If you have limited time to spend in Sequoia National Park, the first place to visit is the Lodgepole and Giant Forest area. Here you can see and learn about some of the most impressive living things on earth, all within a fairly small geographical area. The Giant Forest contains some of the best natural attractions, and the Lodgepole complex provides support services and human comforts to help you enjoy and appreciate it all.
The sheer abundance of awe-inspiring trees all in one place makes visiting an amazing experience.The Giant Forest was named by the patron saint of California wilderness, John Muir. The childlike simplicity of his description reflects the way many people feel when they encounter this extraordinary grove of giant sequoias. The General Sherman Tree, believed to be the largest tree on earth, is the star here—but it is by no means the only impressive sight. The sheer abundance of awe-inspiring trees all in one place makes visiting an amazing experience. Many of the trees are named for people and even the groups of trees are personified—one grove is called “Congress” and another is “The Senate,” as if they’ve gathered together for meetings. To understand more about the natural history of these trees, start your visit with a trip to the Giant Forest Museum. But whatever you do, make sure to save time for one of several short trails that make it easy to see an enormous amount in a short time.
Sights in Giant Forest and Lodgepole
Wuksachi Village (year-round, weather permitting) is located near Generals Highway, about two miles north of Lodgepole. Of all the accommodations and restaurants in the parks, those at Wuksachi Village are the most upscale and elegant, and the drive here (1 hour from Grant Grove) may well be worth it for at least one really nice meal. Other services at Wuksachi include a luxurious lodge, a gift shop (daily 8am-8pm), wireless Internet access, and an ATM.
Lodgepole Village (559/565-3301) contains the major visitor services for Sequoia National Park, including a large visitors center, market, the Watchtower Deli (9am-6pm daily early Mar.-early May, 8am-8pm early May-late Oct.), gift shop, coin laundry, ATM, shuttle services, and a post office. The market, gift shop, and laundry stay open spring through fall (8am-9pm daily early May-late Oct., 9am-6pm daily late Mar.-early May). Showers are also available (9am-1pm, 3pm-5pm daily Apr.-May, 8am-1pm, 3pm-8pm daily early May-late Oct., $1 for 3 minutes).
Many of the facilities here are closed in winter, so check the website before you come.
Lodgepole Visitor Center
The Lodgepole Visitor Center (Lodgepole Rd., 559/565-4436, 7am-7pm daily May-Oct., hours vary in spring and fall) is one of the major information centers run by the National Park Service. Visitors can get books, maps, and souvenirs and join a ranger talk or walk. Wilderness permits (summer $15, off-season free) are available inside the visitors center when it’s open. Self-register outside when it’s closed. Crystal Cave tour tickets are sold here (daily mid-May-late Oct.) until the visitors center closes for the winter. It’s about an hour’s drive to Lodgepole from either park entrance.
Wolverton is a picnic area two miles north of the General Sherman Tree. It’s a wide-open space with plenty of room for sledding in winter and barbecue and dinner theater events in summer (tickets sold at Lodgepole or Wuksachi Lodge).
General Sherman Tree
The General Sherman Tree (Wolverton Rd., off Generals Hwy., 4 miles north of the Giant Forest Museum) is not the tallest tree, at just under 275 feet, nor is it the widest, at about 103 feet in circumference, nor the oldest, at 2,200 years old, but by sheer volume of wood it is the largest tree known on earth. These superlatives are part of the fun. It can be difficult to imagine just how tall, and big, and old these trees are; scientists and park officials have devised ways to help us get our minds around it all. For example, General Sherman is about the same height as the Statue of Liberty.
Pick up some of the literature available at the visitors centers and discover the locations of the world’s 30 largest giant sequoias, among other fun facts. There are some things that facts and figures cannot communicate—such as being in the presence of the General Sherman Tree. It’s an easy 0.5-mile walk down from the parking lot or from the shuttle stop at Wolverton Road. When you get to the viewing area, you’ll find masses of people paying their respects. This enormous attraction can get crowded on summer weekends, so if you’re able to visit on a weekday, or early in the morning, you may enjoy the experience even more.
Giant Forest Museum
The Giant Forest Museum (Generals Hwy., 16 miles from the Ash Mountain Entrance, 559/565-4480, 9am-4:30pm daily) is a lively place full of giant sequoias that grow only here in the Sierra Nevada range. Children and adults alike love the touchable exhibits that provide context to all the facts and figures about the trees. This museum goes into great detail about the importance of fire in the life of a giant sequoia (and other plants and trees that grow in the same areas). You’ll also learn how the park used to look, and why many of the buildings have been removed to make way for more trees. This is a great stop for families, especially if the kids need a rest from hiking or from long intervals in the car. Numerous hikes branch out into the Giant Forest Sequoia Grove. Crystal Cave tour tickets are sold here (daily 9am-90 minutes before day’s last tour) in November after the Lodgepole Visitors Center closes for the winter.
Magical Crystal Cave (Generals Hwy., 3 miles south of the General Sherman Tree) is one of the most beautiful of the 200 or so caves that occur naturally in the park. Its immense underground rooms are filled with sparkling stalagmites and stalactites made of limestone that has metamorphosed into marble over time. The Sequoia Natural History Association (559/565-3759) offers 45-minute guided tours of the cave (daily mid-May-late Oct., adults $16, ages 5-12 $8). A more challenging two-hour tour takes you deeper into the caverns and gives you a much more detailed lesson on the cave’s history and geology. Best of all, serious spelunkers can sign up for the Adventure Tour (559/565-4222, $135), a four- to six-hour crawl off the well-lit trails and into the depths of Crystal Cave. You must be at least 16 years old and in good physical condition to join this expedition. Caving gear is provided.
You can’t buy a ticket for a tour at the entrance to Crystal Cave. Stop at either the Foothills Visitor Center (one mile north of the Ash Mountain Entrance, 559/565-4212, ticket sales 8am daily May-Nov.), the Lodgepole Visitor Center (Lodgepole Rd., 559/565-4436, Lodgepole Rd., 559/565-4436, ticket sales 8am daily May-late Oct.), or the Giant Forest Museum (ticket sales 9am daily Nov.) in advance to purchase tickets. Then drive the long, winding, dirt road to the cave parking lot; the trip can take more than an hour from either visitors center. No trailers or RVs over 22 feet are allowed on the road to Crystal Cave. Be aware that even in the fall, tours fill up quickly, so if possible get your tickets early in the morning or even a day in advance. Ticket sales close daily at the visitors centers about 90 minutes before each day’s final tour.
Moro Rock stands starkly alone in the middle of the landscape, providing an amazing vantage point for much of the park. This granite dome was formed by exfoliation, a repetitive process in which outer layers drop off, the remaining rock is no longer as compressed, so it expands farther, and further peeling occurs. The end result is the rock’s smooth, rounded dome. If you can, try to be here for one of the ranger talks that occasionally happen on top, or visit at sunset to see it in full color.
For maximum impact, park in the lot at the base of the rock and climb the 400 steps to the top, a distance of about 0.25 mile. (The climb to Moro Rock is not for those with an extreme fear of heights, but most people should be able to manage it.) The stairs are solid, and there are handrails all along the way. You’ll want to take it slow, in any case; the entire route is filled with photo ops as you look down on the canyons of the Great Western Divide and across the canyons to some of the most beautiful peaks of the Sierra Nevada—Triple Divide Peak, Mount Silliman, Alta Peak, and Castle Rocks.
To reach the parking area from Generals Highway, take Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road south. There are restrooms and interpretive signage in the large parking lot. A free shuttle is available in summer (9am-6pm). The road is closed to vehicles weekends and holidays.
A sort of oasis beside the Giant Forest, Crescent Meadow is a bright green and yellow plain, thick with grasses and teeming with wildlife. You can walk around the whole meadow in about an hour, watching for all manner of birds, squirrels, chipmunks, marmots, and even black bears. To reach the parking area from Generals Highway, take Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road south, past Moro Rock to the road’s terminus. A free shuttle is available in summer (9am-6pm). The road is closed to vehicles weekends and holidays.
Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Northern California.