“You will love Kings Canyon” said Steve, a retired Los Angeles lawyer. “It is like Yosemite without the people. Nobody goes there.”
I met Steve on the street in Mariposa and enjoyed talking to him while we waited for the Butterfly Festival parade. He said he had invented archeological insurance. He researched old records and was able to convince courts based on those documents what the insurance policy carried by a defunct company was probably like. Based on that “probable insurance policy,” he successfully sued insurance companies to clean up the toxic waste left by those defunct companies. It could only happen in California. It is amazing to me that anyone does business in California.
Steve was a nice guy, but I am reminded of the 1988 Vice Presidential debate when Senator Quayle compared himself to John Kennedy. To paraphrase Senator Benson, “I know Yosemite, and Kings Canyon is no Yosemite.”
Nonetheless, it is a spectacular park, and there weren’t many people. Indeed, the only Park lodge at Cedar Grove was still closed for the winter, and a small private lodge had just opened. We stayed in Grants Grove, a small section of the park surrounded by the Sequoia National Forest and Sequoia National Park.
One enters the park though a deep rugged canyon carved over the millennia by streams and rivers. Further along, the park broadens into a wider glacial valley. Flowering red bud trees made bright splashes of color against the evergreens on the canyon walls.
Near the “End of the Road,” we took what was labeled an accessible trail around Zumwalt Meadows. For the most part, it was. But there was that one section, about a quarter of a mile, where the trail scrambled over a rock slide, a real challenge for the arthritic. An artist, wise enough not to go the whole way, stopped by the meadow to paint.
We also walked back to a waterfall on the Roaring River. What is it that makes a waterfall so compelling. And this one did roar!
Going back to Grants Grove, we went via Hume Lake, a large lake in a deep valley with a private “in-holding” at the end. An in-holding is privately held land that remained private when a park or other national property was created. This one was used by a Christian Camp and was quite crowded with campers.
Grants Grove has the General Grant tree, our true introduction to the Giant Sequoias, although they can be seen in Yosemite and all through the three parks. General Grant is forty-foot in diameter, the widest known sequoia. At 268 feet high and an estimated 1700 years old, it has an estimated volume of 46,608 cubic feet. If that was a gas tank on a car that got twenty-five miles per gallon, it could drive around the earth three hundred and fifty times.
It is not the highest tree. It is not the biggest tree. It is the widest tree. Sequoias are the oldest living things on earth. How they grow depends on their location. The need fire to open their small cones so that they can drop their seeds. That same fire clears out the competition and leaves the soil bare for the seeds to germinate. They need lots of sunlight. They need lots of water, but the soil must be well-drained or their roots will rot. As they age, nutrients can no longer reach the top of the tree and it dies. But the tree stays alive and gets thicker and thicker. Depending on how these factors play out, one tree might be tall but young, another very thick, another relatively small but very old.
The most amazing fact to me is that these huge trees are usually on soil no more than three feet deep. Their huge roots spread out and, in some cases, even interlock with other trees. In some cases, where a fire has a particularly hot spot, a group of trees will grow in the same area. If they are close, twins will touch and grow together. We even saw three connected trees.
They die when water levels change, when their roots are undermined by springs or streams, or when humans cut them down. Occasionally fire will destroy one, but for the most part the fires, which occur on the average of every thirteen years, do no more than char part of the tree. The thick bark has air pockets that insulate the underlying living cells, lots of tannin that resists insects and very little sap so it doesn’t burn well. Indeed, unless a tree is struck by lightning and the interior begins to burn, the fire will usually last only as long as the surrounding fuel from other trees is burning. Gradually the un-burnt bark grows over the wound, although it may take hundreds of years.
Trees were often named for states, but records weren’t kept, the naming process has been discontinued, and many magnificent trees are un-named.
The California Tree was struck by lightning around 1967 and caught fire at the top. We met a fellow on the trail who was running in the area at
the time. He said the top looked like a Roman candle or volcano. They couldn’t get up to put the fire out until an Indian from Arizona climbed a nearby tree, got a line over to the California tree and used it to pull up a fire hose.
They are an amazingly resilient species. In Yosemite, we saw one still living with a tunnel cut in it. Near Hanging Rock in Sequoia National Park, we saw one still alive with the interior burned out. In places, one could see through the tree. Resistant to insects and rot, the logs lie on the forest floor for centuries. The space under one was
used for housing, for a stable, and for a saloon. The Buffalo Soldiers, assigned to protect the parks in the early 1900s, used to parade their horses on top of one. And I have a memory, perhaps faulty, of our ’56 Chevy sitting on one in 1964. That log is still there but no longer open to cars. I will have to check my old slides when I get home. 2200 year old General Sherman is the largest tree on earth with a volume of 52,500 cubic feet. Grant is wider. An un-named tree at 311 feet is higher and another un-named tree at 3200 is older.
We took a couple walks and climbed the short but steep trail to Hanging Rock. From there we got a good picture of Moro Rock. Subsequently, I climbed the steps up Moro Rock – I counted 346 but may have missed one, and there were also sloping walks with notches in them. I’m not the kid I once was. The views were fantastic. To the east were the snow-capped mountains of the Great Western Divide. To the west, was a canyon leading down to the San Joaquin Valley. The drop from the top of Moro to the canyon floor was four thousand feet. The canyon, itself, in places is deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Unfortunately, looking west we saw another reason to visit in the spring. The San Joaquin Valley with all its fertile fields and orchards was covered in a haze of smog. That smog is driven into the valley by winds through a break in the coastal mountains at San Francisco, the Golden Gate. As the summer progresses, the warming air carries the smog up into Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.