Trip Report: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
May 12 – 17, 2017
These parks are beautiful. We stayed at Potwisha—a small, overgrown campground just inside the entrance to Sequoia National Park. There’s a dump/fill station across the street where Wendy and I spent about a half hour in cold drizzle filling our Pod with drinking water for the next few days. Then we headed into the campground, where we saw our very pretty but very small site (#35) sandwiched between rocks and beneath a tree just barely taller than our trailer. For the next 20 minutes, we engaged in the familiar choreography of backing up, pulling forward, backing up, talking about what needs to happen next, pulling forward, backing up, pulling forward, etc. I almost always get irritated before it’s over, but I’m working on it.
This is the first time we’ve camped in “bear country,” and the prominence of signs telling us so made it seem like we should see one lumbering by at least once a day. Emerson learned to say “bear box,” which is the large metal container on our site where the signs urged us to store all food, cosmetics, and car seats. But we have so much stuff for our seven months on the road that not all of it would fit in the bear box. We locked away the orange-lidded spin bucket holding 25 pounds of dog food; the white-lidded spin bucket holding 30 pounds of dried goods (like beans and pasta); a faded blue tupperware stocked with cereal, oatmeal, and some canned goods; and the seats from the kids’ double stroller since they’ve endured various spills and may smell good to bears. But the car seats stayed in the car.
Wendy slept horribly the first night, convinced on several occasions that the low grumble rising from the foggy silence was a bear nearby.
The next morning at breakfast, Wendy heard the noise again.
“What is that?” I asked. It was the first time I’d heard it. I went outside to look and as best we can tell, it was wind causing leaves from low-hanging branches to scrape against our trailer and R-dome.
Mystery solved and with bellies full of scrambled eggs, we drove an hour along Generals Highway farther into the park. When we reached about 5,000 feet elevation, a mist settled among the forest and the slow, winding drive became even more beautiful. We secured our stamps at the Giant Forest Museum then walked the Big Tree Trail—a mile-long paved path that meanders through sequoias, coastal redwoods, and a lush meadow. While it had been in the low 60s at Potwisha, it was in the low 40s here so we dug out hats and jackets from the Thule.
The next day, we ventured all the way to Kings Canyon National Park, about two hours from Potwisha, farther along the same road we had traversed the day before. This time though, the trip felt a little different because the sky and forest were totally clear.
While we did enjoy the view the second time around, we were primarily focused on finding gas and a cell signal/wifi so we could wish our moms a happy Mother’s Day. Stoney Creek Village said it had wifi but it was crap—couldn’t send a single text after sitting there for half an hour—so we resigned ourselves to finding a payphone in the park. But all the sudden, while wending our way northward, Wendy shouted “Signal! We have a signal!” So I pulled over at the first turnout and we sat there for the next half hour taking care of 21st century business.
We both texted our moms. I learned I had a voicemail from Summerdale Campground, which we’d booked for six nights of our upcoming Yosemite stay. “I have you coming in the 21st and leaving the 27th in site 29 with a trailer,” the woman said. “Umm,” she continued, “there’s going to be issues with that.”
When I called her back—perched above the sequoias, pointing downhill with my emergency brake on—she explained that although recreation.gov describes the site as having a “slight slope,” it in fact has a significant slope that a trailer shouldn’t back into. “I can try to get you into another site, but I dunno, with Memorial Day weekend….”
Awesome. We couldn’t find anything in Yosemite and now our Plan B—a campground with nothing except vault toilets but busy because it’s less than two miles from the park—had fallen through. And it all could’ve been avoided if the site description had simply been accurate.
Annoyed and flustered, I dialed the number for recreation.gov. Our itinerary had us spending 10 nights near Yosemite: the first 4 boondocking on Hardin Flat Road and the next 6 at Summerdale. I didn’t want to boondock at all but couldn’t find anything nearby, so figured we’d go with it. But during this call to recreation.gov—where I basically asked someone else to search the internet for me—the representative said there was a spot at Hogdon Meadows in Yosemite available for the first two nights of our trip. So we grabbed it and now at least knew we had somewhere to stay for the first two nights after leaving Potwisha.
We continued north into Kings Canyon National Park, where we got more stamps, walked to General Grant (the second largest tree in the world), and then donned our backpacks and hiked the Big Stump Trail. I had noted that it was “an easy 1-mi loop trail” but this was not true. A more accurate description would’ve been “walk downhill for a mile then back uphill for a mile.” I found it difficult, but worthwhile. There are lots of big stumps along the way, but the big stump really is something to see.
The next day we traveled that same winding road an hour north into Sequoia National Park, still pretty but no longer spectacular as it started feeling like a commute. But then Wendy noticed something odd.
“I think I just saw snow on that car,” she said.
“Nah, snow?” In May?
“Maybe not, but it looked like snow,” she answered.
We looked at the next car—no snow. But the next car? Clearly snow. And the next one too. WTF….
This is the day we had set aside to hike Moro Rock with the kids (something Wendy really wanted to do because her mom had done it) and visit General Sherman—the biggest tree in the world. What was going on up there? Would we have to ditch our plans and return to camp?
As we continued north, we were once again awed by the view. In the past three days we’d seen these trees encircled by fog, contrasted against clear blue sky, and now dusted with snow—which was falling steadily now. Pleased with the beauty but concerned for our steeply-graded descent, we stopped at the Giant Forest Museum to ask a ranger about the weather. Without cell service or internet, we had no idea what to expect. She assured us that as of a few hours ago, this snow wasn’t supposed to stick because it should stay above freezing as long as we’re out by nightfall.
So we decided to stay until early afternoon. The temperature hovered around 33 F and we got to hike with the kids in the snow. They had never even seen snow, so we let them play in it after we saw the General Sherman Tree. Darwin loved it and Emerson did not, but I think it was less about the snow and more about his inability to pick up sticks while wearing over-sized gloves.
I enjoyed our walk to the biggest tree in the world. But I did not enjoy our walk back. Whoever arranged this park had a penchant for leading people merrily down paths with no regard for what happens after they’ve seen the thing they came to see. I noticed a sign on our way back up that read “You’re at 7,000 feet. Slow down and enjoy your walk.” Eff off. I’m walking steadily uphill with 40 pounds on my back that keeps shifting left and right in an effort to swipe a stick from the forest.
“I’m glad we did that,” I told Wendy. “But I’m not walking the 350 steps up Moro Rock. I’ll stay in the car and feed the kids lunch while you go.”
“Do you think they’re still letting people do it in the snow?” she asked.
“I don’t think this place tries very hard to keep you from killing yourself,” I told her. “I think they’ll let you do whatever you think you can do.”
So the kids and I said goodbye to Wendy at the base of Moro Rock, where she donned her jacket, hat, and gloves and disappeared up the steps into steady snowfall. An hour and a Ziploc bag of last night’s box-of-penne-pasta-mixed-with-a-can-of-chicken-noodle-soup later, Wendy returned to the van pale but happy.
“Oh my god that was crazy,” she said. “I’m glad I did that but I’m never doing it again. I cheated on you. I totally had a relationship with that rock.” She went on to explain how one stumble could send a person right off the cliff face, and how she’d clung to the rock the entire time rather than venturing close to the rickety railing separating tourists from certain death. “There was even a sign,” she said, “telling you that people have died here before. But I did it. And I’m glad I did it. But man.”
Later back at camp, Wendy showed me the selfie she’d taken at the top. I can tell she was scared, and I can also see that she’s proud—of herself for doing it, of her mom for having done it. I hope when we’re older, we’ll hold onto this—that we’ll be proud of what we did on this trip, and that our kids will be proud of us for having done it.
Read the next trip report: Yosemite National Park.