Raise your hand if you love National Parks! *raises hand* But I have a confession to make. Until earlier this year, when I visited Joshua Tree the only National Park in California I’d visited was Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. Terrible, I know. I’ve been to several in other states like Utah, Arizona, and Oregon, but not my home state. I set out to correct that by booking a trip to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks over the 4th of July long weekend. You might be shaking your head at this point, thinking how foolish I was for deciding to go over this busy weekend. And you are probably right. It wasn’t just busy, it was PACKED and also hotter than I had imagined. It didn’t go at all as planned but for this NPS n00b it was still a great trip.
Where I Stayed
Because I was late in the game looking for a reservation I was only able to find a few campsites that had three available nights. I decided on Quaking Aspen in the Sequoia National Forest because it was the closest to where I wanted to go. Deep in the heart of the National Forest Quaking Aspen sits under a soaring canopy of trees with about 30 sites most for tent camping, but also sites designated for RVs and yurts for rent. Each site is equipped with a fire pit with grill and picnic table. I was in site #4 which I thought was the best one in the group. It was kind of isolated from the rest of the sites in that it wasn’t backed up into any other site. And it had a pretty cool outcropping of rocks next to the fire pit.
I had seen somewhere that you could visit all three parks (Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite) in three days. It was almost like a badge of honor. That should have been a red flag but I was determined to make the most of my time. The second part of my plan involved moving campsites as I moved parks. If you’ve ever done any camping or if you’ve read my other posts about it you’ll know that setting up and breaking down a campsite every night is a lot of work. My plan was to set up my tent at the site I had reserved and then try my luck at a first come first served campsite in Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks, sleeping in my car if I was successful. Obviously, this plan was way to elaborate and it didn’t take long in my planning phase to realize that was crazy sauce
General Sherman Tree
The General Sherman Tree is the largest living tree in the world. On a normal day you can park in the parking lot out front and walk a few hundred yards up a paved path to see it. While you’re there be sure to also follow the Congress Trail – it’s about a two mile loop (also paved) that takes you through a grove of Giant Sequoias. Along the way you’ll see some pretty spectacular things like a waterfall, fallen trees and exposed roots and huge Sequoias that are only slightly smaller than the General Sherman.
A few miles from my campsite in Sequoia National Forest there’s a sign pointing off the road to Dome Rock. I thought, “why not?” and turned my definitely not off-road car down a narrow definitely off-road dirt road. The road was rugged but eventually it leads to a clearing below a big hill. You can park anywhere (there will probably be cars parked so just follow their lead) and climb up the hill and you’ll be at the top of Dome Rock. The front of the mountain is used by some very brave souls for rock climbing, so be careful when you’re close to the edge that you don’t kick any debris over the side. You’ll get a spectacular panoramic view of the forest basin below.
Tips for a great experience at the Parks
- Choose one Park and stick to it
Because the Parks are so far from each other, while you can squeeze them all into a few days, I wouldn’t recommend it. Take your time, and enjoy not only the attractions in the Park but also the time in your campsite.
- Get to the Park early on busy weekends
When it’s a busy time of year, like the 4th of July, the earlier you can get to the Parks the better. There was already a wait to get in around 10am and by the time I was leaving in late afternoon the amount of cars had doubled if not tripled.
- Or take more time to explore everything
Don’t try to cram everything into a weekend. Take a week, make reservations at a campground or cabin in each Park and enjoy it.
- Bring your own firewood
Both the National Forest and National Park websites urge campers to not bring foreign wood into the area to burn in campfires. The ashes will spread and there could be an ecological problem with introducing new types of trees to the forest. So I had assumed that there would be firewood to buy at my campsite and that was not the case. Luckily there was a lot of fallen tree trimmings that I ended up using but because they were so thin they burned really quickly. Research the site you’re reserving at if there will be firewood available and if not buy some from a nearby source.
- Pack lunch and snacks for hikes
If you’re anything like me you are controlled by your hunger. If you start a hike around lunch time you are not going to want to keep hiking when your tummy starts growling. Pack a lunch and snacks along in your hiking bag so you can break it out when the mood strikes. Trust me, you’ll want to get as much time with those trees as you can.
- Buy gas before heading up the mountain
There is no gas sold within the Parks. It’s crazy how quickly those windy mountain roads eat through your gas. Be sure to fill up before heading up so that you have enough to drive around once you’re there as well as getting home! There are a couple of gas stations just before you start ascending that are actually cheaper than the ones before it. I like to use the GasBuddy app to check the prices.
- Use the shuttles to get from place to place
A shuttle runs between the Foothills and Lodgepole Visitor Centers at either end of Sequoia National Park. Stopping along the way at the Giant Sequoia Museum, General Sherman Tree, and Moro Rock, it’s a great service to utilize, saving gas and headaches looking for a parking spot at every attraction in the Park.
More Things to See
- Crystal Cave – Be sure to book these tickets in advance. There are several choices including family and kid free tours.
- Moro Rock – Hike to the top of another rock mountain!
- Tunnel Tree – Drive your car through a fallen tree! There are also a few trees you can walk through/under on the Congress Trail I mentioned above
- Tunnel Rock – A tunnel made from a giant rock you can stand under or climb on
- California Hot Springs – Natural hot springs in Sequoia National Forest.
If you’ve never visited a National Park, there’s never been a better time to get out there. Check out the National Park Service website to find a park in your state. Many Parks are close enough to each other that you can visit them in the same trip, like Bryce and Zion Canyons in Southern Utah for example, and your entry pass is good for up to 7 days.
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