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Keepin’ it real, day six was the most stressful day of the trip. It was supposed to be a rather relaxing day, meandering through Sequoia National Park to Kings Canyon and then completing the three-hour drive to Yosemite by nightfall.
And the day began idyllically. We awoke to the sound of the Kaweah River rushing by our open motel window, ate our in-room breakfast, and were soon heading out on Generals Highway into Sequoia with brisk temperatures in the 30’s. The park’s entrance gate was a mere half mile.
We inquired about the weather, as forecasts had been changing day to day and conditions can vary greatly within the park. The park ranger at the entrance gate assured us that the weather would be beautiful, that we would drive through the clouds on the way deep into the heart of the park as we increased our elevation, but skies would clear.
But I was thrilled at the time and those likely were the accurate conditions at the time. The weather can change quickly in these parts!
We stopped for the requisite photo at the park sign with high hopes.
Jasper (“the tree”) and Gavin
A short mile-long drive away, we stopped at the Foothills Visitor Center for the usual loot – Junior Ranger booklets, postcards, and magnets – and Jeff bought a small Park Ranger doll whom we named Ranger Beth. She would become our mascot for the remainder of the trip and sneak into many photos! Then, we were on our way.
Now, I hadn’t planned out this day as extensively as others. The itinerary included a required stop at Moro Rock to get our first view of the Sierras from high above and to stop at General Sherman, the world’s largest tree. Otherwise, our plans had been left open to whatever looked fun.
Well, without my usual detailed planning eye, I hadn’t studied the park map closely and was unprepared for the hairpin turns as we climbed 5,000 feet in elevation into the southern Sierra Nevada. On the plus side, we finally started seeing sequoia trees at this higher elevation (even miles into the park down by the river, the landscape was surprisingly lacking the large trees we were expecting!), but the turns quickly became nauseating and tiring.
We entered the clouds, as we had been told, while meandering through the hairpins. By the time we reached Crescent Meadow Road, which led to Moro Rock, the air was still foggy and there was a light coating of snow on the ground.
We drove through Tunnel Log, a tree that fell over the road in 1937 and a car-sized tunnel was carved the following year. Then, we parked at the base Moro Rock. There would be a climb to the top, a solid rock staircase of 400 carved steps nearly the entire way.
Clouds were dense at the climb and despite hope that somehow the top was clear and the view would be magnificent, it was not meant to be. The boys all bailed before reaching the end due to the slick conditions and waited for me as I continued on because I didn’t want to miss the view … just in case! There was a lovely view of a foggy, gray expanse at the top on this morning.
We descended the rock staircase and were back in the car for what would hopefully be a more satisfying experience.
The view from the top of Moro Rock. Those peaks are out there … somewhere.
Only several miles away, we arrived at General Sherman. By now, Jasper was … upset. He was cold from our Moro Rock climb and when we parked at General Sherman, flurries began falling on the already-white ground. He was NOT in any mood for more walking outside!
But we were here and a national landmark awaited. We all had raincoats to keep us dry from the flurries and enough light layers to keep us acceptably warm for the short hike. The paved trail to the tree is only one half mile each way but that half mile can seem like twenty with a reluctant five-year-old!
Thanks to Daddy’s ability to make any situation fun (in the form of Ranger Beth throwing tiny snowballs at the boys and then running away), we managed to reach the tree with a cold, crying boy. Daddy and Gavin posed for Mommy’s camera. While other trees are taller or wider, General Sherman is the largest tree in the world by volume. It was incredibly impressive to witness.
The next stop was the Lodgepole Visitor Center, which was still closed for the season but provided a peaceful spot to eat our lunch in the car. Eating outside at a picnic table wasn’t even a consideration! As they had been working all morning, the boys also completed the last remaining pages in their Junior Ranger books.
The weather decidedly took a turn for the worst after lunch as the snow began falling harder. We continued north towards Kings Canyon for the remaining 26 miles without stopping. The road ahead turned into a thin layer of white fluff that fortunately remained ice-free and we only passed about a half dozen cars traveling in the opposite direction. While stressful, this drive was beautiful, passing through a canyon of evergreens and the still foggy mist.
Snow pellets (or, “graupel,” as I later learned) were falling by the time we reached the Kings Canyon Visitor Center. Park rangers were preventing cars from entering the road we had just driven. Word around the center was that snow tires or chains were required to be driving on the park roads now. The weather certainly had become more extreme than we had been expecting at the beginning of the day!
At the visitor center, the boys’ booklets were reviewed by a wonderful ranger who inquired about the boys’ day in the park and answered their questions about rocks and sequoia cones. He wanted to show them animal hides and was so kind, but I wanted to leave as quickly as possible and was entirely stressed, worried that we wouldn’t be allowed to leave without snow chains.
Badges earned, we braved the 27-degree temperatures outside and very apprehensively began to drive Route 180 out of the park. After about ten tense minutes driving through the snow and wondering if we were going to be pulled over for inadequate tires, we exited park boundaries and gradually left the dangerous driving weather behind as we descended the mountains into the valley. Unlike the nauseating hairpin turns that got us up the mountains in the morning, this route back down several thousand feet in elevation was much more gradual and enjoyable.
The valley was warm and sunny, a drastic change from the setting less than an hour earlier. We stopped for treats at a Starbucks in Fresno for cake-pops for the boys and brownies for Mom and Dad. The drive was another 120 miles to Yosemite.
The most direct route from the south into Yosemite is route 41, but this road rises in elevation to over 4,000 feet before descending back down to our destination in the valley. Not wanting to strain Puddy any more than necessary on this long trip, we chose the slightly longer (by 20 miles) yet beautiful route along routes 49 and 140, following the Merced River into the park.
Our low elevation route took us through the towns of Oakhurst and Mariposa, the last bit of civilization before the final hour of driving into Yosemite. We chose to stop in Mariposa for an early dinner at the Gold Coin, a restaurant in the oldest building of this quaint foothills town.
In California, even the weeds are beautiful!
Arriving at Yosemite National Park was surreal, passing El Capitan, Bridal Veil Falls, and on to the base of Half Dome, so many iconic formations I’d only seen in photographs! We would save all exploration for tomorrow as we checked into our wooden cabin at Half Dome Village, exhausted and full of anticipation for tomorrow.