Paul Jones, a Brit who has come all the way from London to see the giant sequoias of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, is trying to do something that would ordinarily...

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Paul Jones, a Brit who has come all the way from London to see the giant sequoias of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, is trying to do something that would ordinarily be simple.

He is taking the obligatory “I was there” photo of his wife, Marcela, standing in front of the General Grant Tree. But this easy task is proving to be difficult. The General Grant Tree stands 267 feet high.

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With a trunk that appears to be as thick as a corn silo, the tree ranks as the third-largest living thing in the world. (Two other sequoias in Sequoia National Park are larger.)

Jones, determined to get both his wife and the entire tree in the photo, has backed some 40 feet away, and he would retreat even farther if not for a split-rail restraining fence.

RON COBB / ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
This grouping of sequoias, named The House, is found along Congress Trail in California’s Sequoia National Park.

Now Jones is slinking toward the ground, contorting himself until he is nearly lying on his back, aiming the camera upward at a tree that reaches for the clouds.

“Get on with it,” his wife says, losing patience.

“Sorry,” Jones answers, and at this point he concedes that his point-and-shoot is no match for the dimensions of the tree. He will take home a photo of her in front of the bottom half of General Grant, not the whole mammoth thing. And, in the photo, she will be no bigger than a speck.

The sequoias are hard enough for the eye to take in, much less a camera. They look as if they’ve burst out of the ground like cinnamon-colored missiles, surging toward the stratosphere and leaving all the other trees behind. But the truth is that they’re in no hurry to grow.

They have all the time in the world. They can live for 3,000 years.

The General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon National Park is believed to be between 1,800 and 2,000 years old. About 30 miles away in Sequoia National Park, the General Sherman Tree is 2,300 to 2,700 years old, and it’s the largest tree on the planet.

Although the redwoods that grow along the coast in Northern California are taller, the giant sequoias are larger in terms of volume. The General Sherman Tree is 275 feet tall and weighs 2.7 million pounds, with a trunk circumference of 102.6 feet. It has a branch that, with a diameter of 6.8 feet, is larger than most normal trees. The scary thing is that General Sherman isn’t done growing. It adds enough new wood each year to make a 60-foot tree of typical proportions.

All of which prompts the question: If a tree falls in the woods and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? If it’s a sequoia, it probably does.

Impressive giants

After visitors enter these adjoining parks, their first sighting of a sequoia is a thrill that may not be surpassed during the rest of their stay. The amazing trees are the major attraction for the approximately 1.4 million people who visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon each year, but the sights don’t end there. These parks, about 55 miles east of Fresno, Calif., or about a five-hour drive from either Los Angeles or San Francisco, have much more to offer.


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Budget for two

Actual expenses for this trip:

Montecito-Sequoia Lodge, two nights, with meals — $592.70

Admission, Sequoia National Park — $10

Drinks — $30

Ski, snowshoe rentals — $56

Gas — $23.86

Final tab — $712.56

Montecito-Sequoia Lodge, 8000 Generals Highway (P.O. Box 858), Kings Canyon National Park, CA 93633; 800-843-8677 or 559-565-3388 lodge, 800-227-9900 off-site reservations office, www.mslodge.com.

Entrance fees: $10 per vehicle, which is good for both parks. For $50, a National Parks Pass gives access to all national parks for a year. Most of the park is open 24 hours a day, year-round.

Lodging: Rates at the 3-year-old Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia National Park range from $59 for a standard room, offseason, to $140 in-season (May through October). Call 559-565-4070, or go to www.visitsequoia.com.

Bearpaw High Sierra Camp is a backcountry tent hotel available to hikers from mid-June to mid-September (888-252-5757).

In Kings Canyon, rates at the John Muir Lodge range from $89 offseason to $140 in-season, plus tax, for a standard room (559-452-1081, www.sequoia-kingscanyon.com). Although John Muir Lodge is only 3 years old, its dining facility, situated nearby in Grant Grove Village, is older and less attractive than Wuksachi’s.

Other choices: Stony Creek Lodge, open May-September, $125 plus tax (866-522-6966); Cedar Grove Lodge, open May-September, $99 plus tax (866-522-6966); Grant Grove Cabins, $45-$105 (866-522-6966); Montecito-Sequoia Lodge (call for rates; 800-227-9900). More than 1,200 campsites also are available.

More information: Call 559-565-3341 or 559-565-3134; www.nps.gov/seki.

There are rivers, canyons, waterfalls and the 13,000-foot peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Aside from gazing at sequoias, hiking is the most popular activity in the parks, which contain more than 800 miles of trails. Although two major roads cut through the parks, 80 percent of the parks can be accessed only by the trails.

The sequoias are believed to have first appeared in the western United States about 50 million years ago. Naturalist John Muir helped bring them to the nation’s attention after visiting the area in the 1870s. During that same decade, sawmills began to appear there, and loggers cut down about a third of the existing sequoias before Muir, other conservationists and nearby residents succeeded in persuading Congress to protect the area. Sequoia National Park was established in 1890 as the nation’s second national park, behind Yellowstone.

Only a week later, Congress tripled the park’s size and also created General Grant National Park, which included Grant Grove and the General Grant Tree.

More land was added over the years until, in 1940, General Grant National Park was merged into the new Kings Canyon National Park. (Spanish explorers had named the river that runs through the canyon Kings River, after the three wise men who visited the infant Jesus.) Although the parks have different concessioners, they are managed jointly.

Prime growing area

Sequoias are able to grow in other climates, but they grow naturally only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, in what is known as the Sequoia Belt. Yosemite National Park, 160 miles to the north, has its Mariposa Grove, but nowhere else do the trees grow as majestically as they do in Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest. Four of the world’s five largest trees are found within three square miles of the Giant Forest (with General Grant in Grant Grove rounding out the top five). In all, Sequoia National Park has about 75 sequoia groves.

Sequoias are finicky about their surroundings. They grow naturally between 5,000 and 7,000 feet in elevation, with higher elevations being too cold and lower elevations being too dry. In the Sequoia Belt, conditions are just right.

But if the sequoias have an Achilles’ heel, it is their shallow root system. Their roots extend no deeper than 3 to 5 feet. That makes the trees susceptible to toppling, and a walk through any of the parks’ groves reveals the trunks of numerous fallen giants.

Anything standing under a falling sequoia is doomed to obliteration. The sound of toppling is said to be like that of an avalanche and freight train, combined. In 1941, a sequoia fell and crushed the park superintendent’s house.

TERESA HURTEAU / AP
Bob Van Tassel, 34, of Fresno, Calif., hikes the Watchtower section of the Lakes Trail, in Sequoia National Park, Calif.

The prospect of sequoias becoming damaged and falling on other sequoias, buildings and people was part of what spurred the biggest restoration and relocation project in Sequoia National Park’s history — a project that is about 90 percent complete.

In the park’s early years, the Giant Forest underwent development to the point that by the 1950s, the sequoias were surrounded by a small city, all of which sat on the trees’ shallow root system. Besides the Giant Forest Lodge, there were more than 200 cabins, housing units, shops and acres of asphalt for roads and parking lots, plus miles of plumbing and overhead wires.

Concerns that had been voiced as far back as the 1930s finally were heeded, and in 1994 the transformation of the Giant Forest got under way. Nearly all the infrastructure was removed — the last building came down in 1999 — and, as near as possible, the forest has been returned to its natural state.

To replace Giant Forest Lodge, Wuksachi Lodge was built six miles up Generals Highway. The handsome, woodsy lodge opened in scenic surroundings in 1999, offering 102 guest rooms in buildings detached from the main lodge.

The only major structure left in Giant Forest is the 1-year-old Giant Forest Museum, a place where, at no charge, visitors can get information from park rangers and view exhibits that provide information on the sequoias.

With no real sequoias inside the museum, it’s one of the few places in the park where a visitor is unlikely to hear these four commonly uttered words:

“Look at that one.”