Visiting Sequoia National Park had the same effect on me that I get when I spend time in a beautiful cathedral. Standing beneath these immense trees, some 3,000 years old, reminds me of the magnificence of nature and the insignificance of myself. The park is our second oldest national park created after Yellowstone. In the early 1900’s, tourists loved the trees to death. They flocked to large groves of sequoia , building roads, hotels and restaurants around them. They cut holes in the trees and drove through them and drove their cars over the massive trunks of trees that had fallen. In the process they injured the roots of the trees in a way that Mother Nature never had. They cut down some of the trees and sent them overseas to prove to incredulous Europeans just how big these trees really were. Even so, wary foreigners assumed that these reassembled trees were a hoax. Loggers tried to take advantage of nature's bounty, but the trees were just so darn big, if you managed to fell one, the pieces were unmanageable.
Finally in the 1990’s the national park service set out to do it right. They have removed all but one of the buildings constructed in the tree groves and relocated hotels, restaurants, campgrounds and other tourist services to hardier areas. Although the sequoia are strong enough to withstand the ravages of nature, especially fire, they have very particular needs when it comes to temperature, rainfall and soil and they are confined to relatively small areas that meet those needs. It amazed me how well these trees tolerate thin layers of top soil. The biggest tree in the world is growing in three feet of topsoil. It’s roots twist and wind in a huge circumference around the massive trunk and keep it erect even in strong storms. As we drove the twisting, winding roads of the park, I wondered how well the sequoia will handle climate change.
Even though it was warm enough to wear shorts, there was an amazing amount of snow piled alongside the roads and melting under the shade of the trees. Sequoia abuts Kings Canyon National Park. It would have been nice to see it, too, but it is still buried under snow and all the roads are closed. Sometimes it is July 1 before the entirety of the parks can be visited. We could rent tire chains in the town where we are staying, a necessity not all that long ago. Most of the acreage of these parks is not accessible by road at all. Lengthy back packing trips are required to really see what these parks have to offer.
The parks are connected by the Generals Highway, a road so twisting and winding that numerous switchbacks post 10mph speed limits. The most visited sequoia all have military names. The General Grant and the General Sherman are especially notable for their size and age. Sherman is thought to be the largest tree in the world standing 275 feet tall and 103 feet in circumference. I was amazed that the top of this tree has died, but it is still adding bark to its circumference. Apparently it gets enough nutrition from a few little wispy branches that are on the sides of the trunk. All the sequoia show signs of fire damage. When you are thousands of years old, it's bound to happen. But their trunks are so thick the fire never gets inside and even trees that look hollow can continue to grow. Fire is a blessing. It thins out the undergrowth and triggers the cones to burst open, spilling new seed on the cleared ground. Sometimes the cones hang on the trees for twenty years, waiting for the perfect conditions to reproduce. The trees are also insect resistant and usually only die when the lose their hold on the earth and fall over.