We’re all going to be relatively confined to our backyards for a while thanks to COVID. Seriously, just wear a mask everyone. But having to stay local isn’t always a bad thing. I live right by Sequoia National Park and have been exploring the Sierra Nevada mountains and am appreciating their beauty even more.
Sequoia National Park is one of the most spectacular national parks in the U.S. Unfortunately it is often overshadowed by its big sister, Yosemite, to the north. But Sequoia has the coolest tree in the world – the General Sherman. Not only is the General Sherman tree THOUSANDS of years old, but it’s the biggest tree in the WORLD! The Giant Sequoia trees boats the biggest and oldest trees in the world and are spectacular to see in person. I’m a little biased about Sequoia National Park because I grew up near it but its beauty should be recognized more often.
Are you planning a trip across California? You should definitely consider putting Sequoia National Park on your list! I recommend spending at least one full day at Sequoia. If you also want to visit the neighboring Kings Canyon, that’s another day. Some people try to do both in the same day and it’s not enough time.
WHERE TO STAY AT SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK
The last city before you reach Sequoia National Park is Visalia. If you aren’t planning on camping inside of the park I suggest you stay there. Visalia has a plethora of hotels to stay in and you should find an abundance of availability. But if you go in mid-February accommodation will be hard because there’s the world’s largest agricultural exposition held there. I would recommend staying at The Darling Hotel if you want to go the hotel route. It’s a recently-renovated courthouse that has been turned into a retro hotel. Such a cute place to stay and if you call online to book, you get $50 off your stay!
Another great option is an Airbnb. There aren’t as many to choose from in Visalia but there are still a few choices. My favorite one is this one. It’s an entire house located in the country for an authentic and rustic feel! If you mention my name when booking it, you might get lucky and get a discount!
Another option for accommodation is the town of Three Rivers. It’s just outside of Sequoia National Park and many people choose to stay there so that they can be high up in the mountains. Three Rivers also has a lake, Lake Kaweah where you can rent a boat to cool off in the summer months.
If you’re really adventurous you might even want to consider camping inside the national park. There are several campgrounds where you can pitch a tent or park a vehicle. Keep in mind, however, that during COVID you MUST make reservations in advance for camping. Sequoia National Park is doing a good job of keeping social distance rules but that means that only half of the campsites are open at any time AND are at half-capacity.
HOW TO GET TO SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK
Before COVID hit, there used to be shuttles that would take you from Visalia up to Sequoia. However, due to COVID, those shuttles aren’t operating any more. So your best bet is to drive a car. Since we’re all supposed to be social distancing you should still be driving your own car. You should be able to find your own way around thanks to GPS but there are lots of signs showing you which way to go to get to the park.
VISITING SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK
Depending on what time of day you arrive and how crowded it is, you might want to consider driving to the furthest end of the park and working your way backwards. I’ve done that several times just because everyone bottlenecks at the beginning of the park. You’re going to the mountains to enjoy nature, not tourists with selfie-sticks.
It costs $35 to enter the park and as long as you hang on to the receipt it’s good for 7 days. The fee is also good to get you in to Kings Canyon if you want to visit that park while you’re at it. Personally, I prefer Sequoia National Park more but Kings Canyon is also beautiful!
The park is spectacular year-round. But since it’s at such a high elevation, visiting in the winter months can be a bit trickier due to the snow. Not everything is open in the winter months for safety reasons and you might not be able to take every trail. Most of the time you will need chains for your tires during the winter and even if it’s not required to put them on it will sometimes be required to at least have them. Don’t let that deter you because Sequoia in winter is breathtaking.
This is the first thing you’ll see when you drive into the park. It’s a unique sign and I think there’s a superstition that if you put your hands into the mouth it brings good luck or something like that. When I was a little kid visiting the park I was convinced that it was going to actually eat my hand and screamed and cried when my mom did it. See the first picture below of Baby Marisa desperately trying to escape. I’ve returned repeatedly as an adult and I’ve never witnessed a loss of digits but do it at your own risk.
Back in the day, the road actually went underneath this rock. You can see it in the picture of my grandma and aunt that was taken in the 1940s. I took a picture in front of it with my dad in the late 1990s and not much had change. Today the road goes around it because of course obnoxious people had to ruin it for everyone. Nevertheless it is still a really awesome thing to see, especially since it’s completely natural. Just please don’t be the person who climbs on top of it and ruins some of the nature. The less destruction of nature the better.
Giant Forest Museum
This museum gives you a comprehensive understanding of the national park. Due to COVID it is not currently open but that will (hopefully) change in the upcoming months. From here you can catch the trailhead to the aptly-named Big Trees Trail. Spoiler Alert: You will see some big trees. One of those trees is the Sentinel Tree, which is the 21st largest tree in Sequoia National Park. If this tree is THAT far down the list… just imagine what behemoths you’re about to see…
As you wind through the mountains you will probably keep seeing glimpses of a massive rock overlooking the canyon. That’s the magnificent Moro Rock. Fun fact: if you go across California to the ocean, there’s another Morro Rock on the central coast. They must’ve run out of names when naming things in the state.
If you’re up for the challenge you can even climb Moro Rock! The views from the top are completely worth it though! To the east is the Great Western Divide. Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental U.S., is just beyond the view on the other side of the mountains. Sadly, when you look to the west, there is smog and pollution 90% of the time. The best views are on the days after it rains but considering it’s California, we rarely get rain here. If it’s raining when you go, keep an eye out for thunderstorms. Lightning strikes on top of Moro Rock are common and you don’t want to be the thing that lightning strikes.
Moro Rock’s hike is about 0.5 miles round-trip and gains 300 feet altitude. Just remember that you’re at about 7,000 feet elevation and the air is much thinner up there. I consider myself to be relatively in shape and that hike kills me every time. It might not SEEM like much but your legs will be burning afterwards! There is a
hole in the ground bathroom at the base of Moro Rock but be sure to have hand sanitizer on hand because it is GROSS!!
The Giant Sequoias are the biggest trees in the entire world. And the Giant Forest is home to an astonishing number of them. Sequoias only grow on the west side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and there’s a narrow strip of elevation over 5,000 feet where they’re able to grow. So these trees are truly unlike any others in the rest of the world! Giant Sequoias are truly giants. You’ll notice that most of the trees have massive burn scars on them. That’s completely normal and the trees barely notice them. Some trees literally are burned all the way to the center and are STILL alive and growing. Other trees have been struck by lightning and are burned at the top but they are still alive and keep growing outwards. The trees are so massive that they suck an incredible amount of nutrients out of the ground. As a result, it’s rare for two sequoia trees to grow close to each other because they have to compete for the resources in the ground. When you see two trees growing together, you’re experiencing a unique occurrence!
This big boy is the largest tree in the whole wide world. Be prepared to feel tiny when you stand next to it. It weighs 2.7 MILLION pounds and is 52,000 cubic feet. General Sherman is 275 feet tall and unfortunately won’t grow any taller. Its top was hit by lightning many years ago and has since stopped growing upwards. But it is still growing outwards (kinda like my stomach during lockdown). Each year it puts on enough bark to make a whole other tree. Absolutely mind-boggling. If you want to get your picture in front of the General Sherman, it’s nearly impossible to get you and the tree in the same picture. But if you have an iPhone, use the panorama feature to take a panorama upwards. It’s a trick that, if done properly, captures the entirety of the tree in one frame! Apparently the ratio of you looking up to the top of the tree would be the same as if a mouse was looking up at a 6’ tall human being. Talk about tall!
Although the General Sherman is beautiful, the area around the base can sometimes get unbelievably crowded. If you still want to be surrounded by and enjoy the beauty of the Sequoias without the crowds, follow the signs for the Congress Trail. It’s a 2 mile round-trip hike that takes you to beautiful trees like The President, Chief Sequoyah, The House of Reps, and the Senate. It’s off the beaten track and you can appreciate the peaceful side of the forest. I was there just this weekend and even saw a doe and her two fawns grazing peacefully. The President tree has a branch that is SO large that if you put a car on top of the branch you could not see the car from below. The Congress Trail is about 2 miles round trip and covers fairly easy terrain. The elevation doesn’t change much BUT just remember that you’re already almost 2 miles into the sky! Time allowing, I highly suggest taking the Congress Trail. It’s safe to walk along and the trail takes you deep into the heart of the Giant Forest.
Unless you have a handicapped placard, be prepared for a lot of hiking to get to the General Sherman. There’s a parking lot at the top of a hill… but that means you have to climb down the hill in order to see General Sherman. And what goes down must come up in this case. Thankfully, the park has created a multitude of benches along the path so that you don’t overexert yourself in the process. As long as you remember that you’ll have a climb back up to your car you’ll be fine!
IMPORTANT THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
If you’re interested in doing more serious hiking, ask for a more detailed map at the entrance. There are numerous beautiful hikes that take you deep into the mountains and there is so much beauty to explore.
Don’t forget that you’re out in nature. And when you’re in nature you are not in your own habitat – you’re in the wildlife’s home. You can encounter everything from squirrels to bears to deer while in the mountains. Be cautious of wildlife and try to avoid it when at all possible. After all, you’re in their home.
Most of the national park is over 4,000 elevation which wears on your body. Take lots of water and don’t be afraid to rest if you start to get tired. It happens to everyone.
Fill up with gas before you get into Sequoia National Park because there aren’t any stations inside of it. The cheapest gas will be along the highway before you get to Three Rivers. Three Rivers still has gas but since it’s in the middle of the mountains it costs more.
Cell service is very limited within the park. I was able to get a bit of service while standing on top of Moro Rock but expect that 99% of the time you won’t have service. You won’t need a GPS though, the map they give you at the entrance is plenty helpful for your drive.
If you want to experience the beautiful Giant Sequoias but don’t want to pay the $35 entrance fee, there’s a cheaper alternative about an hour away. The Trail of 100 Giants is a bit south of Sequoia National Park and has far fewer people than the national park. It only costs $10 for parking there and you can wander among dozens of Sequoias.
The road, called the General’s Highway, is very narrow and twisty with lots of switchbacks. I’ve grown up here so I feel fairly confident driving along the mountain roads, but not everyone does. I drove up here with a friend once and he couldn’t bear to look over the railing because of the drop. So it all depends on the person. But if you notice multiple cars behind you, be courteous and pull over into one of the many outcroppings to let everyone else pass.