Every outdoorsy American has daydreamed of walking among living giant sequoia trees, the largest trees on earth by most definitions and certainly one of the most inspiring sights of our favored homeland.
And for those who live in Southern Nevada, that walk is an easily arranged retreat from the hometown heat of midsummer and requires only about six hours of driving to see them.
The giants make their homes in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, California, which are adjacent to each other and jointly managed. Even before timbering reduced their numbers, giant sequoias only grew on the southern Sierra’s western slope, usually at an elevation between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. The senior trees are thought to be somewhere between 1,800 and 2,700 years old, and some are as tall as a 26-story building.
While the main reason people visit these parks is to see really big trees, there are also 850 miles of maintained trails ranging from easy day hikes to extended backpacking routes. Although you can’t see it all in such a short visit, a couple of days is enough to experience the parks’ incredible diversity. Even on short summertime jaunts you can find flowing waterfalls, meadows carpeted with wildflowers, flowing rivers and plenty of wildlife including black bears.
One good place to start is Sequoia’s Giant Forest area, home to the largest of the 75 sequoia groves growing naturally in the world. This grove includes four out of the world’s five largest sequoia trees. A short stroll will take you to famed General Sherman Tree. Estimated to be about 2,100 years old and weighs about 2.7 million pounds, it has a circumference at the base of 109 feet, is 275 feet tall, and still growing!
Another classic experience in the Giant Forest area is hiking up the granite monolith named Moro Rock. This strenuous yet short outing is extremely popular, so head there in the morning to avoid the crowds. The route takes you up about one-quarter mile and 300 feet, on primarily narrow man-made steps. The views are some of the best found on a day hike. From atop, looking east, you can see the Great Western Divide, the lofty chain of granite peaked mountains that run through the center of the park.
Just down the road from Moro Rock is Crescent Meadow. If you are visiting in late July and early August you will often find it carpeted in wildflowers.
Naturalist John Muir visited this meadow in 1875 and his writings later dubbed it the “Gem of the Sierra.” There is an easy but very worthwhile 1.6-mile loop trail around the sequoia-lined meadow. Serious hikers on extended backpacks also embark on the world-famous High Sierra Trail from the edge of this meadow.
Another area of the park worth checking out is Sequoia’s Lodgepole Village area. Here you will find a restaurant, small market, visitor center and a campground. This is where to find the trailhead for the Tokopah Falls Trail. It is about 1.7 miles one-way up a forested trail along the bank of the Marble Fork of the Kuweah River. The trail goes to a glacially-carved canyon complete with a cascade more than a thousand feet long.
Sequoia, created in 1890, is the second oldest national park in the United States. Only Yellowstone, created in 1872, predated it. During a visit to Sequoia, a ranger told me that all national park rangers, no matter what park they are assigned to, wear belts embossed with images of sequoia cones.
If you are coming directly from Pahrump you will probably enter the parks at the Foothills Visitor Center area. This is a good place to pick up a map so you’ll have it as you travel farther. It’s also a good place to get information about how to handle a bear encounter, and how to store food to avoid having an unpleasant one. Traveling either park in summer, you’ll probably see at least one or two black bears, and maybe even some cubs.
With the park’s elevations ranging from 1,360 feet to 14,494 feet, you might encounter great differences in temperatures. But assuming you’ll spend much of your time in the middle elevations, where the big tree groves are, you can expect daily highs in the 70s in August.
There are 14 campgrounds between the two parks, all open in summer, yet by early fall some close. The majority of sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Lodging is limited to Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia, the Grant Grove Cabins and John Muir Lodge, and Cedar Grove Lodge in Kings Canyon. Outside the parks you can find a variety of private lodging; some of the most conveniently located is in the town of Three Rivers, just outside the Foothills area of the park.