It was a statistic that had people talking: the National Park Service was reporting the Castle Fire, which scorched 273 square miles of Sequoia National Park, had destroyed up to 14% of the world’s mature giant sequoia population. Trees known for being able to withstand wildfires. Sequoias of up to 3,000 years old. If ever there was a time to hug a tree, it was now.
The Castle Fire, which started on August 19, 2020, continues to smolder today. “The forest is changing and the drought and climate change are really stressing these forests in new ways with both fire and [bark] beetles,” Christy Brigham, chief of resources management and science at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks told the Los Angeles Times.
The next day, we hit the road for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, intent on surveying the damage and ready to marvel over sequoias.
Getting to Base Camp
Unable to tent camp due to an injury, we booked a deliverable recreational vehicle (RV) through RVshare. The Campspot website found the perfect basecamp for our visit: Nelson Falls RV Park. The venue’s website declared – “May the Forest Be With You!”– something in keeping with our goals.
Our starting point: Santa Ana, California.
Our route: Interstate 5, about a four-hour and 40-minute drive.
As we hit the Grapevine area that stretches from Castaic to the Central Valley, the stark reality of climate change stared us in the face. Acres of scorched, barren land was crowded with cattle. There was hope, too, with signs of climate renewal. More and more citrus and solar farms were claiming space in the landscape.
Arriving at Route 190, we began winding up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was possible to see hikers exploring various trails and rock hopping in springs. Hugging the sides of the mountains were several vehicles a bit uncertain about the width of the road. The etiquette of most drivers is to pull over so faster vehicles can pass. In this situation, several drivers seemed frozen on their path. There was no honking and yelling, though. Instead, friendly smiles offered encouragement.
As the road climbed higher, trees began dotting the mountainside. So, too, was evidence of the Castle Fire’s destruction. Despite this, the beauty of the Sequoias was undeniable.
Into the Woods with RVshare
Arriving at Nelson Falls RV Park, our ears immediately perked up, listening for the waterfalls said to be throughout the property. There were trails to plunder, ducks to feed, and deer passing through to dine on the land.
In short order, a Dutchmen RV Coleman Lantern Series 215BH appeared. It was Juan, the gentleman we’d rented the RV from through RVshare, a peer-to-peer, online booking and listing platform for RVs (think Airbnb but for RVs) company for RV owners with vacationers. When RV owners aren’t using their vehicles, they add them to the rental pool as an excellent source of income. Travelers, meanwhile, benefit from the convenience of choosing an RV that’s right for their particular trip.
Many reasons played into our decision to use RVshare’s delivery service versus renting a vehicle and driving it ourselves. We wanted to be as kind to the environment as possible, so chose an owner who lived close to our destination to cut down on gas consumption.
Inexperienced RV drivers, we also didn’t have to brave the twisty mountain roads. And, best of all, Juan set up the RV for us, which was decked out with dishes, bedding, and other perks he supplied, like games and videos.
After hooking the RV to power and sewage, Juan went over how to operate the vehicle. He cranked out an awning and unfurled a rug so we’d have a “front porch” for coffee in the morning.
Can you tell we loved Juan? Yes, he was great. Bidding Juan adieu, it was time to explore the area.
Ponderosa Tavern, Dome Rock & Trail of 100 Giants
Signs of work underway in the fire area were everywhere, but there are some road closures, as well as delays. We watched during a traffic stop as Southern California Edison workers cut and hauled damaged trees and produced wood chips to reduce mudslides.
Our day of driving had us parched, so when we spotted the Ponderosa Lodge/General Store/Tavern, we pulled in for a pint. The general store/bar/restaurant was buzzing with locals drinking glasses of wine off tree trunk tables. Bandana-donned pups stopped by to say hi and get a French fry or two. The scene was entirely idyllic and called for lingering, but daylight was fading and more adventures lay ahead.
Just past the tavern, a sign for Dome Rock appeared. Turning down this dirt road, we made our way to a parking area where hikers were coming and going. Making our way up Dome Rock was rewarded by a view of the valley and, surprisingly, 5G cell service. Also on the summit were rock cairns, signs that hikers had made the trek and included themselves in the terrain.
Our next stop was down the Western Divide Highway to the Trail of 100 Giants. It was here that President Clinton declared the area the Giant Sequoia National Monument in 2000.
The grove is definitely impressive with its largest inhabitant a mighty 220 feet tall and 20-feet in diameter, another 125 giant sequoias greater than 10 feet in diameter, and 700 sequoias less than 10 feet in diameter. This is definitely a place that calls for hugging trees.
The 1.3-mile loop traverses Long Meadow Grove, circling past 1,500-year-old trees. Some sequoias invited, “Step inside.” One offered up a throne to sit upon. Another giant had fallen, crushing a portion of the boardwalk. Its stature, even on the ground, was awe-inspiring. Around a bend, the root structure of yet another tree brought on vibes of HBO’s Game of Thrones.
We left Trail of 100 Giants ready to see even more magnificent sequoias. With this in mind, we set a course for Kings Canyon.
More Giants in Kings Canyon
Though Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are literally kissing cousins, the drive to the entrance of Kings Canyon took three hours to reach from our Nelson Falls RV Park basecamp. Along this scenic foray were rocky outcroppings, alpine landscapes, waterfalls, and even a pair of cows who appeared to be hitchhiking from the mountaintop.
Our starting point: Springville, CA
Our route: 65N to 245N, then 180, about a three-hour drive.
Spotted on the drive: foxtail, whitebark, and Ponderosa pines, white fir, incense cedar, western juniper and, then, giant sequoias by way of the General Grant Grove. We’d been wowed at the Trail of 100 Giants. Awestruck describes the feeling evoked by the grove’s towering sequoias noticed immediately in the parking lot.
There are six trails from which to choose. Going big, we decided on the one-third of a mile-long General Grant Tree Trail, the site of one of the world’s largest living trees. Catching our eye was a fallen monarch. As humans made their way inside the tree it was easy to see how pioneers of yore chose to house horses here. Currently making their home inside the smallest of cracks was a bevy of slumbering bats.
Around a curve, the General Grant Tree, the world’s second-largest sequoia, made itself known. Indeed, it’s hard to miss at 267 feet tall and 29 feet in base diameter. In 1926, President Coolidge declared it the Nation’s Christmas tree — one that doesn’t require decorations to bring on a sense of cheer.
With limited time, we stopped at the park’s visitors’ center to get advice from a ranger. What should we tackle with the limited remaining daylight? Logistically, it didn’t make sense to visit the world’s largest sequoia – the General Sherman Tree, an impressive 275 feet tall and 36 feet in base diameter. Instead, we chose to explore Kings Canyon Scenic Byway.
Right away we were rewarded with views of the Monarch Divide with a sojourn at the Junction View Overlook. Another stop brought with it views of Kings River. Despite the distance from the river itself, the sounds of its rushing rapids could be heard. A “warning sign” for icy temperatures by way of ice cream had us stopping at a roadside kiosk for cones.
We just missed the last tour of the day of Boyden Cavern. The sight of the last visitors embarking on the steep climb to the tour entrance mountain brought on envy. They’d be spending an hour taking in the marble cavern’s stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, pendants, and shields.
There was still much to see, including Roaring River Falls. Warning signs throughout the park caution against getting into bodies of water. The rapids are known for being deadly. Watching them rush by from the trails, though, is a wonder to behold.
What we didn’t see, but had heard about, were the California black bears that make their home in the park. Plenty of bear-proof waste cans made it obvious our timing was just off. Reaching the road’s end we declared a return visit to Kings Canyon was necessary. We barely scratched the surface in a single day. And the landscape is, well, beyond dazzling.
The Long Way Home
The next morning, Juan, our RVshare host, returned to pick up the RV. We said goodbye to it, Nelson Falls and Juan all too wistfully as we hit the road. Not quite ready to leave, we took a long route home.
Our starting point: Springville, CA
Our route: 65S to 99S to 5S, about a four-hour drive.
A good portion of the drive brought with it so many of the trees we’d been communing with over the past few days. Too soon, they were replaced by meadows, then asphalt highways. Nevertheless, we’d hugged a tree or twenty and were looking forward to a future of many more such embraces.