Day 3 (Thursday) in the parks had us traveling into Sequoia National Park for the first time. We departed Grant Grove early (a bit too early as it turned out) and headed through the Sequoia National Forest/National Monument (you can collect sequoia cones for personal use in the National Forest but not in the National Park) to Lodgepole Village where we wanted to eat breakfast and check in at the visitor center to plan our hikes for the next two days. Along the road through the National Forest you pass the Montecito Sequoia Lodge and the Stony Creek Resort (the only place you can get gasoline).
Lodgepole has the largest market in the parks along with a snack bar, and we were planning on getting lunch provisions and eating breakfast. We arrived a little after 8 am, and the market did not open until 9. Worse still, the snack bar was closed for the season. So, Bob and I availed ourselves of the visitor center conferring with the rangers about local hikes. We also bought our tickets for the 3:00 pm Crystal Cave tour on Friday (tickets must be purchased a day in advance). After conferring with a ranger, we decided that we would drive down to Crescent Meadow and hike the High Sierra Trail about 4.5 miles to the east toward Bearpaw Meadow (11 miles east) and determine how far we wanted to go before turning around. After that hike and lunch, we would park at the Giant Forest Museum (formerly the Giant Forest Market) and hike the Alta and Huckleberry Trails up to where Alta meets the Congress Trail, making a loop that would take us past several meadows and named Giant Sequoias.
9 am finally came and the Lodgepole market was a great disappointment. Most of the shelves were empty, and the selections were skimpy compared to the much smaller Grant Grove market. Apparently, the end of the season was upon us. We pieced together what we could, but breakfast and lunch were not going to be extensive. We would have to make up for this at dinner. Leaving Lodgepole we drove to the Giant Forest Museum where the Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road branches off of Generals Highway to the left. Passing through Tunnel Tree (we actually by-passed it on the way to Crescent Meadow), we parked in the Crescent Meadow parking area and prepared to head out on the High Sierra Trail. As Bob was getting gear out of the trunk he slammed the trunk lid shut and that set off the alarm in the BMW parked next to us. After the alarm had run its course, Bob decided to see if it would happen again as a prelude to our hitting the trail. Needless to say, we started on the trail to the sound of a BMW horn blaring.
It was a relatively clear morning, and as we emerged from the Giant Forest onto the High Sierra Trail the view of the western slope of the Sierras and the valley below the trail was quite impressive. Eagle View at 0.8 miles from the trailhead offers many photo opportunities. The insects were once again in full harassment mode, but seemed to dissipate as we progressed along the trail. Bob went on ahead while I took pictures at several locations. No Giant Sequoias along the route, but several interesting granite formations could be seen along the slopes we were approaching. About 3 miles into our hike we passed a solo hiker who was taking a break. He told us that he was heading to Bearpaw Meadow. About 30 minutes later Bob and I were starting to look for a good place to stop for lunch. Bob had wanted to stop by a waterfall, but there didn’t seem to be any water falling this morning. We noticed that the solo hiker was catching up to us, and Bob was going to ask him if he knew of any waterfalls when he overtook us. I was trailing Bob when I came around a curve and found Bob stopped in the trail. He turned to me and whispered “Bear.” I looked around a bend in the trail ahead and there was a black bear! Looked to be about the same size as the bear we had encountered on Wednesday at the bridge over the Kings River. Knowing that the solo hiker was approaching, I turned and caught his attention. He indicated he understood that a bear had been sighted. The bear kept coming down the trail towards us. I believe he had caught sight of us before he had turned the corner, and I’m sure he had smelled us before he saw us. The solo hiker said that he had never seen a bear before as I was taking a few long range pictures. Having seen my first bear less than 24 hours before, I was hardly an authority. When our new companion asked what to do if the bear kept coming toward us (which he was), Bob said “make noise”. And with that, we started whistling and clapping our hands. I was the first to shout “Go bear!”, which I had heard a young hiker yell on our first day at Shadow Lake in Banff. And wouldn’t you know it, but the bear made a left turn off the trail and acted like he (I assumed it was another lone male) had wanted to check out some of the vegetation along the lower portion of the hillside all along. Bob told our friend that we had planned to turn around at 4.5 miles, and that this was close enough for us. We told him to continue on toward Bearpaw Meadow and that we would watch the bear to make sure it didn’t start toward him. The hiker made his way east and the bear kept checking out the bushes below the trail. With that, Bob and I turned around because we really had gone 4.5 miles. In this human/bear encounter, everyone acted as they should have. The bear had as much right to the trail as we humans did. But neither the humans nor the bear wanted to come in contact with the other. Since there were 3 humans and one bear, it was the bear who decided not to press the issue this time. This encounter has convinced me that I will never hike alone in bear country.
Bob and I lunched at a shaded spot with several large granite boulders for seating, and then it was time to hike back to Crescent Meadow. The views of the Sierras and the valley were still spectacular, and I would recommend the High Sierra trail to anyone visiting Kings Canyon/Sequoia. When we returned to the parking lot the BMW was no longer parked next to our car, so there would not be another round of alarm soundings. We drove through the Tunnel Tree on the way back to the Giant Forest Museum. I got out and took pictures as Bob drove the car through the tree. We parked in the large parking lot across Generals Highway from the Museum. There are several impressive giant sequoias in the parking area, but most impressive is the 257′ Sentinel, the 42nd largest tree (by volume) in the world that guards the entrance to the Giant Forest Museum. There is a 257′ yard stick depiction on the pavement in front of the museum to show visitors how tall the Sentinel really is and to describe what is going on with the tree at various intervals. Near the top of this depiction, which runs from right (base of tree) to left (top of tree) as you face the Museum is a sign board showing a picture of the Giant Forest Market from a summer in the 1950s. This sign is located where the gas station was located and in the picture the entire area of the market and gas station is a sea of automobiles. The newest car I could find in the picture was a 1955 Oldsmobile, so I figure the picture was taken in the summer of 1956. The caption on the sign says that the gas station was removed and the former market was converted to the Museum in order to save the Sentinel and the surrounding giants from the polluting effects of so much traffic. There are two really good water fountains outside the Museum and there is also a spigot for filling water bottles near the rest room area. Bob went inside the Museum to find out about dining options between the Museum and Grant Grove and after I had filled my water bottle we headed for the Alta Trail, which starts right about where the gas station had been.
The Alta Trail is paved with asphalt as it winds into the Giant Forest. The pavement stops at a felled tree and then you are at Round Meadow. It was at this point that we met up with a Ranger leading a group of young men on a hike. They were stopped at a giant sequoia and she (the Ranger) was explaining the shallow but very wide root structure of the giant sequoias. From their accents I figured the young men were from Italy. We joined this group briefly, but at the first crossroads Bob and I lit out on our own , taking the Alta Trail to the Huckleberry Trail climbing along and then over a ridge before descending toward Squatters Cabin and Huckleberry Meadow. There had been controlled burning on one side of the ridge at some point in the recent past, and we saw several really impressive giant sequoias on the way to Huckleberry Meadow. Squatters Cabin was built “in the 80s” as the sign said. Of course it was built in the “80s” of the 19th Century. The unknown builder discovered only after the cabin’s completion that the land belonged to Hale Tharp, the first non-Native American to enter the Giant Forest, so the apparently well built cabin was abandoned. It was never occupied by Tharp. The cabin faces Huckleberry Meadow, a beautiful expanse with giant sequoias all around. We proceeded south to see the Dead Giant, a sequoia with grey bark that is very large at its base but has been ravaged by fire. There are several other giants along this short trail that are also noteworthy.
Next, we headed north through Circle Meadow. There had been controlled burning here recently (we would find recent controlled burning all along the Congress Trail as well) as we hiked through Circle Meadow past named sequoias Black Arch and the Pillars of Hercules (unfortunately, the sequoia that is the right pillar (as you head north) is dead. I had Bob take a picture of me between the two just in case the dead sequoia collapses someday. Crossing the upper part of Circle Meadow we came to McKinley Tree Junction where the southern end of Congress Trail meets the Alta Trail. Each trail is paved for a short distance at this intersection. As we headed back down the Alta Trail to eventually retrace our path we passed the Lincoln Tree, McKinley Tree, and then we took a short side path to the Washington Tree. Along this side path we encountered a group of quail who darted in and out of low shrubs as we headed along the path. There was a great deal of debris as we came to the end of the path, and since there was no sign, we could not figure out which tree was Washington (named for George and not for the state named for George). I took pictures of two large trees in the area, one of which seemed to have had much of its upper trunk taken away. I would later find out that the tree with much of its trunk removed was Washington (the tree had a significant cavity within its trunk at the 100 foot level, and then a 2003 lightning strike and fire burned away most of its canopy. Snow in 2005 caused its top to collapse reducing its height from 257′ to 115′ – Washington had been the second largest tree in the world before its top was removed). The other tree was Franklin, named for Benjamin, which is the 8th largest giant sequoia. When I asked a ranger at the Museum the next day if the stunted tree was Washington, she confirmed it, but she took offense to my describing it as the tree with its “top cut off.” “It was NOT cut off” she replied most emphatically, and I felt compelled to explain that I didn’t mean literally cut off, at least not by humans.
After viewing Washington, we made our way back down the Alta Trail to the now-closed Museum. It was past 6 pm, and after a stop at the one of the water fountains we high tailed it back toward Grant Grove. Bob said that a ranger in the Museum had told him that there was a pizza place somewhere on the way back to Grant Grove. It was almost 7 when we got to Stony Creek Resort, and we desperately needed food. As we walked into the gift shop we saw that this was also the location of the pizza place. I also saw that the marker board for the pizza place said that it closed at 7 pm. It was now 6:54! We walked to the counter and the very helpful counter person said that so long as we ordered in the next 6 minutes, we’d be served. We ordered salads and a 12″ pepperoni and thanked our lucky stars we had gotten there when we did. I went to the gift shop and got ice cream bars for dessert (they would be a bit melty by the time we had finished our main course), but the Stony Creek Resort would be a life saver for us. The resort, it actually has about a dozen rooms, was started in the 1930s. It is located in the National Forest and as mentioned before is the only place to get gasoline within the Kings Canyon/Sequoia complex. It is operated by Delaware North, the same concessionaire that operates at Yosemite. We didn’t leave until after 8 pm, and both Bob and I were truly grateful to the staff who stayed on past closing to take care of us.