A National Treasure Slips Away
by Jeff Lewis

The conjoined Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks hold their own with any parks in the US's lower 48.  They've got canyons on the scale of the Grand Canyon and vistas that rival Yellowstone and Glacier.  They are similar to—but not as crowded as Yosemite—and the Sequoia groves are equaled only by the forests of Redwood and Olympic National Parks (although a point certainly could be made that Sequoia's Giant Forest is without peer).

On a clear spring day, when Sierra snowmelt is surging through the many canyons, Sequoia and Kings are unbelievably beautiful.  Unfortunately, clear days are no longer the norm; often the air quality is worse than in Fresno, the closest major city.  In fact, the pollution is such a problem in the parks that they now have roughly the same number of unhealthy air days each year as Los Angeles.

With the populations of California's Central Valley and the Bay Area on the rise—the source of the majority of the air pollution—it's unlikely that air quality will make a marked improvement anytime soon.  If you have the opportunity, then, I recommend seeing the park one more time (or for the first time) before the conditions become too dire.  It's still well worth it.

Vertigo

The views of the Sierras from Moro Rock are worth the dizzying climb up the nearly 400 steps to the pinnacle.  There's a sturdy hand rail, but it didn't keep me from thinking to myself at times, "What if someone cut the supports with an arc welder and forgot to tell the rangers?"

An Unintended Legacy of Imperialism

There still are archeological remains of native Monache culture scattered throughout the parks, notably the petroglyphs and acorn mortars at Hospital Rock, in the southwest quadrant of the park.

These mortars are a series of holes worn into large rocks, once used by Monache women to grind and process acorns.  Today, the park service uses them to hold stagnant water and, as you can see below, lots of mosquito larvae.

Flora

Yuccas grow for six to seven years, bloom, get pollinated by a moth that specializes in yuccas, and then die, dispersing their seeds from the top of long flower stalks that look for all the world like a monstrous asparagus.

This yucca did not die well, having fallen at the hands of a tourist.  When in our national parks, please do not pick the wildflowers, particularly the six-foot tall varieties.

Although poppies—with their flashy orange flowers and "it's illegal to pick them" urban myth—are the California state flower, I prefer lupines.

Whenever I see a field of lupines, I think of Dennis Moore, a Zoro-esque hero played by John Cleese in the third Monty Python season, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

Unfortunately for the poor, he only stole lupines.

 

I can't in good faith present photos of Sequoia without a shot of the trees, so here's the best I got. General Sherman is the largest living thing known to have existed on earth. It has 52,500 cubic feet of wood and weighs nearly 1400 tons.  Each year, it adds the equivalent of a sixty-foot pine tree to its mass.  Some of its branches are seven feet in diameter.

Consequently, its magnitude is virtually impossible to capture on film.  Please visit the park to see it for yourself.

Fauna

Few animals match the jay in boldness.  In most of California, the dominant jay is the Scrub Jay, an intelligent and particularly ornery variety, while not bad to look at, are noisy and brutish.

The Stellar's Jay is much more pleasing to the eye and ear, but no less bold.  This one clearly grasped that we could not harm it from our seat inside the Honda.

Lizards don't usually do much, other than scamper away or warm themselves, nearly motionless, on a rock, but the latter can provide an opportunity for an in-depth and close-up view.

The lizards below were an exception.  They were constantly jumping from their rock into the darkness above with blinding speed.  Unfortunately, I don't have the skills to photograph blinding speed, so I have only stillness to share with you.

The King River

On our trip in May, the King River was swollen and spectacular.  I took countless shots, trying to capture the essence of its power.  Instead of power, though, I captured "a pretty river."  This shot, taken by my wife, was the best of the lot.

Copyright Jeff Lewis 2005.

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