Story by Jules Older. Photos by Effin Older.
If you haven’t been to Yosemite, add it to your must-see list now. There’s simply no place like it on our planet.
If you have been to Yosemite, odds are you haven’t been to the two national parks to its south, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Better add them to the list, too.
Yosemite has Half Dome, El Capitan and Vernal Falls. Sequoia and Kings Canyon have ancient groves of giant sequoias.
Sequoias. The biggest trees on Earth. No, not the tallest; California’s coastal redwoods take that prize. But for girth, footage and astounding massivity, the giant sequoia is the blue whale, the African elephant, the Sauropoda of trees. And Sequoia and Kings Canyon are the best places on Earth to experience them. In both these abutting parks, your neck will ache from looking up, up, up.
Since the parks have their origin in post-Civil War days, the biggest trees — the monarchs — are often named after war heroes. Two of the most visited are General Grant and General Sherman.
There was also a Mark Twain tree, but it got cut down in 1891 so its slabs could be displayed in New York and London museums.
The groves are now protected, which is just as well since these giants are perhaps the oldest living things on the planet — some have stood here more than 3,000 years. That makes them older than the Roman coliseum, older than the Egyptian pyramids.
Take the time to study these giants. Their bases look like Maurice-Sendak-Where-the-Wild-Things-Are feet. The Fallen Monarch in Kings Canyon is so big it has served as a bunkroom, house, hotel, saloon and even a stable for 32 U.S. Cavalry horses.
Next stop, Yosemite. Gather all your superlatives, double them, and you still won’t be able to describe the view of Half Dome from Glacier Point. When I say there’s nothing on the planet like Yosemite, that’s not a figure of speech. Yosemite defines breathtaking, eye-filling, heart-soaring grandeur.
It also defines insanity. First you realize that one side of Half Dome is a sheer, vertical face shooting more than 4,700 feet straight up from the valley floor. Then you remember that climbers free solo this face without ropes, harnesses, companions or soundness of mind.
OK, you’ve seen the biggest trees on Earth, the most spectacular scenery on Earth, what on earth can you do for an encore?
Maybe ease your way back into civilization just north of Yosemite in Columbia, one of the epicenters of the 1849 Gold Rush. By the 1860s, some 10,000 miners, grocers, gamblers and grifters lived in Columbia, but when the ore ran out, the town very nearly ran out, too. It would have died a slow and ugly death but for one woman, the town dentist’s widow, Geraldine McConnell.
When she heard that the venerable City Hotel might be turned into a whorehouse, Geraldine sprang into action. She “persuaded” the governor to turn Columbia into a state historic park. “Persuaded” is in quotes because locals suggest “strong-armed” would be more accurate. Either way, in 1945, the governor signed the Columbia State Park bill. His name? Earl Warren, future chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.
What makes Columbia the place to ease back into civilization is that the town and its residents look almost exactly the way they did in 1870. Think of it as Williamsburg of the West with a Gold Rush theme. We stayed in that same City Hotel, a Victorian treat with nary a lady of the night in sight.
And just a few miles south of town is another historic park, Railtown 1897. We liked it so much, we made a minimovie.
Where to stay in the parks? You can camp in all of them. Been there, done that. This time we stayed in hotels.
Near Yosemite, that was Tenaya Lodge, a massive, handsome, well-run hotel with fine food and a Western mountain theme.
In Sequoia, it was Wuksachi Lodge — basic rooms, excellent breakfasts, decent dinners, awful wine.
And last (as you’ll see), in Kings Canyon, John Muir Lodge. Despite its encouraging name, this facility is not up to what should be — must be — American national park standard. It’s cheaply built, poorly designed, and the sounds of flushing toilets and running showers permeate the rooms. The restaurant? Five minutes down the road. It has an unexciting menu and cheap, uncomfortable tableware — the coffee spoon is a soup spoon. The service? Well-intentioned but untrained, unwelcoming and uninformed about the natural beauty that surrounds the lodge.
I wouldn’t go on about this if I hadn’t met a New Zealand couple who, despite their reluctance to criticize (I said New Zealand), couldn’t help but express their disappointment. They compared this facility — which houses visitors to America from every nation — to the splendid hotels in their own parks. And I thought, if a tiny island-nation can do so much better, why can’t we?
End of sermon. Return to must-see list. Go.
If You Go:
Three Hot Tips
- Dress for everything. Really hot, seriously cold, sunblock, raincoat, mittens, boots. You’re in the High Sierra.
- Gas up. Fill your tank before you hit the parks or rue/ruin the day. Maybe check the oil and air, too.
- Don’t call home. Unless you’re with Verizon — and, alas, I’m not — all you’ll get from your phone is a “No service” sign. So you can’t call Mom, and worse, can’t call Siri. Do your mapping before you hit the road.