The Unsung Charm of Three Rivers and Sequoia Canyon National Park
by Kent Jensen
Sequoia National Park sits in the shadow below Yosemite and is often overlooked, but resembles Yosemite in nearly every way. This relaxing, quiet get-away nestles into the serene high sierras and leaves the packed crowds to parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone. Yosemite gets 4 million annual visitors compared to Sequoia and Kings Canyon’s combined patronage of 1.6 million annual visitors even though Yosemite has ~200 fewer square miles of park. So on any given day in Sequoia National Park you’d compete with 1/5 as many people for a campsite or a seat on the shuttle. Otherwise they both occupy amazing Sierra Nevada mountain perches, ready to awe anyone willing to make the trek inside.
These gigantic Sierra Nevada Mountains rise from the arid central valley of California and scrubby foothills into the pine covered forests and high alpine peaks. Interestingly enough, the Sequoia groves only grow in North America, only in the Sierra Nevadas and only at elevations between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. Sequoia National Park enshrines the largest remaining groves. In order to enjoy these giants, you must traverse the General’s Highway. It climbs 5,000 feet in 22 miles, making for a beautiful, windy and at times precarious drive overlooking Kaweah Canyon. As it crawls up the mountain the highway repeatedly passes underneath Moro Rock, a solid granite dome that stands like a sentinel over the Kaweah River.
A cluster of main attractions sits in the Giant Grove sector of the park. From here you can walk through hundreds of trees with trunks larger than 10 feet in diameter, visit “General Sherman”, the world’s largest tree by mass, or take a shuttle out to Moro Rock and Tunnel Log. Our hike up Moro Rock revealed a staircase chiseled and grouted into the rock face that ascends above the sequoia canopy to peer off the edge of this Half-Dome-like granite monolith. From its vantage point we peered from Mt. Whitney and a handful of other 14,000 foot peaks down the steep slopes to the central valley, admiring all the cascades between. Moro Rock was a fun must-see for us. If you’re agoraphobic and don’t like the exposure that comes from sitting atop a granite peak, don’t worry, only a few miles away is the opposite extreme, Crystal Cave for your claustrophobia. We descended past beautiful waterfalls to a cave entrance where tour guides led us into a dark LED lit maze of tunnels to learn about a whole world within, alien to anything we see on the outside. Oddly enough the guide said adults get more nervous during the lights-out pitch blackness than kids (don’t worry, that part only lasts 30 seconds).
Below and just outside the south entrance of the park sits the cozy town of Three Rivers. This roadside community snakes along the Kaweah River garnering majestic views of the river falling over apartment size boulders strewn along the canyon floor like giants’ dice. As you progress through town you move from the base of the mountains to the spreading foothills and Lake Kaweah. Though the town follows HWY 198 and has no “down town”, the numerous hotels, restaurants and outfitters allow for full enjoyment of an outdoor vacation whether you’re looking for a hotel based or camping based experience. Our biggest challenge came when deciding which things to enjoy: mountain-biking, hiking, rafting, lounging amidst beautiful scenery, golf or watersports on the lake. Our favorite biking trail followed Salt Creek up to some lazy waterfalls ideal for letting the kids frolic and play. While in town we stayed at the Gateway Lodge and Restaurant, which sits barely a mile from the entrance to Sequoia National Park. Our quaint, cozy cabin enjoyed a stunning view of the river from the back patio and the restaurant deck literally hung over the whitewater rapids. Should you try it, the Bang Bang Shrimp can’t be beat. Regardless of where you eat a meal or what time of day, always make sure that you save room for a stop at Reimer’s Candies (unbeatable ice cream, chocolates and candies).
The Three Rivers community created a program to thank our nation’s heroes. Every year in January, February and March, a group of 30-40 local businesses give a 20% discount to these heroes, to include police, firemen and military. The town hosts hero-centered family fun days during each of these months. This year they organized a Snowman Building Contest, Square Dancing Instruction and Bathtub Races where contestants built their own boats. They seek to honor the sacrifices made by public servants. They realize families often need time to heal after long, difficult deployments. To this end they provide a relaxing, low profile place to escape the outside world and unwind with your family. This area can be as adrenaline filled or peaceful as you seek and offers some generous military discounts. We can’t wait to go back with more time and explore deeper.