Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Sequoia National Park/Gold Country
Trip Date: June 27-28, 2009
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: June 29, 2009

Three persons ventured out on this last, hottest weekend of June. We left the Bay Area before sunrise and arrived at Sequoia National Park, about 50 miles east of Visalia, at midday on Saturday, June 27. The air was hot at the lower visitors center, but as we climbed the steep, serpentine road, the temperature decreased with altitude. This was one of the few places to stay relatively cool on this sizzling weekend.

Sequoia National Park, our country's second oldest National Park, celebrated its century mark in 2008. Located at the southernmost end of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range this spectacular park is home to the Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). These trees can tower 270 feet high and bulk up to 30 or more feet in diameter. The nearby Sequoia National Forest was established in July of 1908, and is currently one of the nineteen national forests in California. Protected within the area parks are 38 Sequoia groves that offer sanctuary to the world's largest trees. Besides the trees, this immense and spectacularly beautiful park has grand views of granite monoliths, glacier-formed canyons, roaring rivers and lush meadows.

Thanks to visionaries such as John Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt, etc. we can still walk up to these unbelievably huge trees, touch their spongy bark and gaze up to their dizzying heights. I have wanted to see the Sequoias for as long as I knew they existed, and this particular field trip was a bit of a pilgrimage for me.

The Sequoias closest relative, the Coast Redwood, grows taller but has a less massive trunk. The most obvious difference is in the shape of the trunk. Coast Redwoods have long, tapered trunks, while the Giant Sequoias have much more massive, columnar profiles.

We went to see the most famous tree in the park, a giant named the General Sherman. The General Sherman Tree is 274.9 feet in height, and 102.6 feet in circumference at its base. Other trees are taller-the largest Coast Redwoods are 300 to 350 feet in height. And a cypress near Oaxaca, Mexico has a greater circumference at 162 feet. But in sheer volume, the Sherman has no equal. With its estimated volume of 52,510 cubic feet, the General Sherman Tree earns the title of the World's Largest Tree. A tree cut down in 1926 supposedly had a volume of 63,350 cubic feet, but those numbers cannot be verified.

We hiked to the base of the General Sherman, seeing it first, from an overlook. Addmittedly, I was a bit disappointed to see it from further back because it lacked the impact that it did while viewed from its base. (We prematurely dubbed it the "mudpup" of this excursion.) It appeared aged and battered from the overlook (as though it might crumble to pieces and eventually die). Since we were so close we decided to go to the base of it; and that's where the sheer bulk of it became evident. A large branch of the tree fell off probably in the past decade and its shattered remains lie at the foot of the tree. The branch itself was the height and bulk of a regular sized, fully-grown tree. Our perspective of the upper portion of this huge tree from the ground is skewed by perspective and the distance to the top. It's massive crown couldn't be appreciated unless viewed from atop another tall tree.

Prior to visiting the grove containing the General Sherman, we visited Crystal Cave. The drive down the cave is an ordeal in itself. The road is slow, winding but very scenic. To see the cave you have to hike down a steep half-mile trail (with several stairways) that leads down to beautiful Cascade Creek with its spectacular waterfall that plummets down into the canyon below.

Tickets for the guided tour go fast and have to be purchased at one of two park headquarters facilities. The tickets were moderately priced at $11. (Tickets are not sold at the cave entrance, and tripods are prohibited on the cave tour.) Because of the altitude and remote, winding roads, the cave is closed through the winter until May.

As we stumbled down the steep and narrow trail, we wondered if we had made the right choice after all, what stumbles down must drag itself back up the trail again! We negotiated the trail with few incidents, save a scare by a small rattlesnake that was giving its warning to us as we passed very close to it. (We were actually at a significant risk because the younger the rattlesnake, the stronger the venom.) Although the snake wasn't tightly coiled, it could have delivered a nasty bite to the torso of some unfortunate hiker. It eyed us suspiciously as we tried to take a picture of it and then it crawled back into a crack in the rocks.

At the bottom of the trail we gathered with the 2 p.m. tour group and entered into the wide, cool entrance of the cave that was secured by a large spider-web-shaped, wrought iron gate. As the 50-degree air of the cave enveloped us, we were certain that we had made the correct decision! We spent about 45 minutes in the dark, damp cave looking at elegantly-sculpted limestone formations. The tour was a delightful experience, but ended all too soon and we were soon thrust out back into the heat. Before mounting the trail back up to the parking lot, we doused ourselves in a pool of cool water at the base of the waterfall. Between the rocks, the sandy bottom of the creek glittered with mica, looking like thousands of flakes of gold.

The hike back to the top wasn't as bad as we imagined, and after a short rest we climbed back in the air-conditioned car and resumed our drive through this amazing paradise of a forest.

At day's end we drove back down to the heat of the Central Valley, ate dinner in Visalia and settled into our beds at a motel in Fresno. (We opted not to camp in the park, choosing air conditioning over the absence of showers, and the company of night-marauding bears.) Reluctantly, we left the air conditioned motel to hit the road north to Gold Country. I had chosen the hottest day of the year to take a Gold Country tour! Go figure.

As we meandered back up Highway 49, passing through many former gold mining camps, we blew by maybe 100 historic markers. Knowing better than to stop, I bypassed all historic sites except for the mining town of Columbia. Columbia is near the larger town of Sonora. It has long been designated as a California State Park and has been a tourist site since the 1930s, making it the best preserved remnant of a California gold mining town in the state. We braved 104-degree temperatures to pay a brief visit. The hot weather probably eliminated the usual crush of tourists, and the shop tenders were tired, frazzled and a bit testy. We chatted briefly with "Davey Crocket," an in-character docent who took out his false teeth and mugged for our cameras. I watched as a weary stagecoach driver and his overheated team of horses delivered one solitary 10-year-old passenger on the final stage coach ride of the day. I saw a lot of myself in that 10-year-old kid. I had taken the same stage coach ride four decades ago when my aunt brought me and my parents here.

The structures seemed smaller they were more monumental in my mind's eye. Oh, well, it was nice to see the same history still preserved by the State Park System. (Excuse me for this, but I must make another pitch, and urge you to let your state legislators and the governor know that you insist that our beautful State Park system remain intact!) Our least heat-tolerant tour member made a motion to leave, so we rushed back to the car and unanimously decided to end this overheated tour of Gold Country.

I think this trip to Sequoia National Park ranks as one of the best touring experiences I ve ever had and Crystal Cave was well worth the extra hassle involved. Unfortunately the blast-furnace weather conditions pretty much made the Gold Country tour an abortive venture. Better in the off-season. Sequoia will surely be nominated for future field trip calendars because I want to see even more of this spectacular destination!

© 2009 S.R. Hinrichs