Finding Solitude Amidst the Sequoias
After four quiet, serene nights in Kings Canyon National Park's Azalea campground, where I enjoyed a spacious pull through with my entire passenger side windows and doors opening out into the forest, I move just 18 short miles "across the border" to neighboring Sequoia National Park. I figure as a self-proclaimed National Park junkie, I need to sleep in both camps.
But it's approaching the weekend which comes at a premium in Sequoia National Park, so I go online and get the last remaining spot in Dorst Creek Campground. Recreation.gov says the site is 24 feet, but my front headlight sticking out in the road says it's more like 22. For all the spacious quiet I had in Kings Canyon, there will be none of that here. I have tents outside my back window and a pop-up beside me. The "H" Loop is down in a hole, which amplifies the noise and intensifies smoke from the campfires all around. It's opening weekend for Dorst Creek Campground, and the Coleman Stoves are out in force.
I have only two days to explore the park, so I get an early start to see some of the highlights. But Sequoia is a bit of a "drive through" park with many of the attractions being right off Highway 198, so traffic builds quickly. A drive through "Tunnel Log" is a breeze heading into the center of the park, but when I return a couple of hours later, there is a traffic jam lined up for the requisite photo stop under the hollowed-out log.
I want to climb the 400 steps to the top of Moro Rock, and hope that given the steepness of the climb, it will not be too heavily trafficked, especially this early in the morning. But it's a steady stream of people climbing the stairs, many who are beyond their comfort zone, or too small to be on a trail so steep, narrow and crowded.
It's never the height that scares me on a climb like this. It's the people who are more focused on finding a signal than they are on safety. Most of Sequoia National Park is cut off from cell range with the exception of Moro Rock summit, which has a crowd of people assembled on top with their focus on their smart phones, catching up on emails.
While Moro Rock is considered the premier hike in the park, just 100 ft away is a beautiful trail that links Moro Rock to Crescent Meadow, with gorgeous views of the monolith and the Western Divide. But no one is on it. I hike for six miles and never see another soul. No, they are all jammed up back on Moro Rock.
As I approach the nearby Crescent Loop Trail, word gets out that there is a mama bear and a cub across the meadow. People start running. Given the number of bear bells I have heard clanging on the back of hiker's packs, one might think people were running from the bear. But no, they are running towards it. The Ranger gallops across the meadow, his rubber-bullet loaded rifle slamming against his chest. He calls for back-up on the two-way. They have to cordon off the bear to keep people away. The Ranger is literally yelling, "Keep moving, people!! Keep moving!" It's quite a spectacle of paparazzi while the bears are just trying to enjoy a peaceful lunch.
I follow the road to the Giant Forest Grove, which ends at the Giant Forest Museum. I can't help but ponder the irony of Joni Mitchell's lyrics, "They took all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum. And they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em."
Many of the giant sequoias are behind fences now for their own protection. In the early days, it took the Calvary to protect them from loggers, whereas the current times, they have fences to protect them from bloggers. One cannot get close enough to touch the bark or hug the tree because there are still people out there who think it is clever to carve their names into the skin of these thousand year old stately beauties.
The most famous of these trees, General Sherman, the largest sequoia in the world, can't be seen while driving by. One must actually get out of their automobile for a look at the 2,000 year old tree. It has its own dedicated paved path leading tourists to the center of the Giant Forest Grove, where the tree is surrounded by fencing. The half mile paved path descends 200 feet down into the grove with benches and motivational milestones along the way to encourage the weary tourists, "You're halfway there!"
On my last day in Sequoia National Park, I am longing for a bit of solitude amidst these giants. I want to get away from the crowds and be in a place and state of mind where I can truly appreciate the magnitude, the age, the conditions that must be just right for these majestic beauties to thrive. I plan a double strategy -- a way to escape the crowds and the campfire smoke both at the same time. There is a hike into the Muir Grove that departs right from Dorst Creek campground. I will time this hike for the late afternoon when the crowds are back at camp and the smoke from the campfires is building.
The beautiful Muir Grove trail leads through sugar pine, red and white fir trees, and follows Dorst Creek through the forest. The trail is carpeted with fragrant fallen needles that soften the sound of my footsteps through the woods. The sun is casting a horizontal beam of golden light through the dense forest. Although the brochure says it's only 2 miles to the Muir Grove, it ends up being 2.5 miles according to my Backcountry Navigator app, so I have to hurry to spend time with the trees before sundown. By the time I reach the grove, I am beyond my designated turnaround time, and practically sprinting. But it's 2 nights before the full moon, and I have a flashlight and fresh batteries.
I reach the grove of giant sequoias just as the sun is getting low on the horizon. The golden light on the cinnamon colored trunks is radiant. There are no fences here, so I am free to touch and tree-hug to my heart's content. I have not seen anyone the entire hike, so I know I am alone in the forest. I speak aloud to the trees and tell them how lucky they are to be far from the drive-by routes in the park. How fortunate they are to grow free without fences around them, or information boards touting their weight and height rating how they qualify to be one of the largest tourist attractions in the park. I tell them John Muir would have been proud to have such a beautiful place named for him. I tell them to stay strong. Defy the odds. Live for another two thousand years in spite of human intervention.... And then I hug them. First one, then another. True confessions of a tree hugger.
"A magnificent growth of giants...one naturally walked softly among them. I wandered on, meeting nobler trees where all are noble...this part of the Sequoia belt seemed to me the finest, and then I named it 'the Giant Forest." ~ John Muir