Kings Canyon National Park: In the land of giants

From tiny pine cones to giant sequoias.
From tiny pine cones to giant sequoias. The Tribune

In 1870, brothers Israel and Thomas Gamlin decided to build a cabin in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains.

Yet they didn’t have a place to stay during the two years it took them to make the cabin. So they forged a home in the best shelter available — the middle of a fallen sequoia tree.

Nobody knows how long that tree had been lying on its side. But today the Fallen Monarch looks just like it did when the Gamlins used it as a home and as a saloon for visitors.

A walk through the giant sequoia, located in Kings Canyon National Park, offers a glimpse through history and — more impressively — a glimpse into the center of one of the world’s biggest trees.

While Kings Canyon might not have the notoriety of its northern neighbor, Yosemite National Park, its physical similarities to Yosemite are what drew famed naturalist John Muir here — affording the area its first outside attention — just three years after the Gamlins arrived. And its abundance of giant sequoias is ideal for those who revel in the grandiosity of nature.

Located about four hours from San Luis Obispo, Kings Canyon offers an easy weekend getaway. And it’s much less crowded than Yosemite. But, like Yosemite, travelers will need to follow weather forecasts beginning in November. (Tire chains, heavy coats and blankets are recommended during winter months.) When my wife and I traveled here around Thanksgiving several years ago, heavy snow flakes began falling at 4,000 feet, making our trek a bit of a white-knuckle experience — even with a four-wheel drive and tire chains. More recently, I returned to fairer weather, this time with my brother — a Midwesterner who’s not easily impressed by things in nature. But even he marveled at the massive sequoias, many of which have grown to over 200 feet.

Driving from our great-aunt’s place in Dinuba, we took the Highway 180 entrance. The most you’ll climb is about 6,000 feet — not that high compared to nearby Mount Whitney, which is over 14,000 feet, but still significantly higher than our Cuesta Grade, which tops out at around 1,500 feet. Also, it gets steep in a hurry, so curvy roads and steep dropoffs can induce sweaty palms even in the best weather. Before we reached the base of the mountains, I warned my brother that I would be driving like a grandma, and I lived up to that — driving an overcautious 30 mph around curves and hugging the centerline as I tightly gripped the wheel with both hands.

The main thoroughfare in the park is the Kings Highway, which circles through the sequoia forests. Not long after the road leveled off, we arrived at the first major stop, Grant Grove. While many sequoias can be found here, the star is clearly a tree named the General Grant, which was declared the nation’s Christmas tree by President Calvin Coolidge in 1925.

Named after the Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant, this is the second largest tree in the world — equivalent in size to a27-story building. Its base is wider than a three-lane highway, and the tree weighs more than 700 large cars.

Walk by General Grant, and you’ll see lots of people looking up.

In the Grant Grove, there are easy-to-walk trails leading to other giant trees, some of which have been around for 1,500 to 2,000 years. One tree that isn’t around any more is now the site of the Centennial Stump. In 1875, two men spent nine days chopping down this sequoia, so that a 16-foot section could then be shipped to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. But, looking at the huge stump, critics refused to believe a tree so large could be real, calling it the “California Hoax.”

Not far from the stump, you’ll find the cabin the Gamlin brothers lived in until 1878. Walk inside the cabin and you can imagine the serenity these two enjoyed, living in the shadows of giants.

Of course, winters in the cabin must have been tough. Yet snow in Kings Canyon can create a winter wonderland that begs to be photographed for Christmas cards.

If you’re in for a quick hit, you can visit Grant’s Grove for an hour or two, then turn around and head home. But if you want more, continue on the King’s Highway toward the Giant Forest, which is actually located in Sequoia National Forest. Here you’ll see the General Sherman — the largest tree in the world.

I didn’t take my brother to the Giant Forest because it was 27 miles away, and neither of us cared to drive down a mountain at night. But in the past, my wife and I ate at the cozy Waksachi Lodge, with great forest views, and stayed overnight at the Grant Grove Cabins, located conveniently near the Giant Forest.

You won’t find a lot of commerce here, but there is ample opportunity to pick up souvenirs at park gift shops. While there, check out some of the history books, which offer nice vintage photos of the park.

Some of the most memorable photos here were taken by Ansel Adams, the great nature photographer, who was commissioned by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes in an effort to preserve the area. Not long after Adams first photographed scenes here, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the law creating Kings Canyon National Park in 1940.

While the Adams photos remain beautiful artistic creations, to really comprehend the grandiosity of the land here, you have to actually set foot in Kings Canyon, where towering behemoths have stood their ground for centuries.

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