That’s the advice we hear all the time when planning to hike the populaire national parks of the central Sierras in California. Positioning ourselves at that gateway town, Three Rivers, a mere six miles from the southern entrance to Sequoia National Park, we plan to be off by 8A this mid-September Sunday.
Waking at 4A (time change!), while Hannah sleeps, I do my daily stretching exercises, first in the king bed we share, then in the semi-dark to the bathroom light, convinced that an hour of stretching a day is keeping me in the game (i.e. hiking and pickleballing). Breakfasting at 630A at our Comfort Suites and Inn, we are on the road within the hour.
Stopping at the Foothills Visitor Center at the southeastern end of the park, we are interested in finding the signature hike of Sequoia National Park. And that turns out to be the General Sherman Tree Trail; we add the Congress and Circle Meadow Loop Trails to give us three hours of hiking.
You must remember William T. Sherman! He was a general in the Union Army during the Civil War, famous for his 1864 scorched earth March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah that was pivotal in ending the Civil War. For all that and more, he is remembered by having the largest living thing in the known world named in his honor.
But, I am getting ahead of myself. From the visitor center, we must drive 20 miles of winding switchbacks, including one two-mile stretch of one lane road under serious distress, governed by a pilot car leading inbound, then outbound vehicles.
Arriving a little after 9A at the General Sherman Tree parking lot, we have our choice of parking places this mid-September Sunday. As a magnet for folks who have little time or interest in hiking at length, the half mile 200’+ descent to the GST is paved; it includes steps and benches along the way. General Sherman is not only the largest living tree, but the largest living organism, by volume, on the planet. At 2,100 years of age, it weighs 2.7 million pounds, is 275 feet tall, and has a 102-foot circumference at the ground, with branches that are almost 7 feet in diameter.
Let me further develop the CV (i.e. resume) of the GST and his brother and sister sequoias. Able to live up to 3,000 years, the giant sequoias grow only on the western slopes of the Sierras between 5000’ and 7000’ in elevation. While the largest of the sequoias are as tall as a 26-story building, their bark can be three feet thick. Although sequoias were logged in the 1870’s, their brittle wood does not make for good lumber; thankfully now, most of the giant sequoia groves are protected.
Once inspired at Billy’s (i.e. William T. Sherman) awesomeness, we are off to the Chief Sequoyah Tree. There, what seems like our trail is not. Unbeknownst to us, we errantly leave the Congress Trail and take the Trail of the Sequoias. It’s no longer paved, but an easy-on-the-feet dirt trail with stunning sequoias here, there, and everywhere. Then, Hannah first hears, then sees something move in the berry bush eight feet to our left.
If you are thinking black bear, go to the head of the class. We pick up the pace but don’t run. I am not one who ever wanted to see a bear of any kind in the wild. I just don’t need that adrenaline rush to have lived a full life. Thankfully the bear does not follow, but we do have one slight problem.
Wondering why we are not seeing anyone else as we hike, we check our map and realize we have taken the wrong trail (the aforementioned Trail of the Sequoias) and must double back the way we came. Yes, back by the berry bush with one active and hungry black bear.
As we approach the bush, we see that the bear is not there. Relieved, but only briefly, we quickly gather that it could be anywhere! Within sixty seconds, the anywhere it could be is on the trail 100 yards ahead of us. It’s more than a baby, yet not quite a papa or mama. I’d call it a teenager, hopefully with no attitude and no tattoos.
We dead stop, wonder what the hell to do next, and don’t move. Hannah picks up a stick. I’m not sold on that strategy and look to just stay as far back as possible. Slowly stepping our way down the trail towards said adolescent oso, we pass another lofty sequoia and no longer see the furry one on the trail ahead. Looking to our left, we spot it on the hillside beneath us, some 70’ away. Paying us no mind, the bear chomps away, and we double time it away from the black bundle of fur.
Safe, we think, we see other hikers, including a senior couple and their daughter. Being my usual chatty, cheery self, I ask if they want to see a bear? Smiling in disbelief, they reveal in their faces that have absolutely no interest. But see the bear we all do, unperturbed in the forest below.
Having had enough of teenage Smokey, we tip toe back on the Congress Trail and bid adieu to our surprise bear. But, no longer are we naively hiking the rest of the trails this morning; we wonder if his cousin or, dare I say mama, is in the area. Why, even charred chunks of sequoias look like black bears now!
Over our nearly three hours of hiking, we soon stop seeing bears in our minds around each corner, and hike the Circle Meadow Loop through these massive sequoias. On a Sunday morning in the Sierras of California, we find our hike really quite bearable.
And let me end with a black bear joke.
In the middle of the forest, a hunter is confronted by a hungry black bear. Unsuccessful in shooting the bear, the hunter starts to run. Trapped at the edge of a steep cliff and with the black bear fast approaching, the hunter gets down on his knees and prays, “Dear God! Please give this bear religion.”
The skies darken and there is lightning in the air. Just a few short feet from the hunter, the bear comes to an abrupt stop. Looking up into the sky, the black bear says, “Thank you, God, for the food I’m about to receive…”