Skip to main content

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: View the Largest Living Trees!

California is a state full of natural wonders, including many state and national parks. See interesting sites in San Francisco and beyond.

Approaching the Fallen Monarch Tree

Approaching the Fallen Monarch Tree

A dear friend of mine and I wove our way back and forth between the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park while on vacation one year. Getting to see the magnificent sequoia trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum) was our primary reason for visiting these parks.

Kings Canyon National Park (the more northern one of the two) adjoins the Sequoia National Park, and tall redwoods and the sequoias are in both of the parks. Information and pictures of the General Sherman Tree, the General Grant Tree, and more are shared here.

Our Experience at Sequoia and Kings Canyon

One day in the latter month of May, we experienced every type of weather from bright glistening sunshine to pelting rain to fairly heavy snowfall and even sleet. The more inclement weather was at higher elevations. Elevation changes were many. It ranges from about 2,100 to 7,500 feet at the various campsites, and it goes up to almost 14,450 feet above sea level. Beyond the higher elevations of the camps, it is no longer accessible by roads.

My traveling companion and I stayed at lodging in Kings Canyon National Park for the duration of our visit to both national parks. Cabins are amidst the trees, and each structure had two units under one roof, each providing one bedroom with two beds and a bathroom. That is nice for families who travel together but might wish to have a little privacy. There was a shared landing.

At the main lodge, strict warnings were to take all foodstuffs out of one's vehicles to keep bears from smashing windows and entering the cars. Anything with a scent, including toothpaste, talcum powder, and the like, was also to be taken inside. Graphic pictures of the damage done to vehicles are on view to ensure people adhere to the guidelines for safety for both the bears and people.

Snow and Ice

Snow and Ice

Driving Conditions

There was snow on the ground with banks of about three to five feet and more upon our arrival. When we awakened the next morning, fresh snow had fallen overnight, bejeweling the tree branches with pearly and sparkling white adornments and making my German friend fearful that we might become stranded. However, the roads were passable, and we proceeded to explore the parks.

Because of the twisting and turning roads winding through the parks, most speed limits are at 25 MPH or even less. So if driving, plan to take that into account. One would wish to do that in any case, to enjoy the spectacular scenery that is around every bend of the road.

Fallen Monarch Tree

Sequoia trees are known to live up to 3,000 years and even longer. They predate most of the world's major religions! When giants like these topple with fires hollowing them out, they make terrific shelters. A sign posted near one tree gave the following information:

After the grove was set aside as General Grant National Park in 1890, the log was used for a while as an employee camp. Bears and other lesser creatures have most likely used the Fallen Monarch for shelter. Undoubtedly, the Indians that came to the high country in the summer-time used the hollow trees. Homesteaders Thomas and Israel Gamlin used the log as a house and a saloon to serve visitors to the area. Also, the U.S. Cavalry used the tree as a stable for their horses. Early day visitors to the Big Trees were served meals and liquid refreshment here.

While no longer utilized in this manner, visitors can walk upright through the Fallen Monarch and, with its massive size, understand how and why the various uses have taken place in these manners throughout the years.

Geology of Sequoia and Kings Canyon

The location of these parks is in the southern Sierra Nevada mountain range of California. Glaciers formed many areas of these parks, which came down from the north during the Ice Age. The glaciers carved valleys and lakes in this region.

Scroll to Continue

Read More from WanderWisdom

Recent theories have also upheld the idea of tectonic plate movement as also being responsible for the landscape. Calcium deposits from seashells and sea creature's bones are on top of the granite mountain peaks. That tends to confirm that idea.

The Pacific ocean plate moved under the western part of the North American plate caused this uplift. There are also numerous caves in this region with calcium deposits. Because of the snowy weather and our time constraints, my friend and I did not get to explore any of the caves in these national parks but rather spent our time hitting some of the highlighted areas more easily accessible by car.

Even the trails, except where short and well-traveled, became obliterated by snow in the upper elevations. At one point, venturing off of the hard-packed snow, my legs sunk into the snow, and I was almost waist-deep. It took some maneuvering to get out of that predicament, and I was fearful that I would lose my shoes in that frantic effort to wiggle myself out of that snowbank, but all ended well. You can be sure that I stayed on the path after that experience!

General Grant Tree

Did you know that the United States has a living Christmas Tree? Back in 1926, President Calvin Coolidge bestowed that honor upon the General Grant Tree. Also, bestowed upon that same tree is National Shrine status by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.

Located in Kings Canyon National Park, in the Grant Grove section of the park, it rises 267 feet (81.4 m) high above the ground. The General Grant tree is reputed to be over 1,600 years old.

General Sherman Tree

This tree is reputed to be the "world's largest living thing on earth!" It is neither the tallest tree, nor the widest at the base, nor the oldest of the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) trees. However, it has attained an overall mass that exceeds any other measurable tree anywhere else on the earth.

The General Sherman Tree is estimated to be between 2,300 to 2,700 years old. The General Grant tree runs a close second by way of the overall wood volume, and it has a 40-foot diameter.

According to a sign posted near the General Sherman Tree, the first large branch is 130 feet (39.6 m.) from the ground! One can stare upwards in awe towards the sky as this tree and others in these parks seemingly stretch towards the heavens.

Sequoia pine cones

Sequoia pine cones

Fire's Effects on Sequoia Trees

In the case of sequoias, occasional fires are beneficial. Their thick reddish-tinged bark, which can be up to a foot and a half thick, is fire resistant. If fire harms the tree, new bark encases the wound and grows over it.

Clearing the forest of other less fire-resistant trees and plant life enables sequoia seeds to find fertile soil and some needed sunlight to propagate the species. The tight scales of sequoia pine cones open and release their seeds from the heat generated by fire. Without that heat, they can stay closed tightly for a matter of years!

Another seed distribution method occurs when squirrels feast on mature pine cones and inadvertently scatter the seeds. Probably best known is the pine squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii), also known as the Douglas Squirrel or Chickaree, who severs thousands of cones from sequoia trees each year.

Each cone contains 100 to 300 tiny seeds, but once released and finding just the right growing condition, that seed can germinate and begin its long life. Since a mature sequoia tree can live for thousands of years, it only takes a few successful germinations to keep the species going.

Giant Forest and the Lumber Industry

When the lumbering industry started clear-cutting these old-growth forests, what helped to save the sequoias for numerous generations of people to see and enjoy is the actual wood of the sequoias.

Back during the late 1800s, companies became enamored with the thought of harvesting these giant sequoias for the amount of wood each tree would furnish. However, after weeks of work by lumberjacks attacking just one massive tree with saws, when a sequoia would finally topple to the ground, the wood shattered. Amazingly the wood is very brittle, so the ultimate use was for little things like stakes, shingles, and fence posts.

Harvesting of these giants ceased by about 1915 as it was just not profitable for the lumber companies. Sawdust still surrounds tree stumps left behind when these sequoias toppled as if the lumbering process just happened recently! So, amazingly while the wood does not have great strength, it also does not quickly decay.

Effects of People Amidst These Trees

One thing learned through the years since man has become more mobile with automobiles and ease of travel concerns preserving these long-lived giants of the forest. Cars used to be able to drive through hollowed-out sections of a few of these sequoia trees. Construction of cabins took place amidst these groves of beauties, and millions of people have walked around these trees.

The consequences of all of this increased activity helped to compact the soil. It also caused much of the earth to be eroded, exposing sequoia roots to irreparable damage. Now people are encouraged to stay on well-marked paths, and cabins are being moved out of these sequoia groves to help further preserve these beauties so that they do not come crashing down to the earth. What a sound that must make!

The cabins shown in the photo above were due to be removed the following year after our vacation there.

Kings Canyon

The famous naturalist John Muir, and photographer Ansel Adams, are credited with bringing attention to these beautiful areas. They helped ensure their preservation for the masses by ultimately succeeding in having them protected as national forests, and finally, national parks.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the papers in 1940, creating Kings Canyon National Park. Kings Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the United States.

Commercial development within the heart of the giant sequoias is no longer allowed, and a more pristine and natural environment is the goal. A quota system of governance helps preserve this glorious environment, even when there is no easy road access to the wilderness areas.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Peggy Woods

Related Articles