Sequoia National Park: Territory of the Giants

Sequoia National Park

Escaping the crowds of Silicon Valley’s celebrities and tech-enthusiasts for Sequoia National Park, four-hour drive East of The Golden Gate Bridge, you will emerge in the sublime landscape that is home to the world’s largest trees and one of America’s tallest peaks – the 14,505 foot Mount Whitney. The park, along with its thousand-year-old trees and crystal caverns reminds us that we have small parts in a story that are far greater than our own.

From hiking to a scenic overlook, exploring an underground cave, to waking up under the starlit Sierra sky, there’s nothing more grounding than spending time among Sequoia National Park’s giant living organisms. Before you venture into “the Land of The Giants”, don’t forget to read through our detailed guide below for the best experience.

Sequoia National Park History

Sequoia National Park was first home to the Monache (also known as Western Mono), who resided mainly in the Kaweah River drainage in the Foothills region of the park. To this day, their pictographs can be found at several sites within the park, notably at Hospital Rock and Potwisha.

By the time the first European settlers arrived in the area, smallpox, an infectious disease, had already spread to the region, decimating Native American populations. The first European settler 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.

In the 1880s, white settlers seeking to create a utopian society founded the Kaweah Colony, which sought economic success in trading Sequoia timber. Thousands of Giant Sequoia trees were taken down before logging operations finally ceased as they discovered that Sequoia trees splinter easily and therefore are ill-suited to timber harvesting.

The National Park Service incorporated the Giant Forest into Sequoia National Park in 1890, the year of its founding, promptly ceasing all logging operations in the Giant Forest. The park has expanded several times over the decades to its present size; one of the most significant expansions took place in 1926.

Sequoia National Park

Key Facts about Sequoia National Park

Size: 631 square miles (1,635 km2)

Number of visitors: 1,878,163 (2019)

Established on: September 25, 1890

Number of official hiking trails: 10

Highest point: 14,505 feet (4,421m) at Mount Whitney

Lowest point: 1700 feet (520m) at Ash Mountain Entrance

Other interesting facts:

  • Sequoia National Park is the second-oldest national park in the USA (only after Yellowstone). It was established to protect giant sequoia trees, the largest living trees by volume on Earth. Five of the ten most massive trees on the planet are located within the Giant Forest (within the park’s area). The largest big tree in the park is known as the General Sherman tree and is believed to be 2,300 to 2,700 years old.
  • Sequoia trees are naturally fire resistant. They have thick bark that can often protect them from burning down. If they do burn, their nutrients are deposited directly into the ground to feed other trees.
  • The vast majority of the park is roadless wilderness; no road crosses the Sierra Nevada within the park’s boundaries. Up to 84 percent of Sequoia National Park is designated wilderness and is accessible only by foot or by horseback. The park includes the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney, which rises to 14,505 feet (4,421 m) above sea level.
  • The park is rich in cultural features, including prehistoric and historic archeological sites and resources.
  • Crystal Cave in Sequoia National Park is popular for cave tours, while the remaining caves are wild and require specific training and permission for access.
  • During the Second World War the government determined it would be beneficial to manage both Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (its neighbour) together. This has continued since. The 2 parks include a total of 866 miles (1,394 km) of trails. Two of the Sierra’s most iconic trails have segments located in the parks’ boundaries. 108 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and 87 miles of the John Muir Trail traverse these parks.
  • Sequoia National Park and King Canyon Park contain approximately 1,552 species and subspecies of vascular plants, including 26 deciduous tree species and 24 evergreen tree species. Wildlife includes 12 species of amphibians, 201 species of birds, 11 species of fish, 72 species of mammals, and 21 species of reptiles. Three of the top 10 oldest species in the world live here: giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) – 3,266 yrs., western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) – 2,675 yrs., and foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana) – 2,123 years.
  • The headwaters of four of California’s major rivers (Kern, Kings, Kaweah, San Joaquin) lie within these 2 parks. This life-giving water sustains Central Valley agriculture and a growing population of the state.
  • About 80% of Sequoia National Parks’ visitors come here on day trips although it should take 3 – 4 days to do the park justice, considering its vast landscape and rich wilderness.
  • Sequoia and King Canyon National Parks play a vital role to the local economy. Approximately 1.8 million visitors to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks in 2019 spent $152.1 million in communities near the park. That spending supported 1,942 jobs in the local area and contributed $181.4 million to the local economy.

Sequioa National Park

Climate and Weather

Weather is different between different park areas, and it can change quickly. Temperatures can vary 20 to 30 Fahrenheit degrees as the elevation at Sequoia ranges from 1,370 feet to 14,494 feet. The park climate can be divided into three general zones: low-elevation foothills, mid-elevation montane forests, and high-elevation alpine mountains. Each zone hosts a unique ecosystem adapted to its respective climate.

Low-elevation Foothills: Below 4,500 feet

These lower elevations are characterised by mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Precipitation usually occurs from January to mid-May; rain in the summer is rare. Average rainfall is about 26″ (66 cm). During the winter, low-hanging clouds often drift in from the west, obscuring the countryside for several days at a time.

Mid-Elevation Montane Forests: ~4,000 feet to ~9,000 feet

Coniferous (cone-bearing) forests dominate the middle elevations, which also harbor the giant sequoia groves. Similarly to the foothills, precipitation typically occurs October to mid-May. However, the mid-elevation montane forests receive more precipitation on average, about 45” annually. Due to the cooler temperatures, snow is common during the winter months.

Summer in the Grant Grove, Lodgepole, and Giant Forest areas of the parks offers warm days and cool evenings. Sub-zero temperatures are rare. In the summer, occasional afternoon thundershowers may occur. Summer temperatures in Cedar Grove are generally hotter than the average for the middle elevations, and cooler than the foothills. Mid-summer temperatures may reach 90°F (35-40°C).

In fall and winter, Lodgepole Campground is generally 10-15 degrees F (6-9°C) colder than the average middle-elevation temperature.

High-Elevation Alpine Mountains: above 9,000 feet

The tree line often lies between 9,000 and 11,000 feet, and is marked by the highest-elevation tree species, such as whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) and foxtail pine (P. balfouriana). Trees rarely grow above 11,000 feet, where vegetation is limited to grasses and flowering herbaceous (non-woody) species. Snow is the most common form of precipitation at high elevations, and during cool years with ample snowfall, snowpack may last year-round.

When to Visit

The best time to visit the Sequoia National Park is summer, from late May to September, since it is the mildest and driest of the year at high altitudes, where the redwoods are found. The shade that the grand trees offer is a welcome relief from the sun. While temperatures throughout the park vary depending on elevation, lows are typically in the 50s and highs are in the mid-70s Fahrenheit degree in the sequoia groves this time of year.

From late May through early to mid-September, the Sequoia Shuttle transports visitors (for a fee) from nearby towns like Visalia and Three Rivers, up Highway 198 to the Giant Forest Museum in Sequoia National Park. There is also a free in-park shuttle that offers rides to popular attractions like Giant Forest, Moro Rock, Wuksachi Lodge and various campgrounds.

During the rest of the year, and especially from December to March, snow could block the roads. However, when it does not block them, you can admire the snow-covered sequoias and a number of exciting winter activities.

Recommended Gear

Even in summertime, you will need to dress in layers to visit the park. Be equipped for the sun during the day, but also for the cool evening and the cold night.

If you plan to spend only the day admiring Sequoia National Park’s Giants, take a look at our comprehensive Day Hiking Checklist for a list of gear items to consider bringing with you on a day hike.

And if you want to hide from the crowd by visiting Sequoia in winter months, you may want to get more tips about winter hiking in our detailed post. One thing to have in mind is that snow chains are mandatory on drives in and nearby the park during this time.

What to Do in Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park provides amazing opportunities for recreation. The cool, green sequoia forests along the western fringe of the parks offer a friendly and aesthetically pleasing environment for summer camping and winter snow activities. The wilderness of the park is one of the most heavily used primitive recreation areas in California.

Whether you prefer a short stroll or a week in the wilderness, a quiet sunset or a roaring river, adventure awaits you here. Whatever activities you choose, come prepared as weather varies widely at different elevations, and storms can happen at any time of year.

Hiking and Backpacking

There are hundreds of miles of trails in Sequoia National Park suitable for all abilities and ages. Main trails and attractions in Sequoia National Park include Sherman Tree Trail (trail to Sherman Tree), Tunnel Log (tunnel cut through a fallen giant sequoia on a roadway), Tokopah Falls (waterfall at Tokopah Canyon), Crescent Meadow (meadow in the Giant Forest), Moro Rock (granite dome with cut out staircase to the top, located at the park’s center), and Giant Forest Museum.

For those looking for longer hikes, treks to scenic places like Mist Falls include an 8-mile round-trip journey through forest and chaparral, past rapids and cascades, to finally reward hikers with views of one of the largest waterfalls in the park. It’s useful to have previous backpacking experience, and solid outdoor navigation skills for such a challenge.

More information on backpacking in the park and on public lands nearby is available from the National Park Service.

Best Hikes in Sequoia National Park

  1. Hazelwood Nature Trail: This pleasant 1 hour Sequoia hiking experience will take you along gentle grades through excellent stands of giant sequoias. Trailside exhibits tell of historical figures who helped make the park what it is today. The trail starts at Trail Center near the Giant Forest Museum. It is a 1-mile self-guided loop trail.
  2. Big Trees Trail: Starting from the Giant Forest Museum’s parking lot, this 1.2 mile self-guided loop trail is one of the most accessible trails in the park. It circles Round Meadow and features trail-side exhibits describing the area’s ecology.
  3. Crescent Meadow Loop Trail: This scenic 1.8 – mile loop trail takes you around the picturesque Crescent Meadow. Most impressive in the spring when wildflowers are in bloom, wildlife sightings are common in this area. The Sequoia hiking trail also goes by Tharp’s Log, a hollowed out Sequoia tree that was converted into a summer cabin by one of the park’s earliest settlers.
  4. Congress Trail: Starting at the famous General Sherman Tree, this popular, paved Sequoia hiking path loops through the heart of the Giant Sequoia Grove is perfect for first-time visitors. Since it is a relatively short hike (2 miles back and forth), it takes only 1 – 2 hours for the whole experience.
  5. Tokopah Falls Trail: This 3.4 mile trail takes 2-3 hours to complete, starting from Log Bridge in Lodgepole Campground and back. The trail is an easy walk along the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. Tokopah Falls is 1,200 feet high and most impressive in spring and early summer.
  6. Alta Peak Trail: Though strenuous, this Sequoia hiking trail to Alta Peak is considered to be one of the best day hikes in Sequoia National Park. At 11,204 feet, the summit of Alta Peak provides jaw-dropping views of the Great Western Divide and the High Sierra. On a clear day you can even see all the way to Mt. Whitney. It takes approximately 7-8 hours to complete the 7 mile round-trip of this track. It’s trailhead is Wolverton.
  7. Moro Rock: Ready for a “hard rock” experience? Moro Rock is a granite dome located just off the Generals Highway near Giant Forest. On any given day visitors may see rock climbers clinging to Moro Rock’s cracks and knobs. For the rest of us, there’s a 400-step, 1/3-mile staircase from the parking lot that ascends more than 300 feet to the summit. The reward: spectacular views of the western half of Sequoia National Park and the Great Western Divide. Keep your binoculars ready and steady. In the background: the sawtooth sentinels of the Great Western Divide. In the foreground: the shy and speedy peregrine falcon, free-wheeling in the surrounding sky it calls home.
  8. High Sierra Trail to Bearpaw Meadow: Well marked and easy to navigate, the High Sierra trail is considered moderate with a warm southern exposure. The 11.5 – mile trail follows a ridgeline of mixed conifers, offering spectacular views of the Great Western Divide and lush meadows along the journey. From Crescent Meadow, it takes 5 to 10 hours to reach the other end.The journey gains and loses elevation the entire way. It is wise to rest and enjoy Buck Creek because the last 1.3 miles gains 600 vertical feet and is without water. The High Sierra trail crosses three major tributaries before reaching Bearpaw High Sierra Camp. A number of popular day hikes are also accessible from the camp.
  9. North Grove Trail: This lightly traveled, 1.4 – mile trail offers a close look at the giant sequoias as well as ponderosa pines and sugar pines in a quiet forest setting. It starts at Grant Grove Tree, but soon moves into the quieter North Grove where you can enjoy breathtaking views of sequoias with fewer people. In the winter, the trees wear a mantle of snow, but this trail is clearly marked and accessible for beginner hikers in any season. You can easily combine this one-hour hike with the Dead Giant Loop for a 3.25-mile wander through the big trees.

Camping

For a fully immersive Sequoia National Park experience, consider pitching a tent and camping overnight in the park. There are seven campgrounds within Sequoia itself: Lodgepole, Dorst Creek, Buckeye Flat, Potwisha, South Fork, Atwell Mill and Cold Springs. Keep in mind: The latter two campgrounds are not connected via the main road in Sequoia National Park, and they are only open in the summer months.

Sequoia’s campgrounds offer something for every type of camper, whether you’d prefer a fully equipped spot or a more rugged experience. Many recommended packing extra layers, as the temperatures often drop at night.

Camping in Sequoia National Park costs $22 per night. All campers are required to secure their food, beverages, toiletries and trash in the large storage lockers found on each campsite to keep bears away. Hours and seasonality vary depending on each campsite. Reservations may be required to camp in the park, so be sure to check the National Park Service website before planning your trip.

Wilderness permits are required for all overnight trips away from designated campgrounds. Self-register for wilderness permits for the Middle Fork Trail at Foothills Visitor Center just inside the Sequoia National Park entrance (not at the trailhead). Self-register for permits for South Fork Trails at the trailhead.

Winter activities

Mount Whitney

Snowshoe walks typically begin as soon as there’s enough snow on the ground, and end as snow conditions deteriorate. If snow conditions are poor, rangers may offer a guided hike instead of a snowshoe walk. Snowshoes are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Cross-country Skiing: If there is sufficient snow, many areas of the park may be accessed by skis. Both Giant Forest and Grant Grove offer ski trails through sequoia groves.For well-prepared and skilled winter travelers, the challenges of exploring park wilderness lands in winter can lead to a rewarding experience.

Crystal Cave tours

Crystal Cave in Sequoia National Park is popular for cave tours, while the remaining caves are wild and require specific training and permission for access. Explore Sequoia’s underground world as you journey through the magnificent chambers and remarkable formations of Crystal Cave. Tours are offered from May to November by the Sequoia Natural History Association and vary in cost and duration (from 50 minutes to six hours). You’ll need to get your ticket before heading to the cave so be sure to stop at the Foothills Visitor Center (one mile north of the Ash Mountain Entrance on the Generals Highway) or the Lodgepole Visitor Center (21 miles on the Generals Highway from the Ash Mountain Entrance).

Scenic Drives

From your car window, view a wide variety of spectacular landscapes along one of the scenic routes: Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, Generals Highway, Western Divide Highway, and Sherman Pass Road. The Sequoia’s scenic drives are gateways to adventures.

You can also consider driving through the renowned Tunnel Log, located along the Crescent Meadow Road in the Giant Forest. This is a must-have experience when it comes to visiting Sequoia National Park.

And if meandering along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, on a slower paced drive appeals to you, then take the drive through Yokohl Valley. The turn onto Yokohl Valley Drive is from Highway 198. The road winds through the Sierra foothills past ranches and open space. Springtime will put on a show of glorious wildflowers. The rugged terrain is home to wildlife as well as some interesting rock formations and hogwallows. You can circle back to Visalia by taking Highway 65 north and connecting with the 198. From orange groves to cattle ranches and amazing views of the Sierra Nevada, this road trip will soothe your soul.

Pictograph Viewing

Sequoia National Park is rich in cultural features, including prehistoric and historic archeological sites and resources. The most accessible place to view pictographs in the park is Hospital Rock, situated on the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. Path to the pictographs viewing platform is via a set of short, steep stairs. For those with limited mobility, the pictograph can be seen from the parking lot across the street with binoculars.

Where to Stay

Visiting Sequoia National Park is a bit more tiring than visiting other parks when you consider some more trivial logistical issues: the park is entirely mountainous; to reach the points of interest you need to drive a long way on the narrow curvy roads for at least an hour from the park entrance. The visit could get quite tiresome, especially after driving all day from Death Valley or even from San Francisco or Yosemite. For this reason, the first thing to do when planning your visit is to choose the most strategic accommodation, taking into account the necessary travel time inside the park.

2 most accessible accommodations within Sequoia National Park are: Montecito Sequoia Lodgeand and Wuksachi Lodge. If neither the accommodations nor the campsites in Sequoia Park are within your budget, you’ll need to look in the towns on the slopes of the mountains, as you drive away from Sequoia.

Three Rivers has the advantage of being the gateway to Sequoia National Park and, for this reason, there are several cheap accommodations here.

Visalia, about half an hour from Three Rivers, is located halfway between Bakersfield and Fresno, the two largest cities in the area. This little town is a bit further away from the park, but has some good accommodations.

Fresno is the largest city in the area after Bakersfield and is the perfect intermediate stop between Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Yosemite/San Francisco. However, keep in mind that the city is a little closer to the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park than to Sequoia. There is a little more choice in Fresno as finding a good quality motel is not difficult here.

How to Get There and Getting Around

If you drive to the park, be prepared for driving mountain roads that are narrow and winding. Highway 198 enters Sequoia National Park at the town of Three Rivers. Beyond the entrance station, the road is narrow and winding. Please note that GPS and route-finding units may give inaccurate directions in this area. Double-check your route using the park map and road signs. If you drive in winter or anytime roads are snowy, tire chains may be required at any time. No gasoline is sold within the park, so it’s useful to look up gas stations nearby in advance.

The closest commercial airports to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are Fresno Yosemite International Airport and Visalia Municipal Airport. Many other airports, some international, are within a few hours’ drive of the park.

Fresno Yosemite International (FAT) is 1.75 hours from the Sequoia National Park entrance on Highway 198. From the airport, you can rent a car to reach the parks. Visalia Municipal Airport (VIS) is 1 hour from the Sequoia National Park entrance on Highway 198. From the airport, you can rent a car or, in summer, take a bus to the Visalia Transit Center, where Sequoia Shuttle provides summer shuttle service to Sequoia National Park.

Conclusion

Visiting Sequoia National Park may require careful planning and preparation, but it’s totally worth the effort. You’ll thank God when you finally stand in front of the Giant Sequoia Trees, or watch over a summit of the park, so enjoy the process!

Let us know how this guide has helped you in the comment below.

Also check out our other national park guides to start planning your next adventure!

 


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