Height-wise, the more-slender coast redwood leaves the giant sequoia in the shade; the former can reach 360 feet while the latter rarely tops 300 feet.
By total volume, Sequoiadendron giganteum has no equal. It can be wider than a city street, and contain enough lumber to build 35 homes. A single branch can grow 50 feet long. Some giant sequoia existing today were tiny saplings as far back as 1,000 B.C.
To the fortune seekers who descended on these forested slopes in the 19th century, the giant sequoia was timber ripe for the taking. (Among them was a colony of socialist utopians from San Francisco, who christened an exceptionally large sequoia the “Karl Marx Tree.”) Many trees ended up as fence posts, shingles and matchsticks.
The lay of the land
Gape at these sky-grazing monsters is in a grove called the Giant Forest, home to three of the top five largest giant sequoia on earth. The biggest of the big is the erstwhile Karl Marx Tree, renamed the General Sherman Tree in honor of the Civil War commander. This largest of all living trees stands 275 feet tall, with a ground circumference of nearly 103 feet.
The Giant Forest has a museum and a network of trails that wend past hulking masses of cinnamon-colored bark, arranged like colonnades in a temple.
The view from the top: You can’t drive through any trees at Sequoia National Park, but you can climb some.
On the southern edge of the Giant Forest, you can climb a massive granitic dome called Moro Rock using a 350-step concrete stairway with guardrails. The ascent to 6,725 feet is a huff ‘n’ puff affair, but leads to a classic high Sierra view of the Great Western Divide and its jagged wall of sometimes snow-capped peaks. (If not for these peaks, you’d be able to see the highest point in the lower 48, the 14,494-foot Mt. Whitney, on the park’s eastern edge.)
Beyond (and beneath) the trees
What lurks beneath this majestic landscape? Marble caves — more than 250 of them. Only one is open to the public.
Crystal Cave is at the end of a spur road off the Generals Highway, near Giant Forest. On a 50-minute tour, you’ll see curtains of icicle-like stalactites and mounds of stalagmites, and walls of marble polished by a subterranean stream.
The Sequoia Parks Conservancy offers the tours late May through September. Tickets must be purchased in advance at recreation.gov or on-site at the park’s Foothills or Lodgepole visitor centers. The tour requires a strenuous, half-mile hike from the parking lot. Bat sightings are a rare treat.
From late May through early September, the park offers free, ranger-led programs such as wildlife talks and moonlight walks. The Sequoia Parks Conservancy offers year-round guided activities such as stargazing, snowshoe walks and history talks that explore the park’s fascinating early years.
Pay your respects: Sequoia is one place threatened by California’s droughts, so be respectful of the environment when visiting.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
The park’s first rangers drew stares wherever they went, not because of their horses or smart-looking jackets with shiny buttons, but because of the color of their skin.
Before the creation of the National Park Service, US Army regiments acted as park caretakers. At Sequoia, the job fell to buffalo soldiers, the all-African American regiments created after the Civil War. These descendants of slaves built wagon roads, suppressed fires and kept poachers and timber thieves at bay — a challenging task, especially in an era of deeply entrenched racism.
Many visitors combine a Sequoia visit with a swing through the adjoining Kings Canyon National Park, whose most famous resident is a 267-foot-tall sequoia named the General Grant.
With a ground circumference of 107.5 feet, the General Grant holds the double distinction of being the world’s second-largest tree and — by order of President Coolidge in 1926 — “the nation’s Christmas tree.” (The evergreen that the US president lights every year is the national tree, got that?)
The Chamber of Commerce in tiny Sanger, west of the park, stages an annual “Trek to the Tree” on the second Sunday in December. Park admission is free that day. The program starts at 2:30 p.m., and features singing, a bugler and a wreath laying.
Planning your visit
The park is open year round, but winter may bring road closures and chain requirements. The entrance fee is $30 per vehicle, good for seven days.
The closest commercial airports are Fresno Yosemite International Airport and Visalia Municipal Airport. Most of the park’s annual 1.3 million visitors arrive by car. Especially during the summer, parking can be a big headache.
From late May through the summer, take the Sequoia Shuttle from the neighboring towns of Visalia and Three Rivers. Cost is $15 round-trip. A free shuttle runs inside the park from late May through mid September, and sometimes during winter holiday periods.
There are several lodging and dining options in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Just outside park boundaries, in Sequoia National Forest, you can stay at Montecito Sequoia Lodge or Stony Creek Lodge. More tourist accommodations and restaurants can be found in Visalia and Three Rivers, west of the park.
San Diego-based travel writer Anne Burke has written for the New York Times, Sunset Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and other publications.