What's great about travel is that there are always surprises, and sometimes an experience that was unexpected will turn out to be the highlight of your trip. In our case, we went to Sequoia National Park to see the trees but we came back talking about the caves.
Oh the giant Sequoia trees are impressive, all right. Who would not marvel at trees that weigh 2.7 million pounds, that are more than 2,000 years old and have branches seven feet in diameter?
More about those later, but along the way to see the trees we stopped in at the Foothills Visitor Center just after we entered Sequoia National Park. There was a line at the counter so we figured something was worth waiting for, so we nudged a little closer to see just what all the fuss was about. The visitors in line were signing up for the Crystal Cave, a guided tour that cost $10 for each adult, less for kids, and that was still another several miles' drive into the park. OK, we told the ticket-seller, we're game.
Next came a long, winding drive -- first up into the park, and then down several miles into a canyon to a parking area. From there, we still had a half-mile walk down a steep trail until it seemed we were almost down to the rushing river below. And then there it was: the entrance to Crystal Cave, mother of all Sequoia caves, or at least the one the public is most invited to explore.
Now this is not just any cave. The entrance is maybe just a little smaller than a railroad tunnel and no one is allowed in without a park escort. The guide will take groups of 70 persons or fewer into the cave and through the maze of many adjacent caves and chambers until, quite honestly, we probably never could have found our own way out. I guess this is why, when a little boy had to go to the bathroom, he was escorted back to the entrance by a second tour guide.
Aside from the spookiness thatnaturally comes from burrowing so far into the earth and its dark inner chambers, the real pay-off on this tour is the natural beauty. All along the way, from "room" to room, we saw gorgeous stalactites and "curtains," as well as ornate marble and all kinds of crystal formations that made this look like some sort of Hollywood movie set. Fortunately, there are paved, lighted pathways that we followed — our guide never far away — and the rooms had just enough illumination to showcase the formations and their brilliance.
On this hot summer day, the 48-degree temperature of the caves was refreshing. Our 45-minute tour was fascinating every step of the way, and climaxed when our tour guide turned off the lights to show us what total darkness was all about: nothing but black and not a thing visible, even an inch in front of your face. Our guide told us there have been times when the power generator has failed so, at this point, we were just about ready to return to the entrance. While many of the rooms are huge, this tour definitely is not for the claustrophobic.
After the tour it was a fairly steep hike back up to parking lot (something to keep in mind if you're bringing along Great Grandpa or anyone physically not able to climb the grade). But what an experience — well worth the price of admission and clearly the highlight of our visit to the park.
Sequoia is the second oldest park in the national park system — only Yellowstone predates it -- and the primary destination for many a California vacation. Most people come to see the Sequoia trees, which appear in several groves scattered throughout the park. The trees grow to a height in excess of 300 feet, second in height only to the Redwood trees of Northern California, but considerably larger in girth.
With a little research you learn that the Sequoia tree gets so large because it grows throughout its life and it's virtually impervious to disease. They only topple because of natural disasters, which explains how it's possible to have a tree like the General Sherman tree — a park highlight and said to be the oldest living thing in the world. The General Sherman tree is 36 feet in diameter at its base and you could put a 15-story building under its first branch.
The Sequoias are only at certain elevations in the park — generally between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. There are 75 groves in the park with most of the pictures taken in the "Giant Forest" at about 6,500 feet. Four of the world's five oldest trees are found in this grove and park bean counters — or should we say tree counters — say there are 10,657 trees in this five-square-mile grove.
We noticed on our swing through the park that there are numerous walks and hikes through the trees — a really spectacular opportunity to get up close and personal with these giant treasures. In addition to the Sequoias, there are Ponderosa pine, sugar pine, red fir and foxtail pine, all growing to greater than normal size because of the area's climate. If you like the Great Outdoors, there is no better place to marvel at Nature's beauty.
There are also numerous places to stop and enjoy the views from the park. The roads through Sequoia take you high into the Sierra Nevada range and, on a clear day, the views of nearby mountains, or even down into the San Joaquin Valley, are spectacular. The view from Moro Rock is said to be one of the best.
If you want to make a weekend of it, there are several places in the park, and at the edge of the park where you can spend the evening. There are eight lodging facilities in Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks, as well as several more in the nearby areas of Three Rivers and Lemon Cove. If you keep your eyes open -- or simply ask when you call to make reservations -- you'll find that vacation packages are available at certain times of the year.
Several campgrounds in the park offer spaces for RV camping, although some are more primitive and allow only tents. If you're bringing an RV, travel on the park roadways can be a little harrowing at times because roads are steep and narrow in some spots. Leaving Sequoia Park, there is a long downgrade and you'll want to be sure to downshift rather than ride your brakes — the locals told us that vehicles of all sizes come down out of the park with brakes smoking due to overuse.
But whether it's trees or caves you're after, the long, winding road to Sequoia National Park is worth it. After all, some of these trees have been waiting for you since before the time of Christ.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Sequoia National Park is located in the central Sierra Nevada mountain range. You can reach the park from the south by taking Highway 198 east from Visalia. Highway 198 turns into the Generals Highway, the primary road through the park. The north entrance can be reached from Fresno by taking Highway 180 east. The park is easily included in any Northern California vacation itinerary -- although allow plenty of time to drive through.
WHAT: Sequoia National Park is famous for some of the largest trees in the world and some of the highest mountains in the U.S. The park also contains more than 100 marble solution caves, including the Crystal Cave, which is shown to visitors in tour groups of 70 people or fewer.
WHEN: Summer is the best time to avoid hazardous driving, as there can be snow in the park up until June. The Crystal Cave tours are offered from May 8 through Nov. 14, weather permitting. No buses, trailers or vehicles over 22 feet long are permitted on the Crystal Cave road, and you'll need to allow 90 minutes from the time you purchase your tickets to get to the cave site. At certain, less-busy times of the year you'll find travel deals that make this trip especially affordable.
WHY: Sequoia National Park is one of California's natural treasures.
HOW: For more information on Sequoia National Park, phone (559) 565-3341. For several lodging options, call 866-875-8456. One lodging choice that has been recommended to us is the Plantation Bed and Breakfast Inn in Lemon Cove. This inn has a Gone with the Wind theme, with various rooms named after characters in the film and decorations to match. It's located a short drive from the park's southern entrance. Phone 800-240-1466. For a recommended list of Sequoia lodgings, please click here.
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)