Last month I spent several days in Sequoia National Park. When most folks hear that name they think: big trees. Yes, the world's largest tree, in terms of volume, the General Sherman Tree, does stand in Sequoia National Park. However, there is much more to this park than just large trees.
We'll get to that, but first some diversions. The main reason that the sequoias were preserved in national parks long before coast redwoods is purely economical. The timber from sequoias tends to splinter much more quickly and more often than the durable lumber of coast redwoods (which are generally smaller in diameter, but taller than sequoias). Thus Sequoia entered the national park system back in 1890. Some of the earliest rangers protecting its environs were buffalo soldiers from the 24th Infantry and 9th Cavalry who worked at fighting wildfire, confiscating weapons, arresting poachers, and curbing the thefts of natural resources and relics. The buffalo soldier/rangers built the first usable road to the Giant Forest as well as the first trail to the top of Mount Whitney. Yes, Sequoia National Park, which can be entered by driving east from either Visalia or Fresno, stretches all the way across the Great Western Divide to the John Muir Trail and Mt. Whitney in the Eastern Sierra.
The shortest route to the huge sequoias, including the General Sherman Tree, is from Visalia, through the small town of Three Rivers and on east a handful of miles to the Ash Mountain entrance station. From there the highway twists up, up and more up, passing elevation markers for two thousand feet, then three and four and five and six thousand. Drivers will seldom need anything beyond second gear. It's only 17 miles from the entrance to the Giant Forest Museum, but this drive can easily take 45 minutes.
I have reached an age at which I do not want to be in Yosemite Valley or West Yellowstone in mid-summer; not because of the heat, but the throngs who more or less destroy what should/could be a relatively peaceful sojourn in the beautiful wilderness of our national parks. That's why I chose to travel to Sequoia in mid-October. On a weekday, even the crowds at General Sherman are minimal. If you go out to Moro Rock (everyone should climb the 380 stair steps to the top of the dome, where views stretch nearly to Whitney) then continue to Crescent Meadow you can make a relatively solitary 8/10 of a mile hike to Hale Tharp's house inside a log (discussed in more detail two weeks ago in the AVA). It's amazing how few Americans will walk more than a quarter mile from the parking lot even in a national park. I don't get it.
If you want even less people around, the trail toward Tharp's Log splits off about a third of the way in and hikers can climb a very mild hill (less than a quarter mile) then walk out of the forest into a vast expanse with nothing but mountain ranges and deep canyons in front of you. This is the western beginning of the High Sierra Trail, where backpackers can occasionally be spotted embarking on or finishing the approximately 60-mile trek from Sequoia to Mt. Whitney. Just a mile or mile and a half from the Crescent Meadow parking lot in shoulder season (best in September to mid-October) will leave you alone on an alpine trail with incredible vistas.
There is another part of Sequoia National Park that remains far less used. That is reached by the same Visalia to Three Rivers route. However, a mile or so short of the Ash Mountain entrance, drivers will spot a sign for Mineral King. This road holds even more twists and far less pavement. Twenty miles and 90 minutes later you'll reach the tiny “resort” stop at Silver City, your last chance for the slightest connection to civilization. On the right days of the week a stop at the resort “restaurant” will give you a chance at a slice or two of homemade pie. This is a stop well worth making. From Silver City to the campsites at Mineral King it's only a couple of more miles of forest service road. The campground is actually called Cold Springs. From there it's a short hop to the trailheads for several eye-popping day hikes or the starting point for breathtaking backpacking trips. If you have time for day hikes of several hours in duration may I suggest that your first one be to Eagle Lake. The walk entails a 2,000 foot elevation gain within 3.5 miles, but it's the most gradual 2,000 feet I've encountered.
From the nearby Sawtooth trailhead at 8,000 feet day hikers can reach the unforgettable scenery at Monarch Lakes. This route can also be a starting point for backpacking sojourns far from phones, TVs, and most people. Though the view from the upper Monarch Lake is spectacular, most hikers are startled to find the lake dammed by Southern California Edison, a reminder that the entire Mineral King Valley barely escaped full scale development by the Walt Disney Corporation. Disney wanted to turn it into the largest ski resort in California. Fortunately, groups of preservationists, led by the Sierra Club, blocked the development plans long enough for the national park service to annex this wild section of mountains to become part of Sequoia National Park in 1978.