A month ago, we tried to go to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but failed to get our van up twisty Highway 198. “Why didn’t you just come in from 180?” Our roadside assistance guy had asked us, as if we knew which roads were the easiest. As if that had even crossed our minds.
We did make our way back, following his advice. Why? To see the largest trees in the world, the Giant Sequoias.
There is a lot going on up here. There are two National Parks: King’s Canyon and Sequoia, adjacent to one another. There’s even more to see in the surrounding national forest lands, including in Sequoia National Forest, where we stayed for five nights.
The first day, we walked the perimeter of Hume Lake and saw the unique dam that contains it. It was created when logging was in full swing here, which we would learn more about later. We hung out on the beach and went swimming.
There were lots of Mexican families there, which is a good sign. Edd says a place “passes the Mexican test” if it is food-friendly, family-friendly, and free.
The next day we set off to see the Sequoias. But our first stop was the “Chicago Stump”, the humongous remains of a 3200 year old tree. 3200 years! That predates Ancient Rome. How did it get its name? It was chopped into pieces so it could be reassembled at the 1897 Chicago World’s Fair. A pretty devastating start to our Sequoia sightings.
Edd saw on a map that there was an old Sequoia on Boole Trail. The road to the trailhead was gated off to traffic, but we went down it on our bikes. And I mean, we really went down. Probably 20 minutes, hands on the brakes.
At the bottom of the road and before you arrive at the Boole Trail trailhead, you reach Stump Meadow. Yes, a field full of stumps, the uncelebrated tombstones of giant creatures born thousands of years ago, only to be taken down by man over the course of a few years.
But we knew there was a surviving giant on nearby Boole Trail. The trail itself seemed like it had been reclaimed by the wild. We saw muddy tracks that we thought belonged to a moose, so we were yelling the whole time during the walk to scare it away. But it turns out they were cow hoofprints (we saw the culprits). The Forest Service sometimes uses bovine to manage the land. Our imaginations got a little carried away!
When we finally saw the tree, I cried. It was just me and Edd and a tree that has been alive for milennia. Lots of things make my life feel insignificant-the existence of other universes perhaps, the history of life on Earth. But Boole Tree is something tangible, old, large, and still living.
Why the loggers left it alone could be because at the time, they thought it was the largest in the world. We found out later that “Boole” was one of the foremen.
We finished walking the loop trail and then pushed our bikes back up the damn road. We spent a long time looking for shortcuts too! But the 23 km we racked up that long day was worth the effort.
That’s partially because the next day we walked around in Grant’s Grove and to General Sherman, in King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, respectively, and there were lots of tourists there!
But that didn’t spoil at all the uplifting moments to be had. We looked up constantly, “wowing” and “whoaing” at the marvelous massive beasts. We also strolled down Congress Trail and saw a few fallen ones. Even on the forest floor they were inspiring.
Edd was keen to visit one of the numerous fire lookouts: “forts” of sorts that hover above the trees where forest rangers watch for smoke!
One lookout, Buck Rock, was close by, secured to the top of a protruding 8500-foot high granite rock. Our van couldn’t make it up the bumpy dirt road to the base, so we parked and walked a couple miles up.
It was a delightful place, and the ultimate “tiny house”. 360 degrees of windows, a wraparound “veranda”, cool breezes, loads of storage and a stove, fridge, sink and bed.
Lovely Mich Michigan, the resident forest ranger, lives on the rock five days a week. She was previously a volunteer with the forest service but has now lived in the lookout for two seasons!
The site has been in use as a lookout since 1908, but the current structure, called a “4-A”, was built in 1923. Mich told us that if it weren’t for the Buck Rock Foundation, who fund the hut’s maintenance, it might not even exist today. She says the USFS is pretty strapped for cash. The way the current administration is going, it’s likely to stay that way.
But the fun fact was that the following day, Aug 9, was the birthday of Smokey Bear, the loveable forest service mascot who proclaims “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” Mich gave us little pins with his likeness.
Back in our van, I baked some cupcakes for breakfast (we didn’t have much else) and it dawned on us to bring some up to Mich, the ranger. And on account of Smokey’s birthday and all. So up the mountain we went again!
Mich showed us some old pictures of the Boole Tree that we had visited. She said that the clearcutting of the late 19th century is heartbreaking to her, too. But so are the effects of climate change, and she can observe them: the mountaintops she looks at every day have less snow cover than ever before, and the smog from the valley intensifies every year, which could affect the slopes to the east where the giant trees grow. In a way, humans today pose a more unstoppable threat to the forests than the loggers of the past.
But the talk wasn’t all grim and gloomy. She is also a fan of British TV series and had a nice chat with Edd about Doctor Who!
The place we parked the van happened to be a huge campsite with a fire pit and table, so we stayed put. Before bed we rinsed ourselves off with a bucket of water and dumped that water on our fire pit to quelch the fire. In honor of Smokey!
When you go see the biggest trees in the world, you also observe the different types of relationships we have with our environment. These protected forests and parks were a welcome contrast to the dry and dusty central valley, where water is channeled from hundreds of miles away to farms which fill the gaps from the road to the horizon. We were happy to see it all during our time in central California.