27th May- 1st June – We’re heading for the big trees, high peaks and deep canyons of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, followed by the High Sierra wilderness of Yosemite. But first we pass through California’s Central Valley in the Sequoia region, land dedicated to intensive farming where fields are enormous for easier harvesting and row upon row of dark green citrus trees spread across the landscape…..California’s navel oranges are famous worldwide! This region harvests more than 120 different crops and is also one of the top dairy producers in the world!
Fruit stands dot the sides of the road and days are set aside for farmer’s markets and tasting tours. We stop and buy some local cherries and strawberries and wish we had room to buy more as there is so much wonderful choice!
Farms will also demonstrate how they hand-craft cheeses and make ice creams from their own fresh milk. In addition to this, there is wine from the vineyards, gourmet pistachios, dried fruits, chocolates, local honey and jams and olive oil from the various olive groves, hand-picked and cold pressed to provide a variety of flavours. On top of all this, restaurants here promise to serve up fresh farm-to-fork cuisine using creative recipes, local favourites and special desserts……wow!
Visalia, one of California’s oldest cities, is where we camp for the night, less than an hour away from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Sequoia having the highest peak in the US south of Alaska…..Mount Whitney, at just under 14,500 feet.
Sequoia, established in 1890, is America’s second oldest National Park. The giant Sequoia trees have nearly conical-shaped trunks that reach high into their huge branches, making them the world’s largest living trees in volume of total wood. This is the only place in the world where Sequoias grow naturally, between 5,000 and 7,000 feet on the western slopes of California’s enormous Sierra Nevada range, a mountain chain over 400 miles long with a number of peaks over 14,000 feet.
Having driven up from Death Valley, we enter Sequoia Nat.Park at the southern entrance and follow the Generals Highway through the many groves. We are standing In the Giant Forest sequoia grove which appears to provide one of the best habitats anywhere for sequoias to grow. Huge trees that dwarf their neighbours and tower over fragile wetland meadows where mule deer are grazing.
It’s amazing to think that these massive trees begin life from a seed as small as an oat flake, but it’s a big world for these little seeds and the odds of a single seed becoming a giant, are extremely small. Sequoias therefore, produce millions of seeds to increase the chance that a few will grow to maturity. Conditions have to be just right.
The really large adult trees seem to be immortal. Chemicals in the wood and bark provide resistance to insects and fungi and their thick bark also insulates them from most fires. They do however, have a shallow root system and the most common cause of death is by falling, triggered perhaps by damaged roots, strong winds or heavy snow.
One such giant is the General Sherman Tree, not the tallest or the widest, but the overall volume of its trunk, makes it the biggest tree on earth. Incredibly at 2,200 years old, it is not the oldest tree here either, but its size is proof that given the best conditions in which to grow, it will outgrow older trees rooted in less prime locations. It has a height of 275 feet, a circumference of 103 feet and is said to weigh 1,385 tons.
We pass many more giants as we continue up the Generals Highway including the General Grant Tree. Still standing after countless storms and fires, it is considered a national shrine, in memory of the men and women of the Armed Forces who have served and fought for their country. At a ‘young’ age of only 1,700 years, it towers above the other trees in the grove named after it.
From General Grant Grove, the 180 takes us north and east, beginning the climb to the start of the Kings Canyon Scenic Highway, a road that is closed in winter. We have some beautiful views and there are masses of wild flowers…….
Moby however is overheating once again and there are more climbs to come. We are not making much progress continually stopping to let the engine cool and so decide to give the rest of this stretch of road a miss. We also have some distance to go yet to reach our camping destination at Coarsegold, a town that got its name from the coarse grains of gold found there by early settlers.
From here it is a direct route along Highway 41 to Wawona, the southern entrance of Yosemite National Park. Over 3 million acres of the Sierra Nevada wilderness have been designated for protection and 95 percent of Yosemite is included in this.
All campsites inside the park are full but we are found a site at the Indian Flat Campground 8 miles outside the park, so at least we have somewhere to stay.
The pioneering conservationist John Muir described Yosemite as , “By far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” After driving 16 miles along Glacier Point Road flanked by fir and pine forests, we arrive at Glacier Point and can understand what he meant!
These commanding views are so unexpected and so very spectacular. The huge granite cliff of Half Dome looms in front of us, the craggy peaks and snowy mountains of the Clark Range spread to the horizon and waterfalls pour over granite cliffs to the Yosemite Valley far below. We can hear these falls clearly from where we are standing at just over 3,200 feet.
The Vernal and Nevada Falls
As we drive back down into the valley, the Tunnel View Overlook provides us with another granite panorama including the 620 foot Bridalveil Falls. A short but steep trail takes us closer to these falls where a rainbow shimmers, catching the late afternoon sun.
The massive and sheer, granite cliffs of Yosemite have always drawn climbers from all over the world, since the summit of Half Dome was reached in 1875. El Capitain has always been a big challenge and it is often possible to spot tiny figures as they attempt the climb. Reaching the summit can take days and so it is necessary for them to sleep in slings hanging from the cliff face! Many climbers however get into difficulties and today is no exception. A helicopter has been called to rescue some climbers huddled on this narrow ledge.
The climbers are near the bottom of the photo towards the left.
Looking at this sheer, 3,593 foot granite monolith, I cannot imagine how people, however brave, could attempt such a climb. I hope they manage to be rescued before dark.
Our second day here and we begin in the valley where the Merced River flows, tumbling over rocks and boulders as well as meandering through wetlands and green meadows and where we have a good view of Yosemite Falls.
The Tioga Road, one of the few roads that crosses the Sierra Nevada, reaches its highest point at the Tioga Pass at just under 10,000 feet. Winter snow buries this road for 6-9 months each year and it can take a long time to be cleared when drifts can reach a depth of 30 feet and avalanches bring down boulders and trees on to the road.
This 39 mile scenic drive is the gateway to Yosemite’s high country wilderness and although it is very cold, the spectacular views of forests, sub-alpine meadows, lakes and granite domes, make this drive definitely worthwhile. Moby has managed this climb thankfully without any serious overheating as he has had plenty of time to cool down in between taking many photos!
It is hard to imagine that millions of years ago, the Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra, were under a sea of ice more than 2,000 feet deep! The Tuolumne River flows through these meadows and we are told that at certain times of the year, they are covered in a carpet of flowers……must look amazing!
Yosemite has certainly been a wild and wonderful experience!
The Tioga Pass on Yosemite’s eastern side, is where we leave the park and begin the slow descent along the Lee Vining Canyon Scenic Byway, towards the little town of Lee Vining and the Mono Basin Scenic Area. One of North America’s oldest lakes lies in this basin…..Mono Lake, a vast, inland sea with no outlet, surrounded by volcanic hills and the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Although fish are unable to live in its alkaline waters, it is home to millions of brine shrimp, alkali flies and migratory birds. Native Americans who lived in the Mono Basin, used the alkali fly pupae as one of their main sources of food and became known as the ‘ Monache’ meaning ‘ fly-eaters.’ Monache was later shortened to ‘ Mono ‘ and applied to the region as well as the natives.
Calcium rich spring water bubbling up from the bottom of the lake into the alkaline water, resulted in these limestone tufa towers constantly forming under the water, now exposed as the level of the lake has dropped.
We stay at Mono Vista RV Campground in Lee Vining, where some neighbouring campers and Land Rover enthusiasts, suggest we visit the Great Basin National Park, perhaps one of the least visited parks in the US due to its remote location. However, it is on the route that we have chosen for Salt Lake City and not only does its remoteness appeal but also the chance to hike to the snow line to see ancient Bristlecone Pines…….trees that can be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. Sounds as if this will be our next park!