Polished granite mountains, groves of giant sequoias and meadows of minuscule wildflowers, all beneath endless blue skies—this is California’s High Sierra mountain range. From Crescent Meadow’s colorful carpet to Mount Whitney’s windswept summit (the highest point in the 48 contiguous states), glaciers sculpt this landscape that is now home to Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Though a multi-decade Californian, it was my first time in a setting so intense. I felt like James Earl Jones should be narrating my visit.
This year is a big one for these national parks. It’s the 75th anniversary of Kings Canyon and the 125th birthday of Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.Located 4.5 hours from Los Angeles or San Francisco, the area is roughly equidistant from southern and northern California. Best seen on the Majestic Mountain Loop, this 400-mile Sierra circle connects Yosemite to Kings Canyon to Sequoia.
First established with the Yosemite Grant Act by President Abraham Lincoln, it was also noted as California’s first national park and named a World Heritage Site. It is considered one of the nation’s top 59 national parks. Though Yosemite is the approximate size of Rhode Island, its stats include: a ski resort (California’s first), two glaciers, countless waterfalls (including North America’s highest and the world’s fifth highest), 3,000 meadows, 37 species of native trees, 1,450 wildflower species and 90 mammal species (including between 300 to 500 black bears).
In the spring, Pacific dogwoods and California redbuds with waterfalls and rivers at their peak are in full bloom. By summer, the busy activity of people and animals take over, while autumn’s colorful palette with warm days lead to cool nights. But it is the park’s big three—El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls— that beckoned four plus million visitors in 2014..
As the world’s biggest piece of granite, it is said that three Empire State Buildings could stack almost to the top of El Capitan. Climbers come from all over the globe to conquer the giant monolith, which provides endless excitement for spectators. The average climb is between four to six days, although the record is two hours and twenty minutes. Its most-noted challenge was completed on January 14, 2015—the first free climb of Dawn Wall (made in 19 days).
Half Dome is a Yosemite icon. Rising nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, it dominates most valley views and its 14- to 16-mile roundtrip trek is an additional challenge. Yosemite Falls, North America’s tallest waterfall, consists of three sections: Upper Yosemite Falls, Middle Cascades and Lower Yosemite Falls. Its prime time for viewing is spring, with peak runoff typically between May and June. An adventure playground with alpine attitude, activities in Yosemite and its immediate environs include zip-lining in Mariposa, river rafting on the Merced River and an introduction to climbing at Yosemite Mountaineering School.
When it comes to accommodations, the Ahwahnee Hotel is a AAA Four-Diamond property known for its National Park Service style of rustic architecture called “parkitecture.” It is constructed from steel, stone, concrete, wood and glass. Surrounded by Glacier Point, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, it has attracted such notable guests as Queen Elizabeth II and Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan since its 1927 opening. The Valley’s hottest ticket is the annual Bracebridge Dinner (served multiple dates each December), which “transforms the hotel into an 18th-century English manor for food, song and mirth.”
Tenaya Lodge is two miles from the southern entrance to Yosemite. The AAA Four-Diamond lodge blends the rustic with the refined. Consequently, its motto is “roughing it, minus the rough part.” Featuring a three-story-high lobby, indoor and outdoor saline pools and winter’s s’mores and ice skating, the lodge is also dog-friendly and offers such amenities as pet-sitting and gourmet doggie treats.
Though Kings Canyon National Park is the least visited of the three parks, noted naturalist John Muir deemed it “a rival to Yosemite.” At 461,901 acres, it is home to one of the nation’s deepest canyons (maximum depth, nearly 8,000 feet). The best way to experience it is via Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. This 30-mile scenic drive from the forests of Grant Grove travels along a steep descent to the vast panorama at Kings Canyon Overlook. It is here where the South Fork of the Kings River meets the road and follows it all the way down to the quiet setting of Cedar Grove and Road’s End, deep in the heart of the canyon.
Between Kings River and Sequoia National Parks, nature’s amenities include more than 800 miles of marked trails; 331 native mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians; over 1,551 species of plants and 275 caves. All of the above attract more than 1.5 million annual visitors.
Sequoia National Park (404,063 acres) was California’s second national park and is now known for its giant eponymous trees. The Parker Group is considered one of the finest clusters of sequoias reachable by automobile. Tunnel Log is a fallen sequoia that was tunneled from one side to the other and is now the only “tree you can drive through” in these parks. And Giant Forest is the home to General Sherman Tree, estimated to be more than 2,000 years old. At nearly 275 feet tall and 102 feet in circumference at its base, the Sherman has no equal in terms of trunk volume, earning the title of the World’s Largest Tree.
For a 360-degree view of the western half of Sequoia National Park, a climb to the top of Moro Rock is mandatory, approximately 400 steps to its summit. In contrast is Crescent Meadow encircled by a 1.6 mile trail; the fragile environment is replete with wildflowers and fallen logs.
Wuksachi Lodge is the place to luxuriously disconnect within the park. The cedar and stone lodge sits at the property’s center with mountainous views. Though it features a peaked ceiling, stone fireplace and Indian-inspired fabrics, the lobby’s prime focus is an oversized stuffed bear perched on its couch. Seasonal fun includes pumpkin carving contests, snowshoeing with hot chocolate and summer, dark sky events.
Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia, a virtuoso performance by Mother Nature. In summation, I defer to John Muir, “Going to the mountains is going home.”