As we indicated last week, when we began the tale of our weekend getaway to Sequoia National Park, we had wanted to get into and out of the park before winter set in and the steep, narrow and winding roads turned into an icy nightmare.
A call to a park ranger revealed days before our trip that daytime temperatures in the park were near 80 degrees and even during nights the temperatures were well above freezing.
A great time to go.
As it turned out, a perfect time to go.
While current temperatures may have been above freezing, there had been sufficient chilly weather to turn much of the park into bright displays of yellows, oranges and reds.
The ground cover in many areas definitely denoted that fall had arrived.
AT THE PARK ENTRANCE — We entered the park on State Route 198, having spent a prior night at Three Rivers.
The park entrance fee per vehicle is $10 for seven days; $5 for seven days if you arrive on foot, bicycle, motorcycle or bus.
Of course if you are a U.S. citizen or permanent U.S. resident at least 62 years old, you can acquire a lifetime Golden Age Passport that gives you free access to national parks and 50 percent discount to specific sites that charge an additional entrance fee, such as some campgrounds, special tours and the like.
At the park entrance, we discovered our first mistake. We had not filled our gas tank before entering the park.
No gasoline is sold in the park.
So it was a quick U-turn and six miles back to the closest gas station, in Three Rivers.
Later in the day, we would discover our second mistake — we had entered the park with no food.
There is so much to see and so many experiences to enjoy that one doesn’t think about eating until far into the afternoon.
DRAMATIC VISTAS — We pulled off the roadway often at the many vista sites to gawk at the fabulous scenery.
Dramatic views — straight down — of the canyons, full of their fall colors, and, across the way, craggy mountains with lots of ragged rock formations.
At the Giant Forest Museum, we found a wonderful introduction to the park’s history, explanations of the various groves of huge trees, the obligatory video presentation that explains everything so quickly and the delightful hands-on interactive exhibits for the children, which we always find ourselves participating in.
Then it was back into the car for a short drive up still another three or four hundred feet of elevation to see Moro Rock, where more ambitious hikers have the opportunity for climbing even higher to see even more spectacular views.
Down the narrow park road we found a treat — Tunnel Log, a giant tree that had fallen over in 1937. Park officials had allowed the huge tree to rest where it landed, but had cut away a portion of the tree that was over the roadway.
A single lane through the tree was wide enough and the cut high enough to allow one vehicle at a time to drive through the tree. Needless to say, kids love the experience. And so did this kid, who was born in 1938.
A DISAPPOINTMENT — An otherwise helpful guide back at the Giant Forest Museum had suggested to us that we must not miss Crescent Meadow — just another few miles on down the road.
“It is one of the prettiest places in the park,” she had gushed.
She obviously has a different concept of “pretty” than we do.
Since we had spent much of our youth in national forests, our demands for spectacular sights in parks probably starts a little higher than for most folks.
For us, Crescent Meadow resembled the miles and miles of forest areas with their fallen trees and scrub undergrowth that we remember from our youth.
With so much splendor in Sequoia National Park, Crescent Meadow is — as the European tour book writers would say — “not worth the detour.”
DEFINITELY WORTH THE DETOUR — Back on the main road — the Generals Highway — we had only a few more miles to see what truly is the most wonderful site in the park — the General Sherman Tree, the oldest living thing on earth.
However — we need to warn readers who are planning to visit Sequoia National Park soon — that they should be aware of the changes now being made in and around the General Sherman Tree.
Park officials had decided that too many vehicles were crowding in around the General Sherman Tree, so an earlier parking lot serving the tree was closed and a new one built.
Can’t argue with the concept.
But the site chosen for the new parking lot requires a real commitment from visitors wishing to visit the tree.
The parking lot is at about 7,000 feet, where a half-mile trail with a 200-foot drop begins, leading to the Sherman Tree.
Signs suggest the trek will involve a 15-minute walk down the trail and a 30-minute walk back up the mountainside.
Even if you have to hire a quartet of sedan-chair carriers to get you back up to the parking lot, the trip to the General Sherman Tree is worth the effort.
As a sign at the tree’s base points out, there are wider trees and there are taller trees but there is nothing on Earth that has the accumulated bulk of the General Sherman Tree — the largest living thing on Earth.
Park officials say the tree is approximately 2,200 years old.
Its largest branch is almost seven feet in diameter.
Every year, the General Sherman Tree grows enough new wood to make a 60-foot-tall tree of usual proportions.
We are hardly in physical condition to trot up a half-mile path that is 200 feet straight up — and at or near an altitude of 7,000 feet.
Park officials have placed dignified signs along the path reminding visitors that they are at 7,000 feet and urging them to “slow down.”
Fortunately, park officials have put many benches along the path and stopping every several feet does give one the opportunity to enjoy the surroundings.
During our huff-and-puff up the mountain, we noted that many of the visitors were also seniors and the benches were getting lots of use.
The Park Service is currently building an access drop-off at the bottom of the hill near the tree for the handicapped, to give greater access to the tree to those who need such access.
That project should be finished by the time the spring season starts, a park official told us.
WHERE’S STARBUCKS WHEN YOU NEED ONE? —By this time, it was 2 p.m. and we were definitely ready for at least a cup of coffee.
But not a cup of anything — much less Starbucks — was to be found anywhere.
We were sent to Lodgepole Visitor Center and Village — again promised to be just a few more miles down the road.
With winter just around the corner, the only snack bar at Lodgepole had already tucked in for hibernation and a small market offered little more than a couple of rather droopy sandwiches that wouldn’t even have made it into a 7-Eleven.
“Oh, there’s a restaurant at Wuksachi Village and it’s only” — yep, you guessed it — “just a few miles down the road.”
SAVED BY THE WUKSACHI — We pulled into the parking lot of the Wuksachi Lodge just after 2:15 and sauntered into what we knew would be a delightful experience about 2:20.
The Wuksachi Lodge is one of those magnificent national park lodges that most of us just love.
Big, comfy public rooms with tall ceilings and log beams and lots of floor-to-ceiling windows to gaze out at the tremendous scenery.
But we couldn’t stop to enjoy too long. The restaurant was closing at 2:30.
Even though we were arriving just moments before closing time, the restaurant staff couldn’t have been nicer. We got the last window table, seated next to two seniors who had arrived at the lodge on their Harleys. Yes, they knew all about Bartels’ Harley-Davidson on Lincoln Boulevard.
One of the enjoyable aspects for us in visiting a national park lodge or facility is the staff one meets.
Young people have come from everywhere in the U.S. and all over the world to work in our national parks and they bring with them enthusiasm and personality that often can be the highlight of visiting a national park facility.
At the Wuksachi Lodge restaurant, our busboy was from Bulgaria and he made up for the fact he didn’t speak much English with the broadest smile we’ve seen in many a month.
Our waiter was a student type from Ohio, full of optimism and interest in everyone he was serving.
Later, as the other customers disappeared and we were the only diners left, he came back to our table, anxious to chat in a friendly “where are you folks from” mode.
We had ordered the Sequoia Burger, thinking it would be quicker for the kitchen staff, obviously already getting ready for dinner.
The burger turned out to be the best meal we had during the entire weekend. Three Rivers may be a lovely place to visit, but our two meals there were less than impressive and after we had left the park, a couple of other meals on the 99 in Tulare were even less memorable.
The Wuksachi Lodge opened in 1999 and has 102 rooms in three detached buildings. Toll-free information, (866) 875-8456.
We’d love to spend a long, long weekend some winter at the Wuksachi if we could only find someone experienced in icy mountain road driving to get us up and down the mountain.
LOTS MORE TO SEE — There are lots of other areas of Sequoia National Park and its companion, Kings Canyon National Park, worthy of a visit.
The large sequoias are in groves and several important groves are scattered through the parks, most notably the General Grant Grove on the western side of the parks.
Of course, for those with more time, camping and hiking are wonderful in the park and there are trails and campgrounds everywhere.
ANOTHER ROUTE HOME — A lot of visitors enter and leave the park on the north, by using State Route 180.
Once they are down the mountain, many make a beeline on 180 to Fresno, joining the 99 there for the dash home to Los Angeles.
That is certainly a mistake, because the drive along State Route 63, which turns south to Visalia, is charming.
Once again, one passes by groves of fruit and nut trees, with dramatic mountains in the backyard. The agricultural area is quite serene.
Alas, the charm ended when we returned to the 99 again.
We suspect we won’t be returning to Sequoia and Kings Canyon until after the ice leaves the mountain roads.
But we won’t be waiting as long for a return trip next time.
With the crowds rushing to Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon offer a great alternative to get out and enjoy the rejuvenating impact of nature — even if only for a getaway weekend.