I mentioned a couple of weeks back that I was heading to the West Coast of the US on vacation and part of that would involve a visit to some of the many stunning national parks available. I'm close to the end of my trip now and my hiking finished up with The Grand Canyon yesterday which was truly awesome.
Going back to last week, my first hiking trip started after I left the beaches of Santa Barbara and headed for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. The main gateway town to Sequoia National Park is Three Rivers. It's pretty easy to access and as I was travelling there in March, I wasn't expecting it to be overly busy, as it would be in Summer time for example.
When I started researching Sequoia before my trip I couldn't find too much about what possibilities there are with regards to hiking in March so I thought a post with some information in it might be useful to others travelling in March in the future.
So, to start, I traveled there last Tuesday 29th March 2016 and was planning to stay only one night. As this was my first visit to Sequoia and I needed to move on the following day, my primary hiking objective was to take in the Giant Forest and of course see some of the main featured Giant trees like The Lincoln Tree and of course General Sherman, the biggest of them all!
Yes, all very touristy I know 🙂 but that's cool, you have to do the main points of interest first time out I feel and with the short time frame available to me, it seemed the best option to aim for. Please don't get me wrong, the Giant Forest is Truly awesome and I don't mean to talk it down in any way, but it is of course very popular with tourists.
How Much can you Hike in Sequoia in March?
This was the big question I wasn't 100% sure about and truth be told, there is an element of pot luck involved. In March, there is still plenty of snow around in Sequoia and many of the roads to popular areas, The Crystal Cave for example, will quite likely be closed. In fact, it is possible that the Giant Forest will not be accessible. If that is the case, you are left with the lower lying areas of Sequoia like Buckeye Flat to get a bit of hiking in.
Of course, I assume you can always hike into the snowy areas by hiking up to them, you just probably can't get a car through to get close and it is a very, very big national park. There may well be restrictions involved on that type of thing too but wilderness permits are available.
When we arrived last Tuesday, we had to pay our park entry fee which was $30 for a car. That get's you access for 1 week so a very good deal for the price. The Park Ranger at the gate told us that if we wanted to visit the Giant Forest we would need snow chains for our car. We didn't have these but they are easily acquired (Bought / hired) in Three Rivers. The Ranger will give you a list of places to get them so they're not hard to find.
There are three levels of show chain restrictions, if I recall correctly, when it comes to car / vehicle access, R1, R2 and R3. Each level is more restrictive than the last. So for example:
- R1: Required that all cars must have snow tires or chains on their wheels
- R2: required that all cars must be 4 wheel drive or have snow chains
- R3: all vehicles must have snow chains
I stress that may not be exact as I can't recall the precise detail but it's more or less what it was. Again the park rangers will give you the full explanation as required.
The restriction level changes on a daily basis and can even change while you're out and about in the park. So basically, as advised on the government national park site, you may need to have snow chains in your car even if you don't need to use them when setting out as the weather can chance very quickly.
Now, if you're a passing through tourist like I was, you probably have a hire car. If that's the case, most car rental companies don't let you use snow chains on their cars so if you do need to use them, you could get into hassle with the rental company.
When we arrived on Tuesday, I went to one of the hire places and bought a set of snow chains. The deal was you buy them for $57.95 and if you brought them back you got $20 back. Otherwise, you keep them. They also showed me a quick video on how to put them on as it was totally new to me. When we arrived last Tuesday, the weather wasn't great. Cloudy and there was rain but it was still very beautiful, see the picture below.
With our snow chains in the car, we started up to the Giant Forest. It's a good 40 minute drive from the gate up to the forest area and you of course are going up to heights of 6,000 feet plus to get to the Forest. As we drove up, the rain turned to snow and we reached an area where a sign said that you had to put the snow chains on your car.
At this point, snow was lying on the ground and I wasn't 100% sure about putting the chains on my rental car as I hadn't checked on the snow chain policy from the rental company as yet. I'd also just drove 4 hours from Santa Barbara and it was about 3 pm.
We decided to leave it and go to the hotel and check in. I would research the snow chain policy (Which I found is a no no) with the rental car company and maybe practice putting them on as having only watched a video I didn't really feel like I had a clue on what to do lol 🙂
On the way down we decided to stop at Buckeye Flat and hike a little bit around there. It was nice but as it was getting more and more overcast, we couldn't get a lot of great views. Still pleasant though. Hospital Rock, pictured below, is clearly visible from the road and you can follow a trail or two from there.
Starting from Hospital Rock at Buckeye Flat, we hiked about 3 miles in and around the trails there before heading back to the car. Going down towards the river is nice but brief but there are other trails available. After 4 hours driving, it was good to stretch the legs a bit!
Getting to The Giant Forest – Take Two
The following morning, I opened the curtains and it was a beautiful morning! Clear blue skies all around with barely a hint of any clouds. Fresh and cool outside but a really good start to the day!
After getting some food, we headed up to the park gate again. We were hoping that it had stopped snowing and that we wouldn't need the snow chains.
When we got to the gate, the Ranger told us that the snow chains would still be required 🙁 Bummer, I was really hoping I wouldn't have to put them on. Anyway, the weather was beautiful so that was the main thing. We drove on up to the area we had been at the previous day where the snow chains had to be put on.
Now, I was a bit unsure what to do as the roads looked fine, no snow or ice on them. We were probably about a mile or two from the forest at this point. As it happened there was another Ranger there at the side of the road. I went over to him and asked him about the snow chains again. He said that he wouldn't require me to have them on if heading on to the Giant Forest but that it was my choice whether or not to use them.
What a stroke of luck! It meant that we could continue on to the Giant Forest without putting the snow chains on the rental car, happy days! I wasn't sure what exactly to expect as we continued on up to the car park at the Giant Forest Museum but the road was more or less perfect. there was snow and ice in the car park but no issue to get parked.
Hiking in The Giant Forest
If you're a hiker and you want to check out the Giant Forest, General Sherman, etc. I recommend that you park at the Giant Forest Museum and then hike up from there through the forest.
You can go to the Giant Forest trail, which is what we did first. It's just up from the museum and only about a mile in length but it's a nice introduction to the forest as you head up from there.
From there I recommend you follow one of the many trails that lead you to the General Sherman tree, the oldest tree in the Park and one of the oldest tress in the world. It's about 3 miles to hike up to the Sherman tree from the Museum, probably 6 miles round trip depending on which trail you take but it's by far the better option. You can of course drive up the road and walk up to the Sherman Tree but we're all about hiking here so that is of course what I recommend you do.
As mentioned we got a truly beautiful day, blue skies and with the chilly morning there was a bit of light snow and ice on the ground so crisp underfoot. The trails are all very well marked out, so you can get to the Giant Forest quite easily without a map.
However, while you will be given a basic map when you pay into the Park, there are only a limited number of trails listed on it. More detailed trail maps are available in The Visitor Center, so definitely worth buying one of those if you're staying around for a longer period. For the Giant Forest though, you'll be fine following the signs.
The main feature of the Giant Forest is, of course, the giant sequoia trees. They really are a marvel to behold, really very beautiful and some of them have been around for thousands of years. They are of course ‘Giant', see me standing beside one below to give you some perspective, and can only grow in very specific conditions which are of course just perfect for them at that height and location in the Park.
The main trees are of course marked out, the McKinley, Lincoln and General Sherman are the main ones I think. The trail from the Museum to General Sherman can take you past the McKinley and Lincoln trees on your way to General Sherman. We crossed a small river on the way too and with the freshness of the forest, it really was a very pleasant hike.
We started out at about 10:30 am from the museum and made it back to the Museum at about 1:30 pm. We stopped to take the scenery in and did go off on one or two other trails for a bit as well but overall, about 3 hours for approximately 6 miles.
If you're thinking of going hiking in the Giant Forest In Sequoia National Park in march, it's worth checking out the status of the roads and so on before you get there. In winter, many parts of the park can be closed and this can run from the winter months right into March and well into April as there can still be plenty of snow and ice around. The National Park website, link below, is very detailed and covers just about everything you need to know but the weather forecast is something that can change on the day, and probably even an hourly basis.
Whether its the start of March or the end, might make a bit of difference in terms of the odds of having to use snow chains. However, in saying that, it could easily have been a heavy blast of snow last Tuesday night and we may not have been able to make it in without the snow chains, or perhaps even not at all. While we didn't have to use them, the regulations are clear that we still needed to have them as they can be mandatory at any time.
Overall, I think we got really lucky not having to use the snow chains for our trip into the Giant Forest, especially as we had a rental car and had never used snow chains before. Definitely not beyond the realms of possibility that damage could have occurred followed by a hefty bill from the rental company!
As I mentioned, I was only there for one or two days, staying one night in Three Rivers Village, which is really lovely little town. We had two days to get in to see the Giant Forest and while day one was pretty crappy in terms of weather, we lucked out with day two.
You could easily spend a week or two, and much longer, checking out the trails and hiking opportunities available in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. I plan to be back at some point but I am really glad to have got to see the Giant Forest. It was the main objective for the couple of days as I passed through and I'm really pleased we got to see it in all it's majestic glory in bright blue skies and sunshine with crisp ground underfoot. Certainly one for the memory scrap book for sure!
If you're planning on going there, as mentioned, definitely spend a bit of time reading and researching the National Park Website, they have all the information you need there. I'm far from a knowledgeable resource on the park after just one visit but if I can help you with any questions you may have, please feel free to leave a comment below and I'll do my best to help if I can.