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Come see (and drive through!) the biggest trees on Earth.
By Stephanie O'Neill
Imagine a tree that's as high as a 26-story building, and as wide as a big-city block. No, it's not a mutant species taking over planet Earth (though your little sci-fi fans would love it if that were true). These are giant 3,000-year-old sequoias, growing peacefully in California's Sierra Nevada mountains.
Each year, millions of visitors come to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, to see the largest and oldest trees on Earth. They're so unfathomably big, you'll feel compelled to shout "Honey, I Shrunk the Family!" while posing for a photo next to one of them.
Kings Canyon, copyright
National Park Service Photo
While trees steal the show here, a trip to these twin parks is not just about stiff old barks. Part of the fun includes driving on top of, through, and over these monster trees. You can also enjoy them from 800 miles of hiking trails, or on horseback rides through picturesque canyons.
Sequoia National Park
Moro Rock, copyright
National Park Service
The trees in California's oldest national park are so big, they've been named after four-star generals. Even your most hyperactive kids will stand still, necks turned upward, silently taking in this majestic hugeness.
Plan on spending a full day exploring the park. Here are some of the highlights:
Giant Forest. The world's largest tree -- the General Sherman -- stands guard on the northern fringe of this forest. Nearby, you'll find the second largest tree on Earth, the Washington. Both are a five-minute stroll from the parking lot. For a great family walk, try the two-mile Congress Trail, which loops around the House, Congress, and other sequoia groves.
Moro Rock. The hike to this 6,726-foot dome is a short one, about 3/10 of a mile. But the 400 steps (with railing) and high altitude can be taxing, even for hard bodies. Budget at least 30 minutes for the moderate climb. If you're bringing along young ones, make sure they can handle steps and factor in extra time. At the top, you'll be treated to sweeping views of the Great Western Divide. The hour drive to Moro Rock is a treat of its own. You can ride your car over Auto Log and through Tunnel Log, both of which are fallen sequoias. Don't forget the camera.
Crescent Meadow. About 1.3 miles past Moro Rock along Moro-Crescent Meadow Road, you'll feel like you just stepped into the pages of a nature calendar. Emerald green grass, wildflowers, and birds prompted the 19th-century naturalist John Muir to call this the gem of the Sierra. Schedule at least an hour to walk through the meadow on any of the many hiking trails. A popular one-mile path leads to Tharp's Log, the former summer cabin of a cattle rancher built into the hollow of a fallen sequoia. Your kids will chalk this up to the coolest fort they've ever seen.
Mineral King. Experienced hikers consider this glacial valley a slice of heaven. Eleven alpine trails begin at 7,500 feet and are pretty steep (not for beginners or smaller children or the out-of-shape).
Kings Canyon National Park
John Muir called this park (which is adjacent to Sequoia) Yosemite's rival. It's easy to see why, once you step into this wilderness of granite cliffs, deep canyons, and a wild river. Formed by white water, the canyon of the Kings River is thousands of feet deeper than the Grand Canyon. Like Sequoia, the park is home to big trees.
Reserve the second day of your weekend to tour Kings Canyon. Here are our favorite sights:
Grant Grove and the General Grant Tree. The star attraction of this grove is the General Grant (named after Ulysses S.), the world's third largest tree. Estimated to be 1,800 to 2,000 years old, this tree is a mere youngster compared to others in the grove. A half-mile loop from the parking lot leads to the tree, and is an easy walk, even for toddlers.
Big Stump Trail. In 1891, it took two men 13 days to cut down a 26-foot-wide, 1,700 year-old tree, now known as the 1891 Mark Twain Stump. An easy, one-mile loop trail around the stump is a great place for kids to burn off steam and learn about early logging in the area. Check out the piles of sawdust nearby, too. Believe it or not, they're more than a century old (sequoia wood decays slowly).
Panoramic Point. At the top of this 7,520-foot ridge, you'll get a breathtaking view of the High Sierra.
Cedar Grove. Tumbling waterfalls, meadows, and miles of quiet trails are nestled in this mile-deep section of Kings Canyon. Getting there is half the fun as you zigzag along Hwy 180 into the canyons. The main attractions are two stunning granite formations in the Grand Sentinel standing 8,518 feet (3,500 feet above the canyon floor) and the still-taller North Dome (which resembles Yosemite's famed Half Dome) at 8,717 feet.
Type of trip: Outdoor
Best Aaes: 8 and up
Ideal trip length: Long weekend
Distance: Los Angeles, CA (243 miles), Sacramento, CA (275 miles), San Francisco, CA (297 miles)
Best time to go: Fall and spring for the wildflowers, waterfalls, and fall foliage
Weather: In May, 79/52 degrees (lower elevations) and 58/36 (middle elevations); 80/43 (lower elevations) and 61/38 (middle elevations) in October. Winter brings snow but temperatures rarely fall below zero.
Lodging: Campsites: 800-365-2267. Book early; many sites sell out a year in advance.
Squirm Factor: None when you're out and about; some during drives through the park.
If You Go...
Five visitor centers conduct Star Talks on the Sierra night sky and a Sawed Tree Mystery Tour to a live tree that's almost cut in half.
Foothills Visitor Center On Hwy 198, one mile east of Sequoia's Ash Mountain entrance Phone: 559-565-3135
Lodgepole Visitor Center Located 22 miles north of park headquarters in Sequoia
Note: Closed in winter
Mineral King Ranger Station On Mineral King Road in Sequoia, 24 miles east of Hwy 198 Phone: 559-565-3768
Note: Closed in winter
Grant Grove Visitor Center Located in Grant Grove Village on Hwy 180 in Kings Canyon
Cedar Grove Visitor Center Located a quarter-mile west of Cedar Grove Village in Kings Canyon
Note: Closed in winter
Wuksachi Village & Lodge
Two miles north of Lodgepole Visitor Center on Hwy 198
Base of Sherman Tree,
copyright National Park
Lodgepole and Dorst Campgrounds
Within 7.5 miles of Lodgepole Visitor Center
Note: Reservations accepted five months in advance
Buckeye Flat and Potwisha Campgrounds
3-6 miles northeast of Ash Mountain entrance
Note: Open summer only
South Fork, Atwell Mill, and Cold Springs Campgrounds
All located 13-25 miles from Hwy 198
Note: Mid-May through September
Grant Grove and Cedar Grove Campgrounds
Within 32 miles of Grant Grove Village.
Look up. Look down. You won't see it. But beneath your feet are more than 200 caves including the impressive Crystal Cave. Your kids will love this underground world where stalactites hang like icicles from the roof and mounds of stalagmites pop up from the cave floor. There's a 45-minute historic tour and a 3-4 hour Wild Cave tour, during which you'll spend time crawling on your stomach through tunnels.
Pack a sweater or jacket. Even in the warmest summer months, the cave is a chilly 48 degrees. No strollers, backpacks, or tripods are allowed inside, so be prepared to carry your littlest ones.
Located at the end of a narrow 7-mile road west of Generals Highway. RVs, trailers, and buses are not permitted. Call 559-565-3759 for more information.
Walter Fry Nature Center, at Lodgepole Visitor Center, 22 miles north of park headquarters in Sequoia. Call 559-565-3782 for more information. A nature center for children where your young ones can learn about constellations, assemble a coyote skeleton, and feel the fur of different animals that live in the two parks. Closed in winter.
Best souvenir: A baby Sequoia tree you can purchase at park gift shops.
Annual events: Yuletide Celebration in Grants Grove, underneath General Grant's snow-laden branches, in December. Call 559-875-4575 for more information. General Grant was designated "The Nation's Christmas Tree" on April 28, 1926. A high school choir sings carols, rangers place a wreath, and a pastor leads a nondenominational service.
Traffic alert: Cedar Grove is closed in the winter due to hazardous road conditions. Expect delays on the Generals Hwy near the south entrance due to ongoing construction. Road conditions: Call 559-565-3341 for more information.