The vast interior of California is split down the middle by the Sierra Nevada (Spanish for “snowy range”), or High Sierra, a sawtooth range of snowcapped peaks that stands high above the semi-desert of the Owens Valley. The wide San Joaquin Valley in the west was made fertile by irrigation projects during the 1940s, and is now almost totally agricultural. The real reason to come here is for the grand national parks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon – and Yosemite, where waterfalls cascade down towering walls of silvery granite. Few roads penetrate the hundreds of square miles of wilderness, but the entire pristine alpine backcountry is crisscrossed by hiking trails.
The I-5 freeway barrels through the valley on a course so flat, straight and dull it’s almost hypnotic. Three to six daily trains on the San Joaquin line – connecting Oakland and Bakersfield, but not LA – and frequent Greyhound buses run through the valley, calling at the towns along Hwy-99, in particular Merced, which has bus connections to Yosemite but otherwise doesn’t merit a look-in.Read More
Sequoia and Kings Canyon
Sequoia and Kings Canyon
The southernmost of the Sierra Nevada national parks, preserving ancient forests of giant sequoia trees, are Sequoia and Kings Canyon. As you might expect, Sequoia National Park contains the thickest concentration – and the biggest specimens – of sequoias to be found anywhere, tending (literally) to overshadow its assortment of meadows, peaks, canyons and caves. Kings Canyon National Park has few big trees but compensates with a gaping canyon gored out of the rock by the Kings River as it cascades down from the High Sierra.
Sequoia National Park
The scenery is quite varied in SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK – paths lead through copious forests and meadows, while longer treks rise above the tree line to the barren peaks of the High Sierra. Soon after entering the park from the south, Hwy-198 becomes the Generals Highway and climbs swiftly into the dense woods of the aptly labelled Giant Forest, where displays in the modern Giant Forest Museum (summer 8am–6pm, rest of year 9am–4.30pm; free) explain the life cycle and ecosystem of the sequoias and the means of protecting the remaining groves. From here you can explore along Crescent Meadow Road where a loop road leads to the formidable granite monolith of Moro Rock (a three-mile marked trail leads from Giant Forest), which streaks upward from the green hillside. A steep 15-minute hike to the flat summit can reveal 150-mile views on a clear day.
Continuing east, a perimeter trail around the sequoia-rimmed Crescent Meadow leads to Tharp’s Log, a cabin hollowed out of a fallen sequoia by Hale Tharp who was led here by Native Americans in 1856. Just north of Giant Forest, back on the Generals Highway, is the biggest sequoia of them all, the 2200-year-old, 275ft General Sherman Tree, whose extraordinary dimensions are hard to grasp alongside the almost equally monstrous sequoias all around.
Whatever your plans, you should stop at Lodgepole Village, three miles north of the Sherman Tree, for the geological displays and film shows at the visitor centre (June to Aug daily 7am–6pm; May & Sept daily 7am–5pm; t 559/565-4436), which also has information on touring Crystal Cave, the park’s single cave (3 miles long), among hundreds of unmarked ones, that’s open to the public. You can also explore a glacial canyon on the Tokopah Valley Trail (2hr), which leads to the base of Tokopah Falls, beneath the 1600ft Watchtower cliff. The top of the Watchtower is accessible by the fatiguing but straightforward six-mile Lakes Trail.
Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon National Park is wilder and less visited than Sequoia, with a maze-like collection of canyons and a few isolated lakes. To reach the canyon proper, you have to pass through the hamlet of Grant Grove, where there’s a useful visitor centre (daily: June–Aug 8am–6pm; rest of year 9am–4.30pm; t 559/565-4307) and the 2.5-mile Big Stump Trail shows off the remains of the logging that took place in the 1880s – to be shipped cross-country to convince cynical East Coasters that such enormous trees really existed. A mile west of Grant Grove, a large stand of sequoias contains the General Grant and Robert E. Lee trees, which rival the General Sherman in size.
Kings Canyon Highway (Hwy-180; May–Oct only) descends from Grant Grove into the steep-sided Kings Canyon, cut by the furious forks of the Kings River. Its wall sections of granite and gleaming blue marble, and the yellow pockmarks of blooming yucca plants (late spring, in particular) are magnificent. A word of warning: don’t be tempted by the clear waters of the river; people have been swept away even when paddling close to the bank in a seemingly placid section.
Once into the national park proper, the canyon sheds its V-shape and gains a floor. Cedar Grove Village here is named for its proliferation of incense cedars. There’s a ranger station across the river (mid-June to Aug daily 9am–5pm; May & Sept hours reduced), and the scenery is rich with wildflowers – leopard lilies, shooting stars, violets, lupins and others – and birdlife, too. Wander around the green Zumwalt Meadow, four miles from Cedar Grove Village, which spreads beneath the forbidding grey walls of Grand Sentinel and North Dome.
Just a mile further on, Kings Canyon Road comes to an end at Copper Creek. Beyond, the multitude of canyons and peaks that constitute the Kings River Sierra are networked by hiking paths, almost all best enjoyed armed with a tent, provisions and a wilderness permit from the trailhead ranger station.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park
Simply put, YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK (w www.nps.gov/yose), nestled in the picturesque Yosemite Valley, is one of the world’s most dramatic geological spectacles. Just seven miles long and less than one mile across, it is walled by near-vertical three-thousand-foot cliffs, streaked by tumbling waterfalls and topped by domes and pinnacles that form a jagged silhouette against the sky. At ground level, grassy meadows are framed by oak, cedar and fir trees; deer, coyotes and even black bears abound. You can visit at any time of year, even in winter when the waterfalls ice over and the trails are blocked by snow, and, excepting summer, the valley itself is rarely overcrowded. Park entry costs $20 per vehicle, $10 per pedestrian or cyclist, and is valid for seven days (an annual pass is only $40). Bus passengers get in free.
Yosemite Valley was created by glaciers gouging through the canyon of the Merced River: the ice scraped away the softer granite leaving soaring cliffs. Thanks to the campaigning work of naturalist John Muir, in 1864 Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove were set aside as America’s first protected wilderness. A Scottish immigrant who travelled the entire area on foot, Muir spearheaded the conservation movement that led to the founding of the Sierra Club, with the express aim of preserving Yosemite.