Longstreet Highroad Guide to the California Sierra Nevada
By Mark Grossi
[Fig. 54] About 100 miles north of Sequoia National Park, millions of people crowd into the outdoor cathedral of Yosemite National Park to see the wonders of the Sierra Nevada. But the visitors in Sequoia are counted in tens of thousands, not the millions, and they see a less crowded version of Sierra paradise.
Established in 1890, the 400,000-acre Sequoia National Park has 12,000-foot peaks to the east, extensive foothill trails to the west, and several of the most stunning giant sequoia groves in the world, including Giant Forest. The 275-foot-tall General Sherman, the largest living tree in the world, is estimated to weigh almost 1,400 tons and is in Giant Forest.
In honor of the big trees in Giant Forest, George Stewart, editor of a Visalia newspaper and a long-time advocate for giant sequoias in the area, suggested the name, Sequoia National Park, when the park was established in September 1890. Austrian scholar Stephen Endlicher gave the tree its scientific name in 1847. No documentation exists to establish why he named it "sequoia," but most experts agree the new genus name was to honor Sequoyah, the Cherokee Indian.
There are 73 sequoia groves or grove systems in the Sierra, according to the latest federal surveys. Mapping of the groves shows there is one in Tahoe National Forest, two in the Calaveras Big Trees State Park in the Central Sierra, three in Yosemite National Park, and two in the Sierra National Forest. The rest are in Sequoia National Forest and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks. And, the largest of the trees are in Sequoia National Park.
But there is more to Sequoia National Park than trees. The North, Middle, and South forks of the Kaweah River drain the western section of the park, while the Kern River runs south through the eastern side of the park. On the farthest east flank of the park, 14,498-foot Mount Whitney is partially within the boundary.
Hiking, backpacking, and cross-country skiing are the biggest activities in Sequoia National Park, but people also like the scenic driving along the Generals Highway. The highway enters from the northwest, bringing vehicles from Highway 180 in Kings Canyon. The Generals Highway also enters the park from the southwest at Ash Mountain where the name changes from Highway 198 to the Generals Highway. The Mount Whitney Power Company originally built part of the road early in the twentieth century to provide access for flume construction in the area. The federal government finished the road in the 1920s.
Along the Generals Highway, about 3 miles from the General Sherman Tree, is the Lodgepole Campground where visitors will find the Walter Fry Nature Center. The center has hands-on exhibits and displays of natural processes in Sequoia park. It bears Fry's name because he was so deeply involved with a nature tour program for the public that started in 1922.
Fry came to Sequoia in the late 1880s as a logger, but it didn't take him long to join the movement to preserve Sequoia. He later worked as a ranger at Sequoia. Eventually, he became a U.S. Commissioner, or a judge, in the federal parks system. After he retired in 1930, he devoted himself to informing the public about Sequoia and the natural processes throughout the park.
Visitors take the Mineral King Road on a slow, windy trip to a settlement in one of the most beautiful alpine settings in the SierraMineral King. Remnants of the logging industry are still along this road, particularly at the Atwell Mill. Though Mineral King began in the 1870s with mining claims, it became known for logging and recreation.
Mineral King supporters fought to protect trees from logging many decades ago. Then, in the 1970s, they waged a successful fight against the Disney Corporation to prevent a commercial ski resort from being built. These days, the fight is between families who had long-term use permits on cabins and the National Park Service, which contends the land belongs to the public.
Mineral King Valley's floor is 7,500 feet, so vegetation is different from the foothills in Sequoia. In the moist meadows of the valley, the Sierra bilberry (Vaccinium nivictum), marsh marigold (Caltha howellii), and wandering daisy (Erigeron peregrinus) may be found.
Sequoia National Park's natural charms are not immune from the ecological pressures of a burgeoning population in the nearby San Joaquin Valley. Ground-level ozone, or smog, from the valley drifts up to the park in the summer, causing needle damage to many Jeffrey pines.
The ozone, created mostly by automobile emissions during warm, sunny days, does not seem to bother the mature giant sequoias, but it does appear to affect their seedlings. Experts say there is no way to determine if the valley's airwhich ranks among the dirtiest in the nationwill eventually begin to damage the giants.
But the smog story gets even worse for the Sierra. Smog levels curiously appear to remain higher for longer periods of time in the Sierra because there is not as much evening traffic here as there is in the valley. The additional emissions from traffic in the valley appear to scavenge ozone and reduce it. Because the Sierra traffic is almost nonexistent at night, there is no scavenging or reduction on calm, windless evenings.
[Fig. 54(1)] People come to Giant Forest to visit the largest living things on earththe giant sequoia. Trails cross in many directions, giving people the chance to walk at the feet of trees that are estimated to be between 1,800 and 3,200 years old. There are hundreds of giants of that age in Giant Forest.
The 1,800-acre Giant Forest has about 8,400 trees with a diameter of at least 18 inches. The Redwood Mountain grove, with more than 15,000 sequoias, has more trees, but Giant Forest is extraordinary because it has so many of the largest giants. Three of the five biggest sequoias in the world are in Giant Forest. They include the General Sherman, the Lincoln, and the Washington trees.
The largest sequoia is the General Sherman, which is about 272 feet tall and almost 37 feet in diameter. A closer look at the Sherman tree reveals why Giant Forest grows so many large trees. It stands in moist soil at about 6,700 feet in elevation, and it grows like no tree anywhere on earth. In the last five decades, it has grown enough wood to build an average-sized home in Central California. Its lowest branch, more than 7 feet in diameter, would crush a car if it fell off. The Sherman tree is estimated to be more than 2,000 years old, but nobody has invented a coring instrument yet that can extract a sample deep enough in the tree to confirm the age.
The Sherman tree, and likewise hundreds of others in this area, has shallow roots that spread hundreds of feet in all directions. Giant Forest has plenty of moisture in the soil, even during summer, and plenty of room for the roots to spread. The trees' ideal growing conditions exist on the western slope of the Sierra in a belt between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. It is uncommon to find giant sequoia outside of this belt in the Sierra.
In the last century, people have built roads, buildings, and trails around these trees. The National Park Service has even had a primitive sewage treatment plant in this grove to process the wastes from motel cabins, a restaurant, and restrooms. Scientists are not certain how the trees have been affected, but the federal government is not waiting for one of the giants' shallow root systems to be compromised and a tree to fall over.
Throughout the 1990s, the federal government has slowly closed down the motel and restaurant operations at Giant Forest Village. Now, nobody spends the night at the feet of the giants. The motel rooms, cabins, and a hodge-podge of buildings have been torn down and removed. People visit during the day, and they can still find a natural history museum to visit as well as restrooms. But the trees and the wildlife are left alone at night.
About 5 miles north of Giant Village, the federal government and the park concessionaire have designed and constructed Wuksachi Village, which has a hotel, restaurant, gift shop, and other amenities. Wuksachi is out of the giant sequoia belt. It is built on granite, not the soil that supports the giant sequoias' shallow root systems.
Hiking is the main activity around Giant Forest, but there is also cross-country skiing in the winter. The trails are clearly marked with yellow triangles for skiers. A favorite cross-country skiing area at Giant Forest is Wolverton, which is northeast of the Sherman tree.
[Fig. 54(2)] The meadows, Squatter's Cabin, and Native American grinding stones or mortars make the Huckleberry Meadow Loop an interesting hike. The trail begins at Hazelwood Nature Trail, which goes about 0.4 mile to a junction with the trail that goes to Bear Hill. Decades ago at Bear Hill, the park landfill for many years, visitors would gather to watch the black bears sort through the garbage. The dump was closed in 1940 after bears became more aggressive in their search for handouts.
Jeffrey pines surround the meadows in high rocky places around the area. In the meadows and below the trees, visitors may see white-veined wintergreen (Pyrola picta), spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), and pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea).
An unnamed settler built Squatter's Cabin next to Huckleberry Meadow in the 1880s as an attempt to claim the land. However, rancher Hale Tharp, who owned the property, had already homesteaded the land.
The Native Americans around Giant Forest were probably a Mono-related tribe, such as the Tubatulabal. The bedrock mortars they left behind can be found beyond Huckleberry Meadow as the trail loops back toward Generals Highway.
[Fig. 54(3)] The Trail of the Sequoias is the trail of choice for those who want to experience the giant sequoia forest. It begins and ends at the General Sherman Tree, which was discovered by James Wolverton in the late 1870s. The tree's name was briefly changed to the Karl Marx Tree in the 1880s when a group of socialists tried to settle in the area. They soon departed, and the name reverted to General Sherman.
Hikers may notice the cones hanging from the giant sequoia. There are sometimes 30,000 or 40,000 of them on a single mature giant. Seeds drop from the cones in a variety of ways. The cones also react to fire. The heat opens them and the lightweight seeds spill in all directions onto the ash below.
Yet, the tens of thousands of seeds rarely take hold and produce a giant sequoia. Seedling studies show that almost 99 percent of young sequoias die in the first two summers. Very few make it to maturity.
Hikers may be able to see a permanent resident of the sequoiathe white-headed woodpecker (Dendrocopus albolarvatus). It is often in plain view high in the giant trees. Other birds in the forest include the dark-eyed junco (Junco oreganus), black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus), and golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa).
[Fig. 54] In spring, just after the snowmelt, Mineral King Valley is one of those places that seems unaffected by the passing of time. The twisting little two-lane road, the lack of big crowds, and the stunning, granite ridgelines help hikers experience the unvarnished wonder of nature. Unfortunately, the valley is not always serene and free of conflict. In midsummer, it can be just as crowded as any other destination in the Sierra. And Mineral King has never had a shortage of controversy.
Visitors have been coming to Mineral King for hiking, swimming, backpacking, camping, and fishing for most of the twentieth century. It is still an outdoor recreational haven, but its land is now managed by the National Park Service, not the U.S. Forest Service. The difference is not subtle.
As part of the Forest Service, which is an arm of Department of Agriculture, the valley was open for many commercial venturesmining, generating hydroelectric power, grazing, and developing downhill ski resorts. As part of the Park Service, an arm of the Department of Interior, Mineral King became a sanctuary for wildlife and virtually untouchable for commercial development.
The move came in 1978 in Mineral King after a protracted battle between commercial interests and environmentalists. Both sides were among the many people who have coveted this glacial valley at 7,500 feet. In the late 1800s, miners struck gold and silver, but their luck didn't hold very long. In the early twentieth century, hydroelectric companies built dams at the outlets of several Mineral King Lakes and generated electrical power. Logging of giant sequoia also took place early in the century.
By the 1970s, the Walt Disney Corporation wanted to widen Mineral King Road into a highway and build a massive commercial ski resort to attract thousands of Southern Californians in the winter. To dozens of families who have leased cabins at Mineral King for decades, the Disney plan was unthinkable. Joining environmentalists, they successfully fought to move Mineral King out of Sequoia National Forest and into Sequoia National Park.
These days, there's no controversy over development, but that doesn't mean there is no controversy. Now, the National Park Service is interested in allowing public access to the park land where the cabins are located. That one has not yet been resolved.
The latest argument has little impact for hikers and backpackers traveling the steep trails around Mineral King. They will see meadow vegetation such as marsh marigold (Caltha leptosepala var. biflora), squirreltail (Elymus elymoides), and beaked sedge (Carex utriculata). The jagged granite of the Sierra is visible toward 11,680-foot Franklin Pass to the south. Nearby, Florence Peak is 12,432 feet. Some people say the scene reminds them a lot of the Alps.
The birds at Mineral King are quite an attraction as well. In summer, hikers can see seasonal residents such as the white-throated swift (Aeromautes saxatalis), hermit warbler (Dendroica occidentalis), solitary vireo (Vireso solitarius), and olive-sided flycatcher (Nuttalornis borealis).
[Fig. 54(4)] The Cold Springs Nature Trail is considered a good starting point for anyone visiting Mineral Springs Valley for the first time. If you have just driven the 25-mile Mineral King Road, you may be a bit dizzy from the windy route. Mineral King Valley is also 7,500 feet in elevation, which is high enough to cause shortness of breath for some people. The Cold Springs Nature Trail is an easy walk that allows visitors to start adjusting to the thinner air.
In June the flowers are colorful and plentiful. They are red, blue, white, pink, and many other shades. The splash of color set against the snow-capped ridges to the east is almost startling. Look for American wintercress (Barbarea orthoceras), alpine veronica (Veronica americana), and mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium glomeratum). Signs along the self-guided nature trail describe many other plants of Mineral King.
The cabins seen on the first part of the hike were part of an 1870s settlement that resulted from the gold and silver mining in the area. The settlement lasted about 30 years before the mining craze died down and an avalanche struck the cabins, wiping many of them out.
[Fig. 54(5)] For many fishing enthusiasts, a day of fun at Mineral King means a short but tough hike up to Eagle Lake and a relaxing time hauling in trout. Hikers like this trail because it passes by a sink hole where Eagle Creek disappears and the views of the surrounding high Southern Sierra are breathtaking.
Wildflower lovers will enjoy this trip as well. In the first mile or so near Eagle Creek, hikers may see streamside bluebells (Mertensia ciliata), corn lily (Veratrum californicum), and California hesperochiron (Hesperochiron californicus). Farther along the trail, look for the blue and white of the Torrey's blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia torreyi). Higher in the open areas, there is timberline phacelia (Phacelia hastata ssp. compacta), a white flower that can be found at elevations to 10,000 feet in June and July.
The sinkhole is at about 9,000 feet. Around the sink hole, notice the white-and-gray marble mixed in with the granite. Farther along the trail as you pass red fir trees, the vegetation becomes sparser toward 10,000 feet.
Eagle Lake was affected by efforts to generate hydroelectric power in the early twentieth century. There is a dam on the north end of the lake. The lake was used decades ago as a regulating reservoir for a hydroelectric generating project near Three Rivers.
[Fig. 54(6)] People can compare the giant sequoia with the massive sugar pine and see the difference along this trail. And there is a significant difference. Some sugar pines can grow as tall as 200 feet with a diameter of 7 feet. But some of the smaller, mature sequoias are 13 feet in diameter. Their thick, fibrous bark is cinnamon colored, quite different from the grainy bark of the sugar pine. The sugar pine, however, does have a larger cone.
The stumps along the first part of the trail are worth seeing as well. Around the old Atwell Mill, there are stumps left by loggers who cut down giant sequoias in the 1870s and 1880s. The stumps are pretty impressive. In the old logging mill, hikers can see machinery dating back to the nineteenth century.
Toward the Kaweah River on this trail, wildflower enthusiasts may see the scarlet monkeyflower (Mimiulus cardinalis), whisker brush (Linanthus ciliatus), and perhaps explorer's gentian (Gentiana calycosa). Also, if hikers arrive in late May or early June, they may catch a glimpse of mitten-leaf nemophila (Nemophila spatulata), which appears briefly as meadows slowly begin drying out for the summer.
To those who do not understand the diverse and compelling ecosystem in the foothills, it may appear they are something to be endured along the drive to the high country. It is understandable why the foothills in the Southern Sierra are not popular compared to the coniferous forests at higher elevations. In the summer, it is hot. Who wants to take a sweaty hike around a bunch of boulders, plain-looking brush, and dried grasslands?
But a quick look around the foothill areas of Sequoia National Park will give hikers a good reason to spend time in the foothillsin fall, winter, or spring. Go to a soothing stream near the Kaweah River and see trees that cannot be found in higher elevations. Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii), sandbar willow (Salix exigua), white alder (Alnus rhombifolia), and western sycamore (Platanus racemosa) are just a few.
Periodic drought plagues the Southern Sierra foothills, just as it does the Central Valley of California. At 2,000 feet and below, Sequoia National Park headquarters routinely receives less than 15 inches of rainfall a year, compared to more than 35 inches at 7,000 feet. By midsummer, only the most drought-tolerant plants can survive. The blue oak (Quercus douglasii) is one of the more resilient trees found living in dry conditions around the foothills.
But, if hikers arrive in early April, the wildflowers will be waiting. The more common ones include popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys nothofulvis), purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta), wind poppy (Stylomecon heterophylla), California milkmaids (Cardamine californica), and tower mustard (Arabis glabra).
The grasslands are lush and green with such introduced species as foxtail fescue (Vulpia myuros) and soft chess (Bromus hordeaceous). The bunchgrasses that once dominated the California foothills are now largely gone. They have been replaced by European species that arrived with settlers in the nineteenth century. With a keen eye, visitors might be able to spot native grasses such as purple needlegrass (Nassella pulchra).
The animal communities swell with migrants every fall and winter. Birds particularly like to look for food in the foothills. Common birds include the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), American kestrel (Falco sparverius), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), and western bluebird (Sialia mexicana). And there are many more speciesfar more than in the higher elevations.
The mammals are interesting as well. The foothills provide habitat for the ornate shrew (Sorex ornatus), San Joaquin Valley pocket mouse (Perognathus inoratus), and broad-handed mole (Scapanus latimanus). The reptile and amphibian populations are considerably larger and more diverse here as well.
The western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) is the most lethal reptile in the foothills. It hides in wait for its prey, strikes, and injects poisonous venom. It does not hunt humans, nor is it easy to see. Most of the time when people are bitten, it is because they have not watched the trail carefully. Western rattlesnake bites are dangerous, but few people actually run into the snakes on the trails.
[Fig. 54(7)] The Native American bedrock mortar or grinding holes and the pictographs are the main reasons to stop at Potwisha Loop, but the white-leaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos viscida) is beautiful in bloom. The bell-shaped white and rose-colored flowers can be seen as early as March around Potwisha. Other vegetation in this lower-level part of the Southern Sierra includes chaparral honeysuckle (Lonicera interrupta), holly-leaf redberry (Rhamus ilicifolia), and California coffeeberry (Rhamus californica).
Archaeologists say a Monache tribe once lived around here. The pictographs, which are supposed to refer to tribal women, can be found on rocks near the grinding holes. The Middle Fork of the Kaweah River provides a few places where visitors can swim. Anyone who has spent a 90-degree day in the foothills during summer when water levels are low knows it is quite an advantage to have a place to cool off.
[Fig. 54(8)] The fishing along the South Fork of the Kaweah River is one of the big attractions on the Ladybug Trail. Rainbow trout, brown trout, and golden trout are caught on this stretch of river.
A lot of the other wildlife in the area is not usually found in the higher elevations. Along the Kaweah, visitors may see the tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzi), and California newt (Taricha torosa). Mammals often found in this area are the ornate shrew (Sorex ornatus), ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), and gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus).
A little more than 1 mile beyond the trailhead, hikers will find a grove of giant sequoia. The sequoias here are considered to be among the lowest elevation giants in the world.
[Fig. 54(9)] Hikers can see evidence of marble deposits in the Sierra granite along the Marble Fork Trail. The marble is visible in white and gray streaks of rocky outcroppings near Marble Falls.
The foothills of Sequoia National Park and Sequoia National Forest have many of these areas where marble, or crystalline limestone, occur. This is rock dating back more than 150 million yearsperhaps as far back as 250 million years. It changed over time into marble because it was calcareous and crystalline.
The Marble Fork of the Kaweah River along the Marble Falls Trail is also known as a great stretch of fishing, though fishing enthusiasts must take care in the steep areas. The water is not laced with dissolved minerals, but it does contain plenty of dissolved oxygen, which trout need to survive.
For those who know nothing of poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), this hike would be a good place for a crash course. The plant is a widespread shrub in the foothills of Sequoia park. In autumn its red foliage is beautiful and most impressive along the Marble Falls Trail. Unfortunately, it can cause severe skin irritation and rashes on many people. Don't touch it. In fact, even contact with clothing that has touched it will often produce the skin irritation, especially in this part of the Sierra where poison oak grows large and healthy.
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