The Majesties of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

The park ranger held it up between her thumb and forefinger. It was a mere two inches long.

“This is a sequoia cone.”

Sequoia cone on forest floor

Behind us was a colossus, the General Grant sequoia, the second largest in the world and located in Kings Canyon National Park, standing at a prodigious 268 feet in height. That a seed from a cone can produce one of these giants is one of nature’s wonders. 

General Grant tree, Kings Canyon National Park

The word majestic doesn’t enter into my vocabulary often. I seem to use it when I travel because of amazing things I see. It’s even more rare for me to apply it to a living thing. The giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is one of them, a tree so massive and tall that on first sight you’re likely to be left speechless, in awe. Today, they are endemic only to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas in California.

The ranger continued to describe additional interesting facts about the tree as well as its historical and political importance. The sequoia isn’t the tallest tree. That distinction belongs to its cousin, the coastal redwood (S. sempervirens), though the sequoia’s height is no slouch, mature specimens reaching 250ft or more. But by the sheer volume of its height and massive, slowly tapering trunk bottom-to-top that can reach 20 feet in diameter, it is earth’s biggest tree. When looking straight up from the base, I was unable to appreciate its relative size.

However, on the Giant Forest Loop, I got to see just how big it is in relation to us mere humans.

There’s another impressive attribute. At Sequoia National Park’s General Sherman Tree, I pondered its extreme age, estimated to be 2,100 years old, earth’s largest living organism. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it would’ve been 1,850 years old. When it was just a sapling, Caesar would’ve uttered his mortified words to Brutus. These trees are some of the oldest living things on earth. There’s no telling how long they can exist if left unmolested. Some are estimated to be over 3,000 years old. (BTW, if that age astonishes you, the oldest living bristlecone pine, also found in California as well as Utah and Nevada, is estimated to be more than 5,000 years old, making it more ancient than The Great Pyramid of Giza.)

Here’s a curious fact. The longer a sequoia lives, the better it’s able to defend itself against intruders. Tannins will foil bugs and fungi and the thick bark and resin-free sapwood will hinder fires. Lightning can scorch the tree, blackening the exterior and core, but the sequoia remarkably heals itself. I should be so tough in my golden years.

Sequoia is resistant to fire and insects

For all its hardiness, the sequoia is defenseless against humans. Some very large specimens were cut down in the latter half of the nineteenth century. What it took for a tree to grow in excess of a thousand years was undone in three weeks by two-man saw and axe. Even in the age of Manifest Destiny, people were outraged that trees much older than Methuselah were destroyed. Many stumps can still be seen along the Big Stump Trail in Kings Canyon.

USNPS ranger hat (image from

The fight to save the sequoia was so seminal to the conservation movement and establishment of our national park system that the ranger I mentioned above informed us the sequoia cone symbol appears on every Park Service ranger’s hat band. I will be sure to look for it when I visit the next national park.


Hiking the Easy Trails of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, TN

Hurricane Joaquin was whipping up chaos along the lower Atlantic coast. As of last week, forecasts predicted heavy rainstorms, including inundation of the Great Smokies where we were headed. Plans we had for hiking around the Gatlinburg area of Tennessee hung in the balance as we contemplated our next move from the relative calm of Nashville. Suddenly, the prediction for Gatlinburg improved—occasional showers. We decided to go ahead with the original plan.

My wife’s cousin and her husband, whom I’ll collectively call JnJ, met us in Gatlinburg. Wonderful for us because, having taken many a hike in the Smokies, they took us to several of their favorite spots.

Clingmans Dome

At 6643ft, the highest point in the Smokies (and Tennessee) is Clingmans Dome. You can hike to it as part of the Appalachian Trail or from other trails within the park. For most people, it’s a “mere” half-mile from a parking lot. JnJ warned us that it’s not a sure bet to get a clear view of the surrounding area from Clingmans, which frequently is shrouded in the blue mist or fog for which the Smokies are famous. The afternoon that we went was no exception. The mist got heavier as we climbed higher. That wasn’t the only obstacle. I quickly got winded along the way, because of the high altitude and punishing grade (average 13%). The 45-foot observation tower at the summit is reached by a curving ramp that describes a giant arc. It straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Unfortunately, what surely is visible is the severe ecological damage done to Fraser firs by a non-native insect (balsam woolly adelgid). It’s hard to miss the trees’ ghostly remains.

Observation tower, Clingman's Dome

Observation tower, Clingmans Dome

On the way down, there was enough of a clearing through the fog for a brilliant sunset, framed by the distant mountains and clouds.

Sunset, Clingmans Dome trail

Sunset, Clingmans Dome trail

Laurel Falls Trail

The most popular hike in the park is the Laurel Falls Trail. It’s so popular that the chance of finding a parking space in the trailhead lot will be almost impossible if you don’t arrive by mid-morning. Paved though uneven over its 1¼-mile distance, the trail is accessible for most anyone. Along the way, the last of the season’s wildflowers were in bloom— purple asters and gentians. The big payoff is arguably the park’s most beautiful waterfall, Laurel Falls. Lots of other people were already there when we arrived. Like us, they were admiring the upper part of the falls. The waters tumble over a broad rocky terrace into a wide pool that, on the other side of a foot bridge, drains over a ledge to become the fall’s lower portion.

Wild aster

Purple aster

Purple gentian


Fall color

Fall color

Laurel Falls

Laurel Falls

Little River Trail

The best was saved for last. Another of JnJ’s favorite hikes is the Little River Trail, near the Elkmont campground. It first passes by long-vacated resort cottages. Because of their deterioration, they’re currently off limits to the public. The Park Service plans to restore them at some point.

Shuttered cottage near the Little River Trail parking lot

Shuttered cottage near the Little River Trail parking lot

The trail parallels the Little River for roughly 5.5 miles. The course is flat and wide over quite a distance, making for an extremely easy walk. Because of the sheer number of boulders in the river, there is an endless number of whitewater activity, pools and mini-waterfalls. We saw two men fly-fishing in the river. Even if peak wildflower season had long gone, the trail was gorgeous nonetheless, passing through magnificent stands of hardwood trees, the silence only interrupted by babbling river sounds and our own conversations.

A wide gravel path parallels Little River

A wide gravel path parallels Little River

Filtered light in this or any forest is mysterious, almost mystical. There is a solitude and quiet here removed from the bustle of nearby Gatlinburg.

Hardwood forest

Forest mystery and beauty


Poplar canopy

We made it to Huskey Branch Falls before turning back. The vantage point in the image below required clambering uphill from the trail over very slippery rocks. I lost my footing partway up and have lacerations on my arm as reward.


Huskey Branch Falls


Karstic Treasure: Mammoth Cave National Park (Mammoth Cave, KY)

Although our travel plans were going to be largely confined to Tennessee, how could my wife and I not pass up Mammoth Cave National Park in South Central Kentucky? The first I ever heard of it was during a nature program on PBS, described as the largest cave system in the world. Its size is so immense that it would still be larger than the next two largest systems combined by 100 miles.

Odd that the name uses the grammatical singular when in fact Mammoth Cave is comprised of many interconnected spaces in the limestone: sink holes, tubes, passageways, canyons, shafts, fissures as well as caves. This combination of limestone and excavation is characteristic of karst. A geology map shows that almost a quarter of Kentucky is karstic.

Mammoth was our first overnight stop after picking up a car at Nashville Airport and driving two hours north. The park is surrounded by the famous rolling hills of Kentucky. As we got closer, the road cuts in some areas bared telltale limestone layers. The soil has a rusty-reddish color.

We checked in to the Mammoth Cave Hotel, located within the national park boundary. Our accommodation was a standalone cabin, one of ten that form an arc along the property’s edge, which was rustic but comfortable. The hotel was undergoing an extensive renovation and construction until November, so the main building and eating facilities were closed behind chain-link fencing, except for the outlying cabins. In the evening, there was the musical thrum of cicadas and tree frogs. The park’s visitors center is only a short walking distance away.

On our only full day here, we wanted to maximize our cave experience. To that end we decided to take the longest tour called Grand Avenue tour. At almost 400 surveyed miles and counting, Mammoth was not going to feel as if we had trod on it at all. We had a terrific guide in ranger Rick Thomas, who was so knowledgeable about the cave and its history, told interesting stories and cracked bad jokes (“There’s nothing lower than cave humor,” he said proudly). As a federal employee, he was obliged to forewarn everyone on the tour, all 69 of us, that the fast-paced walk of roughly four hours, four miles and almost 700 steps over uneven terrain would be taxing. He also had to mention that in an emergency, it would take a very long time to get anyone to a hospital. No one budged. The last time my wife and I were ‘intimidated’ by a park employee (the Fiery Furnace walk at Arches National Park), we to this day regretted having changed our minds. Not this time.

The usual speleotherms of stalactites, stalagmites and such, of wet cave environments were scarce, but there were plenty of gypsum accumulations (in the form of blisters and flowers) typical of dry caves, compliments of a hard layer of sandstone that acts like an almost impervious cap over the limestone underneath. These gypsum deposits are unimaginably slow growing at a rate of a dime’s thickness per century. One impressive example is Last Rose of Summer along Cleveland Avenue. There are prolific gypsum blisters in The Snowball Room, because they look like snowballs on the ceilings and walls.

Last Rose of Summer on Cleveland Avenue

Last Rose of Summer on Cleveland Avenue

Snowball Room

Snowball Room

The long tour passage was the result of underground streams and rivers that have long since drained into the Green River, which over a period of time has carved ever deeper into the limestone layers, leaving the upper limestone layers dry. Parts of the tour were like walking through a long elliptical tunnel, sometimes bordered by smooth walls or flat ceilings, other times littered with limestone fragments, including huge slabs lying at oblique angles. Other sections were like underground slot canyons, at several points narrow enough that you had to angle your body to get through, an experience not unlike in the Southwest. We had to walk single-file for roughly a mile. There were also cavernous rooms where the group could gather around Ranger Rick to hear another story or lecture. At tour’s end, we got to see the spectacular Frozen Niagara, an unbelievable mass of flowstone deposits that require a steep descent of some forty stairs to see top to bottom. Looking up from the pit gives you a view of why this area was so named. It looks like frozen water cascading over an enormous U-shaped ledge (top image).

Ranger Rick delivering one of his talks

Ranger Rick delivering one of his talks


An elaborate stairway and ramp system winds around Frozen Niagara

An elaborate stairway and ramp system winds around Frozen Niagara

As it turned out, the tour really was exhausting like Rick warned. We were bushed by its end, but what an experience!

Mammoth Cave National Park
1 Mammoth Cave Pkwy
Mammoth Cave, KY 42259
270. 758.2180

Douglas Fir Burl (Mount Rainier National Park)

Along the Grove of the Patriarchs in Mount Rainier National Park, there is a fallen old growth Douglas Fir that is easily hundreds of years old. To me, its most remarkable characteristic is a fantastic burl that looks very much like a bubbling mud pool.

Chain of Craters Road, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (Big Island, HI)

Its history convulsed by vulcanism, the Big Island is basically a giant lava rock. It reveals its ancient past and continuing growth everywhere you look. At one-third of a million acres, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is home to two volcanoes which can both claim Guinness Book statistics. Mauna Loa is Earth’s most massive; Kilauea is the youngest (and one of Earth’s most active). While Mauna Kea at the Big Island’s north end is dormant, these two are still active, sometimes threatening human property (and lives) with lava flows.

I was attracted to Hawai’i as much as any visitor trying to get a glimpse of Earth’s restless energy. These days it isn’t possible to see active lava other than by air, a fact that helicopter and small plane tour companies have capitalized on by charging high prices. Still, I seriously considered taking a copter ride, but the timing never worked out during our brief stay in Hilo. For now, there is no lava pouring into a boiling sea, sending up stupendous plumes of superheated water into the air .

At the park, my wife and I had time only to take the Chain of Craters Road. Though it’s only 20 miles long, it takes 45 minutes of straight driving from the visitor center to the lot near the literal end of the road on the Puna coast. But, there is much to see along the way, including several craters that you can drive up to. There are reminders, like vast fields of hardened lava, that what used to be verdant forest can disappear under lava’s relentless, incendiary march.

The most extraordinary crater vista is the one above Kilauea Iki. The view from the main overlook is not the best. There is a much better (and smaller) one, unobstructed by trees, a short distance up the trail that leads to Thurston Lava Tube. In 1959, there were multiple eruptions in Kilauea Iki that filled the deeper, older crater with a lake of hot lava, several hundred feet deep, that eventually drained partially through vents back into the magma chamber to form the solidified floor that you see today. From the overlook, we could make out tiny figures of hikers making their way over the trail that goes through the middle of the crater. The area from where the eruptions spewed is now an enormous cinder and spatter cone (called Pu‘u Pua‘i). Other viewable craters include Mauna Ulu and Kealakomo.

kilauea iki

Kilauea Iki (click to enlarge). Pu‘u Pua‘i stands over the crater’s edge, Kilauea smokes in the distance, Mauna Loa sits on the horizon.

A short distance from the Kilauea Iki overlook is Thurston Lava Tube, one of countless many tubes that riddle the land. Walking through it is disquieting when you realize that only 500 years ago, there was a river of hot lava rushing over the very ground you’re standing on. The attraction is well-lighted and the ground above is surrounded by rain forest.

Thurston Lava Tube

Thurston Lava Tube

Along stretches of the road are vast fields of previous lava flows, as late as 1974. It’s a strange juxtaposition of untamed nature and modern civilization when you see jumbles of basalt next to paved highway. You can get out of your car and within feet, clamber over craggy pahoepahoe and a’a. These fields would be dead ringers for surfaces on a lifeless planet if it weren’t for little pockets of vegetation that have sprung up.

Before reaching the Puna coast, the road passes the Holei Pali (cliffs). An overlook faces the ocean and the broad beach below that reveals wide swaths of hardened lava flows. You can make them out as patterns darkening the lowlands. It must’ve been quite a spectacle to see hot lava spilling over these escarpments into the sea.

lava out to sea

Lava spilled over Holei Pali out to sea (click to enlarge)

From this overlook, the road switches back and descends toward the beach. As you get closer to the lava fields, they appear to be oil-slicked.

lava on beach

(Click to enlarge)

Chain of Craters Road ends at a parking lot. Nearby is the much-photographed Holei Sea Arch, a testament to the power of water to erode lava rock. Cars can go no further beyond this point.


Holei Sea Arch

The road continues though it can only be traversed by foot. About a mile and a half beyond the restrooms and concession stand, you reach the “end of the road.” In 2003, a lava flow covered a ten-mile section. A “road closed” sign is left to stand where it was inundated as a reminder that nature observes no human barriers.

"End of the road" (click to enlarge)

“End of the road”. Note the sign. (Click to enlarge)


Grand Teton Reverie

I’ve already posted remarkable collision photographs taken by Jim Brandt, who happens to be the husband of my wife’s cousin. Last month, he and his wife visited Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Any camera hound knows that these places offer infinite photographic possibilities. Among Jim’s photographs, I selected one that for me captures the essence and majesty of the Teton range. Even if the mountains have been photographed zillions of times, this particular image is remarkable because of the dramatic interplay between the rising sun and exquisite cloud formations with the meandering Snake River providing an interesting contrast to the jagged peaks. Jim remarked to me once that he loves clouds. I can certainly see his point.

grand tetons

Quick Trip through Lassen National Park

If it hadn’t been for a comment made by my son-in-law, I might never have considered going to this national park in Northern California. He said that it was underrated and that it deserved to be visited by more people. I can understand his opinion because as a geologist, the park is a showcase for the volcanic upheavals that have wracked the Pacific Northwest, caused by the subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate under the North America plate. For vulcanologists, the park has within its boundaries all four major types of volcanoes. As if these weren’t enough, there are Yellowstone-like hydrothermal attractions, such as mudpots, fumaroles, hot springs and boiling pools. Highway 89 is the main driving route through the park with northern and southern access points.

We were originally going to visit the park yesterday, but the stiff winds and overcast conditions were enough for us to postpone the excursion until today. The sky in the morning was partially sunny with puffy clouds, so we exited I-5 at Red Bluff and took Highway 36 eastward for 50 miles to the park entrance. Much of the southern portion of Hwy 89 is surrounded by terrain littered with boulders from an immense flood created by an eruption that sent millions of gallons of instantly melted ice and debris to this portion of the park. From various clearings along this route, we could get a peak of Brokeoff Mountain, a remnant of ancient Mount Tehama.

Brokeoff Moutain from the southern approach on Hwy 89

Brokeoff Moutain from the southern approach on Hwy 89

Before long, the highway ascended in elevation and the fog started getting thicker. We would find that almost the entire section of the paved highway was shrouded in cloud cover, making it hard to see beyond 20 feet in some areas.

Fog made it difficult to see very far

Fog made it difficult to see very far

If it weren’t for the fact that the Sulphur Works viewpoint was close to the road, we would not have seen any of the hydrothermal features. The odor of hydrogen sulfide gas was very strong.

Boiling pool at Sulphur Works

Boiling pool at Sulphur Works

For the reason above and muddy conditions, we abandoned plans to hike the trail at Bumpass Hell, along which are the park’s most accessible fumaroles of venting gas and steam, reminders that the ground underneath is close to hot magma.

It wasn’t until we rounded Hwy 89 along the northern route that the sky became clear of fog. We stopped at Hot Rock, from where we could get a partial good look at Lassen Peak, still largely covered by cloud. An easy trail looped through part of the vast area that was devastated by the last eruptions of Lassen in 1915. The first explosion sent a lahar (mudflow of volcanic debris) down the mountainside that covered the ground on which we were standing. The second, only days after the first, was even bigger than the first, sending an ash cloud 30,000 ft into the air. Strewn along the footpath were giant boulders that were torn from the mountain and carried here.

Lassen Peak from Hot Rock parking area

Lassen Peak from Hot Rock parking area

Red dacite boulder carried here by a pyroclastic flow from Lassen Peak

Red dacite boulder carried here by a pyroclastic flow from Lassen Peak

All we managed to do was to take a drive through the park, knowing full well that we wouldn’t do it justice. What we saw convinced us to make a special trip back here in combination with stops along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway.