there right around 7 am and already found one vehicle parked.
As we climbed the stairs, magnificent views of the San Joaquin Valley, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the Great Western Divide opened up before us.
A half-mile worth of stairs and 300 feet of elevation later, we finally reached the top. Though we’d already had a taste of the gorgeous views on the climb, it was quite a different experience taking in the 360-degree view without obstruction. Since it’s one of the best views I’ve seen for so little effort, it wins the BAG for Best Climb for Couch Potatoes. Moro Rock may be a popular sunset spot, but those night owls who can’t get up in time for a sunrise view seriously don’t know what they’re missing.
Just a little ways down the road from the Moro Rock trailhead is Sequoia’s own Tunnel Log. People often confuse this with the tunnel cut through the Wawona Tree in Yosemite‘s Mariposa Grove. The Wawona Tree Tunnel was carved as a tourist attraction in 1891 while it was still standing. The tree itself fell during a severe winter in 1968-69. Thankfully, our attitudes have evolved, and we no longer need to cut up live and healthy trees to promote preservation. This led to Yosemite removing their tunnel tree. Sequoia’s Tunnel Log fell due to natural causes over the road in 1917, so it made sense to cut a tunnel through it to restore access to the road.
Onto the central attraction of the park, the Sherman Tree Trail. This 0.8-mile paved trail takes you to the largest tree on Earth by volume, the General Sherman Tree.
Just like the General Grant Tree, the General Sherman is behind a fence. Not that we wanted to get that close – you’ll have to back up or you’ll literally miss the forest and the tree!
The path circles the General Sherman, affording a 360-degree view. In 2006, its largest branch fell, broke the fence, and blocked the path. This “branch” is larger than most tree trunks! The park service left it on the path for people to marvel at. Notice how it cratered the walkway where it landed?
Most visitors hike down to the General Sherman and then back up to the parking lot, missing one of the best trails in the park. The Congress Trail begins right by the General Sherman and leads into the woodlands to wander among the skyscraping sequoias while avoiding the crowds. It’s only a couple of miles long and has virtually no elevation gain. No other trail has so many sequoia clusters in such a short distance.
We loved the solitude and proximity to the leviathan sequoias this trail offered. Ironically, some of the sequoia clusters were named after the branches of government – and here we were, trying to avoid politics.
I particularly loved getting close to a couple of giant sequoias that had suffered what seemed like irreparable fire damage. The tree in the video below is especially hollowed out. The sequoias’ thick bark makes them fire-resistant, but as you can see, even substantially damaged, hollowed-out trees can survive for quite a while. In fact, fire can help a sequoia grow! As the giant grows, the small, green cones full of seeds at the top cannot germinate without a little help. Heat from fires can help crack them open.
Congress Trail also features its own tunnel log. They never get old!
Feeling moderately ambitious, we finished our Sequoia day with the slightly challenging, 3.4-mile, out-and-back trail to Tokopah Falls. The namesake of the trail is a 1,200-ft waterfall, which we expected to have dried down to a trickle this time of year. Still, it’s a wonderful contrast to the sequoia forest area of the park and a great way to get a glimpse of the park’s high country.
The roar of the tumbling Kaweah River led us into the forest…
…later giving way to towering granite canyon walls and forest meadows.
We knew we were getting close to the end when the granite canyon started to dominate the views.
The mighty waterfall was, indeed, down to a tiny trickle. I had to use my camera’s zoom function to find it!
A ledge overlooking the dried-out waterfall provided a nice spot for a food and photo break.
It was an action-packed day, but we managed to see the best of Sequoia. Still, there are a few things I’d like to come back for. For starters, we didn’t see a single bear. I’d love to try and spot some on the aptly-named Bear Hill Trail, which can be combined with the Soldier Trail for a loop to Moro Rock. For a more intense, high-country experience, there’s the Heather Lakes Trail via Watchtower. Watchtower is the section of the trail snaking along the edge of the triangle-shaped granite in the photos above.