Giant sequoias’ namesake park deserves a visit

While many adventurers pass on these iconic trees, it’s really worth a trip to see up close (or above)
A photo taken from a mountain peak above Sequoia National Park

Grand as they are, it’s easy to overlook giant sequoias, even for those who visit the Sierra Nevada range often. Tahoe skiers and Yosemite climbers don’t even pass close to the biggest clusters of the world’s largest trees in Sequoia National Park.

At least once in a while, they should. Giant sequoias rate among the world’s tallest, oldest and prettiest living things. A misty walk among the reddish-brown majesties refreshes the soul, and if you can wait, autumn visitors get to enjoy fall foliage while missing summer heat and crowds.

Sequoia National Park boasts the world’s greatest concentration of the namesake trees, which grow naturally in just 75 groves between 5,000 and 7,000 feet of elevation on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Accessible only by long and winding roads (Highway 180 from Fresno or Highway 198 from Visalia), the park gets just a fraction of the visitation of its popular northern neighbors, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. That’s another good reason to take a road less traveled and enjoy these marvelously scenic and easy day hikes.

Big Trees Trail

A photograph of giant Sequoia trees
Big Trees Trail takes hikers through the heart of the Giant Forest. Credit Matt Johanson

Big Trees Trail takes visitors on a short and unforgettable loop through the Giant Forest, the park’s densest cluster of more than 8,000 giant sequoias. In fall, ferns turn from green to yellow in contrast to the giant redwoods.

This entire trail is either paved or covered with a boardwalk, making it accessible to almost anyone, including those in wheelchairs.

The loop circles the lovely Round Meadow and a portion of Little Deer Creek, taking hikers right beside giant trees around the meadow’s edge.

The loop itself is a little under a mile long (.8 mile), but most visitors (except those with disabled parking placards) will need to park at the Giant Forest Museum and hike from there, increasing the total distance to about 1.3 miles.

General Sherman Tree and Congress Trail

A photograph of the famous Congress Trail in Sequoia National Park, with giant Sequoia trees
Congress Trail rewards visitors willing to hike beyond the popular General Sherman Tree. Credit Matt Johanson

General Sherman Tree, 275 feet in height, boasts the greatest size of any tree in the world and also attracts more visitors than any other in the park. The 2,200-year-old marvel named for the Civil War general deserves a visit; but don’t stop there.

Instead, take the three-mile Congress Trail, which starts nearby, but delves deeper into the forest. Going this route immediately separates hikers from the Sherman crowd and introduces folks to dozens of other giant trees.

Regardless of your political leanings or feelings concerning the trail’s namesake institution, you can find familiar names, including President Tree and sequoias named for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

This paved loop hike has mild climbs and descents. The total distance from the main Sherman lot is 3.8 miles.

Crescent Meadow

A photograph of a giant log that has been repurposed into a cabin
Among points of interest in Crescent Meadow is Tharp’s Log, where rancher Hale Tharp once built a home inside a fallen tree. Credit Matt Johanson

More beautiful sequoias, fascinating landmarks, including the above-pictured Tharp’s Log, and a delightful chorus of frogs are chief attractions of this area. Hikers can go out and back or make an easy loop of around two miles. Besides the giant redwoods, this area boasts dogwoods which feature vibrant fall colors, pleasing autumn hikers and especially photographers.

To get there, drive east from Generals Highway past Moro Rock and then Tunnel Tree, through which cars can pass. Lumberjacks cut into this sequoia after it fell across the road’s path, so motorists can drive under it without the guilt associated with other tunnel trees killed by axe-wielding vandals to charge tolls and create photo opportunities.

On the short drive, be sure to appreciate many clusters of giant sequoias, like Parker Group. Many trees elsewhere were named for leaders who never visited the park, and one even honors Confederate General Robert Lee, so it’s nice to see a few dedicated to those who protected the sequoias, like Captain James Parker.

Crescent Meadow itself features a picnic area beside a parking lot and nearby stream. From here hikers can trek to the interesting Tharp’s Log, a fallen sequoia that rancher Hale Tharp made into a cozy cabin in the 1860s. Near to this abode is Chimney Tree, hollowed by fire in 1914 but still standing more than a century later; giant sequoias can survive hundreds of fires in their long lifespans. There are many options to customize an outing here of two to four miles.

Other short hikes include Little Baldy, Moro Rock, Bobcat Point and Tokopah Falls. Most visitors can reach each scenic vista and return in one to two hours. In summer months, spelunkers of all abilities can explore Crystal Cave, on a 45-minute family tour or a six-hour wild cave adventure. Tickets are available at the Lodgepole and Foothills visitor centers, not at the cave.

While all these attractions are found in the park’s western side, the eastern side features jagged summits like Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, and amazing backpacking on routes like the popular John Muir Trail. Summer sees these popular trailheads book up daily, but fall hikers get their pick of destinations, so it might be worth waiting a bit. Most visitors to this region enter from and exit to the Eastern Sierra, enjoying outstanding experiences, yet never seeing the awesome trees which gave the park its name.

Outdoors lovers of all kinds won’t regret going to see those trees at least once.

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