A tree-lover's paradise Wilderness: At Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California, the giant sequoias are the main -- but not only -- attraction.

March 29, 1998|By Robert Cross | Robert Cross,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The weirdest sight in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks pops up when cars turn a corner on the Generals Highway and encounter those enormous sequoia tree trunks rising toward infinity.

People delight in the sensation that they have driven into a fantasy where somebody shrunk the kids -- and the adults as well. Out come the video cameras, recording the one spot in our nation's ecosystem where tree-hugging occurs all day, every day.

Those first big trees mark the cusp of Giant Forest, the most famous home of the famous giant sequoia trees, which refuse to grow naturally anywhere else in the world except this part of California. The Giant Forest also includes the site of a doomed village, where cabins and hotel units nestle improbably amid the 20-foot-diameter.

In times past, the most amazing features of the national parks were considered novelty items -- freaks of nature's sideshow waiting for sharp entrepreneurs to raise the tent. Concessionaires placed their facilities directly on or amid the wonders.

In most of the Western parks, officials are working to disassemble those facilities and move them to less intrusive locations, giving the prime sites back to the wild earth.

Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park contain groves of giant trees with buildings beneath them -- prime examples of the era when parks were considered cute diversions.

And yet both parks -- separate only in name -- contain contiguous wildernesses that are among the least accessible in the National Park Service.

From the visitor center in the southern Sequoia Park foothills, near the town of Three Rivers, motorists have only one way to go -- from an elevation of 1,700 feet up to 6,409 feet on a narrow highway heavily wrinkled with switchbacks. If they drive far enough north and then turn right (about 50 miles from the Giant Forest village), they reach Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon, one of the most scenic dead-ends in America. Then they must turn around and go back.

Sequoia/Kings Canyon is the epitome of the drive-through park and a prime example of virtually impenetrable terrain. This is the High Sierra, a mountain range so vast and remote and seamless that people tend not to think about it.

Having it both ways

"These parks have an odd twist," says William Tweed, naturalist at Sequoia/Kings Canyon. "Not only do they have the highly used Generals Highway corridor, these parks are over 80 percent designated wilderness. You can walk the Pacific Crest Trail through Sequoia and Kings Canyon -- from the south boundary to the north boundary -- for two weeks and never see a road.

"The eastern half of these parks constitutes the center of the second biggest wilderness in the 48 states. The one in Idaho is slightly larger. [A string of national forests and wilderness areas covers most of Idaho.] The Sierra Nevada is basically a north-south mountain range and an incredible barrier. To this day, it has no road over it in the southern half.

Construction projects have reduced the southernmost portion of the Generals Highway to one lane. On weekdays last May, those planning to ascend were permitted to proceed only on the hour. (Now they can move every 20 minutes.) One morning at 11, my Dodge and I waited in a long line. A construction worker holding a stop sign paused beside each vehicle and said, "You have about 12 minutes until we get started. Feel free to walk around, enjoy the day. You're in for a real good time."

He had that right. This drive-through portion of Sierra/Kings Canyon connects goose-bump-inducing vistas, human history and those Ripley's Believe It or Not sequoia trees in a most entertaining way.

My ultimate destination that day was Moro Rock, a granite slab looming visibly over some of the switchbacks. Malinee Crapsey, one of the cheerfully helpful officers at headquarters, had told me I should climb to its summit. "It's a huff and a puff, but it's worth it," she said.

On a previous drive, I had stopped at the Giant Forest in Sequoia and Grant Grove in Kings Canyon for a pleasant schmooze with the big trees. Easy trails weave around their massive trunks and run beside the long, dead bodies of the fallen sequoias that lost their balance.

The show-stopper is the Gen. Sherman Tree in Giant Forest, all fenced in and marked with a plaque making the argument that Sherman is the largest living thing on Earth: 2,300 to 2,700 years old; a trunk weighing 1,385 tons; height above base, 274.9 feet; circumference at ground, 102.6 feet; maximum diameter at base, 36.5 feet; diameter of largest branch, 6.8 feet; etc.

In another glade, I found the parking lot at the base of the Moro Rock stairway, 400 steps from the front porch of the High Sierra. On the way to the lot, I had stopped at Auto Log, a fallen tree big enough to serve as a driveway for camper vans and a photo op for camper van occupants. Another fallen tree in the vicinity had a road running through it and little kids climbing over it.

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