At a little after 1pm on July 3, Sean and I reached the southern edge of the plateau on which Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest sits. We were at the junction of Trail of the Sequoias and High Sierra Trail. In front of us to the south was the gorge of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, some 3,700 feet below. Beyond were the ridges and peaks of the southern Sierra Nevada.
Between the heavy pine and silver fir zones towers the Big Tree (Sequoia[dendron] gigantea), the king of all the conifers in the world, “the noblest of the noble race” … It extends, a widely interrupted belt, from a very small grove on the middle fork of the American River to the head of Deer Creek, a distance of about 260 miles, its northern limit being near the thirty-ninth parallel, the southern a little below the thirty-sixth. The elevation of the belt above the sea varies from about 5000 to 8000 feet … Southward the giants become more and more irrepressibly jubilant, heaving their massive crowns into the sky from every ridge and slope, waving onward in graceful compliance with the complicated topography of the region. The finest of the Kaweah section of the belt is on the broad ridge between Marble Creek and the middle fork, and is called the Giant Forest. It extends from the granite headlands, overlooking the hot San Joaquin plains, to within a few miles of the cool glacial fountains of the summit peaks … and is included in the Sequoia National Park.
– John Muir, The Yosemite, 1912
It was not yet 10:30am as we turned from the throng at the base of the General Sherman Tree and started into the Giant Forest on the popular, paved Congress Trail. I had a general sense that we would ultimately end up at the Giant Forest Museum (where at 6:30pm, the shuttle would return us to Three Rivers) by way of Moro Rock. But our exact route through the grove was yet to be determined.
Sequoia National Park was established on September 25, 1890 as the second National Park in the system. Its original primary function was to protect a number of groves of Giant Sequoias in the southern Sierra Nevada from logging. One grove of the famed trees had already been protected in 1864 when Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove were given to the state of California for permanent protection. On October 1, 1890, several days after Sequoia National Park was created, another grove of Giant Sequoias was protected as General Grant National Park (which in 1940 would grow to become Kings Canyon National Park). General Grant National Park protected the grove around the General Grant Tree, thought to be the largest in the world until 1931 when Sequoia National Park’s Sherman Tree was discovered to be larger. On that same October day in 1890, hundreds of thousands of acres around Yosemite Valley were also protected as Yosemite National Park, although the Valley and Mariposa Grove wouldn’t officially join the National Park until 1906.
All told, a flurry of legislation in early autumn 1890 began a process that would eventually set aside over 1,615,000 acres of the Sierra Nevada as National Parks. Over 404,000 of those acres were Sequoia National Park.
Our ten days in California began with three nights in Los Angeles visiting Charlie and Kevin, who had just moved there from Chicago and were still settling into their apartment in Marina del Rey. Sean and I were excited to see them in their new life.
In late May 2017, my cousin Andrew, who had been our fellow adventurer in Death Valley National Park, proposed to his girlfriend, Yesenia. This happy development ensured a fifth return to California for Sean and me in barely two years. At first, we’d assumed that this trip would be separate from any National Park adventures, but then our Chicago friends Charlie and Kevin announced in late 2017 that they were moving to Los Angeles in early 2018. As the wedding plans came together, Andrew and Yesi chose July 6 for their nuptials in San Diego. And as we began to put together a trip that would include some time with Charlie and Kevin in LA and the wedding celebration in San Diego, Sean pointed to the two National Parks in southern California that remained unvisited on the map that hangs in our home office. “Which are those? Can we visit them when we’re in California for Andrew’s wedding?”
Our final morning at Death Valley National Park dawned with the sun pushing away the shadows from this vast place. It was Tuesday morning, February 28, and we’d have to start back to San Diego by noon at the latest. The following afternoon, Sean and I would fly home to Chicago.
The previous night as we found our campsite, everything was a rich black. In the morning as we looked out of our tents into the sunrise, we found the foothills of the Cottonwood mountains, where our camp was nestled, gloriously lit up. As were the quickly departing clouds. Although other parts of the valley had felt the drop of rain overnight, our tiny corner of it hadn’t.
Mosaic Canyon follows a fault almost two miles into Tucki Mountain. Actually, the canyon continues farther into the mountain, but at 1.8 miles, an insurmountable fifty-foot dry fall marks the end of a really great hike. Mosaic Canyon is a testament to the power of water written in beautiful stone.
Andrew, Sean, and I arrived at the parking area for Mosaic Canyon at about a quarter to four on February 27. We had traveled some eighty miles from our campsite on Harry Wade Road far near the southern end of Death Valley. Now in the foothills of Tucki Mountain above Stovepipe Wells, we were ready for our final adventure of our final full day in Death Valley National Park.
Badwater Basin in Death Valley is 282 feet below sea level, making it the lowest point on North America and among the lowest on the planet. The basin is covered in a crust of salt, ninety-five percent of which is table salt (sodium chloride). With nowhere lower to go, the Amargosa River ends its one-hundred eighty-five-mile journey here. Runoff from the eastern side of the Panamint Range and the western side of the Amargosa Range also ends up here. Once, Death Valley was filled by Lake Manley, eighty miles long and six-hundred feet deep. But the lake slowly dried up after the last Ice Age, leaving a bed of salt replenished by salts and minerals carried by water trapped here before evaporating.
After our twilight drive down Death Valley the previous evening, we were ready to spend Monday, February 27 making our way slowly back up the valley to the vicinity of Stovepipe Wells. The plan for the day was to take our time exploring some canyons and visiting Badwater Basin. We’d walked down to the Amargosa River after breakfast. Now, having struck our camp along Harry Wade Road, Sean, Andrew, and I were back in the Jeep headed to Room Canyon not far to the north.
Room Canyon, hidden in the foothills of the Black Mountains south of Mormon Point, features sheer reddish walls opening to a large room (for which the canyon is named) beneath a dry fall. The room is a 1.3-mile hike from Badwater Road. Side canyons add some distance, making exploring Room Canyon a 3.6-mile total out-and-back hike from the road.
By 5pm on Sunday, February 26, Sean, Andrew, and I were back in the Jeep and driving south through the northern part of Death Valley. The task at hand: finding a place to rest our heads for the night. The immensity of Death Valley was more apparent for us on this drive than it had been throughout the rest of our time in the Park. It was fifty-seven miles from Ubehebe Crater to the Park Headquarters at Furnace Creek. And our intention was to continue south well beyond Furnace Creek.