California Vacations


Sequoia, Kings Canyon National Parks

Vacation in California's Splendid Forests

By Connie Young

When spring is just weeks away and summer inches ever closer, the window of opportunity for avoiding crowds at California's best attractions, such as Sequoia National Park, narrows.

Where to stay:

Inside the park, stay among the grand forests of the Sierras where rooms are usually plentiful during this off-season at the Wuksachi Lodge.

The Wuksachi in Sequoia National Park is a great location to begin exploration. In winter, the lodge is nestled in banks of snow, framed by taller mountain peaks to the east. At dark the lodge resembles something out of a Kinkade painting with illuminated windows bright against the snow. Visible from many of the hotel rooms is Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the U.S. (except for Alaska), standing at 14,495 feet! Grab your camera in the morning when you wake to take a picture of the sky lighting up with vivid hues above the mountain peaks. That's your inspiration to begin exploring the redwood groves by car or get fitted for snowshoes at the main lodge and embark on a cross country ski adventure.

Use your hotel room or suite at Wuksachi Lodge as home base for exploring. It's the best strategy in winter when availability is better and special deals are sometimes offered. Operated by Delaware North Corp. (DNC), the lodge was built in the late 1990's and is similar in some ways to the historic Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite National Park, also managed by DNC. The rooms are clean. Carpets, bedspreads, sofas and curtains hint of designer touches and amenities such as refrigerators, coffee pots, ironing boards, blow dryers and easy chairs make the stay comfortable throughout.

An outcropping of three buildings where hotel rooms and suites are located are separated from the main lodge where you can enjoy the cocktail lounge or the main dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner. On cold days the huge fireplace in the dining room adds to the charm. We ate all our meals in the lodge. Breakfast was our favorite and the most affordably priced. Salads, hamburgers, sandwiches and hearty favorites are served both lunch and dinner along with selections of gourmet fine dining for dinner. The chef prepares fresh soups daily as well. The highlight of any meal is the view seen through huge windows overlooking the forest of trees covered in snow. Make it your goal to arrive for dinner before sunset so you can watch the forest dim its lights to say goodnight. The lobby offers gifts for purchase, comfortable easy chairs, sofas and wi-fi service. According to Wuksachi Lodge manager, Jerry Hagen, the hotel is nearly always full from mid-May through September, so tourists seeking last minute spring trips can easily book accommodations now. Call for reservations: 866/807-3598 or international tel: 801/559-4930.

"Summer is our peak season and the mellow atmosphere of winter and early spring will disappear as the high season begins," Hagen said. "If I was going to visit, I'd definitely come now because I enjoy the serenity that the park offers in winger and early spring. It's the optimum time to enjoy this experience."

Getting there:
It takes only about an hour to access the park from Three Rivers at the base of the western slope of the Sierra Mountains, not far from the city of Tulare off California Hwy. 99, and the drive offers breathtaking scenery all the way. Admission to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks is $20 for a multi-day pass. Annual and Senior Passes are also available. The senior pass is only $10, lasts a lifetime and good for all US national parks. Once inside the park entrance, Wind your way to a 7,000 foot elevation where several big Sequoia redwoods date back four thousand years, you'll pass by the General Sherman and an inviting Visitors Center complete with a helpful ranger and interactive, educational displays, before arriving at Wuksachi Lodge.

What to see and do:
Known for the General Sherman, the largest living organism and biggest tree on Earth, Sequoia is California's first national park and one of the world's best natural attractions, drawing visitors from around the globe. The giant Sequoias only grow at elevations between 5 and 7,000 feet. And they've been growing, and growing, and growing for thousands of years!

It can take a couple of days to see most highlights in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks which are seamlessly connected by an easy drive. Summer and Fall offer expanded ranger programs in both parks, with a selection of hiking, birdwatching and backpacking experiences. The park features Accessible trails and parking too. There's a Junior Ranger Program for the kids, ranger led campfire programs under starry skies and miles and miles of trails for all levels of difficulty. The Visitors Centers have Junior Ranger novelities for sale as well as popular logo apparrel and supplies. Campgrounds are popular and plentiful with varying degrees of comfort and cost.

The trip and mini-vacation (I stayed two days) meant a lot to me, having been through some tough economic times during the previous year. My Christmas came in February with the stay at Wuksachi and a visit to the nation's Christmas tree - the famous General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon National Park. While the annual wreath placed at the base of the tree was long gone, I stood in silence and imagined the celebration held at Christmas time each year, honoring soldiers who served in the military throughout history.

The General Grant is the second largest tree in the world, standing over 268 feet tall (as high as a 16-story building) and weighing over 565 tons. Compared to the tall trees in the Coastal Redwood forests of California, the Sequoias are stunning in shape and color and equally challenging to wrap your mind around as you try to imagine what stories they would tell of changes over the past 4,000 years. I was awestruck, humbled and enchanted by their grandeur. You will be too.

What you should know before you go:

If you bring food or any product with a scent”, do not leave it in your car. Bears are active, even in winter. The ranger told us they do not all hibernate. They wander the area year-round. Bears will smash your car windows to get food.

Snow chains are required if there's snow on the roads. We purposefully waited to book a trip until the roads were clear, and in fact, although nights were cold, we enjoyed 55 degree days with sunshine during our stay.

You have to pay to enter the National Park. It's $20 for a multi-day pass and allows you to visit two national parks, Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

There are no gas stations inside the parks. You can fill up at the base of the mountains, but cheaper gas is available in cities such as Tulare. With a full tank, you should have enough gas to last you comfortably throughout your stay.

Winter activities such as ranger led hikes generally are restricted to weekends. During the week you are on your own to explore the countryside and mountain trails.

During our stay we found no cell service, so plan accordingly.

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