Sequoia National Park, located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Central California, may be one of the most overlooked parks due to its somewhat unfortunate close proximity to one of the most beautiful places on the entire planet, Yosemite National Park. Being that Sequoia was the first National Park established in California (1890) and is constantly overlooked, it only felt appropriate to start off my posts with Sequoia.
This post is based on my three day visit to SNP in late February of 2014, right after I took the California Bar Exam (no, I don’t know if I passed yet but at least 17 people are sure I did “just fine” so there’s that). Anyway, we caught the park as a snowstorm was coming down and so about two feet of fresh powder covered the park, which made the park absolutely beautiful. I highly recommend a winter visit because nothing compares to witnessing these Sequoias in the snow and you will most definitely beat the crowds. This trip was actually my first time in a “real snowstorm” that doesn’t melt upon impact with asphalt, so I was thoroughly impressed.
Here are 10 things to know about visiting Sequoia National Park in the Winter:
1. The General Sherman Tree
Of course, with things to see and do here you have to start off with the Sherman Tree.
The General Sherman Tree is the largest tree in the world! 275 feet tall and 25 feet in diameter. It is absolutely worth seeing and checking off the ole bucket list. In the winter, you can park your car in the winter parking lot and you’ll find yourself about a one minute walk from the tree. In other seasons, the walk is a bit longer and you have to park in the other parking lot, unless you are reliant on a wheelchair or have a disability, I believe. Check out the park map they give you upon entering to see exactly where the lots are and when they are open.
Originally, we were the first ones there at about 8:00 am. As we were strapping on our snowshoes, a family rushed past us (almost knocking me over as I was bent over putting on my snowshoes) and made their way to the tree making sure to kill any chance I had at a fresh powder foreground in the shot. Oh well.
But here is the General Sherman Tree in all of its glory:
Of course, you’re not supposed to go over the barrier and touch the tree, but when we were there a guy jumped the fence to hug the tree (remember this is California). I usually don’t care for folks who feel the need to break rules like that but this guy looked like he was embracing the tree on some sort of metaphysical level. Out of reverence for the transcendental moment I was surely witnessing, I opted not to interrupt.
Overall, I definitely thought it was worth seeing the Sherman Tree. While I usually do subscribe to the thought of “once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all” when it comes to something like trees, there is something that feels different and more memorable knowing you are glaring up at THE biggest tree growing in the entire planet.
2. Congress Trail
The Congress trail is a two mile, partially paved loop trail starting from near the Sherman Tree. There are clusters of giant Sequoias throughout the trail. We did the hike after a snowstorm so the pavement was not visible, whatsoever. The trail-markers on the trees were sufficient to show us the way for the most part, but I still struggled a little to find the way at times. The hike is relatively easy at just two miles, though if you are accustomed to sea level and not an experienced hiker and/or not in the best of shape, you might find it somewhat challenging, especially if you are snowshoeing. Remember this trail is above 7,000 feet and if you haven’t snowshoed before, two miles snowshoeing =/= two miles of normal hiking.
Overall, if you are looking for a not-too-challenging hike after visiting the Sherman tree and you want to catch glimpses of some giants, including the second largest tree in the world, then this hike is a good choice.
Here’s a map of the trail:
Here’s a write up of the trail. The author claims the Congress Trail is not the most glamorous trail in the Giant Forest, but I can’t attest to that as I only did the Congress Trail.
3. The President
The President, the 2nd largest tree in the world, is on the Congress trail and the cool thing about this tree is that you can actually get close to it. Also, I’ve been told this tree has more leaves than any other tree in the world, which means it emits more oxygen than any other tree… or something like that. Not sure if that’s actually true, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were.
4. Touching a squishy Sequoia
Like squishy things? Find one of the trees not within a barrier and go ahead and give the tree a touch. It will be unexpectedly squishy! Some Sequoias will have up to three feet thick of bark, which is utterly insane.
5. Wuksachi Lodge
That’s: Wuk-satch-ee, (I think).
We stayed at the Wuksachi Lodge (or the “W” as I call it) at the end of February for two nights and it was a bit pricey at $280. Was it worth it? Well, the hotel is centrally located in the park unlike others, so you can avoid the back and forth which wastes considerable gas and time. The rooms are decent and the bed was nice, though the rooms are separate from the check-in lodge and require some walking to and from (you can park at the lodge assuming the snow is plowed in the parking lot). The walking from the parking lot outside the rooms is not far at all, so overall this shouldn’t be a concern.
The lodge itself has a restaurant, gift shop, and ski shop. The gift shop has your typical array of gifts and the ski shop actually has the essential equipment you’d expect from a ski shop. As for the restaurant, the food was actually pretty good. For dinner you have to make reservations (even though it may only be you and two other travelers in the entire restaurant, but hey). As for the grub, they served everything from seafood dishes, quesadillas, to pasta along with some tasty bread. Dinner was a little pricey for my liking (around $12 for half a serving of Linguine), but breakfast was reasonable at around $7-8 and they give you plenty (go for the “Mama Bear” to start your day off right). For lunch, we grabbed pre-made sandwiches from the Ski Shop.
You can find the menus here: http://www.visitsequoia.com/the-peaks-restaurant.aspx
A little tip: if you’re on the move before the ski shop opens in the morning and you’d like to purchase something from it (e.g., beanie, gloves, sandwich, drinks, etc.) feel free to ask the front desk workers to take you down to the store and they will gladly do so.
Also, the staff was very friendly and helpful to us and I greatly appreciated that. One more thing, they have some cool boxed lunch system where you can pre-order lunches the night before by placing a notice on your doorknob before 9pm. I still don’t think I know exactly how that works but it seems like a cool idea and had I known about it I probably would have used it.
So overall was it worth staying a couple of nights at the Wuksachi Lodge for the price? Based purely on location and convenience, I give an equivocal “I guess,” but next time I’ll bring more food to store in the room’s refrigerator (don’t leave food in your car and invite the bears). Keep in mind these prices were for Feb, so I’m sure prices jump even higher for peak season.
6. Tire Chains
So first is renting. There are four stores near the park entrance coming from the south where chains can be rented (See link below). We rented from the Chevron and were told it would cost us $60 for two nights!!! We didn’t have a choice because it was snowing above 6,000 feet, however. Luckily, we bargained them down to $40 when we returned the chains but just beware and keep in mind that tire chains are available on Amazon where you can find them for much cheaper and have them handy for next time.
Next, if there is a snow or rainstorm happening as you approach and you pass a sign that says “apply snow chains here” then my advice it to do it. I realize that’s called common sense, but having not put on chains before, we thought the sign merely meant something like “you must be carrying chains with you to go past that point.” I also thought some sort of lights would be flashing to indicate that the chains needed to go on. Turns out, we were wrong. We ended up driving right into the snow and were forced to put the chains on in the freezing cold snow as snow plows zoomed by throwing snow in our faces. Also, it is probably a good idea to practice putting the chains on before you go up there. I’d watched the guy from Chevron install the chains but watching someone do something is completely different from doing it yourself, especially when both of your hands go numb in under a minute.
My advice: put the chains on before you hit the snow and bring a towel to kneel down on.
Finally, turn OFF your traction control if you are in a car like the one pictured above because you will go nowhere if your TC is on!
Here’s a link to the rental locations for tire chains near the park:
7. Lookout points
Does anything really need to be said about these?
8. Windy mountain roads
Out of every park I’ve been to, SNP is by the far the most windy of ’em all when it comes to roads. Ascending to the middle of the park, many of the roads have barriers on the cliffs, but not all so be prepared for that. And watch out for wildlife. We only saw one deer but we almost became the last thing the deer saw.
Also, try not to get too distracted from the views…
9. Snow Plow Monsters
As someone new to driving in snowy mountains, maybe this is just a “snow mountain road thing” but the speed at which the huge snow plows sped down the roads past us — especially when we were putting on our tire chains — was a bit disconcerting. Is it really necessary to go that fast? Maybe it is. They definitely do a good job of clearing the streets, though, so props to them.
10. Giant Forest Museum
We didn’t have time to explore the museum but I heard really good things about it and they even will offer ranger led snowshoe tours (we of course opted for our own snowshoe experience). I will definitely stop by the museum next time I am in the park.
Lastly, in the winter (or at least during and after a winter storm), it appears that the highway leading into Kings Canyon Park from Sequoia is completely closed off, so you won’t be able to drive through Sequoia to get to Kings Canyon. Update: See link showing that the roads are open during winter, presumably just not during or after a storm: http://www.nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/driveviewwinter.htm
That’s all I have right now, hope you found the post helpful and make sure you visit this lesser known National Park. Here’s a few more shots from the trip:
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