Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sequoia National Park, a Journey Back in Time

      The long stretch of road between Sacramento and Fresno was some of the ugliest scenery, not just in California, but that I’ve ever passed.  Power plants, strip malls, dirty freeways, plastic fences, billboards galore, and endless dusty dry cracks of ground with nothing growing but piles of litter.  It’s as though I’d discovered the black spot in the center of the diamond that is California.  All I’d ever experienced is the unbelievable beauty that the state holds and it was a shock to drive down sad 99.  But once we turned off onto 198 towards Sequoia National Park, the familiar feelings of enchantment and awe that possess me when I’m in California, returned.  

     198 was a quiet road that looked as though it was returning to wilderness.  Every once in a while we would pass a farm, a few horses and fruit trees.  But mostly it was the dry golden mountainsides sprouting big squares of rock and grey skeletal trees with dry red leaves.  We passed through several towns that were no more- strips of small buildings so long ago abandoned that you could no longer read their signs.  My guess is they are businesses that used to attract tourists to the parks whose people have now moved on, leaving the entrance to Sequoia feeling like a delightful yet foreboding adventure.  As if seeing the Sierras for the first time wasn’t daunting enough.

     Finally we were in the park and what I immediately noticed was the sweet smell in the air.  I later found out that this smell has something to do with the dry earth, the Sequoias themselves, and a strange crackling in the air like a spark before fire.  The next thing I noticed was the road taking some deft turns, raising us up hundreds of feet every minute.

     It wasn’t long until a black bear crossed the road and bumbled up into the trees and out of sight, too quick for me to get my camera ready.  Bears are all over the Sierras.  You’re safe as long as you’re smart.  The main thing is to store your food carefully away at night, especially if you’re camping.  We stayed in the Dorst Creek Campground, which is spacious and shaded by stoic lodgepole pines.  Every campground provides a “bear box”.  Always use it, because it saves the bears.
     The first thing we did the next morning was set out to find the stars of the park, which are undeniably Sherman and Grant.  

     Here is me standing in front of Sherman.

     Even with my 17 mm lens it was a challenge to get the entire tree, bottom to top, in one photo.  That is how massive these creatures are.  They’re unreal.  

     This is General Grant, the biggest living thing on the planet at 275 feet tall and 100 feet around at its base:

     And here is the very top of Grant.  To give you an idea of how big this tree is, I  had to zoom to 300 mm to get this photo.  Grant has a beautiful crown, still perfectly intact after nearly 2,000 years.

     So, what is there to do in Sequoia National Park?  Well, for one thing- this park lives up to its name.  There are Giant Sequoias everywhere.  With the ever-popular Yosemite being just miles to the North, Sequoia is largely overlooked.  I don’t believe this is a bad thing, though, as nothing can compare to having a grove of these incredible trees all to yourself for an afternoon.  

     Your options are to explore the scenic drives and overlooks, hike, or just sit around under some big trees for the day.  No problem.

     For some reason, this photography trip gave me the most fortunate weather I ever could have hoped for.  These mid-July days in the park were no exception.  It isn’t uncommon for temperatures to soar into the 100’s during this time of year, but a band of gentle summer storms were following us around, and though they didn’t dispel any detrimental lighting or rain, they did cool the air considerably.  

     We came upon this field of wild Rudbeckia, the yellow flowers sprawling to meet an impressive tree line of Sequoias.  

     From afar, the Rudbeckia looked like fine dust compared to the towering trees.

     This was one of the most enchanting parts of the park, as it was the only place I saw these flowers growing.  They made for some very interesting photographs, especially when I got in close to explore their tiny world.

     Sequoias are the most amazing trees I’ve ever seen.  They’re giants and they’re rare- but it’s more than just that.  Their magic lies in the thick fiber of their bark, which at some points looks almost like fur.  Their sap is a rich, lucid garnet.  In places where it gathers, the tree looks as though it’s covered with gems.  Yellow and green moss grows in careful patches among the thick bark.  The trunks reach up towards the sky in the shape of a spiral and their colors range from soft brown, to orange, to golden.  

     My two favorites in the whole park were this pair.  Two souls standing next to each other for centuries.

     Here is Brett standing, tiny as he’s ever looked, between the two souls.

     Most of these trees are striped with battle scars, charred black rivets from the hundreds of fires that they’ve endured.  The scars are trademarks of age, strength.  

     Sequoias actually use fire to their advantage.  The smoke convinces their cones to drop, and the seedlings feed off the nutrients in the ashes.  Reborn from fire, the Sequoia is the true equivalent to the mythical Phoenix.

     It was a remarkable experience, spending time under these trees, staring up at them in awe at their startling and vast beauty.  Even the trees that lot limbs and half of their height, trees that were nearly hollow from the devastation of fire, were still alive.  As long as their deep roots are intact, they will continue to persevere throughout the centuries, and will actually grow around their scars.

     They belong to another world entirely.  They are time’s gift to man, a glimpse upon another era when nature was allowed to let its bounty run free and wild.  The trees are oddly comforting.  Their strength radiates.  The oldest Sequoia ever found was nearly 4,000 years old.  

     This National Park met and exceeded every expectation I had.  The only thing I can compare the feeling to is seeing the Grand Canyon with your own eyes for the first time.  You’ve heard about it and seen countless photos, but you don’t realize just how majestic and powerful the sight is to behold until you’re experiencing it for yourself.  

     I love these trees and I am so happy that they are protected.  We still have a long way to go to make sure these trees remain safe and get to go on growing for hundreds and even thousands of  years to come.  It is a dream that some people have dedicated their whole lives to.  If you visit the park and spend time with these trees, you’ll understand why.

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