Big Trees: Visiting the Yosemite’s Mariposa Sequoia Grove

After exploring Yosemite’s high meadows and granite domes on our first day in the park, my mother and I had an easier–but no less exciting–second day planned: visiting the Mariposa Giant Sequoia Grove.

IMG_1292After breakfast at the Wawona Hotel, we parked and rode the shuttle into the Mariposa Grove. The grove itself feels like a typical Yosemite forest. Even upon spying our first few Giant Sequoias, we weren’t blown away.

The problem, of course, is scale. It takes time for the mind to make sense of the massive trees in the same way that your eyes adjust slowly to a dark room. Then a person or a car provides a bit of perspective and suddenly you realize that you are looking at the largest living organism on Earth (depending on your definition of organism).

You simply cannot imagine or understand the size of these trees from a photograph. They are enormous. While redwood trees are taller, sequoias have the largest mass and still grow to be over 200 feet tall. Growing this big takes time, lots of it, and giant sequoias can live thousands of years. These trees don’t die of old age. They grow and grow and grow and grow until they eventually fall over, usually in a large storm.

IMG_1241     IMG_1239Our experience in the grove will likely be different than yours should you choose to visit because big changes are coming. This summer (2015) the National Park Service is closing the grove for 2 years in order to do major work on the area’s roads and pathways. One reason is to eliminate the narrated tram tour that my mother and I took to the top of the grove.

IMG_1263     IMG_1267The narration on the tour was fantastic (and done through headphones to avoid noise-pollution), but riding on a diesel tram with one hundred or more people is no way to experience a forest. While the tram ride is a loop, my mother and I elected to get off at the top and walk our way back down to the car.

IMG_1265After the tram moved on, the top of the grove was nearly empty. This is because the grove lies on the side of a fairly steep hill, and most folks elected to take the full tram ride or walk around the lower section.

In the photos below, my mother is standing at the base of the fallen Wawona Tunnel Tree. A tunnel was cut through this massive tree in 1881, and it survived until 1969. Visitors used to be able to ride their stagecoaches through the tree; and, for a while, small cars could still fit. My mother even rode through the tree on a cross-country road trip as a child. To no one’s surprise though, cutting an SUV-sized hole through a tree did not help it remain stable, and it was blown down in a large storm. The photos below are also the only ones that come close to representing the scale of these trees.

IMG_1282 IMG_1284 IMG_1283You may have noticed that many of the sequoias have fire damage at their bases. This is their main method of survival. Frequent small forest fires whip through the grove scorching the smaller shrubs. The sequoias thick bases allow them to survive the fires, and with the competition eliminated, they flourish. In the photos below, my mother and I are standing in front of a tree with an enormous fire scar.

IMG_1314     IMG_1313IMG_1308     IMG_1304Whether you are a nature lover or not, there is something powerful about these trees. You keep catching yourself staring up into the air muttering, “Oh My God.” Exploring this grove has made me excited to visit other ‘big tree’ parks like Redwood and Sequoia. Here are a few more photos of the grove.

IMG_1355 IMG_1364IMG_1338 IMG_1332 IMG_1288After exploring the Mariposa Grove, my mother and I drove up to Glacier Point to watch the sunset on half dome. Glacier Point provides a commanding view of Yosemite Valley and its crowned jewel, Half Dome.

IMG_1373Half Dome was definitely on my mind this evening because that was my objective for the next day. Months earlier I had applied for and won a permit to summit Half Dome on a grueling day hike that meant gaining 4800′ feet and hiking over 15 miles (especially when you take a wrong turn!). More on that in the next post, but until then, enjoy the view.

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Exploring Granite Domes in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows

Alright…I know it seems like we just got back from our cross-country road trip out west, but the blog is headed out to California over the next few posts! Shortly after getting Maisie, I abandoned Jessica with the new pup to head out hiking. This time my hiking partner was my mother. Each year, my mother and I try to go on one hiking trip together. This year we went big with a trip to Yosemite.

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Yosemite is perhaps the most famous park in the world. The discovery and commercialization of the Giant Sequoia in the Mariposa Grove helped to launch the conservation movement and Teddy Roosevelt’s visit led by John Muir encouraged T.R. to provide the park with federal protection 13 years before the national park system was even formed.

Besides hosting multiple Giant Sequoia groves, Yosemite has become the big wall climbing capital of the world. Recently, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgesen made news for completing the first free climb of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. 60 Minutes profiled Alex Honnold’s free-solo (no ropes) climbs a few years ago. If that clip blows your mind, here is a quicker more dramatic one.

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But enough about climbers in Yosemite. On to my much tamer and less exciting adventures. After a five hour long slog from San Francisco, my mother and I were maybe a bit too ambitious in our first day-hiking plans. We aimed to tackle a demanding hike known as Clouds Rest. However, rain (and possibly lightning) in the forecast gave us a convenient alibi for bailing on the hike. Instead, we drove up the Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows to explore some shorter trails.

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The first trail was to the summit of Lembert Dome. Much of Yosemite (and the High Sierra) are made up of granite domes polished smooth by glaciers in the last ice age. Lembert Dome sits at the end of Tuolumne Meadows and provides commanding views of the valley. At 2.8 miles round trip and only 850 feet of elevation gain, it is hard to get more bang for your buck.

Lembert Dome’s Summit provided us with an incredible introduction to Yosemite. The views were incredible and the landscape is overwhelming.IMG_1106 IMG_1109 IMG_1112 IMG_1120 IMG_1137IMG_1118    IMG_1116 IMG_1135

With how quick the Lembert Dome hike was, my mother and I still had time to explore another trail. This time we decided on something longer: Cathedral Lakes. We even got a taste of Cathedral Peak from Lembert Dome. Look for the sharp peak sticking up about a third of the way from the left edge of the photo. That was our next destination.IMG_1131The Cathedral Lakes trail is considerably more strenuous than Lembert Dome at 7 miles and 1000 feet of elevation gain. It was on this trail that we really began to feel the effects of 8,500 feet of elevation and the 6 hours crammed into a coach plane seat a day earlier. The reward, though, was unparalleled views of the High Sierra Lakes and Cathedral Peak.IMG_1151IMG_1155 IMG_1165 IMG_1170 IMG_1172 IMG_1179 IMG_1181 IMG_1188 IMG_1190After returning to the trailhead we were spent and we drove back to our cabin. This is where we really started to realize how large Yosemite is. It took us over an hour and a half to get home after this hike and we were staying within the park boundaries. The Tiago Road winds its way up and around Yosemite Valley and it is easy to underestimate how long it can take to traverse it. The long drive, however, didn’t stop us from stopping for sunset photos at the Tunnel View Pullout.IMG_1194 IMG_1197 IMG_1198

Camping Among the Eroded Cliffs of Badlands National Park

Our final stop on our road trip was South Dakota’s Badlands National Park. Badlands NP has become one of America’s underrated national parks (Wind Cave too!?!). Its lack of a famous hike or individual land feature combine to make it a hard sell, but this is not a park to skip.

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Badlands NP resides in South Dakota’s sprawling grasslands. If Montana has “Big Sky,” South Dakota has Big Land. As you drive along the interstate, you seem to be able to see forever. You can watch storms roll in from miles away while the blowing wind gives the impression that the swaying grasses are all part of some greater living entity.

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One of the best aspects of Badlands NP is that it just sort of appears out of nowhere. There are no mountains or hills marking your approach. Just more and more grassland. Then, suddenly, you arrive on the park’s road and are able to overlook the eroded cliffs. Your eye can trace miles long lines of sediment in the hills.

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While its lack of a defining trait makes The Badlands less respected, it is also what makes the park great. It is the never-ending continuous beauty that overwhelms you. Driving through the park, you get lost in the perfect balance of green and vermillion. Every viewpoint has its own unique touch. Can you spot the bighorn sheep in the above photo?

IMG_0851IMG_0821     IMG_0815IMG_0831Jessica and I drove into Badlands NP in the afternoon and traversed the park to reach our campsite on its eastern side. The Cedar Pass campground was one of the most magnificent frontcountry camping spots we have stayed at. We hurriedly prepared and cooked dinner while a thunderstorm rolled in from the south. We feel asleep to the pitter-patter of rain on our tent fly while lightning flashes lit up the inside of our tent every few minutes. IMG_0859 IMG_0865With a long drive on the itinerary for the next day, Jessica and I got up early, broke down our campsite, and hit the road as the sun was rising in the sky. If you have a chance to visit The Badlands, make sure you are out in the early mornings and late afternoons. The play of light on the eroded cliffs brings this park to life.

IMG_0871     IMG_0910IMG_0873IMG_0869IMG_0917On our way out of the eastern edge of the park, Jessica and I stopped for quick hike on the door “trail”. Trail really isn’t a fair word to describe it. After walking on a raised wooden platform for a few hundred yards, you step down into a maze of exposed earth surrounded by cliffs and spires. It is so easy to become lost that park service installed steel pipes marked with numbers to direct you to and from the start of the trail. Otherwise you are free to explore and wander.IMG_0903IMG_0882 IMG_0881 IMG_0901 IMG_0896 IMG_0891 IMG_0900

And, with that, the road trip was over. While we had our moments of wanting to strangle kill maim poison take a break from each other (see driving from Park City, UT to Crater Lake in 1 day) the trip was unforgettable. Since returning home, many people have asked us what was our favorite place or experience, but it is too hard to choose. There are so many incredible places in this country; you just have to take the time to see them. Many months later, a few places and memories do stand out: Rocky Mountain National Park, the Bonneville Salt Flats, Crater Lake, the Olympic coast, rainforest, and mountains, and of course the Tetons.

Sitting at home in the middle of winter and snowed in with 4 feet of snow and more on the way, I know I would do this trip again in a second. Next time, though, 5 weeks might not be enough. I would want more time in the amazing parks and lands of the west. But, life moves on and big things are on the horizon. Instead of planning a road trip, I am busy planning a wedding. And, while there will be significantly less tents, wild animals, and mountains, there will be no less adventure and excitement!

Thanks for following us on the trip.

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