Generals Highway




Some Favorites From Our Expeditions

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    See the sequoias as a vast jungle spread out below you over nearly five square miles from the Redwood Mountain Overlook. It’s a different view than the one on boardwalks among just a few trees with names.

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    Stand in the middle of the outline on the trail to the Sherman Tree. It’s the big tree’s footprint and besides being a great photo opportunity is a good way to appreciate the biggest Sequoia’s hugeness.

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    Appreciate the architecture at the Giant Forest Museum. Though a lot more modest than some of his other works, it was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, famed for grand national park lodges like the Ahwahnee in Yosemite.

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    Meander in Zumwalt Meadow, training your eyes to the rocks above here and there to see if you can spot the Sphinx.

Hugely Varied Terrain & Lots of Wilderness

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (SEKI) are sometimes called “Land of Giants” — a fitting name for a place where things contrast on a grand scale.

It’s home to some of the Sierra’s tallest mountains as well as its deepest canyons. In its forests, the massive giant sequoias dwarf other trees.

Even the climates vary dramatically given the major changes in topography. Sequoia has the greatest range of altitudes in all of the national parks south of Alaska. The high point is Mount Whitney (14,505 feet), and the low point is the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River (1,370 feet), making for a variation of more than 13,000 feet.

But experiencing all of this takes some doing. The parks lie amid some of the Sierra’s most rugged terrain. To put it into perspective, consider this: though Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, it can’t be seen in most of SEKI because the sub-range to the west of it — the Great Western Divide — is nearly as tall as the High Sierra crest next to it, thus hiding the mountain.

And so Sequoia and Kings Canyon maintain an enduring air of exclusivity. The two combined host not even half as many visitors as Yosemite.

Among the select group who have experienced these parks is only one president who paid a visit while in office, and it was fairly recent.

Yosemite drew Ulysses S. Grant in 1879, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880, Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, William Taft in 1909, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938 and John F. Kennedy in 1962 (as well as many others when they weren’t in office). Yellowstone attracted the Roosevelt cousins as well as Chester Arthur, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

But Sequoia and Kings Canyon would wait much longer to receive an acting president. George W. Bush finally came in 2001 (though his father George Bush, Sr., had visited the Sequoia National Forest in 1992, and Bill Clinton did the same in 2000 when he made part of it the Sequoia National Monument.)

Making Your Way in SEKI Seclusion

The vast majority of visitors here see only a hint of these lands that have been preserved for them because really seeing Sequoia and Kings Canyon requires a bit more in the way of adventurous spirit. Roads provide access to only a tiny fraction of the parks, and more than 95% is treated as wilderness, meaning that much of it remains hidden unless exploring without a vehicle.

No Way Through

This is a destination, not a stop along the way to somewhere else. For one thing, there’s no road across the mountains. Coming in means going out on the same side — the west. And even though a western approach to the Sierra Nevada is gentler than the sudden rise of mountains on the East Side, the two ways into Sequoia and Kings Canyon are a little less welcoming at this southern point of the range.

Compared to further north where the Central Valley gives way to hilly Gold Country and then more substantial foothills, the change in topography is more dramatic enroute to the Big Stump and Ash Mountain entrances as citrus groves quickly give way to rock.

Inside, nearly every route terminates in a dead-end that requires going out the same way you came in. The only real exception is Generals Highway, which connects the two major roads that provide the parks’ entry points. (Highway 180 comes to the Big Stump Kings Canyon entrance from Fresno, and Highway 198 passes through Visalia and Three Rivers before coming into Sequoia at Ash Mountain.)

Sequoia and Kings Canyon require a bit of bravery, but they also richly reward their intrepid explorers with scenery that rivals Yosemite and a bit more privacy to enjoy it.

Driving in SEKI: Hairpins, Plunges & Climbs

What’s more, these roads that must be traveled twice are often narrow, winding, steep and complemented by a mix of sheer granite cliffs that close in and dramatic drop-offs that give way to a void. Signs at several points warn to switch to lower gears to prevent brake damage, and vehicles over certain lengths (22 feet in some spots, 24 in others) may be restricted.

The longest do-it-twice drive is into Kings Canyon on Highway 180, which is also known as the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway once it reaches the Sequoia National Forest. To offer its up-close canyon view, the road drops 2,700 feet to reach the Kings River at the canyon floor. It then continues on to gorgeous Zumwalt Meadow before concluding at a backcountry permit station aptly named Roads End.

To give an idea of the road’s demands, the 30-mile stretch from Grant Grove to Roads End takes an hour. After that, you turn around and do it again, this time climbing out of the canyon instead of dropping in.

Generals Highway offers the same type of driving adventure. The southern end has a particularly punishing stretch between Hospital Rock and Giant Forest with several switchbacks along an elevation change of more than 3,000 feet.

Like Kings Canyon, it’s somewhat claustrophobic at times. The sequoias crowd on all sides, and at the point called The Four Guardsman actually demand that you go around them. The road splits and the trees thread between the two lanes.

Backpackers might have far more access to SEKI scenery, but those who don’t venture far from their vehicles still have plenty to look at. Some of the best overlooks not otherwise discussed here are:

Junction View:
a glimpse of where the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River meet

Eleven Range Point: a vista of the Kaweah Canyon and 11 mountain ridges. Unfortunately, the San Joaquin Valley is also part of that view, and its smog often obscures the panorama. Though much of SEKI and the surrounding forests are quiet wilderness, the neighboring cities are damaging the parks with their pollution. The air quality at times is the poorest of any national park.

Sequoia’s Path to National Parkhood

Sequoia is the second-oldest national park in the United States, beating Yosemite to become California’s first in 1890.

Like Tahoe, Yosemite and other areas of the Sierra known for their natural beauty, the southern Sierra also suffered abuse from early settlers. The issues were similar: meadows destroyed by grazing animals, mountains excavated by mining, and shrinking forests as logging took shape as a major industry.

John Muir was on the scene by 1873 and dubbed Kings Canyon a wondrous rival to Yosemite. He would pay additional visits, including one in which he focused on seeing as many sequoia groves as possible. As he did in Yosemite, he studied what he saw and wrote about it so that others would gain awareness of the natural marvels in the Sierra. And, as had happened in Yosemite, the southern Sierra started attracting sightseers later that decade.

At the same time, agriculture in the mountains would continue, along with industry. Mining ultimately didn’t prove terribly fruitful beyond the silver found in Mineral King, but logging did — big time — and a number of timber operations emerged, some becoming large operations that would wipe out entire groves of giant sequoias.

But SEKI’s path to protected land was a winding one, with lots of twists and turns along the way. Here’s a short-hand version:

When conservation-focused voices rose up, one of the most vigorous belonged to George W. Stewart. The Visalia journalist began lobbying for government protection of the giant sequoias and other at-risk areas in the nearby mountains.

William Wallace wanted the same. A judge in Visalia, he had spent years exploring the remote reaches of the mountains, including a climb to the top of Mount Whitney.

The Yellowstone Model, Not Yosemite

Stewart and Wallace would both create proposals for a national park in Sequoia, looking to the federally run Yellowstone as a model versus Yosemite. At this point Yosemite was being managed by California’s government as a state park, and poorly, some would argue.

While conservation was coming into focus, a utopian settlement called Kaweah Cooperative Colony settled near Three Rivers.

Founded by a group of San Francisco socialists, they decided to take advantage of the 1878 Timber and Stone Act, which allowed individuals to secure parcels of public land for logging or mining at a price of $2.50 per acre to help support growth in the west. In 1885 the Kaweah colonists purchased 53 adjoining plots around what is now Sequoia’s Giant Forest and Three Rivers, where they planned to support themselves with logging.

Dreamers Pegged as Deceivers

Almost immediately, the group ran into trouble when their land claims raised concern from the government that fraud was at play. Not only were there many adjoining plots, but several people had provided the same address on their applications.

The Timber and Stone Act had been intended to foster individual land ownership, but it had been abused in some instances when logging corporations had individuals secure adjoining land. Several claims, including those belonging to the Kaweah Colony, were thus suspended pending further investigation.

A Collective Society That Trailblazed – Literally

But the group was confident that they would eventually be validated and carried on in creating their utopia. Members in the colony had to pay a fee of $500 to belong, much of which could be met by earning “time checks,” the Kaweah currency that was based on units of time spent doing work that supported the community.

The colonists built several camps and also established a post office and the Kaweah Commonwealth newspaper, which still prints. Most importantly, they built the first road to what is now one of Sequoia’s most famed groves so that they could reach their timber claims there and establish their logging operation. They had no intention of felling the largest specimen and named it the Karl Marx Tree. Today it is known as the Sherman Tree.

Stewart was still active in protesting logging in the mountains and was a key force in pushing for investigation into the Kaweah Colony land claims. The contested areas that resulted became ground zero for his conservation efforts in 1888 after the presidential election brought Benjamin Harrison into office and with him a new government that had a less conservation-minded view of Sequoia’s forests.

Asking for a Little

Stewart wanted protection for a broad swath of the mountains, but now had to focus more narrowly on some of the suspended land claims, which he hoped to secure as permanent parkland that could not be purchased for development. The government had restored some of the suspended claims to once again be available for purchase and quickly they were. Stewart then convinced Congressman William Vandever to introduce a bill calling for permanent preservation of a few key areas that remained unclaimed and contained sequoias. Because of its narrow focus on a small area of roughly 76 square miles, it passed easily and was signed into law on September 25, 1890.

But Getting a Lot

It would be just days later, however, that Stewart’s hopes for a larger national park would be realized — and without his direct involvement. On October 1, another Vandever bill was signed into law. This one created Yosemite National Park by designating an expanded area that would be under federal management around the already created state park in Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. And though the bill made no reference to the actions of just a few days prior, it also called for expansion of the newly created Sequoia National Park and a third national park nearby that would be called General Grant National Park.

With No Clear Savior to Thank

There’s a fair amount of intrigue around the action. The first version of the bill had been introduced months earlier and focused on Yosemite, but a revised — and significantly expanded version — is what was presented when it came time for the congressional vote.

It still isn’t clear who was behind the changes or the reasons. It also seems that Congress wasn’t entirely aware of the scale of what they had passed until after the fact because no written version of the bill had been provided for review.

Many believe that the Southern Pacific Railroad played some role, wanting to protect its own logging interests from competition that would result if a timber industry grew in Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

But No Home for Utopians

The creation of these new national parks also put Kaweah Colony in the spotlight again. Privately owned land within the newly expanded Sequoia would still be recognized as such, but the Colony’s holdings had been suspended, making their situation murkier.

By April 1890, it was decided that the colonists had no rights to their plots, thus formally making them squatters in the utopia they had built and lawbreakers by engaging in the industry that supported them.

And though George Stewart was surely pleased that more of Sequoia had secured preservation protection, he wasn’t happy with the turn of events for the Kaweah Colony. He’d played a role in the investigation that suspended their rights, but in the end he believed that the colonists had taken possession of their land legitimately and that the decision to oust them was unfair.

An Influential Camping Trip: The Mather Mountain Party

In 1915, Stephen Mather took up a newly created government position to whip its growing collection of parks into shape. An avowed nature-lover and Sierra Club member, he was offered the post after writing to the Department of the Interior about his frustration over what he considered sorry conditions (bad roads) and poor management. Once installed, he became a passionate booster of the parks.

One of his most impactful efforts was organizing a Sierra trek with people that could be influential in his cause. The group included National Geographic editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor and other journalists, a congressman, a railroad titan and others with deep pockets and/or persuasive power. George Stewart was also along.

Early Glamping in the Sierra

A consummate host, Mather made sure his esteemed guests experienced Sequoia in supreme comfort. He hired a renowned Chinese cook named Ty Sing to prepare sumptuous meals as the “Mather Mountain Party” camped and traveled by mule and horse. Sing spent many years working for the US Geologic Survey and was an expert at camping cookery. (The Sierra’s Sing Peak is named for him.)

It took two animals to carry the extensive roster of ingredients and supplies that he brought to prepare meals served on white tablecloths and lit by Chinese lanterns. The spread included steaks, fried chicken, salads, soups, fresh biscuits, and pies and other desserts. Mather also ensured that his group was well-rested, securing air mattresses to cushion their sleeping bags.

The extensive week-long tour included Giant Forest and Moro Rock and then a trip across the Great Western Divide to Mount Whitney. At the end, Mather made his case for creating a National Park Service that would ensure such places be managed in a way that would protect them and allow enjoyment for everyone. It worked. His powerful friends were won over and became allies in the push to create the National Park Service. It was established the following summer on August 25, 1916, and Mather was chosen to head it up the following year.

Conjoined Confusion: Figuring & Refiguring Sequoia & Kings Canyon Boundaries

Today the greater Sequoia and Kings Canyon region consists of two parks and a national monument. Sequoia and Kings Canyon are managed jointly as one park and the Forest Service oversees the monument.

While General Grant National Park protected the General Grant Grove, the rest of what is now Kings Canyon National Park wasn’t made a national park until much later.

It was John Muir who started the national park push for Kings Canyon in 1891, writing about the beauty of the glacially carved granite and its similarities to Yosemite and also lobbying the government for preservation. Two years later, 6 million more acres of land were set aside as a forest preserve that became national forest land when the Forest Service was created in 1905.

But Kings Canyon had another valuable resource that slowed action to create a national park there: water.

Damming the Kings River could provide irrigation and power for California’s growing population. As various proposals were considered and the Kings River also drew interest from the city of Los Angeles (amid lingering controversy and anger over the draining of the East Side’s Owens Valley with its acqueduct), there were also continued calls to preserve the area for tourism. So many loudly voiced and conflicting views led to extended inaction.

In the meantime, Sequoia was expanded to include Mount Whitney, the Great Western Divide and Kern Canyon in 1926, but Kings Canyon was still too contested for its fate to be decided. Still more years of debate followed over whether Kings Canyon should be managed by the National Park Service, which focuses on preserving pristine nature, or the Forest Service, which also preserves land but does allow its resources to be utilized in activities like logging, mining and livestock grazing.

In the interim, the National Park Service completed the Generals Highway as a link to Sequoia and General Grant National Park, dedicating the road in 1935, and the National Forest Service completed its road from General Grant to Cedar Grove in 1939, further expanding tourist accessibility.

A year later, and after some concessions to allow for irrigation projects that would benefit nearby communities and agriculture, Kings Canyon finally became a national park almost 50 years after the push began to create one there. When it was designated in March 1940, it also absorbed what had been General Grant National Park.

During World War II, in 1943, it was decided that Sequoia and Kings Canyon would be managed jointly, but changes to the borders would continue.

1965 brought the addition of Cedar Grove and Tehipite Valley to Kings Canyon, Mineral King joined Sequoia in 1978, and in 1984 Kings Canyon was expanded once again to add Chimney Rock.

In 2000, an adjoining parcel of land was designated a national monument by Bill Clinton because of the concentration of giant sequoias within it.

Concentrated Sequoia Clusters

The 33 groves there represent roughly two-thirds of all the giant sequoias that remain and one half of the total groves. Sequoia National Monument is actually two different areas, called the Northern and Southern Portions. Together, they span more than 328,000 acres. The Northern is the one familiar to the national park visitors. Generals Highway and the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway both pass through it.

The Converse Basin: A Lesson in Resource Management

One of Sequoia National Monument’s most well-known sequoias is the Boole Tree. One of the largest sequoias in the world, it is also one of the few that was spared in the Converse Basin. This grove had been one of the largest before it was logged so aggressively that much of it was stripped.

A few trees also suffered the same fate as the ones sent for exhibition from the Mariposa and Calaveras Groves. The Chicago stump left behind in the Converse Basin is the remains of the General Noble Tree, which was cut down and then re-assembled for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

A Side Note on How National Monuments Work

Presidential authority to create national monuments was authorized when Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act in 1906 so that areas that were of historical, cultural or scientific interest could also be preserved. (National parks focus on protecting natural and scenic places and are designated by Congress.) But this presidential power has been controversial at times. Conservationists welcome new national monuments, but at times others argue against more government-owned land where certain uses may be restricted.

Ongoing Logging Dramas in Sequoia National Monument

Sequoia National Monument has seen its own share of controversy, mostly tied to the issue that sparked its creation: logging.

Before it was a national monument, the trees within had been in a national forest. Nobody could claim private ownership of the land, but it could be logged. The monument designation sought to bring the same permanent protection to the trees in question that had been granted to other groves already in parks. Unlike national parks, national monuments are also managed by a variety of government agencies. In this instance, the Forest Service was left in charge but asked to develop a management plan that fit the new national monument designation.

It was slow in coming, and the first draft met with protest when it stated that logging of trees up to 30 inches in diameter would be allowed to reduce risk of wildfires (as opposed to relying on prescribed burns to clear underbrush, which is the most common strategy).

Lawsuits from environmental groups followed and proved successful. (Though they weren’t the first tied to the monument. Previous suits had been filed by groups that wanted to remove the national monument designation so that logging and use of recreational vehicles would still be allowed.) After the 2004 plan was rejected, a second draft wouldn’t be released until 2012.

And though it put more limits on logging than the version prepared in 2004, it still called for logging of trees up to 20 inches in diameter to prevent wildfires. It too met with disagreement and some continuing calls for the national monument to become part of the National Park Service. And so the saga continues; there haven’t been any other substantial actions since.

The Trees that Stir Up All the Fuss: SEKI’s Sequoias

Some may not even realize that California’s national parks were built on trees more so than the mountains, and there’s some irony surrounding the many battles to protect them from logging. Sequoia wood is brittle, meaning it isn’t all that good for lumber. (That didn’t stop Hale Tharp from making a home from one, though. The first settler in Sequoia made a cabin in one of the massive trees that had been hollowed out.)

They might be sub-par lumber, but the trees are truly natural wonders: the biggest living things by volume with trunks than can be 40 feet across at their base and branches as big as trees themselves, some growing eight feet in diameter.

And in a surprising recent discovery by scientists, they not only keep growing, but grow even faster after reaching old age. But not up. They grow around, adding more woody bulk.

They’re resilient, too, with bark that’s resistant to fire, insects and disease, thus allowing them to live for thousands of years. In most cases, it’s their size that eventually does them in. Most die from toppling over because of their shallow roots.

And the western flank of the Sierra Nevada is the only place in the world where they grow naturally.

Part of the reason there are so many in this part of the southern Sierra is that the area was less affected by the Ice Age. Glaciers didn’t carry away the ground soil and thus the trees were able to take root and thrive.

Sequoia National Park has the biggest sequoia of them all. General Sherman in the Giant Forest is as tall as the Statue of Liberty, more than 100 feet around at its base and weighs nearly 1400 tons. Paying a visit starts at its top, really. The trail leading to it offers the crown as the first glimpse and then descends down to reach the base.

Another in the Giant Grove was nearly as massive but lost its position as second-largest sequoia in the world after being damaged by a fire in 2003. The Washington Tree in fact no longer ranks anywhere near the biggest trees. The fire and further damage in a severe winter that followed reduced its height by more than half.

Kings Canyon’s best-known tree is the General Grant Tree, known as the “Nation’s Christmas Tree” since Calvin Coolidge described it as such in 1926. But to see the most impressive concentration of sequoias versus individual giants means taking a look at that park’s Redwood Mountain Grove. From the overlook view, the world’s largest sequoia grove is more a wild collective jungle that seems to stretch endlessly versus a boardwalk hike among trees with names.

Even today, protecting sequoias dictates national park policies in California.

Sequoia decided in 1980 to restore the Giant Grove to a more natural environment, though demolition of the cabins, restaurant, gift shop, gas station and other commercial structures wouldn’t begin until nearly 20 years later. One of the few buildings left standing is the former grocery store, designed by famed national park architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood. (It’s now a museum.) The venue seems a pedestrian assignment for a man who designed grand hotels like Yosemite’s Ahwahnee.

In late 2013, Yosemite announced a similar restoration for its Mariposa Grove because the trees were being damaged by pavement. Plans include relocating parking, ending a tram service and removing a gift shop.

Kings Canyon: North America’s Deepest

SEKI has several impressive canyons. Deep Canyon, for example, surrounds the Kaweah River and Kern Canyon and is 5,000 feet deep for a stretch of 30 miles.

But Kings Canyon has the distinction of being the deepest in North America. At its steepest point, which is just outside park boundaries, the Kings River lies more than 8,000 feet below the surrounding cliffs.

The mighty river was christened by Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga in 1805. The Spanish name he chose translates to River of the Holy Kings and honors the biblical three magi who came to visit newly born Jesus. (Moraga also named the Merced River, which runs through Yosemite.)

SEKI’s Rivers: Enticing & Deadly

SEKI’s three rivers are fierce, with powerful currents even in places that appear placid. The deceptive nature proves deadly each year. The point is made most abundantly clear at the Kern, where signs keep a tally of drowning deaths. The latest count is 271 since the posts first appeared in 1968. Other park signage explicitly states the danger in two languages announcing “Deadly River” and “Rio Mortal.”

For one, they’re easily accessible. And when temperatures climb in the summer, the cool water can be irresistible. Droughts also contribute. People tend to forget the dangers after prolonged periods when the water level drops.Summers following particularly snowy winters tend to have more drownings after the waters swell with the melt.

Recognizing a need to drive home the deadly rivers message even more, SEKI eventually implemented a River Rovers program with volunteers who patrol areas that have proven particularly prone to drownings.

Any who want to keep river danger top-of-mind on their own while visiting SEKI would be well-advised to add Bakersfield native Merle Haggard to their road trip playlist. In his song “Kern River,” he vows never to swim there again.
But one person who got to know SEKI’s rivers well was famed climber Royal Robbins.After arthritis forced him to give up scaling major mountains, he turned his attention to kayaking.

Whereas climbing’s major achievement is a first ascent, competitive kayakers seek out first descents — being the first to paddle down a stretch of water.

Robbins accomplished both. In the early 1980s, he achieved a “Triple Crown” of challenging High Sierra first descents down the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, the headwaters of the Kern and the Middle Fork of the Kings River. His companions on all three were Reg Lake and Doug Tompkins. (Both Robbins and Tompkins also developed successful clothing lines: Robbins started Mountain Paraphernalia before rebranding it under his own name and Tompkins founded North Face and later Esprit.)

Going Inside the Sierra: SEKI’s Caves

Like Gold Country, the southern Sierra has a number of caves. SEKI has more than 200 marble caverns and hired its first cave specialist in 1992. Many of the caves have been extensively studied, mapped and restored to remove graffiti and mud obscuring cavern walls.

But only a few are open to the public.

Some are simply too delicate or dangerous, while others have been set aside for research purposes. (One such cave devoted to study is SEKI’s longest; Lilburn’s interior maze extends more than 17 miles). Others are still secret. In 2006, a group of amateur explorers found a huge one that goes more than 1,000 feet into the Earth. They decided to call it Ursa Minor for the bear skeleton they found inside.

Sequoia’s Crystal Cave is the most well-known and has been a popular attraction since 1941. It has rare cave formations like disc-shaped shields and multiple subterranean rooms. The largest is Marble Hall — 150 feet long, 60 feet wide and 60 feet tall. But it’s accessible only in summer and fall, and tickets have to be purchased in advance.

Moro Rock: The Hair-Raising Dome

It’s not quite the same as trekking up Half Dome’s cables in Yosemite, but the steep staircase up Sequoia’s Moro Rock — 400 steps in all that together are on the National Register of Historic Places — does take you to the top of a massive granite dome that offers views across the western portion of the park to the Great Western Divide.

But even from this lofty vantage point at nearly 7,000 feet, the sub-range obscures Mount Whitney. With peaks that rise above 13,000 feet, the Great Western Divide essentially gives the Sierra a double crest near its highest point.

Moro Rock also provided the setting for a famous 1975 photo in which two brothers stand smiling with hair standing on end before they were struck by lightning. (The hair-raising effect and tingling sensations are key precursors to a lightning strike.)

Why Lightning in the Mountains is Scary

While “being struck by lightning” is often used to equate something being against the odds, mountains are particularly dangerous places to be during a storm. Exposed areas make you more likely to attract a potential hit because bolts will seek out the highest object (a reason why tall buildings, mountains and the larger trees atop them tend to get more strikes).

Lightning has killed not only on Moro Rock (though the two brothers in the photo survived), but also on Mount Whitney, Yosemite’s Half Dome, on Grand Teton in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, Colorado’s Longs Peak, Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro (where explorer Ian McKeever was killed by a strike in 2013), and other famed mountains.

Angels Wings: Sequoia’s El Capitan

Though hikers can trudge up Mount Whitney using the Whitney Trail on its eastern side, climbers attacking that peak and others from within Sequoia need to be much more experienced. And committed — most popular climbing spots in SEKI require a day of backcountry hiking to reach them.

El Capitan is a Yosemite icon, but Sequoia has its own daunting sheer face. At 1,800 feet, Angels Wings is a bit more than half the height of El Capitan but has some of the toughest climbing in the Sierra. Located at the entrance of the Valhalla Cirque, it’s a 16-mile walk to the largest rock wall in the park.

And once the climb starts, multiple points rate 5th class on the Yosemite Decimal System that scores difficulty. The ratings don’t go any higher in full points after that, just decimal places.

The CCC Legacy in Sequoia

A popular photo stop at Sequoia is the wooden entrance sign at Ash Mountain. The carving of an Indian in profile was made by George Muno, a young man who had enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. He made it from a fallen sequoia, and it was installed in 1935.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the CCC in 1933 as one of the first initiatives in his New Deal program to provide jobs. The CCC focused on young men specifically and jobs in the outdoors that benefited the environment, meaning that most projects focused on parks and forests.

Enrollees from around the country planted billions of trees and came to be called the “Tree Army.” They also fought forest fires, repaired damaged grazing lands and built roads, trails and many structures to improve existing parks and create new ones. In Sequoia, the CCC also cut the tunnel in the fallen sequoia that is now Tunnel Log. When a giant tree fell cross Crescent Meadow Road, a CCC crew cut the tunnel that allows vehicles to pass through it.

Marmot Country: Check Under Your Hood

A bear sighting always generates a lot of excitement, and many park visitors (foolishly) spend time trying to feed deer and squirrels. But at higher Sierra elevations, there’s another furry creature that can give photo opportunities — and also create some expensive trouble.

Marmots, larger relatives to squirrels, LOVE salt, including sweaty clothes and boots. They also have a taste for radiator fluid and will crawl under a vehicle’s hood to get it. And if their meal doesn’t disable your ride then and there, they might hitchhike home with you.

It’s happened many times. A marmot that rode from Yosemite to San Francisco eluded capture for a time and caused enough of a stir during its two-week stay that somebody created a Twitter feed and posted the animal’s thoughts on its city vacation. Almost immediately after it was returned to its May Lake home, it jumped into another car.

A Lost Ranger: Randy Morgenson

Backcountry rangers play an important role in the National Park Service even though they see few people.

The ones patrolling the remote reaches tend to favor more solitude, and their jobs can include checking conditions for far-off trails and facilities, rehabilitating campsites and cleaning up messes left behind by irresponsible visitors, checking for unauthorized trails, campsites and fires, offering guidance on how to enjoy the area with minimal impact, and search and rescue operations in the parks’ more wild environs.

In 1996, one of Kings Canyon’s most experienced backcountry rangers went missing.

Randy Morgenson lived his life in the mountains, growing up in the heart of Yosemite Valley because his father Dana Morgenson worked there. The elder Morgenson became a well-known Yosemite photographer and author who also guided popular camera walks with park visitors.

His son worked 28 seasons in Kings Canyon and had also spent time climbing in the Himalayas before he disappeared. It would take five years to find his body, a period in which there was much speculation about what happened to the man who had mountains in his blood. Some theorized that he had perhaps decided to simply disappear.

But when his remains were found, it was evident that he perished on the job, likely falling through a snowbridge, and reinforcing that even those who know mountains best can fall victim to their dangers. Morgenson’s story has inspired several articles as well as a book.

Another Sort of Park, For Big Cats, Not Trees

Off the Highway 180 approach to Kings Canyon lies Dunlap, which is home to a different sort of attraction than those offered by SEKI.

Its Cat Haven is a sanctuary for lions, jaguars, leopards and other big cats and made news in 2013 when one of its lions tragically killed a worker.

And There Was Nearly a Disney Resort at Mineral King

It’s funny to think of national parks and Disney resorts having shared history, but Walt Disney wanted to build a ski resort at Mineral King.

A little more than a decade before it became part of Sequoia, Walt Disney Enterprises had support from the US Forest Service to develop a complex called Sky Crown there. The year-round destination designed to mimic the look of the Swiss Alps was to offer skiing and many other family-friendly winter sports as well as theme park-style attractions. The animatronic revue Country Bear Jamboree was actually first planned for Mineral King.

But the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit to block Sky Crown. The battle over Walt Disney’s last resort vision would extend years beyond his death in 1966. The lawsuit dragged into the 1970s and sparked various protests, including a March on Disneyland itself. There were also various bills proposing that Mineral King become part of Sequoia National Park instead, but it didn’t become so formally until more than 10 years after the Disney resort was proposed.

Kenneth Rexroth: Another Writer Who Loved the Mountains

Though he didn’t consider himself a Beat, poet Kenneth Rexroth was a central figure and is described by some as the father of the movement for his earlier writings.

He introduced Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder and was master of ceremonies at the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco where Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Phil Whalen read their works. That night proved a seminal moment in the Beat era. Fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was in the audience, and he offered to publish Ginsberg’s Howl through his City Lights (which continues to be a famed San Francisco publisher and bookstore). When the poem sparked an obscenity trial, Rexroth sat in the witness stand.

Rexroth also inspired the Reinhold Cacoethes character in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, though it’s a rather unflattering literary honor.

Like Snyder and Kerouac, Rexroth had an affinity for the mountains and was especially fond of the Sierra — the backcountry in Sequoia and Kings Canyon in particular.

He spent many summers there and said it was where he did much of his writing. He wrote extensively about his Sierra sojourns, including many poems and an unpublished WPA guide to camping in the West. (Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration also launched a Federal Writers Project during the Depression to give work to literary types. More than 1,000 pamphlets and guidebooks covering every state resulted, though many are now out of print.)

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