After a 6 hour drive covering 223 miles from Los Angeles in our very cool Wicked campervan we arrived at Lodgepole campground in Sequoia National Park. Reaching the park we stopped at the ranger hut and paid the entrance fee. I was surprised to learn there was a 45 minute drive further to the campground, after such a long drive I thought we had arrived! The final part of the drive was beautiful though and made up for the fact that I was done with sitting still for so long. The road got smaller as it started to wind higher and higher up into the park. Driving through the Giant Forest we got our first sighting of the huge trees that Sequoia is famous for. At some points on the drive, if you looked down you could see tree trunks below and looking up the trees continued well above the road, just incredible. We continued driving higher up until we arrived at Lodgepole campground, here at 6720 feet above sea level the air felt fresh and clean.
Pulling up at the ranger hut to check in, I noticed a sign showing that there had been 5 bear break – ins in the campground during the past week. I had read about black bears in the area and the need to put all food and scented items in a bear proof box 24 hours a day…I was excited and apprehensive all at the same time about stumbling across a bear and this made it feel all the more real, but I still didn’t think that I would actually be lucky enough to have a bear encounter….
Sequoia works hard to make everybody aware of bears with notices in toilets about being careful with rubbish and stickers on bins reading ‘care for bear’. There is the possibility that if they break into cars they may have to be put down if they become aggressive, by knowing this it made me want to be very conscientious and look after the bears.
We found our pitch amongst the trees, complete with a bench, fire pit with a grate for cooking and a bear box, the rush of the nearby river could be heard in the distance, what a fantastic welcome. I wasted no time in putting most of my belongings into the bear box just to be on the safe side! As we settled into our surroundings the light began to fade and the smell of campfires filled the air encouraging us to set up our own. Lodgepole has a very handy shop within driving distance so we already had our firewood ready to go. All of a sudden we heard the sound of a car horn followed by banging and someone shouting, Matt and I both looked at each other and said at the same time ‘BEAR!’ Rushing over to where the commotion was happening we heard someone saying it was a mother and baby that had been nearby and we just caught a glimpse of them disappearing into the woodland high above the noisy campers. If you come across a bear the best thing to do is apparently stand your ground and make as much noise as you can to scare them off. This explains all the noise we had heard. I couldn’t believe we were only an hour into our stay and had already had a bear sighting, it finally started to sink in that they really were around us! Settling back around the campfire I felt a little uneasy peering into the darkness wondering what was watching us. With nothing but the light from the fire the star trail above was just stunning, laying back on the bench and looking skyward it looked 3D, almost like I could touch each star. Listening to the distant crackles of campfires made me sleepy and after cooking steak and veggies on the fire we retreated to our cosy van for the night.
The following morning we woke up early and sat planning our day with breakfast and coffee. Matt was having a look down towards the river when all of a sudden a bear appeared and strolled along very near to us. He or she didn’t seem to notice us, it was such a special moment as with no one else around we were the only ones to see this beautiful creature. I was not expecting that at breakfast time!
With a plan decided we put on our walking boots and jumped into the van. The first stop was to see General Grant Tree at Grant Grove. This beauty is the second tallest Sequoia tree in the world at 268 feet high by 108 feet in circumference, it is huge and very difficult to get a photo of the whole thing! The tallest by the way is the General Sherman Tree also in Sequoia, standing at 274.9 feet. My advice would be to get to Grant Grove early, we arrived mid morning and it was very busy. The General Grant Tree Trail is a short paved trail leading past the Fallen Monarch, a giant hollow Sequoia you can walk through from one end to the other and then continues past General Grant. Interestingly in the 1800s it was used in many different ways from a hotel to a stable for US Cavalry horses.
Next we decided to drive to Buck Rock lookout a fire lookout tower sat up high at 8500 feet. From what I had read in the Lonely Planet Guide to California it has fantastic views but we didn’t quite make it there….we got to an unpaved road which became very dusty and full of potholes, although it was only a couple of miles to the lookout the potholes were never-ending. So, Matt and I decided to leave the van and attempt to walk the final few miles, but in the midday sun it was just too hot and for some reason I had an uneasy feeling; there was no one else around and I had a bit of paranoia about bears! We got round a corner and did spot the tower in the distance, it looked incredible perched high up on a rocky outcrop but was just too far in the heat. There were also huge plumes of smoke from wildfires that were just incredible to witness. Feeling defeated we reluctantly gave up and missioned back to the van, we hadn’t been walking for that long maybe 45 minutes or so but I was really pleased to see our van! We found a shady spot for lunch and drove back to Lodgepole where after checking back in to a new pitch (it was so busy I had to reserve two separate sites) we strolled along the gorgeous alpine stream within the campground and had a chilly but refreshing paddle.
The following day it was my birthday, what a novelty it was to wake up in Sequoia, I had bought a few presents and cards with me from home to open too. With a 5 hour journey ahead of us to San Francisco we were keen to get back on the road but also wanted to make the most of this beautiful National Park, so a birthday hike to Tokopah Falls was on the cards. Setting off early on the 1.7 mile trail to avoid the heat of the sun the walk started just a stones through from where we had been camping. Following the river along through the trees watching out for bears, the walk was very varied. We strolled past alpine meadows, scrambled over rocks and marveled at the huge granite rock formations high above us until we arrived at the falls. We didn’t see another soul on the journey and were pleased to see the falls that marked the end of the trail and still no one else around. It really felt quite magical to be the only ones there. We reached the end of the path and clambered down the huge rock face to sit right by the falls, although not as powerful as probably during the winter months it was beautiful to see and sitting back to take in the view from where we had just walked, the valley between the canyon was clear to see. It was such a birthday treat! The day got even better as we were walking back we stopped for a glug of water and peered down to the river where we spotted a bear….we watched in silence as it crossed the river and started to walk up the embankment towards the path we had just walked along. Holding our breath we took a few steps back as it crossed right over the track and into the undergrowth on the other side. We continued to watch it as it snuffled and foraged. If it had smelt us it didn’t let on. Such an awesome sight!
Tips and tricks:
The $35 entrance pass into Sequoia lasts for 7 days.
I made an online reservation for Lodgepole campground before arriving which was $22 a night.
Fuel up when you can as fuel stations can be few and far between, Stony Creek Village had fuel pumps.
There was pretty much no phone service in the park, if you are desperate Stony Creek Lodge had free WiFi.
Lodgepole has a well-equipped shop, make sure you buy your firewood there and don’t bring it in from somewhere else, this helps to prevent the spread of disease.
There are coin operated showers at the visitor centre in Lodgepole, make sure you’ve got some quarters handy!
I loved everything about camping in Sequoia, the sights, the smells, and the sounds. Sequoia National Park is perhaps overlooked compared to others such as Yosemite, I had not heard of it until I started researching. I also read how busy Yosemite can get during the summer so I opted for Sequoia instead. Give it a go, believe me you won’t be disappointed.
For a round-up of our California road trip take a look at my previous post: Camping in California with Wicked Campers.
It was back into the mystery machine and onto the next adventure, San Francisco and the Big Sur…