Visalia CA - Gateway to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks


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November 12th 2014
Published: January 9th 2015
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The Foothills Outside Sequoia National Park Are Home To A Unique EcosystemThe Foothills Outside Sequoia National Park Are Home To A Unique EcosystemThe Foothills Outside Sequoia National Park Are Home To A Unique Ecosystem

Near A Reservoir Above Visalia CA En Route To Sequoia National Park CA
Wednesday, November 5, 2014 dawned another blue sky day and had me geared up for the drive from Cal Expo RV Park in Sacramento CA to the Country Manor Mobile Home Community in Visalia CA. The drive south on CA 99 is generally flat with an abundance of agricultural endeavors dotting the landscape. CA 99 is about as close to being an interstate highway as one can get without having the “I” in front of the route designation. By the time I arrived, the office was closed (shortened hours during the off season is a common encounter), but the manager saw me pull in, led me to my assigned site and told me we could settle the business in the morning.

As I had noted in a previous blog, my southbound itinerary for the 2014 Chapter of The Great Adventure was subjected to a major revision well into the fall; therefore, I had only two major attractions – Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park – and a couple of lesser known attractions on my agenda but hoped to learn of other attractions after I had arrived.

While I was paying for the RV park on Thursday, I
Looking Down On The “Weather Event”Looking Down On The “Weather Event”Looking Down On The “Weather Event”

Sequoia National Park - Visalia CA
spewed out my standard laundry list of interests – covered bridges (no), grist mills (no), things Presidential (no), waterfalls (not in the current drought conditions), historic courthouses (no), murals! Yes. A neighboring town, Exeter CA, has a large concentration of murals in the downtown area. The RV park manager pulled a printout of the Internet mural list from her drawer (complete with synopses and a locator map) and made a copy for me. It never hurts to ask!

I decided to follow my protocol for mural adventures – visit on Sunday morning when the nearby stores generally are closed – and spent the rest of the day shopping for some vittles, exploring Visalia and replenishing my supply of green coupons (cash). When I asked Irene (my GPS) for nearby Bank of America locations, a hit came up for Exeter. Although not the nearest facility, I decided to make the short drive and get a preview of the murals. Very nice, and worthy of a return visit.

Friday, November 7, 2014 found me getting a good early start for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The two national parks are administered by the National Park Service together as the
Moro Rock, I Believe, In The DistanceMoro Rock, I Believe, In The DistanceMoro Rock, I Believe, In The Distance

Sequoia National Park - Visalia CA
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, are usually referenced as a single entity and do share a common border for quite a spell. Sequoia National Park, however, was established on September 25, 1890, spans 404,063 acres, encompasses a vertical relief of nearly 13,000 feet and contains Mount Whitney which, at 14,505 feet above sea level, is the highest point in the contiguous 48 states. Kings Canyon National Park, on the other hand, was established in 1940 and covers 461,901 acres. The Kings Canyon legislation absorbed the General Grant National Park (established in 1890 to protect the General Grant Grove of giant sequoias) into Kings Canyon National Park.

By the time the first European settlers arrived in the area, smallpox had already spread to the region and decimated the Native American populations. The first European settler to homestead in the area was Hale Tharp, who famously built a home out of a hollowed-out fallen giant sequoia log in the Giant Forest next to Log Meadow. Tharp's Log can still be visited today in its original location in the Giant Forest. Tharp allowed his cattle to graze the meadow but had a respect for the grandeur of the forest and led early battles against logging in the area; however, his attempts to conserve the giant sequoias met with only limited success. Although thousands of trees already had been felled, Sequoia trees (unlike their coastal redwood relatives) were found to splinter easily and were, therefore, ill-suited for lumber.

Sequoia National Park is most famous for, tah-dah, its giant sequoia trees including the General Sherman Tree which is, by one definition, the largest tree on Earth. The Giant Forest contains five of the ten largest trees in the world and is connected to the General Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park by Generals Highway. The park's giant sequoia forests are part of 202,430 acres of old-growth forests shared by the two parks. The vast majority of the parks (84 percent) is a roadless wilderness accessible only on foot or by horseback and, indeed, the parks preserve a landscape that still resembles the southern Sierra Nevada before Anglo settlement. No road crosses over the Sierra Nevada within the parks’ boundaries.

The parks consist of two general areas – the front country and the back country. I, as is the case with most park visitors, never travelled outside the front country and
Sequoias???Sequoias???Sequoias???

Sequoia National Park - Visalia CA
entered via the southern entrance to Sequoia National Park near Ash Mountain and the town of Three Rivers. The lower elevations around Ash Mountain contain the only National Park Service-protected California Foothills ecosystem. The area includes blue oak woodlands, foothills chaparral, grasslands and yucca plants and is home to bobcats, foxes, ground squirrels, rattlesnakes, mule deer and, more rarely, the reclusive mountain lion. The California Black Oak is a key transitional species between the chaparral region and the higher elevation conifer forest.

At higher elevations in the front country, between 5,500 and 9,000 feet above sea level, the landscape becomes a forest-dominated coniferous belt – home to Ponderosa, Jeffrey, sugar and lodgepole pines as well as white and red fir trees as well as, tah-dah, the giant sequoia trees. In this region, visitors often see mule deer, Douglas squirrels, and American black bears (which sometimes break into unattended cars to eat food left by careless visitors).

The backcountry offers a vast expanse of high-alpine wonders including Mount Whitney. Mount Whitney resides on the eastern border of the park and is accessible from the Giant Forest via the High Sierra Trail. This 35-mile backcountry trail passes through about 10
Sequoias!!!Sequoias!!!Sequoias!!!

Sequoia National Park - Visalia CA
miles of old growth forest before reaching the backcountry resort of Bearpaw Meadow – just short of the Great Western Divide.

For those who hike the High Sierra Trail, the results of an ancient fault line which “steered” a glacier during the last ice age can be seen. The fault helped create a U-shaped canyon that is almost perfectly straight for nearly 20 miles. On the floor of this canyon (at least two days hike from the nearest road) is the Kern Canyon hot spring, a popular resting point for backpackers. From the floor of Kern Canyon, the trail ascends over 8,000 feet to the summit of Mount Whitney. At Mount Whitney, the High Sierra Trail meets with the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail which continue northward along the Sierra crest and into the backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park. Perhaps I’ll make the trek – in my next life!!!

Kings Canyon had been known to white settlers since the mid-19th century, but it was not until John Muir first visited in 1873 that the canyon began receiving attention. Muir was delighted at the canyon's similarity to Yosemite Valley, as it reinforced his theory regarding
Every Sequoia Has An Interesting, Unique BaseEvery Sequoia Has An Interesting, Unique BaseEvery Sequoia Has An Interesting, Unique Base

General Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park - Visalia CA
the origin of both valleys. Although competing with Josiah Whitney's then-accepted theory that the valleys were formed by earthquake action, Muir's theory later proved correct – both valleys were carved by massive glaciers during the last Ice Age.

Then United States Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes fought to create Kings Canyon National Park. He hired Ansel Adams to photograph and document Kings Canyon, as well as other parks, which greatly impacted Congress and led to the passage of the authorization bill in March 1940. The bill combined the General Grant Grove with the backcountry beyond Zumwalt Meadow. Kings Canyon's future was in doubt for nearly fifty years. Some wanted to build a dam at the western end of the valley, while others wanted to preserve it as a park. The debate was settled in 1965 when Tehipite Valley was added to Kings Canyon National Park.

Kings Canyon National Park consists of two sections. The small, detached General Grant Grove section preserves several groves of giant sequoias, including the General Grant Grove (with the famous General Grant Tree) and the Redwood Mountain Grove. The Redwood Mountain Grove is the largest remaining natural grove of giant sequoias in the
Fire Has Sculpted Some of the Sequoia BasesFire Has Sculpted Some of the Sequoia BasesFire Has Sculpted Some of the Sequoia Bases

General Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park - Visalia CA
world (3,100 acres) and has 15,800 sequoia trees over one foot in diameter at the base. This section of the park is readily accessible via paved highways.

The main section of Kings Canyon National Park, which comprises over 90% of the total area of the park, is located to the east of General Grant Grove and forms the headwaters of the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River and the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. One portion of the Kings River’s South Fork, known as the Kings Canyon, gives the entire park its name. Kings Canyon was carved out of granite by glaciers to a maximum depth of 8,200 feet and is one of the deepest canyons in the United States. Its sole developed area, Cedar Grove, is the only portion of the main park that is accessible by motor vehicle.

To the east of the canyons are the high peaks of the Sierra Crest, which attain an elevation of 14,248 feet at the summit of North Palisade – the highest point within Kings Canyon National Park. Usually snow free only from late June until late October, the backcountry is accessible only via foot and
Another Interesting Sequoia BaseAnother Interesting Sequoia BaseAnother Interesting Sequoia Base

General Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park - Visalia CA
horse trails. The Sierra crest forms the eastern boundary of the park, from Mount Goethe in the north to Junction Peak (at the boundary with Sequoia National Park) in the south. Several passes cross the crest into Kings Canyon, including Bishop Pass, Taboose Pass, Sawmill Pass, and Kearsarge Pass. All of these passes reside above 11,000 feet in elevation.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is home to over 240 known caves, and new caves are discovered almost every year – in fact, 17 have been discovered since 2003 alone. Lilburn Cave (at over 20 miles) is California's longest cave. Most park caves are off-limits to all but a handful of specialists who visit on rare occasions to study cave geology and biology and are highly valued by scientists for their endemic cave life. The only commercial cave open to park visitors is Crystal Cave, the park's second-longest at over 3.4 miles. It was discovered on April 28, 1918 by Alex Medley and Cassius Webster and is only accessible by guided tour.

As the road climbed to the Ash Mountain entrance of Sequoia National Park, I noticed I had emerged from a haze that inundated the valleys. The
The Roadway Previously Passed Under Tunnel RockThe Roadway Previously Passed Under Tunnel RockThe Roadway Previously Passed Under Tunnel Rock

Sequoia National Park - Visalia CA
park ranger had a name for the “weather event.” My America the Beautiful National Parks Pass got me into the park, and I made my first stop at the Foothills Visitor Center where I watched the introductory movie, examined the displays, got a couple of questions answered and learned of the road closures for the day. Other than the main road bisecting the park, Generals Highway, all secondary roads were closed except the road to Kings Canyon that passes by Hume Lake. That meant I would miss Tunnel Log and Tharp’s Log as well as Crystal Cave. Visiting later in the season has its drawbacks.

As I was making the climb up the VERY windy road from the visitor center, I happened upon Tunnel Rock. A new road circumnavigates the tunnel, but parking is available for a stop and a couple of pictures. Pretty cool! Continuing my uphill trek, the road became even windier. The NPS park guide cautions against travel by vehicles longer than 22 feet, and I surely can concur. In time, the flora of the foothills yielded to the pines and then to the Sequoia.

I spotted several Sequoia and stopped for a few pictures
The Base Of The General Sherman TreeThe Base Of The General Sherman TreeThe Base Of The General Sherman Tree

Sequoia National Park - Visalia CA
before reaching the Giant Forest Museum. There, a “ruler” on the pavement represents the height of “The Sentinel” along with the width of the trunk noted along various “heights.” Interestingly, the diameter of the trunk of a Sequoias remains relatively fixed whereas the trunks of most conifers taper to a point. Giant Forest Museum, built in 1928, offers interesting information about giant sequoias.

My next stop was the General Sherman sequoia. A small handicapped parking lot is located near the base of General Sherman, and, in the summer, a shuttle ferries folks from the main parking area to the base of the tree. When the shuttle is out of service, non-handicapped visitors can use the handicapped lot. I opted to park in the main parking area and reach General Sherman by way of the General Sherman Tree Trail. That 0.8-mile roundtrip paved trail meanders through a grove of giant sequoia trees as it descends from the parking lot to the base of the General Sherman Tree.

General Sherman is said to be the biggest tree in the world based on the volume of its trunk. There are taller trees and trees with greater diameters, but none can match the amount of wood held in the trunk of General Sherman. In its 2200 year existence, General Sherman has grown to 275 feet tall with a base circumference of 103 feet and a weight of 1385 tons. Even so, General Sherman is 1100 years younger than the oldest known Sequoia! General Sherman’s top is dead so it no longer gains height but gains diameter. Indeed, General Sherman is very impressive. At an elevation of 7000 feet, the 212-foot climb back to the parking lot was taxing but, obviously, not heart-stopping. Just take your time, Larry!

Generals Highway leaves Sequoia National Park and enters Sequoia National Forest before reentering the park. There I caught the Hume Lake Road which ends at Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. A snowfall from a few days earlier had left patches of snow on the roadway, but it was readily passable. When I reached Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, I turned east toward Cedar Grove – the only portion of Kings Canyon National Park that is developed. The descent into the Canyon is long, windy and steep with only a few opportunities to stop for a photo op or for an extended view of the awesome rock
Shadows Obscure The Floor Of Kings Canyon Near MiddayShadows Obscure The Floor Of Kings Canyon Near MiddayShadows Obscure The Floor Of Kings Canyon Near Midday

Kings Canyon National Park - Visalia CA
formations and the sheer cliffs.

By the time I arrived at the floor of Kings Canyon, I had come to realize that the day was growing short and that, if I wanted to see General Grant Grove before nightfall, I shouldn’t linger at my photo ops. The south fork of Kings River meanders along the roadway and provided me with some nice views complete with fall foliage. I reached the eastern terminus of Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, drove the circular parking area developed for those heading into the back country and backtracked to the park entrance. Fortunately, the sun was low enough in the horizon that it didn’t hinder my vision as I made the windy ascent to the canyon rim.

By the time I arrived at General Grant Grove, sundown was underway. I followed the signage to the parking area for the General Grant Tree. The General Grant Tree Trail is a paved 1/3 mile loop trail that passes the, tah-dah, General Grant Tree, the Gamlin Cabin and the Fallen Monarch as well as numerous giant sequoias and giant sequoia stumps which remind us of the pre-national park logging days.

My first stop on the way to the General Grant Tree was the “top” end of the Fallen Monarch. The Monarch is believed to have fallen hundreds of years ago, but has changed very little because the sequoia wood is indigestible to insects, fungi, and other decay organisms. Among its many uses over the years, the Fallen Monarch was used as a home for the Gamlin brothers while they built their cabin and as a stable for the 32 horses assigned to the U.S. Calvary detachment.

In 1867, the General Grant Tree was so named after Ulysses S. Grant, Union Army general and the 18th President of the United States. It was proclaimed the "Nation's Christmas Tree" by President Calvin Coolidge in 1926 and the tree was declared a "National Shrine," a memorial to those who died in war, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on March 29, 1956. It is the only living object to be so declared. Due in large part to its huge base, the General Grant tree was thought to be the largest tree in the world prior to 1931, when the first precise measurements indicated that General Sherman is slightly larger. General Grant is 267.4 feet tall and has a base
The Base Of The General GrantThe Base Of The General GrantThe Base Of The General Grant

General Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park - Visalia CA
circumference of 107.6 feet.

My next stop was the historic Gamlin Cabin. The cabin was originally built by the Gamlin brothers in 1872 when they were logging in this area. After Grant’s Grove became a national park, the cabin was used as a storehouse by the U.S. Calvary and later was the home of the first park ranger. I passed Centennial Stump and reflected on how the existing parks might have been named Very Big Stumps County Park had they not been protected by “Big Brother.” Thanks, Big brother! My final stop in General Grant Grove was at the “root” end of the Fallen Monarch. Of course, I had to walk through the landmark and backtracked on the General Grant Tree Trail a short distance to the parking lot.

By a misfortune of topography, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks sit above an industrial-agricultural basin – the San Joaquin Valley – whose dirty, sunbaked air has nowhere to go but up and gives the parks the worst air quality of any national park in the country. In 2013, the air quality measurements taken at the Ash Mountain entrance station (at 1,400 feet in elevation) exceeded the national health
Yours Truly At The Root End Of The Fallen MonarchYours Truly At The Root End Of The Fallen MonarchYours Truly At The Root End Of The Fallen Monarch

General Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park - Visalia CA
standard for ozone on 59 days. Up at 6,500 feet, where the giant sequoias grow, excessive levels of ozone occurred on 41 days. Thankfully, the air quality is much better than it used to be.

By the time I departed Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, twilight had engulfed the parks. As I descended into the San Joaquin Valley, the waning light accentuated the layer of brown air into which I was driving. Maybe the air is better than in years past, but it still cannot be healthier than the air in most areas of the country. The Californianized park ranger manning the Ash Mountain entrance might have had a fancy name for the “weather event,” but I’ll just call what’s black with white stripes and smells like a skunk “smog!”

The day was great, and the giant sequoias are awesome. The parks are big, and getting to the park’s remote attractions takes a considerable amount of time. With only two entrances into the main areas of the parks, enjoying a comprehensive park experience will require a lot of backtracking no matter where one decides to stay outside the park. Staying at sundry facilities inside the parks would reduce the amount of backtracking and would make more efficient use of the visitors’ time.

A return visit to Exeter was on my agenda for Sunday, November 9, 2014. With titles like “”Orange Harvest,” “Cattle Drive Down Rocky Hill,” “From Foundry To Field,” “Exeter Food Labels” and “The People Behind The Label,” I learned a lot about the area from the murals and their synopses. A unique, interesting attribute of the Exeter Murals is that most of the murals contain at least one hidden, embedded object such as a ladybug, a shoe, an outhouse, a bear, a cowboy boot, etc. A hint for each mural is included in the Internet synopsis. I had a scavenger hunt on Sunday morning. How cool!

Monday, November 10, 2014 found me attempting to accomplish the core mission of The Great Adventure – learning how and why the people became who and what they are today – by visiting the Tulare Historical Museum and the Tulare County Museum in Visalia and the Antique Farm Equipment Museum in Tulare CA; however, none of my attempts were successful for a variety of reasons with off-season hours reduction being the most common culprit.



I had a nice time in the San Joaquin Valley and at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in spite of the persistent “weather event” and the off-season closures. I would recommend that anybody visiting the area go out of the way to make the drive on Generals Highway through Sequoia National Park and, if possible, to make the drive on Kings Canyon Scenic Byway at least to the canyon floor in Kings Canyon National Park. Although the drive is a day-long commitment, I believe the benefit is well worth the cost.


Additional photos below
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