Sierra’s super sisters
Autumn may be lingering in the night shade of Tahoe, but a few hours away, for a few weeks more, the curious and adventurous can still enjoy the splendor of the southern Sierra summer. South of Yosemite, in a place where the awe-inspired and often-whispered superlatives are as common as the giant trees, towering rock cliffs and jagged peaks they describe, stand sister national parks. Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks may not be as renowned as their incomparable cousin to the north (Yosemite), but they are no less impressive, not to mention less crowded. Sierra Club founder John Muir claimed that the area was certainly a rival to Yosemite in its grandeur. He wasn’t toying with hyperbole.
Calling the Sierra Redwoods of Sequoia National Park giant is not a casual exaggeration either. Giant Forest off the Generals Highway – the road that connects the two parks via automobile – showcases four of the five biggest trees in the world, including the earth’s largest living thing – in terms of weight – the General Sherman tree.
The nation’s second oldest national park (after Yellowstone) was created in 1890 to preserve and protect the magnificent arbors. The Sherman tree’s estimated weight is nearly 1,400 tons and it is believed to be between 2,300 and 2,700 years old.
Kings Canyon, created in 1940 and expanded twice since, hosts what is deemed our nation’s Christmas tree – General Grant Tree. It is the third largest in the world and a living monument to all those who died in U. S. wars.
To go with the numerous groves of giant sequoias which give the elder sister park her name is an abundance of rock, sculpted by glacial chisels and brushed smooth by torrents of water. Tehipite Dome, in Kings Canyon, is the largest dome in the Sierra and numerous other big walls dominate the rivers and meadows. Such monstrous formations are the Grand Sentinel in Kings Canyon, the Watchtower in Sequoia’s Tokopah Valley and the aptly named, 2,000-foot-tall Angel Wings.
Canyons, some among the deepest in North America, cut through the granite mountains of the Great Western Divide which balances between the two parks around Triple Divide Peak. This peak is the matrix of the three major drainages in the area: Kings, Kern and Kaweah rivers. All three are beautiful rivers in their own right, but they also offer places for recreation or the opportunity to wander deep in thought or to be blissfully devoid of it.
Although most of the rivers and creeks are at or near their low points this time of year, myriad swimming and fishing holes exist, particularly along the South Fork of the Kings River. Also, back country lakes, such as Heather and Pear Lakes east of the Lodgepole Village in Sequoia, adorn the landscape and accompanying meadows.
Fly-fisherman can still explore these waters and sorted boulders of the river beds in search of the coveted golden trout as well as brook and rainbow even as autumn descends.
No roads cross the Sierra completely in this area, and while Sequoia is approachable from the Whitney Portal (Mt. Whitney at 14,494 feet, the tallest peak in the contiguous 48 states, is just inside the park’s eastern boundary), anyone entering from the east is going to be back packing for a few days – which is really the best way to see the area anyway.
The paved roads offer spectacular views, but unlike Yosemite, to appreciate these parks, the car needs to be turned off, locked and forgotten about for a few hours or a few days.
What: Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks
Where: South of Yosemite National Park in the southern Sierra
Drive: From Tahoe City, between seven and 11 hours depending on route. The fastest route is to take Highway 89 to South Lake Tahoe. From there, drive on Highway 50 West to Sacramento before turning south on Highway 99. In Fresno, take 180 to Kings Canyon.
Fees: Camp sites are $14 per night. Park entrance is $10.
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