Sequoia giganteum. Sierra redwoods. California big trees. Lie at the base of one of these forest giants, staring up at the massive expanse of cinnamon-red bark, and consider John Muir's introduction to the stately sequoias: "When I entered this sublime wilderness, the day was nearly done, the trees with rosy, glowing countenances seemed to be hushed and thoughtful and one naturally walked softly and awestricken among them."
Explore Redwood Meadow
To re-create Muir's emotional experience, head for Sequoia National Park in the southern Sierra. Deep in the park's backcountry, at Redwood Meadow, you can still experience the big trees as Muir did—in the wilderness, full of wonder, without the carloads of camera-wielding tourists.
Established in 1890, Sequoia is the nation's second-oldest national park (managed jointly with adjacent Kings Canyon National Park) and encompasses 628 square miles of superlative Sierra scenery. The highest mountain in the Lower 48 (Whitney), deepest canyon in the United States (Kings), and biggest trees in the world (sequoia) all lie within the parks' boundaries. Most backpackers zero in on the first two, which means you can walk slack-jawed among the sequoias as everyone else waits in line for permits.
The most direct route to Redwood Meadow is a 13-mile trail along the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. It starts low (3,300 feet) and ascends gradually past oaks and chaparral, sneaks up into the shade of sugar pine and incense-cedar, then pops through an invisible door at 6,000 feet into a towering grove of se-quoia. On the way, it skirts the sheer-sided Kaweah River Gorge and serves up endless views of the 12,000-foot crest of the Great Western Divide. Snow-encrusted Eagle Scout Peak and Lippincott Mountain loom over the Kaweah's headwaters, a pleasant reminder of where you're heading as you toil through the initial miles of manzanita and buck brush.
Visit Sequoia National Park
DRIVE TIME: Sequoia National Park is about 230 miles from both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Allow 5 hours to reach the trailhead.
THE WAY: Exit CA 99 at Visalia and drive east on CA 198 for 40 miles to the park entrance. Admission is $10 per car. Inside the park, stop at the Foothills Visitor Center to pick up a free, but required, wilderness permit, then continue for 6 miles to the signed road for Buckeye Campground. Turn right (east) and continue a half-mile to the signed fork. Stay left and drive a mile to the Middle Fork trailhead.
TRAILS: The Middle Fork Trail is the least crowded of the routes to Redwood Meadow, due mainly to its low-elevation start. It's 13 miles one-way and best hiked in spring and fall. To reach the Sierra high country from Redwood Meadow, take the High Sierra Trail east through Bearpaw Meadow to Hamilton Lakes, Precipice Lake, and 10,700-foot Kaweah Gap. Or head south along Cliff Creek and over 11,600-foot Black Rock Pass. Both destinations can be reached in a day. The hikes to these passes are arduous.
ELEVATION: Ranges from 3,300 feet at the trailhead to just over 6,000 feet at Redwood Meadow.
CAN'T MISS: The granite-balcony campsite and 100-foot waterfall at Panther Creek (3 miles from trailhead), or a sunny afternoon communing with the world's largest trees.
CROWD CONTROL: The Middle Fork in fall is one of the least traveled trails in Sequoia National Park. Still, a quota system is enforced on all park trails year-round, with reservations for permits necessary from mid-May to the last week of September. Reservations are $10 and must be made at least three weeks in advance.
PIT STOP: The town of Three Rivers, on CA 198, located just outside the park's entrance, caters to tired hikers.
WALK SOFTLY: Habituated bears are an ongoing problem-and potential threat-in the Sierra, so rent a bear canister at the visitor center ($3 per day) to safeguard food.
MAPS AND GUIDES: Trails Illustrated's Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is very helpful ($8.99; 800-962-1643). Good trail descriptions and more are found in Exploring the Southern Sierra: West Side, ($17.95; Wilderness Press, 800-443-7227; http://www.wildernesspress.com).
MORE INFORMATION: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Three Rivers, CA 93271; (209) 565-3708; http://www.nps.gov/seki.