On Wednesday evening August 30, I flew to Los Angeles to continue our On The Open Road adventure. Therese had flown out the previous week, and was visiting family and friends, so she was able to pick me up at the airport. Surprisingly, on the Philadelphia side I made it through security quickly and without even taking my shoes off or my stuff out of my carryon; the flight left on time and arrived 45 minutes early; and at Los Angeles my luggage was just about the first to arrive at the carousel, so it was about as smooth as commercial flight ever is these days.
We headed back to the home of Therese’ sister Patti and her husband Scott, where we ended the first leg of the trip. Therese had been there since Tuesday morning, retrieving our towed vehicle (the Jeep), which she picked me up in. Patti and Scott were again great hosts as “home base” while getting ready to head out. This time, they were not able to arrange any controlled burns for our entertainment, but they did manage to conjure up some triple-digit temperatures. Southern California is getting hit with unseasonably (even record in some areas) hot weather. Ventura is normally cool, but even there it was getting into the low 90’s.
Thursday morning about 9:00, we drove from Ventura to Chatsworth to pick up the Dutch Star from Valley Indoor RV Storage, where it had been in hibernation for the past three months. Traffic was light, and when we got there, they had it pulled out just as we had arranged. The batteries were all charged up, and it had stayed pretty clean in their indoor facility. We were pleased with our choice of storage area – they did everything they said they would do and the costs were not too exorbitant.
Even though it was only about 10:30, it was already over 100 degrees while we hitched up the Jeep. We got going (with the odometer reading 6020) and hadn’t gone ¼ mile before our lack of practice showed up in the form of books falling out of one of the cabinets that we left open while looking for the GPS or something.
Other than that, the 43 mile trip went smoothly back to Patti and Scott’s, where we parked the unit in front of their house (Patti having secured a parking permit from the city of Ventura for that). Again we lucked out on traffic and encountered not a single traffic jam. Fortunately, even the residential streets of Ventura are pretty wide, and we had no trouble navigating them in the ponderous Dutch Star.
We spent the remainder of the day on Thursday procuring groceries, an electrical adapter so we could hook the rig to a standard 15 Amp outlet (enabling us to run the refrigerator while running up Patti and Scott’s electric bill), and a few other items.
Therese and I had been expecting to escape the heat by heading to Sequoia National Park, but when we decided to actually fact check that by looking at the weather forecast for Three Rivers (where the RV park we had reservations for is located), we discovered that the high temperatures there were expected be somewhere around 105. Then we got an e-mail from Sequoia RV Ranch (our campground) telling us that they had our reservations for a site with 30 Amp power, rather than the usual 50 Amp hookup. Whoa – that means we will only be able to run one of our air conditioners at a time! Any of you who know Therese will recognize that as a crisis – she is what I call a “heat pansy” and you don’t want to be around her when she gets too hot. That being the case, I made one final run to a nearby Lowes store to buy a fan (which I think we will be able to run at the same time as the air conditioner) to head off that disaster. The hardships we have to deal with are legend.
We got up pretty early on Friday to start the trip. Barry Optimum-No-Rinse washed the Jeep, added a little air to the tires, put in some water, hooked up the Jeep all by himself, and got everything else ready for liftoff while Therese washed her hair. Then, for reasons obscure, she decided to set a newly purchased curling iron to its highest setting and proceeded to burn off some of that lovely thick hair. Luckily, she has quite a bit more of it, so it isn’t that noticeable. That didn’t stop her from fretting about it, however.
We did get going on schedule at 10:00. We were apprehensive about hitting a lot of Labor Day traffic, but again we lucked out and had no traffic delays. Even though we were only a little under half full, we stopped near Visalia, CA for fuel, in case we had to run the generator more than expected to avoid the dreaded hot-Therese-grouchitis syndrome (HTGS).
The Dutch Star engine-driven air conditioner continued to impress us. The temperature was consistently over 100 degrees, and we climbed about 4000 feet in 15 miles in the Route 5 “grapevine” without overheating either the Dutch Star or the wife.
Pulling in about 3:00, the temperature was 107 and the odometer read 6289. We experimented with the 30 Amp power (all of the campgrounds on the way to California had 50 Amps, so we didn’t know exactly how that would work). One air conditioner will usually work, but you have to be careful what else you turn on. We ran the generator for a while so we could cool the unit down with both A/C’s running, but we didn’t want to become known as the “generator jerks” at the campground, so we reverted to shore power and one A/C after a while. Cooking supper required the generator, however, else HTGS would have reared its ugly head for sure. Directing the new fan directly at the kitchen area helped on that front as well.
Apart from having only 30 Amps, Sequoia RV Ranch is pretty nice.
There are trees and a river running next to it. We were surprised that there was still water flowing, given how hot and dry it is here.
They have either a natural or man-made swimming hole where there’s a big rock and a section with eight-foot deep water. Given the heat, it’s pretty popular. The pictures below were taken about 7:15 Saturday evening, and it was still about 92 degrees outside.
As of Friday evening, the Wifi signal was the best we have seen at any campground. We’ll see how it holds up as the campground fills up, as is expected for the last big holiday weekend for the summer (answer: nearly unusable at “peak hours” but still way better than most).
On Saturday, we got up (comparatively) early, and headed to Sequoia National Park at 7:45. The temperature at the campground (elevation: about 900 feet) was already about 85 by then, with a forecast high of 108. We got a bit of a bum steer from our GPS onto a road that was closer to a cart path than a real road (luckily we were in the Jeep, not the Dutch Star), but still arrived at the Ash Mountain entrance just about 8:00.
Sequoia National Park (the second US National Park to be created) is huge, and within its boundaries the altitude ranges from 1300 feet to 14,500 feet. All of the entrances are on the west side. The large mountains block vehicular access to the eastern side of the park, which has no road system at all (in fact the east side of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is the 2nd largest road-free parcel of land in the continental US).
At 8:00, there was no delay getting into the park, and we set off for the biggest attraction, the General Sherman tree and accompanying grove of Sequoias. Inside the park, the road is in good shape, but slow going as it is a series of sharp curves and switchbacks on the side of the mountains. There is a one section approximately a mile long, however, that is down to one way as they are repairing it. There are signs warning of one hour delays getting through that section. I am sure that at least that much delay materialized later in the day as the park got more and more filled up, but just past 8:00 we just barely missed getting through with no delay at all. As it was, we waited under 10 minutes.
We stopped a few places to take in the scenery, which is spectacular. You climb from about 1300 feet at the park entrance in the valley to about 7000 feet at the General Sherman tree.
A desirable side effect of the altitude increase is a temperature decrease. The rule of thumb is 2 degrees Celsius (a bit less than 4 degrees Fahrenheit) per 1000 feet of altitude change. That was welcome on this hot day, and we saw a low temperature of 68 degrees at 7000 feet. As you climb through about 4000 feet, the scenery changes abruptly from dry, scrubby desert deciduous trees to evergreens – a variety of pine, spruce and, as altitude increases to about 5000 feet, Sequoias.
Since we were reasonably early, we had no trouble parking at the General Sherman Tree trail lot. There’s a half-mile paved trail to the General Sherman, which is the largest tree by volume in the world. There are taller trees (the coastal redwoods), and there are older trees (other Sequoias). They estimate that the General Sherman tree is somewhere around 3000 years old. The top of it is dead (which is not uncommon among Sequoias) so it isn’t getting any taller, but it is still healthy and growing bigger around every year.
It is impossible to capture the size of these Sequoias (there are many that are just as impressive as the General Sherman) in a picture. In fact, they are so much larger than regular trees that I think you stop thinking about them in the same reference frame as other large trees. In Pennsylvania, we have trees that we consider to be large with a diameter of 6 feet or so, and the scale of those trees compared to human size and “regular” trees is such that you get an immediate impression of how large and impressive they are. The Sequoias are 5 times larger in diameter (25 times the cross-sectional area) and probably three times as tall, so they are simply too large to be compared to large Eastern trees. Although the coastal redwoods are taller, the General Sherman, at 286 feet is immense. The limbs near the top of it, way, way up there, are larger in diameter than the largest Pennsylvania trees!
Almost all Sequoias have fire scars. According to information on the signs, fires occur naturally in the Sierra Nevada approximately every six to eight years (they were suppressed for about 100 years in the early days of the park, which turned out to be a bad idea). Sequoias survive fires (and thrive afterwards because competitive trees are killed off) because their bark and sapwood are cork-like, and thus not very flammable and provide good insulation. Their wood also contains tannin, which makes them insect resistant. Those traits combine to account for their incredible longevity.
The picture below is a closeup of Sequoia bark. This, and all the pictures in this post were taken with a newly acquired Olympus EM-5 camera, which was recommended by Jerry Flynn, a colleague at Bentley Systems and an accomplished photographer. The camera is about the same size as our previous Sony, but has interchangeable lenses and more controls and options than I know what to do with. I don’t know whether our pictures this leg of the trip will be any better, but I am pretty sure the picture below, about six inches from the tree, couldn’t have been taken with the old camera.
The same characteristics that account for Sequoia’s longevity also cause them to resist burning and decay very slowly after they have fallen (or sadly, in some cases been cut down).
They had a picture of the fallen Sequoia below that was taken in 1900, and it looks almost identical today. You can’t tell from this picture, but the army unit that first guarded the Sequoias cut a shelter into the fallen trunk large enough to hold 10 men and their horses.
Near the General Sherman Tree is the two-mile “Congress Trail”. It goes through the Sequoia grove and gives an opportunity to see other large Sequoias and where they grow. It turns out that the only places on earth with the right combination of climate, altitude (between 5000 and 7500 feet), rainfall, and soil type are on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The Congress trail features (among many other impressive Sequoia) a place where there is a single large tree, labelled “The President”, and two groupings of Sequoia, one labeled “The Senate” and one “The House”. They look better and make more sense than their counterparts in Washington.
Along the Congress trail, we spotted (very briefly, not even long enough to get a picture) a black bear. The young couple immediately behind us (who turned out to be visiting from Poland) were excited to see the bear, and the young lady was a little nervous about it. So I helpfully explained that she didn’t need to be able to outrun the bear, she just had to outrun the aging overweight couple walking in front of us. She spoke good English, but I am not sure she quite got the joke.
After our leisurely stroll on the Congress and General Sherman trails (with near perfect weather at the 7000 foot elevation), we arrived back at the parking lot to find that it was now quite crowded. We had driven past the Giant Forest museum on the way up, but didn’t stop there. So when we spotted a shuttle headed that way, we decided to leave the Jeep where it was and shuttle to and from the museum. The museum was pretty small but informative. But by then we were hungry and headed back to our car by shuttle. Unfortunately, we somehow got off at the wrong stop, at the downhill side of the General Sherman trail, so we had to walk up again. We staggered to the car and ate lunch, staving off exhaustion and starvation by the thinnest of margins.
We decided to keep going along the road through the park, which eventually ends up in the western part of the adjoining Kings Canyon National Park. The Grant Grove (which contains the General Grant Sequoia) is in Kings Canyon. In general, the crowds lessened as we made our way to Kings Canyon from Sequoia.
We went on the short path around Grant Grove, and stopped for a while to sit on a bench with a great view of the General Grant tree. It is a comparatively young Sequoia, “only” 1700 years old, but it is quite large due to very good growing conditions where it is located.
A friendly guy from Australia happened by, and offered to take our picture. By our estimate, about half the visitors to the park were from outside the US. Hopefully they return to their home countries with a favorable impression of this great country and its natural wonders.
We continued up the Generals’ Highway until we got to Route 180, which runs roughly east-west through Kings Canyon. We followed it for 10 or 15 miles, stopping to get a view of King’s Canyon and the large mountains to the east of us. It was slightly hazy (I think due to a number of forest fires that are currently burning in California), so a little hard to see the more distant mountains.
At one of the scenic overlooks, there was a forest of cairns – the little rock stacks that are used to mark trails, or sometimes just for entertainment value. I’m not sure what caused this to become a cairn hotspot, but there were several families building new ones or adding to existing cairns. We carefully avoided knocking any over (ask my brother Keith and nephew Will sometime what that can lead to).
About 4:00, we decided to head back to the campground. Rather than go back through the park the way we came and wait out the construction delay, we went out through the Big Stump entrance and headed down to the San Joaquin valley on Route 180, then headed south on Route 63 to Visalia. The temperature increased as we descended to a high of 106 while going through the billiard-table-flat valley. Despite the heat and dry environment, the San Joaquin Valley has lots of groves of healthy-looking fruit and nut trees, which appeared to be drip irrigated. A high percentage of America’s produce ( more than 90 percent of artichokes, plums, walnuts, kiwi, spinach, garlic, cauliflower, and carrots) are grown in California’s Central Valleys – the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. We stopped at a Target in Visalia (which is a prosperous-looking place) to get a few supplies, and then headed back to the campground.
We got back to the campsite at about 6:15, and were pleasantly surprised to find that the Dutch Star stayed quite cool in the 105 degree heat with only half its cooling capacity – it was about 77 degrees inside. It was a very nice sightseeing day, and despite the heat, we managed to avoid HTGS as well.
Our next stop is Lake Shasta, in northern California.