Bon Voyage

Standing Among Giants

California's national parks offer a lifetime of memories

by EDDIE RIVERA, Editor, Living Section
Published: Monday, January 19, 2015 | 4:49 PM

There is a place not that far from here where magic happens—a place where we simply run out of words. We can barely describe what we’re seeing.

It’s a place where towering trees stake their claim not only to the ground, but to the sky.

Three and half hours or so north of LA, the trees rise out of the earth like skyscrapers and everywhere you look, there is enough beauty to ride out a lifetime of memories.

We visited such a place last month—three of them, actually—as we followed the 99 north out of Bakersfield, and the mountains began to rise up under our wheels. Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks are three of the most spectacular (Sorry, no other word) of the 59 national parks in the US park system, and I’m embarrassed to admit, this was my first visit to this wondrous spot.

Perhaps in the same way that New Yorkers rarely visit the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, the number of foreign or out-of-visitors attest to how easy Californians can forget the spectacular scenery in their own back yard.

The three nearly adjoining parks in the Central High Sierras each feature some of the most iconic and familiar natural landscapes in America, with Yosemite, of course, the home of El Capitan and Half Dome, and Sequoia, featuring forests thick with its dazzlingly tall namesake trees. Yosemite National Park is 747,956 acres, with 800 miles of hiking trails and 12 miles of biking roads. Not to be outdone, however, the 461,901-acre Kings Canyon is the home of the deepest canyon in the US, where the Kings River rushes through the park, even in its current drought status. Sequoia adds another 404, 063 acres of heady scenery.

But we are a trifle ahead of ourselves.

A week of luxury

Our week began on a Sunday afternoon at the luxurious four diamond-rated Tenaya Lodge, our base of operations for the first two nights. Tenaya Lodge is situated two miles south of the Southern entrance to Yosemite, and offers 297 guest rooms, suites and cottages. We stayed in one of the stylish newly opened garden suites, which also offered a private sitting area just along the entrance to the property, and more than enough room inside for a couple to really stretch out and luxuriate. (Each of the three hotels we visited is managed by Delaware North, owners of some of the most impressive corporate and hotel properties in the US.)

The score of outdoor cottages at Tenaya are a unique alternative and addition to the main property, and are the perfect size for family reunions, and corporate retreats, if you really must. (FYI, Super Bowl Weekend might be already sold out. You better check.)

Along with the posh surroundings, there are, of course, miles and miles of hiking trails, an archery course, a rock climbing wall, and enough rental mountain bikes to outfit a small mobile army.

There are also a number of separate dining areas at the Tenaya, including the burger-casual Jackalopes, the Parkside Deli, the upscale Embers, The Sierra, and the Timberloft Pizza restaurant, which, like Embers, is seasonal. Heated seating areas around the pool are the perfect spot to either dine or just have a drink before or after dinner.

But after a long, harried Sunday afternoon of driving, a night hike, and a busy property tour that morning, I was more than ready for Monday’s visit to Tenaya’s Ascent Spa. The 60-minute massage took me off into the Cosmos, left me there suspended above the Earth for quite some time, and then quietly eased me back into the earth’s gravitational pull. I floated back to my room, almost missing our bus out to Yosemite Valley.

It’s about an hour’s drive or so into the park from the south entrance on state route 41, and it’s here where, in the summertime, Yosemite begins to resemble the 405. On this quiet fall afternoon, though, the roads were empty enough to fool me into thinking it was always like this. As our driver assured us, that drive can take more than two hours in vacation prime time. If you’re planning travel, make those plans soon, even though I imagine winter can be pretty magical in these surroundings, as well. (FYI: Some roads in Yosemite are actually only open in the summer.)

In The Yosemite Valley

Our first stop in the valley was the magnificent and historic Ahwanee Hotel. Designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood in 1925, the hotel has played host to US presidents, foreign dignitaries and now, us. Lunch was served in its spectacular dining room, all timber, stone, and towering windows that allow a view of its surroundings—Half Dome, Yosemite falls and Glacier Point. Quite the impressive neighborhood.

The Ahwanee offers some of the most luxurious dining in all of Yosemite.

Lunch was sumptuous and luxurious, and after some more time spent admiring the property, we headed out back on 41 to Tunnel View, that dazzling scenic overlook as you emerge from the Wawona Tunnel. This has to be the gateway to the Universe.

One literally gasps at the view here, looking east toward the heart of the Yosemite Valley, including El Capitan, Half Dome and a number of falls, including Bridal Veil. The falls were dry on the the week of our arrival, but the view was no less magnificent. This viewpoint, built in 1933, is usually packed with tourists and shuttles. Today, on this Monday afternoon, the crowd is small and hushed, as they stare at nature’s wonder, their cell phones cameras firing like silent artillery.

The beauty of Yosemite Meadow

We drove on to Yosemite Meadow, where it simply rained beautiful scenery. We stood amidst the flora, looking up and around as our guide, Doug, explained El Capitan to us, and I stood there, open-mouthed. “It’s the granddaddy of them all,” he said, “More than three Empire State Buildings tall.”

We watched as a small handful of brave mountaineers moved slowly up the sheer face, and Doug related other tales of climbers braving the mountain over the years.

“You could walk just a few hundred yards through that brush there,” he said, pointing across the river and field, “and when you cleared that, you would be right at the base of El Capitan.”

I was ready to dash right over, but alas, there was that schedule thing we had to keep.

Dinner at Tenaya’s Embers was a wondrous bit of business. To be honest, I remember only a Lobster Bisque with a Black Truffle crust that pretty much blinded me to everything else on the table, it was so good.

I was in a happy daze the rest of that evening, as a sudden chill suddenly swooped down on me. Uh oh. I headed off to bed early, a pile of blankets crushing me,and slept through the night, hoping for the best. At first light, I was awake and feeling human again. The nation-conquering brunch at Sierra fortified me yet again.

Kings Canyon National Park

We drove out to Kings Canyon, further south in the chain of three parks, and stopped to watch the Kings River make its way though the canyon. Did you know that this is one the deepest canyons in the US? Its maximum depth, at its south fork, is 8,200 feet, carved by glaciers out of granite.

Zumwalt Meadow is yet another postcard spot, a place where the world quietly makes its exit. The river here is steady, but not overpowering. We stood where John Muir stood, at John Muir Rock, and a few hardy members of the party, actually dove in to the brisk waters. But for the rocky river bottom and some dry clothes, I’d have done the same, though I waded out, sneakers on, as far as I could safely manage.

Kings Canyon, for some reason, seems particularly overlooked in terms of awareness, but the scenery here is some of the most breathtaking in all three parks. Dream-like meadows stretch across your field of vision like horizons, surrounded, of course, by a canopy of trees. The King’s River meanders under a suspension bridge as it topples over rocks and maneuvers itself into tiny swirling eddies.

The waters of the Kings' River.

Enter at Yosemite, but do not miss Kings Canyon.

The John Muir Lodge at Grant Grove Village was a comfortable and welcoming spot on our third night in the parks. All of its 36 rooms, have been recently refurbished, from carpeting, bedding and window treatments to headboards, lounge chairs and fans, as well as soundproof walls. A delicious dinner in its Grant Grove restaurant was followed by a fascinating presentation by Mike Springer of the Sequoia Natural History Association.

As we dined on s’mores in front of a crackling fireplace, Springer explained the importance of the parks’ patron saint, John Muir, and how, accompanied by his mule, Brownie, he literally traveled where we now sat, and mapped out the parks, named rivers and peaks, and essentially told the world about this wondrous place.

But with one wheeze on a harmonica and a swift change in to a lilting Scottish brogue, Springer “became” John Muir, regaling us with the tale of his own impressions as he discovered these lands, especially the regal sequoias. History be damned, John Muir was, to be sure, the first astronaut, as he looked past the tall trees into the heavens.

Wednesday brought us to even more spectacular scenery as we, led by “Ranger Frank,” walked among those largest living trees, the giant sequoias. Four of the world’s five largest trees—The General Grant, The General Sherman, known as the “Nation’s Christmas Tree,” are only two of them, but once in its gigantic shadows, the Giant Forest towers over you like no city skyline in the world. The trees grow to more than 300 feet, and many of them are over 3,000 years old. Their bases alone can stretch out to a diameter of 40 feet.

And this is where we are humbled, truly where nature is in charge. You walk away from the Grant Grove overwhelmed by everything, actually. From the trees to the waters to the air, you are on another planet, one better than your own this week. If you only saw the giant Sequoias on your trip north, your trip would be remembered for a lifetime.

We checked into the Wuksachi Lodge on our final full day in Sequoia, keeping a watchful and wary eye out for bears, which we were told had been plentiful in the week we were there. Alas. But we keep looking. At one point, a ranger told our tour guide that bears had been spotted at our very next location. Again, alas. Had there been any though, they would have gone viral that very afternoon.

After being dizzied by the sights of the Sequoias, we still managed to gather ourselves for a 300-foot, 600-step staircase climb from our parking lot to to the top of Moro Rock and its sweeping view at 6,725 feet high over the Kings Canyon and Sequoia. Dark grey clouds gathered over neighboring peaks as we paid careful attention to the host of signs warning tourists not to attempt to climb the rock if there is a threat of rain or lightning.

Off we climbed. And climbed, step by step. Though dotted with clouds, the 360 degree view is only stupendous as you look out towards the town of Three Rivers and on to Fresno to the south, and looking back towards the park, Alta Peak, and beyond to Mt. Stillman, towering over Yosemite to the north.

Nightfall begat a wondrous dinner at the Peaks restaurant at the luxurious Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia. This hotel felt the most like home to me, but it was perhaps that after four days, we had all made new friends, and when we sat down to dinner, it was like being children again—except it was children dining like kings, thanks to the talents of executive chef Jeff Graham. Our tour co-leader, Erica, was also celebrating a birthday that evening, and we sang “Happy Birthday” to her like brats, when we weren’t tweeting envy-inducing photos of dinner out to the universe, in between and during, courses. It was that kind of an evening.

Following dinner, we sat in a parking lot under a brightly-lit full moon sky as Meaghan Swinney of the Sequoia Natural History Association, led us through a description of the evening’s sky, though we were thwarted, somewhat, by that magnificent moon.

“Come back when it’s a new moon,” she said, and that was exactly what I was thinking. I can’t wait.

If you’re planning to visit these three parks, you would do well to plan immediately. Though California is in a drought, there will be snow come Christmastime, we are told. Winter, we have also been told, holds its own wondrous charm amongst these trees and these skies. January, February and March are its wettest months, by the way.

Whether you were there ten years ago, there as a child, or never there, these three parks and their wonders will, once visited, never leave your consciousness.

Mentioning to people that I had just returned from Yosemite and its surroundings brought longing sighs from my friends, each of whom said, “Man, I really need to go back there.”

Yes, you do. I’ll meet you.


The 411:

Yosemite National Park,,
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, 470 Generals Highway, Three Rivers, CA.
The Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, 1122 Highway 41, Fish Camp, CA 93623. 877-382-8618.
Ahwanee Hotel,1 Ahwahnee Dr, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389
(801) 559-4884.
John Muir Lodge,
Sequoia Natural History Association.
Wuksachi Lodge, The Peaks Restaurant. 559-565-4070.

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