Sequoia National Park was the second established, and the first to protect a living organism – the giant sequoia trees, which by the time of this protection in September of 1890, had already started to be ravaged by logging. Just one sequoia tree could produce enough wood to build 120 average-sized homes. An ominous reminder of this can be found in the Big Stump Grove in Kings Canyon National Park, but that is a story for another time.
To get the lay of the land here, the Park is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. The area is actually home to 2 National Parks, the other being Kings Canyon. Although very different in history and topography they are interwoven and together provide a landscape that cannot be found outside of the Sierras.
There is one main road that traverses the Parks known as the Generals Highway, it links the south entrance (Route 198) outside of Visalia and the north entrance (Route 180) outside of Fresno. From the south, you climb the beautiful foothills with Moro Rock looming above into the giant forest of sequoias, passing the Crystal Cave, Lodgepole Visitor Center and campground, Wuksachi Village and then wind through the mountain road over to the north end and Grant Grove which is the jumping off point down into Kings Canyon.
Both Parks provide a wonderland for hikers, campers, backpackers, and everyday road-trippers. In honor of the National Park’s Centennial Celebration in 2016 – put this on your list to visit!
Although Sequoia is a feast for the senses all year round there is a magical feeling that you get here during the winter months. If you are planning a trip, here are our 5 Wintertime Tips to Enhance Your Visit to Sequoia National Park…
Carry Chains – Winter in the Sierras is stunning. Whether it is a light dusting of snow or several feet of the white stuff, you are in for a treat. It’s is a whole new place to explore during the winter months. It is also a whole new experience in your vehicle. As you approach the Park from either direction – via Route 198 from the south or Route 180 from the north you will see warnings that chains are required. These warning signs are no joke, so don’t discount them as it will end up being a waste of time.
This is a good time to mention that you should most definitely check the NPS website and call ahead to get the latest road conditions. Although they do a great job of keeping the roads as clear as possible there are plenty of times that the Generals Highway through the Park is not open to through traffic. On our last visit, the road was clear to the Wuksachi Village but close for the season between there and Montecito-Sequoia Lodge outside of Grant Grove. This made access to Sequoia NP and the Giant Forest only from Route 198 in the south. Conditions change often so it’s always best to be prepared and be flexible – your plans may change at any moment.
Chains aren’t always going to be required for use but you would be in a world of hurt without them. We were lucky during our last visit because our vehicle has 4-wheel drive and we also have good tires that work well in snowy conditions. Just know that if they are requiring chains you will need to put them on 11 miles from the south entrance. Expect a very long delay (we waited nearly 2 hours) to get past this area. It is monitored by Park Rangers and there is no getting by without installation. We watched quite a few cars being turned around because they didn’t have chains. Once you are through this point it will be slow, but smooth sailing.
Wuksachi Lodge – As always, we recommend that you stretch any National Park visit out from a drive-through day trip into a few days or at least a weekend adventure. Winter in Sequoia NP narrows your lodging options down to, well, one!. The stone and cedar Wuksachi Lodge is located a few miles north of the Giant Forest and is nestled into the landscape, making it a very nice compliment to the surrounding area. Beyond registration, the main lodge is home to the Peaks Restaurant, a small bar, gift shop, sundries, meeting rooms and winter gear rental such as snowshoes, etc. The guest rooms are located in 3 buildings a short walk from the lodge and have several room types to choose from. Depending upon your carrier your cell reception will be spotty to none up here. It is an awesome way to disconnect ~ because you have no choice! Internet is available at the lodge and guestrooms but it isn’t all that much better so set your expectations before you go that you are in for what most of us today would consider ‘roughing it’. I personally LOVE it. Relax, unwind and renew.
Snowshoes – If you are fortunate enough to be here when there is a nice snow pack then we would definitely recommend bringing along or renting snowshoes. You’ll find that trails near parking lots or trailheads are pretty well traveled and you could certainly do the hike without the shoes, however, the snowshoes provide valuable traction and grip that will make your hiking easier and, as with all trails, once you get a bit away from the trailhead the road always becomes less traveled and the snowshoes are a huge help. Plus they are just plain fun.
Congress Trail – This trail located in the Giant Forest and is one of my favorite places to wander – anywhere. This is the home of the General Sherman Tree, popularly known as the largest living tree on the planet. It has grown to 275 feet tall, is 36 feet in diameter, 109 feet in circumference at the base and is estimated to boast a volume of 52,500 cubic feet. At somewhere in the range of 2,500 years old, just think what this tree has lived through – it really puts things into perspective. The General Sherman Tree is located near the handicap parking area on Route 198 (Generals Highway) and will be the main point of interest to most guests in this area – especially during the winter.
A few yards away from here is the beginning, and ending, of the Congress Trail Loop. This trail will take you back into the giant forest and give you the opportunity to maximize your sequoia sightings! Many of the giants that you see are named trees – in this area you the majority of them were named and are in honor of the people and bodies of government that brought them protection. You’ll pass The President, The Senate, The House, The McKinley and the Lincoln to name a few. The Sequoyah stands behind The President and is named in honor of Chief Sequoyah who created an alphabet of 86 syllables in the early 19th century.
This travologist’s favorite grove is The Senate. This is a large grouping of trees growing close to each other and you are able to get right in the middle of them. Take a look upwards to really get a feel for their scope and majesty. I typically have to be torn away from this spot, it recharges me like no other place that I know.
During the winter the Congress Trail is perfect for snowshoeing and if you are lucky enough to be there during a light snowfall you just might think that you have died and gone to heaven.
Big Trees Trail – This trail is popular all year around because not only is it a fantastic place to get your sequoias on, it is also conveniently located near the Giant Forest Museum and Visitor Center with ample parking year-round. This area of the Park has seen a major rehabilitation over the past decade or so as it was once the mecca of tourism, with lodging, restaurants, stores, a gas station and more all built in and around the roots of the Sequoias. Thankfully, the area is being restored to a more natural state and even now, if you didn’t know better, you’d never know that much of that was there.
The Big Trees trail around Round Meadow is an interpretive trail which makes it not only beautiful but also educational. This is a relatively flat well-traveled loop that is good for visitors of all ages. In the wintertime, depending upon snowfall, it becomes a bit harder to navigate but is worth every step. Here you can really get a good idea of the enormity of the sequoias as you can see them in their full glory standing across the meadow. Their red bark stand is a sharp contrast to the white and blue of the snow and sky and it is an incredible sight.
I always pick up a fact every time I visit. This past trip I learned that the sequoia tree is constantly looking for their piece of sunshine and they will continue to grow reaching skyward to capture the sunlight. When the surrounding sequoia trees peak above the full-grown forest canopy they dramatically slow their upward growth since there is nothing to block their sunbathing. At this point, the trees begin to expand in circumference since their height level has been conquered. Adaptation is an interesting phenomenon!
Other wintertime activities in Sequoia includes a visit to the Wolverton snow play area. This used to be a small ski area with a rope tow but today is the place to go for sledders and as you hike around the Park you’ll spot cross-country ski tracks as well.
The giant trees of the Sierra Nevada are life-affirming. I believe that a visit here will change your perspective on things, even in the smallest of ways. Now, get up, get out, and Find Your Park!