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Exploring the Sierra Nevada

Located within the Sierra Nevada mountains are the gorgeous Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Sequoia National Park is the nation's second oldest national park. Nested into it is the Kings Canyon National Park. Together, these two parks make up over 760,000 acres of land, of which, 97% is wilderness for backpacking. So if you're looking to really get out in the woods with no cell service, this is the place to be.

As you drive through the area, you'll go through thick forests, majestic meadows, beautiful canyons, gorgeous glaciers, and drive through crazy mountains towering some 14,000 feet up. The elevation varies from park to park as you go through low-elevation foothills, mid-elevation forests, and high-elevation alpine mountains. In this blog, I will cover the highlights of both parks, you lucky ducks.

Sequoia National Park

If you're coming from Southern California, you'll likely drive through the Foothills Visitor Center entrance after passing through Three Sisters. If you're driving up through the park in this direction, you'll come across the Tunnel Rock attraction first.

Next you'll drive through some epic mountain scenery. There are various viewpoints and overlooks to pull over at to learn more about the history of the area or enjoy the amazing views.

These giant Sequoia trees can live over 3,000 years and its bark alone can grow to be three feet thick. These massive trees are resistant to disease and fire, which help them to claim the throne as one of the oldest living organisms on Earth. What's crazier is that Sequoias only grow in the Sierra Nevada range in California at about 5,000-7,000 feet in elevation. These massive giants are similar to the Redwood trees in that they can only grow in the particular climates that California has to offer.

I've been lucky to see both the Redwoods and the Sequoias in my lifetime. Much like their cousin, the well-known Redwood trees, these Sequoia trees grow very old and tall. Redwoods can grow an average height of 380 feet compared to Sequoia trees growing 311 feet. However, Sequoias can live over 3,000 years whereas Redwoods tend to live an average of 2,000 years.

While both trees have thick bark to protect from fire or disease, Redwood bark can grow 12 inches thick in comparison to Sequoia bark that grows roughly 31 inches thick. How crazy is that?! As far as the trunk base goes, both kinds of trees have some seriously thick bases. But Sequoias take the cake on size, growing an average of 40 feet in diameter compared to Redwoods at 22 feet in diameter.

One of the interesting things I learned while in the Sequoia National Forest is how these trees are born from fire. What humans view as destruction, is actually a necessary process to bring life into this amazing place. Sequoia pinecones can hold seeds up to 20 years and release them when a wildfire occurs. The Sequoias rely on fire to release these seeds from the pinecone for germination. Yes, you read that right - fire breathes life here.

Here I am standing with the infamous General Sherman Tree. This is the world's largest living tree by volume. For reference, a Redwood tree holds the record for the tallest tree, but Sequoias win second and third place by volume alone. The General Sherman Tree is estimated to be about 2,200 years old and towers about 275 feet tall.

This world record-holding tree is said to weigh about 1,385 tons with a circumference of 103 feet. Although this tree does not get taller, it still continues to grow wider. Can you believe that?! You can find the awesome Sherman tree in the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park.

The infamous drive-through tree! Yes, the Tunnel Log exists, and yes you can still drive through it... as long as you're under 8 feet tall and 17 feet wide. A few more mods and my Jeep, Bella, won't make the cut! 😅 The tree itself fell back in 1937 and is a whopping 21 feet wide. As you can imagine, I was super excited to cross this one off my bucket list. Be prepared to wait in line when you go to this attraction. You're not the only one who wants a picture here.

Another fairly easy hike I would recommend if you are physically capable of taking a lot of stairs is Moro Rock. You hike all the way to the top for this awesome view about 6,700 feet above sea level. Moro Rock began forming over 100 million years ago when molten rock cooled into granite. The stone-carved steps were created thanks to FDR's New Deal back in 1931 and is now listed on the national registry of historic places.

Although the Moro Rock hike is about a half-mile roundtrip, it's going straight up the mountain and right back down, so keep that in mind. Additionally, the path is very narrow so you often need to take turns letting people through. Plus, it makes a great excuse for catching your breath! Just make sure you turn your pedometer on before you hit those stairs 😜

If you want to keep hiking, you can continue from Moro Rock and head to Crescent Meadow on the Sugar Pine Trail. This is a beautiful spot to see the wildflowers during the summer. I enjoyed the meadow mostly because it was less traveled, so I was able to relax in nature without someone's kid screaming in the background.

Another cool touristy-tree thing to see around Crescent Meadow is the Auto Log. Back in 1917, cars actually could drive on it! The park's idea behind this was to showcase how large the fallen Sequoia was by allowing cars to be on top of it. Although you need to park next to it these days, you can still walk on top of it.

In the picture above, you can see me standing on the Auto Log. If you look closely in the background, you can see how far away those roots are. The pictures certainly don't do these giants justice!

As far as hiking goes, whether you're a multi-day hiker or just want to get in and get out, there is a trail for everyone here, especially between the two parks. If you do plan to hike, make sure you are prepared for the elements and wildlife. You are in some serious bear country here so you need to lock up all food, bathroom items, and anything with a scent in a food locker, NOT YOUR CAR. Your Jeep stands no chance to a hungry bear. If you go on a hike, bring a portable bear-proof container. Park rules. If you have any questions, the rangers are happy to help. Please follow these rules. Any bears found rummaging through human's property are put down. Save a life and don't be lazy!

I decided to explore this amazing area for my birthday and set up camp in one of the magical places on earth. I ended up staying at a few campgrounds during my visit, including the Lodgepole Campground. This was one of the most sought-after camping spots in the park and I see why!

Our campsite was within walking distance of a lodge that has access to various convenience stores items, supplies, showers, restrooms, and even a place to do laundry! The only thing it lacked was WIFI and I was totally cool unplugging for awhile. Although you're in lots next to other people, you are still far out enough in nature that you will see wildlife.

I woke up on my birthday to a whole bunch of mule deer nibbling on vegetation right outside my tent. I've never seen a mule deer so close. It was fairly chill, as all the humans kept their distance and they're probably used to us. But the deer got spooked when it saw what I think was a Tibetan Mastiff dog since they kind of look like bears. I was dying of laughter when I saw how scared the bear-dog made it! (The dog didn't notice a thing lol). If you decide to camp, do not leave any trash or food out to prevent bears and other wildlife from visiting. The ranger will give you all the details when you check in.

Another amazing thing about this area is the stars. Take time at night to do some stargazing. You can even see the Milky Way from here! Sequoia National Park hosted a Dark Sky Festival in late August 2019 to showcase the beauty of the night sky to those interested. While you don't need a fancy event to enjoy the night sky, they do have guides who can help explain things to you as well. The more you know!

Kings Canyon National Park

As you keep heading north through Sequoia National Park, you can take Generals Highway and will end up in Kings Canyon National Park right outside Grant Grove Village. Luckily, this road has gas and is one of the few places in the parks that you can refuel. If you plan to see both parks, be sure to fuel up in between!

My first stop, and quite possibly my favorite in Kings Canyon is General Grant Grove. Here you can find an entire village consisting of a visitor center, lodges, gift shops, places to eat, etc. You can also find lots of trails here and the iconic Grant Tree.

One of the coolest attractions in this spot is a fallen Sequoia that you can walk through. Known as the Fallen Monarch, this tree really puts in perspective how huge these Sequoias can get. It's bigger than a trailer and some people's houses! I know I could easily move in here any day 😂 In all seriousness, this tree has actually been used as a home and shelter by Native Americans, and even a hotel, saloon, and a stable for 32 horses in the late 1800's.

As cool as the Fallen Monarch is, the main attraction of the Grove is the Grant Tree. This Sequoia has been dubbed the Nation's Christmas tree and is the second largest tree by volume on the planet, clocking in at 46,608 cubic feet. Every year since 1926 this tree has been the center of Christmas celebrations. Check out it's massive size below:

The picture below is the other side of the Grant tree. It features a giant burn mark, which helps to identify the tree. As I mentioned earlier, these crazy trees have such thick bark that it is rare a fire will kill a Sequoia or Redwood tree. These things were made to fight the elements. I am so glad they are now protected from the only threat they really ever faced: us humans.

One of my favorite hikes in Kings Canyon was the Big Stump Trail. Although it was super sad to see how many of these giants were logged, it's important to learn the parts of history we aren't proud of so history doesn't repeat itself. It is vital for us to come together and protect and preserve this place for future generations. Human-made smog already clouds beautiful views. Tourists not following rules inhibits the Sequoia's growth. And previously, greed to log these beautiful beings resulted in the loss of some of the biggest trees the world has ever seen.

The Big Stump hike is about 1.5 miles roundtrip, nothing too crazy. The nugget you want to find on this trail is the Mark Twain Stump that you can see me on. This may the biggest stump of them all. It took thirteen days for two men to cut this beast down. This tree was about 1,350 years old when it was cut. In the pictures above and below, you can get a good idea of just how big this tree was. For reference, the lower picture was taken with a wide-angle lens and it still didn't fit in the picture.

The Mark Twain stump served the ultimate sacrifice. It was cut down simply to show people outside of California who didn't believe that a tree this big could exist and put slabs in museums so others could marvel at it's beauty. If only we could see how big it would have continue to grow....

You will also pass by quite a few massive stumps like this one as you hike towards the king of the stumps. The Big Stump Trail is great if you're in the mood for a scenic walk down a cool forest path. You will even get to cross over a giant Sequoia they turned into a bridge like in the picture below:

After the Grove, take the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway road through the park. There are lots of pull-outs along this road and I guarantee you'll stop at a few! The mountain and valley views here are absolutely incredible. There are no guardrails in many places so be careful when you drive, especially at night. Someone actually drove off the cliff one night when we were camping there!

Another cool stop along this Scenic Byway is Grizzly Falls. Depending on the time of year you go, the waterfall may be raging, or barely existent. The waterfalls on my trip were surprisingly strong for visiting so late in August.

All the way at the end of the Byway is Zumwalt Meadow. Like Crescent Meadow in Sequoia, this place is more off the beaten path if you want to escape the crowds a bit. Just keep in mind, the later in the day you are, the busier it will be. This is another 1.5 mile hike that takes you through the meadows to see gorgeous views of the granite rock formations towering over the area.

I had the pleasure of camping here in Kings Canyon too. It was much like Sequoia National Park as far as rules and expectations go. We camped in a lower elevation here and it was much warmer and comfortable than the higher, cooler elevation in Lodgepole. (People were in ski jackets and hoodies when I woke up!) If you're camping with a big group, try Kings Canyon. We may have got lucky, but our lot was HUGE.

There are TONS of places to camp in both parks. Some are first come, first serve. Others you reserve in advance. If you're not a fan of bugs or sleeping on the ground, there are also lodges and cabins available for rent as well.

I had so much fun exploring the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are a great trip to take with friends or family. If you're riding in your Wrangler (which I highly suggest), take the top off so you can get a full view of these awesome trees and mountains. Check out more pictures from my trip below:


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