Sequoia National Park is known to many as the home of California’s large, giant sequoia trees. That’s at least what I went looking for when I had some free time during a work trip and made my way to the Ash Mountain entrance of the park. Although I never made it to the trees themselves (more on that below), the massive park has a lot to offer for nature enthusiasts like myself.
Starting my journey to the park from Visalia, California mid-afternoon, I was honestly surprised that any mountains could exist nearby, as the town about forty five minutes away is completely flat and in an agricultural region of the state; the San Joaquin Valley. Driving along Route 198 west towards Sequoia though, I started to notice the Sierra Nevada foothills in the distance and the roads getting windier and steeper.
As I drove along, I passed Lake Kaweah and the Slick Rock recreation area, which really was a precursor to the type of beautiful landscape I’d expect to see more of in the park. Just past Lake Kaweah is the town of Three Rivers, which is pretty much the last place you’ll have cell phone service before entering the park – consider yourself warned. There’s also lodging, a few shops, restaurants, and a brewery for park-goers in the town.
I got to the Ash Mountain entrance of the park where I paid my entry – $30 for a seven day pass, and then proceeded within. With the map that had been provided upon entering, I decided to pull off and plot out how I would get to the infamous sequoia trees.
What good fortune when just a few moments ahead, the first pullover ended up being the Indian Head River trail head. The river is encompassed on both sides by the foothills, and you can just see a taller, snow capped Sierra Nevada mountain poking out from behind. The Indian Head River trail goes downwards towards the water, but since I had trees to see, I just took the view in from the trail head.
Realizing on the map that the visitor center was just a few more moments down the road, I drove there. Eager with anticipation, I asked the center employee how far were the sequoia trees. That’s when I was sadly informed that since I had come mid-afternoon, and the road that the trees led up to was under construction, I wasn’t going to be able to see them that day. Welp. Well, I wasn’t going to keep that from letting me enjoy the beauty of the park, so I was pointed in the direction of what else I should see.
Tunnel Rock was what was ended up being next. The tunnel, dug out by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s was actually the passageway where cars went through until 1997. The road had to be moved to accommodate the larger SUVs and cars of today, but pedestrians can linger under the massive flat granite boulder.
Across from Potwisha campground, is a waste station (I was later to find out that bears are VERY active in the park so removal of waste in the park is essential) – but also where another trail head is that leads to the river. This time, I climbed over and along the rocks to get to the banks of the river. Basking in the golden sun and listening to the roaring sound of the river flowing, I sat along the river and took it in. If only I knew what came ahead.
Hiking back to my car and continuing along, next was the Hospital Rock trail head. Hospital Rock, as I was told at the visitor center, is a series of petroglyphs. Now this is the part where I proclaim that I normally think of myself as a brave person, but little did I know that real fear was ahead. On the map, I couldn’t quite tell where the petroglyphs were. So I drove along a paved road, assuming it led to them. Then the road split – one side paved but closed, and the other gravel. Okay, I thought, and went up the gravel road. Well that two lane gravel road turned into a one lane gravel road. Then, it ended up curving along the elevation of the foothill, meaning that I really needed to be careful to stay on the road, or I’d be falling off a cliff.
And then, when I thought I was getting to the area with the petroglyphs, surely – it happened. A BEAR CAME OUT IN FRONT OF ME. It was a little ahead of me, but I totally froze. What do I do? I couldn’t turn around, was too nervous to back down a mountain in a car, and my cell phone had no signal. So I just sat there, while the bear looked at me and I looked at the bear. It finally crossed the road, but was still pretty darn close to me. So, I took a calculated risk, and started honking my horn, hoping it would scare it. For a few seconds, true fear passed over me as I drove past where the bear was. I immediately know I had to find somewhere to turn around, and thank goodness I found a point to do that shortly ahead. I drove through the area where the bear was quickly, genuinely not knowing enough about bears to know whether or not the bear I honked at would try to get back at me.
(Edit: I don’t actually have a photo of the bear, since I was mostly focused on just trying to get out of the situation! But trust me, it was an experience to say the least.)
I guess the learning experience of not seeing the trees BUT having a standoff with a bear is – doing your research when it comes to nature is actually probably smart and worthwhile. And quite possibly, don’t do these sort of trips on your own (something that kills me to say, as a extremely independent traveler).
Fortunately, my experience in Sequoia was still a positive one in my mind – even without seeing the sequoia trees and with the bear incident. And I’d return again, albeit a bit better prepared next time. If you’d like to follow the route I did, it’s a great way to spend a leisurely first or last day in the park. Just be aware of your surroundings.
Have you been to Sequoia National Park? Have you ever seen a bear in real life?
If you encounter a black bear…
After my experience, I did look up the best ways to respond if you are approached by a bear. Sequoia recommendations do indeed say that making noise is the right thing to do. For more info, here’s Sequoia National Park’s article on how to handle a bear encounter.