“Due to a lapse in federal funding this Recreation Site is CLOSED.” This was the sign that greeted us at the Johnston Ridge Observatory Visitors’ Center at the Mount St. Helens National Monument in Washington state.
We could not believe it; our 2 families had spent months of planning, each of the parents had taken time off work, everyone managed their household budgets, 3 kids juggled school homework, plus everyone had to deal with the expenses related to lodging and traveling.
Although much was closed, we made the best of it. The children were not deterred by the closure, they were very content just to be outside, run, play and have a great time, though for them the eruption of Mount St. Helens was ancient history.
For the parents, we remembered the eruption, we understood that the younger ones needed to see the volcano, touch the exploded trees, walk on the landslides, witness a forest that had been laid flat 30 years ago.
We stayed in the area for 4 days, camping, exploring, hiking, and talking with locals – who were very eager to unleash their frustration about the shutdown and tell us how much income that had lost from canceled bookings. Even though it was the end of the season the late bookings are what helped many small businesses move into the black with their earnings for that year.
Each day we made a pilgrimage to Johnston Ridge in hopes of seeing the volcano, but a thick layer of clouds always obstructed our view. On the last day, our patience was rewarded. At first, we were in the clouds and could only see several hundred feet, then in less than 30 minutes the skies cleared and we were treated to open vistas. The views were amazing.
A view of Mount St. Helens.
A close-up of the smoldering crater.
Note: The federal government shutdown lasted from October 1-16, 2013.
Imagine a child’s crayon drawing. The picture is populated with waterfalls, the iconic kind; horizontal on top, descending from great heights and sleek. The crayon water pours into white and blue rounded pools. The water streams from the pool to waterfall from pool to waterfall, repeating over and over again. Between the falls exists an immense green forest. Lines of color that streak in multiple directions as though a hand rapidly drew across the paper filling in all the blank areas. Woven around the falls and through the forest is a tan zig-zag trail. Here a stick-figure human explores the colorful world created for it. Now, imagine the young artist pointing to the stick figure, and with a toothy grin exclaiming, “That’s me by the waterfalls!”
If you thought such a world only existed within the mind of a child, look no further than the Trail of Ten Falls at Oregon’s Silver Falls State Park. Within a five-hour hike, your inner child can see ten fantastic and majestic waterfalls in under a 9-mile loop.
The most popular waterfall is South Falls. It begins as a gentle stream then suddenly plummets 177 feet into a misty pool. The scene is dramatic. Visitors can easily walk a loop trail behind the falls or enjoy views from a footbridge.
Located about a mile downstream is the Lower South Falls. Here the trail descends abruptly – by more than 180 steps – then sneaks behind the roaring 93-foot torrent allowing the visitor to see the world from behind a shimmering curtain of water.
The trail turns up Silver Creek revealing dozens of tiny waterfalls gushing from the side of the hill. In some areas, a hand gently placed on a moss-lined wall of green carpet disgorges water like a sponge when squeezed.
The 30-foot Lower North Falls gush into an azure basin. A nearby trail spur guides visitors to see Double Falls, a double drop, with a combined height of 178 feet, the tallest in the park.
A short distance upstream is Drake Falls. This is the smallest in the park, but at 27 feet they this grand cascade is a beauty. The falls were named after June Drake, whose early photographic work brought attention to the area and ultimately helped with the areas protection.
The North Middle Falls roar as water drops 106 feet over the top then crashes onto rocks underneath. Visitors can take a short side trail that allows them to walk behind this liquid veil – the water rumbles past just a few feet away.
Next, we take a side trail to the graceful looking Winter Falls. Standing at the base a visitor looks up 134 feet to the top. As the name implies Winter Falls is best viewed during the winter and spring seasons.
Twin Falls, at 31 feet, received its name from rocks in the streambed that splits the water forming two cascades.
The North Falls is powerful and thunderous. The water channels through a notch in the creek bed then is jetted into a canyon 136 feet below. Behind the waterfall is an impressive cavernous cutout that is almost like entering a different realm; water drips over the upper canyon wall forming a curtain of water across the path. Inside the cavernous area, ferns grow upside down on the ceiling. But, what really grabs you is the thunderous sound of water, which is a loud as a freight train when it passes frightfully close.
A short distance upstream is the Upper North Falls, a beautiful 65-foot cascade that plunges into a picturesque and deep pool. Often overlooked by visitors these falls are not to be missed.
The trail returns through the forest to the parking area near South Falls. Winter is a great time to visit; the park is less crowded, the falls are at maximum flow, and everything in the forest is green.
Silver Falls State Park is located less than an hours drive east of Salem, Oregon.
Within Lassen Volcanic National Park, at a chilly 8,000 feet in elevation, is a phantasmagoric location known as Bumpass Hell.
Bumpass Hell is the park’s largest hydrothermal area, but to many visitors, it appears unnatural, like a scene created by the imagination. Just hiking to the location suggests this is an irregular place. First, the pungent odor of rotten eggs rudely greets the nose. Then the landscape changes appearance; friendly greens and browns retreat to display barren, mineral stained soils of tan, orange, and yellow. Finally, looking into the active basin the ground’s surface is reminiscent of another world, it is etched, pocked and corroded; ghostly apparitions of steam hiss into the air while numerous mudpots pop and gurgle, and aquamarine pools roll with superheated water. It is harsh looking and very beautiful.
A wooden boardwalk allows for more safe exploration of the area. Posted signs stress the importance of staying on designated paths for safety reasons. Bumpass Hell was named after an early visitor who severely burned his leg upon falling through the surface’s thin crust and into boiling water.
Upon leaving, the crude odor of Bumpass Hell diminishes with distance, but it haunts the nose for a long time afterward.
The hydrothermal area is accessible by two trails. The popular three-mile hike begins at the Bumpass Hell parking lot, on Hwy 89, and requires several hours for a round trip. The elevation gain is about 300 feet. Be prepared for a crowded parking area and a busy trail in the summer. If you seek a less explored route the trail leading from the Kings Creek trailhead is very rewarding. This five-mile trail passes through majestic forests, crosses gentle brooks, and meanders through an area of volcanic formations that are layered and twisted. Plan for a hike that covers roughly 800 feet of elevation gain. In the summer, look for retreated snow banks that are hidden in the woods just off the trail.
Learn more about Lassen Lassen Volcanic National Park:
Lassen Volcanic National Park is a great location to start one’s day.
I woke early in the morning. My family slept silently next to me in their warm sleeping bags. I was careful not to wake them as I left the tent. The sky was a mixture of pastel blues, soft pinks and warm yellows as the sun was starting to rise. No one in the campground was awake; if they were they treaded quietly.
The morning was very cool and I was glad to have my jacket as I walked through the campground. The shadows were quietly retreating and shades of gray were slowly being chased away by the morning’s gaining light. The tips of the hundred-foot trees surrounding the campsite were brightly dolloped with sunlight.
Adjacent to the campground was the beautiful Summit Lake. It was spangled with wisps of moisture that danced off the water’s surface into the morning air.
Everything was amazingly still. The only sounds were my soft footsteps on the earthen path that follows the lake’s gentle perimeter. At the lake’s edge, in some places, the water granted peaks into the stillness and you could gaze for many feet along the trunk of a fallen tree.
Breaking the morning’s quiet was a squirrel. It barked at me, while upside-down, from the side of a nearby tree. I had offended his solitary morning. I took leave and walked further down the trail, enjoying the newness of the day.
The sun had crested the trees on the east side of the lake and now fully illuminated the trees on the opposite shore, revealing a curtained wall of greens, browns, and tans.
In the distance, the great dome-shaped volcano of Mt Lassen commanded the horizon. The impressive scene was mirrored on the still lake before me. A great heavenly painting was being created and I was witnessing the Creator’s casual brush strokes. I felt almost prideful to be the only human witness of this beauty.
A mother duck and seven babies glided across the majestic natural painting. Their tiny wakes slowly moved across the colorful canvas, blurring the stillness and bending the reflections into a shimmering pallet of colors on the water.
Subway Cave in northern California is an easy, affordable and fun way to discover the area’s volcanic past.
Subway Cave is a lava tube that lies just under the rough surface of Lassen National Forest. Visitors can easily park and walk a short distance to the cave’s opening where stairs descend about twenty-five feet down into the darkness.
The cave walk is only 1,300 feet in distance but is otherworldly compared to the bright surface and hot summertime temperatures. The visibility inside the lava tube quickly becomes zero, so flashlights are required. Also, bring a light jacket, as the temperature inside the cave is an autumn-like 46 degrees. The cave has several chambers to explore and signs are marked to help guide you to the exit.
At the exit notice the large ‘hills’ that rise several hundred feet to the east, these are the edges of ancient lava flows. Also, look for the magnificent Lassen Peak to the south. The walk back to the car is about ten minutes. Subway Cave can easily be explored by family members of all ages.
After a long day of exploring the beaches, forests, and grasslands of Point Reyes National Seashore, where does a family stay?
In the heart of this 70,000-acre parkland, is the Point Reyes Hostel. The main hostel is located in a converted ranch house, but recently there is a new addition, the “green building.” The green building was constructed to LEED Silver standards so it maximizes water savings, is energy efficient and constructed with materials that support human and environmental health.
I found the new facilities to be clean, roomy and most of all quiet. Our family room had two bunk beds and a larger twin bed on the lower level, but what everyone liked most was the window, which could be opened to allow copious amounts of fresh coastal air inside. The communal kitchen was well stocked with cooking items and the shared bath facilities were well maintained.
Adjacent to the kitchen area is a sizable balcony for sitting outside and having a meal. If you sit outside the entertainment can include a covey of quail running below, or even a deer munching some grass nearby.
Depending on the time of year you can expect sun or rain, but there is always some amount of overcast that rolls in from the ocean. The seashore is located about an hour north of San Francisco, California.
To learn more about the Point Reyes Hostel visit:
If your family is visiting San Francisco, California, consider overnighting on a decommissioned military base.
The base is now part of an immense national recreation area known as the Marin Headlands where visitors can enjoy hiking, biking, and beachcombing. After a long day, when it is time to bed down, the Marin Headlands Hostel is a good choice for families. The hostel has taken great care to restore these historic military buildings, which date to 1907.
Families who stay here get a treat, the opportunity to stay in a solidly built two-story building that served as Officer’s quarters. Inside the house an impressive staircase greets visitors and a cozy living room is stocked with books and games. A broad porch welcomes parents who wish to sit, rest, and watch sunsets or catch glimpses of deer grazing in a field. As part of the hosteling experience be prepared to bring your own food and make use of the common kitchen.
The hostel is a good value for the money, especially considering the high cost of accommodation in the bay area. I would suggest earplugs to guard against any possible late night noise.
What I found most memorable during my stay was hearing an owl hooting in the stillness of the night in this immense and open green space of the Marin Headlands, and knowing that just a few miles away, live several million people.
The Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California is a dramatic landscape sculpted by powerful tectonic forces, fierce winds, and the constant bombardment of ocean waves. It is also a gentle place with rolling hills, drifting fog and tranquil bays. This is great geography for families to explore and enjoy a weekend away from the hustle and bustle. It is also a great place to discover a success story, the return of the majestic tule elk.
California was once home to large populations of elk, but after the 1849 Gold Rush these populations were decimated and within ten years the elk had disappeared from the land. Fortunately, a very small population (possibly fewer than 10 individuals at the lowest level) survived in a remote area of central California. Eventually, a rancher in the area protected the elk with refuge on his ranch and later land management groups relocated small bands of elk to other areas of the state, but with limited success. In 1978 a handful of elk were relocated to the Tomales Point region of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Today, the elk at Point Reyes number over 400 and enjoy over 2,600 acres of land to roam.
During my family’s visit, we started on a weekend day in January. The temperature was a chilly 48 degrees and the wind blowing off the Pacific Ocean was heralding a storm that would roll in that night. We wore multiple layers of clothing and some heavy knit hats to cover our ears to shield us from the cool air. Some might be uncomfortable here; but the experience of breathing clean air, seeing the open sea and the expansive land uncluttered by structures provided ample warmth for something deep and primal within our souls.
We walked up the great peninsula; along with a trail that is roughly 5 miles from our starting point to lands end. Tomales Point is surrounded by the mighty Pacific Ocean to the north and west while the tranquil Tomales Bay is visible to the east. Here we were witness to the results of two gigantic tectonic plates of the earth grinding together; the peninsula where we walked was part of the Pacific plate while across the mile-wide bay lay the plate of North America.
After thirty minutes we saw them, a small band of elk. Several sentinels watched us while the majority munched upon shoots of grass. Further beyond we saw more elk and over the next rise even more. On our return walk we saw another band, but this time we saw the bulls with their noticeable and very intimidating antlers. As with all the elk, we gave them plenty of room. For the rest of the day, we spotted the elk along various rises on the trail or as dots on the sides of the hills.
We were glad to have seen these creatures upon such an inspiring marriage of land and sea. We are wealthier because of the experience. As we left we said a ‘thank you’ to the people who over the decades worked hard so others could enjoy such a majestic sight and appreciate a success story.
To explore more:
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a diamond of natural beauty along California’s central coast.
This beautiful place offers a treasure of colors, dramatic landscapes, green forests, rugged coves, weathered trees, and grey fog to brilliant sunlight. It can be easy to see birds of prey overhead, flittering butterflies, quiet deer grazing, or the heads of sea lions and harbor seals popping up from the surf.
The air is clean here and provides the visitor with a measure of restoration.
This wonderful place does have a strict limit on the number of visitors at any one time, limiting visitors to 450 people, so not to cause unacceptable damage to this great setting.
The summertime can be very busy here and in the neighboring town of Carmel, sometimes causing traffic to become bottlenecked on the Coast Highway 1. Plan to arrive early for the best opportunities to see animals and avoid any late afternoon crowds.
If you can visit in the wintertime or spring when rains have restored the landscape.
The images in this short video were taken on the Winter Solstice when just a handful of visitors were on the trails and the low-angled light from the sun offered the grandest views and colors.
To learn more visit:
The Point Lobos Foundation
California State Parks
If you have the opportunity to explore Silver Falls State Park in Oregon it is well worth the visit.
During a trip to the Beaver State, a short drive off Interstate 5 led me through farm fields and green pastures to the lower elevations of the Cascade Mountains. As the elevation increased Douglas Fir and cedar trees carpeted the countryside until I was in a forest of green.
Inside the park, I stopped at the small parking area called the North Falls trailhead. From here it was a ten-minute walk along an easy path to the Upper North Falls. Ferns and moss carpeted the sides of trails and the cool moist air was invigorating. The falls were impressive – falling 65 feet (20m) into a deep emerald colored pool. The roar from the water would have made speaking a little difficult to hear, but there was no need to talk.
In the opposite direction, past the parking area, was a short walk to the North Falls. Bordering the trail the North Fork of Silver Creek cascaded over boulders and rocks, then the water vanished from sight – and was replaced with an audible roar. A few more steps brought me to a good vantage point – the view was literally jaw-dropping.
The stream was in free fall over a 136 feet (41 m) cliff. The water appeared to hang in mid-air for a moment then in slow motion fell onto car-sized boulders and into a deep blue-green colored pool at the base. Behind the waterfall was a dark overhang, cave-like, colored with green moss and plants. The shape of the valley was reminiscent of the old wrap around Cinemascope movie theaters. Across the valley, some hikers had walked along the Canyon Trail near the base of the falls. They appeared to be mesmerized by the sight of the falling water and stood transfixed for several minutes in awe of the performance. After some time we continued on our way to the next area.
Driving down the road we made a stop at the North Falls Viewpoint. It was a fantastic perspective of the falls we had just visited. We were roughly a quarter of a mile distant; the falls appeared to our front and center in a perfect photograph framed with green forest.
At the main area of the park, we walked along a cobbled path and along the South Fork of Silver Creek. Here the stream is graceful and gently flows through a green and tranquil area; then there is an absence of the ground; the water of the entire stream dramatically plunges 177 feet (54 m) over South Falls into a pool below. The mouth of the pool is at the base of a giant horseshoe-shaped depression for the water to pour into. Gray rocks line the overhanging cliff and green moisture-loving plants accentuated the entire scene – it was a gift to see.
Below the falls was a trail known as the ‘Trail of Ten Falls.’ This 8.7-mile footpath takes day trip explorers to see ten beautiful falls; including the ones we just saw. I will be returning to visit this trail and see more of the park. My short trip that day was only an enticement to see more!
The day use fee at the park was $5 – and well worth it. We had to use an ‘Iron Ranger’ to pay our fee, so bring some smaller bills to place in the envelope as making a change might be difficult. Our visit was before the busy season and the water fountains were turned off making filling up our water containers difficult. The folks in the Nature Store offered us some water from their sink – which we gladly accepted – and we offered a few dollars to their donation jar in good faith. If you come before or after the summer months bring some extra water or filtering device so you will not be thirsty. Based on the size of several parking lots and distance (about 30 miles from Salem) this park receives some high visitation during weekend and summer months. If you want fewer crowds visit during mid-week or during off times.
To explore more visit the park online:
Winter can be a wonderful time to visit Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California.
We arrived at 10 a.m. (December 29th) and parked across from the old log building known as Big Basin Headquarters. The temperature outside was 44 degrees and the damp air was crisp. The morning clouds had dissipated and sunlight streaked through the forest canopy onto the ground below.
Surrounding the headquarters were goliaths – redwood trees that were 4, 5, and 6 feet across. One tree appeared to be 8 or 9 feet at the base. Even though I have visited here many times I am always impressed by the size and grandeur of these magnificent trees. But, today my family was here to see other sights – three magnificent waterfalls: Berry Creek Falls, Silver Falls, and Golden Cascade.
We made sure our water bottles were full before crossing over Waddell Creek and onto the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail that would lead us to the waterfalls. The winter rains had made the forest green with color. The forest was quiet, peaceful and restorative.
After an hour or so of walking through the redwoods, the sounds of rushing water could be heard. The creek next to us, Kelly Creek, was alive with water and small cascades. Everything around was green and moist. The redwoods towered above us. The only sounds we heard were our breathing and our footsteps on the ground made gentle gushing noises as we walked on the damp trail. The cleanliness of the air was a joy to breathe! Something small at the side of the trail moved ahead of us, it was a newt that was slowly traversing the fallen logs and fern fronds.
At the Timms Creek trail junction, a fallen redwood had created a natural bridge (shown). We rested and played here for a few minutes then continued on. Soon, a rock overlook along the trail let us peer down onto Kelly Creek – a myriad of small white cascades dotted the creek, large brown boulders sat among ferns and broad-leafed plants and a color chart of green moss dotted the sides of trees.
The trail descended and crossed over a small footbridge. In a few minutes, we rounded a corner – ahead of us were the Berry Creek Falls.
These 65-foot falls drop vertically – plunging abruptly into a valley of redwoods and moss. To say this is ‘picturesque’ is an understatement.
We enjoyed the view then continued to a viewing platform about three-quarters the height of the falls for a direct look (shown is the view from the platform). For ten minutes we had this view all to ourselves. Then several other hikers arrived, they deserved the same tranquility we just enjoyed, so we moved on.
The trail continued upstream for about twenty minutes. Small cascades danced in the creek and gurgles of water made curious sounds as pools emptied over steep rocks. Here we saw a huge, bright yellow, banana slug about seven inches in length next to the trail. We had seen several banana slugs on the trail but this was by far the largest. The sound of falling water was coming from just up the trail.
Silver Falls began to appear through the redwoods. These falls were slightly hidden by the mass of trees, but it was easy to see the white and frothy ‘silvery’ water as it poured over the top and dropped a wonderful 60 feet or so into a pool below. A series of stairs on the trail wound up the side of the valley to the top of the falls. At the top was a single cable handrail (shown in the photo). The trail was a little slick so we proceeded with caution.
In just seconds we were at the Golden Cascade. These were actually two cascades; at the base was a vertical fall of about 15 feet, just above it was a much more impressive drop. I am not sure about the height, but for perspective notice the person in the photo (top right, wearing a red vest).
We enjoyed a well-deserved snack in this tranquil place then continued on our hike back to the car. Although it was an hour before sunset it was close to dark when we arrived at the parking area. These are some deep valleys and the trees are very, very tall. It can become dark quickly in the redwood forest.
I like to visit between rainstorms when the weather grants a two to three-day rest between showers allowing the trails to harden up a little. Seeing these waterfalls in the winter (and spring) are spectacular. The summer is a great time to visit too, but the streams have less water and sometimes can become just a trickle of water as fall approaches.
On our wintertime day hike, we passed only 14 people on the trail! The loop took us about 6 hours to complete and required roughly 11 miles of hiking – it is strenuous. This is a hike for families with older kids.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park was established in 1902 and was California’s first state park.
Big Basin is located a one hour drive from Saratoga, California and roughly half an hour from the town of Boulder Creek. The entrance fee is $10.
To continue your own explorations of Big Basin Redwoods State Park visit:
Most guidebooks and some online resources have great information about visiting Kings Canyon, but these sources often overlook some basic questions that families ask. Here are some practical ‘from the ground’ observations:
Can I buy basic food, supplies, and ice at the park?
Yes. Small grocery stores are located at the Grant Grove Village (at the park’s entrance) and the Cedar Grove Village (in the heart of Kings Canyon). Both stores have basic camping supplies, toiletries, canned food and a small selection of fresh fruits and vegetables and bags of ice. The store at Cedar Grove has fishing lures and tackle. The prices on most items were fairly reasonable. Obviously come to the park prepared, but if you forget something the stores should be able to help.
Are the restrooms flush or pit toilets? Are they maintained?
The restrooms at the Grant Grove Village and the Cedar Grove Village have flush toilets. Many of the camping and primary sightseeing areas have flush facilities. Note, the visitor center in Grant Grove has a very small restroom and a line can form quickly. If you are not fond of lines, turn around and walk about a minute – past the post office and just past the small grocery store – to a lesser-known restroom with flushers. All of the facilities we found, including a few of the more remotely located pit toilets, were all well maintained.
Where Can I Buy Gas?
Gas is not available in the National Park to expect only for emergency situations. Driving to the park on Hwy 180 the ‘last gas’ is supposedly at Clingan’s Junction in a little town called Squaw Valley. However, the adjacent National Forest lands do have several locations to purchase gas. We found gas at the Stony Creek Village located on the Generals Highway which connects Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks; a second location at Hume Lake about a third of the way to Cedar Grove; and at the Kings Canyon Lodge about half-way to Cedar Grove. This lodge did have a six-gallon minimum purchase but the prices were reasonable considering the distance out. What is interesting are the pumps themselves, these pumps are apparently from the 1920s and are supposedly the oldest gravity feed pumps in the country. Try to keep a full tank before you enter the park, but if you need gas to try these above-mentioned locations. We always fill up our tank in Fresno and have always made the return trip back to Fresno before needing to fill up again.
How far of a drive is it from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove?
We like to stop and smell the flowers so it takes us a little longer. Expect a drive of about an hour and twenty minutes one-way.
Where can I find out if any campsites are available?
Kings Canyon does not accept camping reservations, it is a first-come-first-served system. At the Visitors Center in Grant Grove is a whiteboard with a count of the camping areas and daily availability. We found that campgrounds in the Grant Grove area were very popular and almost always full throughout the summer. The sites around Cedar Grove (in the Kings Canyon Valley) generally had lots of availability during the weekdays. We found that arriving in the Cedar Grove area on Sunday provided the best opportunity for finding a choice camping space. The weekends were busy and the campsites around us filled up quickly late on Friday.
Note the location of your campsite’s food locker.
One item to be aware of when selecting your campsite is the location of the food locker. A food locker that appears to be in a shade location at 3 pm may not be at 10 am or noon. These lockers are made of solidly constructed metal and painted brown. If they are in the sun too long they can become an oven-like food locker – with your ice chest inside! When setting up camp take note of the shade and whether your food will be shaded in the morning and afternoon.
Are black bears a problem?
The problem is more with people not storing their food properly. Visitors should use the sturdy food lockers that are provided to store ALL food and non-food items that have a scent.
Will the altitude affect me?
It might, everybody is different. Some folks get a headache, some even a little nauseous. My experience is that the quick change in elevation, by itself, is not a big issue. But when a change of altitude is combined with a long day of driving, not drinking enough water and being tired a quick change in altitude can make even the nicest folks a little cranky.
Where can I get a map and learn more about the park before I visit?
Visit the Kings Canyon National Park website. You can learn more about the park, read the park’s newspaper and download a map at this address:
Everything in Sequoia National Park is on an immense scale and Tokopah Falls is no different.
Tokopah Falls is the tallest waterfall in Sequoia National Park. Visitors can see it descend along a series of whitewater cascades, falling 1,200 feet (365 meters) in just about one mile of distance (1.6 km)!
Imagine standing in a glacial-formed valley surrounded by tall walls of granite. Before you is the beginning of the valley – a steep headwall that rises a quarter-mile to the skyline. At the skyline, a white ribbon of water plummets from a large notch in the mountain. The water rushes down the steep cliff wall, darting and jumping, twisting and turning around jumbles of boulders. Such rocks might look petite from a distance, but they are the size of houses and cars. Quickly the ribbon appears larger and has a defined movement, the cascades grow larger and closer. At the base of the waterfall, a torrent of water tumbles over a cliff – it crashes into a deep pool of rolling and exploding white. This is Tokopah Falls.
Late spring offers the most dramatic views as snowmelt swells the river; though in the summer, as the snow disappears from the mountains, it is possible for the falls to appear almost dry. Regardless of the water level, this is a beautiful area.
Getting to Tokopah Falls is an enjoyable walk through forests and meadows next to the picturesque Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. The trail is 1.7 miles (2.7 km) one-way with just 500 feet (152 meters) of elevation gain – making it a good trip for families. The trailhead is located within the Lodgepole Campground on the north side of the easy-to-see stone bridge. The bridge area has easy access to the river and on hot days visitors take full advantage of the cool water. The park’s shuttle bus makes a stop at the campground just a few steps from the trailhead.
As you walk up the trail look for an impressive stone feature called the Watchtower on the south side of the valley. It dominates the skyline, rising 1,200 feet over the valley, so it is not hard to miss. The Watchtower is so big that it is a constant companion on the way to the waterfall.
On this trail, my family has seen a variety of animals including mule deer and a black bear with two cubs. During summer the trail is used by a lot of visitors; if you want to avoid crowds travel in the early morning or late afternoon.
The General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park is the largest tree in the world!
How big is it? An interpretive display near the tree gives some perspective about the size of this giant, “Looking up at the General Sherman Tree for a six-foot-tall human is about the equivalent of a mouse looking up at the six-foot-tall human.”
In our video, we provide a ‘sense of scale’ with a visit to a stone inlay ‘footprint’ found along the trail. This footprint represents the size of the tree at its base. Stand in the middle of this footprint and turn slowly around to better appreciate the size. The tree at its base is 103 feet in circumference (31 meters), and 36.5 feet (11 meters) in diameter.
The General Sherman Tree is approximately 2,200 years old. It is not the oldest or the tallest – it is the biggest in terms of volume. How big? Back to the interpretive display, “If the Sherman Tree’s trunk could be filled with water it would provide enough water for 9,844 baths. That’s one bath every day for 27 years.”
If you want to see the tree even closer continue down the trail. The trail has lots of opportunities to see more, learn about and better appreciate this magnificent wonder of nature.
Visitors to the park can easily travel to the tree via the park’s shuttle. The shuttle is a free service offered to park visitors in the summer. An added benefit is that after walking half a mile downhill from the main shuttle stop you can easily jump on another shuttle and continue to see the sights of the park. Walking half a mile is not that far for some, but if you have an elderly relative who is not used to the altitude they will thank you for not having to climb back uphill.
Car parking is available at the main parking lot, but finding space can be a pain in the summer. Take the shuttle to avoid these headaches.
A visit to Zumwalt Meadow is a great hike for families in Kings Canyon National Park. Everyone will enjoy an easy walk next to a river, through open forest and along the perimeter of a beautiful mountain meadow.
The trail leads downstream a short distance to a rugged looking suspension bridge. It is a great place to snap some pictures. On the other side of the bridge, several kids were splashing in a shallow pool. Dad was nearby about knee deep in the water keeping an eye on them. An older man about fifty feet away (possibly their Grandfather) was fishing.
The trail continued through an open forest for several minutes to an area strewn with massive boulders, this is the result of an avalanche. We walked along the trail between and over the debris left by the avalanche. The trail rose about 50 feet over the meadow and offered some fantastic views of the valley below. After about 15 minutes the trail leveled out and we found ourselves once again surrounded by trees. A large flat boulder sat next to the meadow and provided us with an excellent table for enjoying our lunch.
We walked down the trail and came to a junction. A sign pointed to the Roads End area and to Muir Rock, but we continued with our Zumwalt Meadow walk. The trail meandered through the upper section of the meadow. The shade from nearby trees kept us cool in the afternoon sun.
The river was just ahead. The cold blue and turquoise waters rolled past, in some areas the trail had been eaten away by the river and we had to step to one side to avoid falling in. Around us, the walls of Kings Canyon jutted far into the sky. Some of the peaks loomed almost a mile overhead! In some areas, the afternoon sun was blocked by their presence. The views were just amazing!
A wooden walkway now replaced the trail; it provided a transition between the meadow and the water without getting our feet wet. The views from the walkway were some of the most spectacular of the entire visit. Eventually, the walkway ended and we found ourselves in the open forest and on the trail near where we started. We had completed a loop. The suspension bridge was just a short distance away.
The trail is about 1.5 miles and can take up to an hour to complete, though our trip around the meadow took about 3 hours because of our numerous stops to enjoy this place and just to play. Bears have been known to enjoy this meadow just as much as humans – keep the camera handy.
People visiting Sequoia National Park often overlook the Hospital Rock area. To many visitors it is not a destination; rather it is an unusual name on the map that lies between the Foothills Visitor Center (at the south entrance of the park) and the popular Giant Forest with its massive sequoia trees.
If you have the time check out Hospital Rock – it is a curious place. One of the first things to notice is the location; it is in a transition zone between the drier foothills and the mountainous region above. The highway also reflects this transition; after following the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River valley the road turns sharply at Hospital Rock and begins a steep series of switchbacks and a climb of roughly 4,000 feet.
At the parking area is a large, smooth monolith that people might think is Hospital Rock – it is a good place for kids to play, to sit and enjoy a sandwich, maybe wave ‘hello’ to people driving by – but this is not Hospital Rock. Nearby are several picnic tables and an interpretive display. At the display, you read about the Native people, the Patwishas, and get a glimpse into their lives within this area. The display introduces Hospital Rock and the petroglyphs; apparently, the designs were made before the Patwishas settled here. Finally, it tells about this place’s unusual name, Hospital Rock, which was given when a trapper received medical care for a gunshot wound in the 1870s.
Just across the road is a small sign that reads, “Hospital Rock” and behind it is a house-sized boulder. It is odd how this massive stone was there all the time – but was not easily seen.
This great stone is oddly shaped – it appears to have been cleaved, part of it leaning over to one side from the main form. The cleaved area is flat and has been used as a large canvas for petroglyphs, ancient drawings, and shapes that have been carved or etched into the rock. Several steps in the rock allow visitors to get a closer look. Many of the rock ‘drawings’ are somewhat faded and streaked by mineral runoff and time, but some a very visible.
At the backside of this rock are several overhangs and caves that provide great places to explore and play for families.
Nearby is a short paved trail leading down to the river. After a short walk of just a few minutes, you arrive to see white and tan colored boulders strewn in the riverbed as blue, white and emerald colored water moves quickly downstream.
Exploring the area around Hospital Rock reveals something curious, even mysterious – whispers of an old story are here.
Moro Rock is an impressive granite dome in Sequoia National Park. If you stand in the valley below it commands the skyline at almost 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) overhead! Visitors who drive from the south entrance of the park (from the Three Rivers area) along the Generals Highway will see this massive dome with increasing detail as they head further into the park.
From the Giant Forest Museum visitors can either drive to the Moro Rock trailhead or take a free shuttle. If you have the time hike the Moro Rock Trail through the Giant Forest. The hike is less than 1.5 miles (2.4 km) one-way to Moro Rock and offers hikers a ‘Wow’ factor not available by seeing these giants from behind the glass windows of a vehicle.
The trail to the top of Moro Rock, at first, appears to be a gently sloping path, but it quickly ascends 300 vertical feet in just over a quarter of a mile. If you are not used to the altitude take your time and enjoy the views. For those who reach the top the scenery is ‘jaw-dropping.’
If you are visiting in mid or late summer be prepared for a grey looking fog to obstruct your view. Sadly, this grayness is smog; although it might be smoggy do not let that diminish you having a great experience. A visit to Moro Rock is worth the trip.
A park brochure and map of the Giant Forest (sold at the various Visitors Centers) best describes what is being seen from this vantage point, “the often smoggy view includes the foothills of Sequoia National Park, the community of Three Rivers, the San Joaquin Valley, and sometimes even the Coastal Ranges, located over a hundred miles to the west. To the east the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River are visible. Trailside exhibits identify the peaks of the Great Western Divide.”
Panoramic Point is an aptly named location in Kings Canyon National Park. It is a short side trip by car from Grant Grove Village. The drive is about 15 to 20 minutes up a winding road that is narrow in some areas. At the end of the drive is a small parking lot surrounded by trees. Several picnic tables and a pit toilet are nearby. A paved walking trail guides visitors roughly 300 yards (275 meters) up a moderate incline to the Panoramic Point. What a great view! In the distance we saw peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains 30 miles away, several even further. Before us – seen with a full 180 degrees – was the Kings Canyon valley. The valley appeared as though a giant furrow had been tilled out of the earth. To our easterly direction was a small structure on top of a granite dome. This was the iconic Buck Rock fire lookout about 5 miles away. We enjoyed this vista undisturbed for about 10 minutes before another family arrived. Like us, they were quiet, amazed by the view of this aptly named Panoramic Point. If you make it to the Grant Grove Village a side trip to Panoramic Point is worth the view.
Grandma recently became a Junior Ranger. Yes, Grandma at 67 years of age became an official Junior Ranger at Kings Canyon National Park.
During a Ranger-led campfire program, Grandma and her 9-year-old grand-daughter proudly walked up to receive their Junior Ranger badges.
Some adults attending the campfire program thought that an older person becoming a Junior Ranger was unusual. One woman thought that an adult receiving a Junior Ranger badge “was just wrong.” Her gruff statement gnawed at me for several days. It demonstrated a common perception that Junior Ranger activities are just for kids and that an adult becoming a Junior Ranger is somehow ‘strange’.
So why did Grandma become a Junior Ranger? Reason one: she wanted to learn more about the park. Reason two: it was a great way to help the youngest family member learn about the outdoors and share in cross-generation experiences. What can be better than that?
Grandma did have to complete an ‘older’ section of the Junior Ranger activities to earn her badge while her younger counterpart completed another. Both worked together, learned something new, and had fun. In fact, the entire family was involved with the activities, visiting places, and learning about the park.
The park service has done a fantastic job of expanding the definition of Junior Rangers to ‘kids of all ages’ so it can more easily include parents and grand-parents – a move that is welcome and will help many other families to become involved.
Hopefully, in the coming seasons, more parents and grandparents will be joining their children and grand-children at other campfire programs to receive their own Junior Ranger badges.
To my understanding, the oldest Junior Ranger is age 82.