I remember visiting Sequoia National Park as a kid, but just barely. My memories are of really big trees and that’s about it. So when I was invited by Visit Visalia to explore Sequoia as an adult, I jumped at the chance. Jason had never been to Sequoia, so he was even more excited than I was.
Time and again I’ve written about traveling off season or during shoulder season (the time between peak and off season). This is typically the time when crowds are minimal and visitors can have a better experience. Prices for local accommodations also tend to be lower off season. We visited Sequoia in March, which is definitely considered off season for this park, and it turns out it’s one of the least visited times of the year. The trade off is winter weather, which we certainly experienced. But as my friends in cold weather climates say--there’s no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing choices.
But by far the best reason to visit Sequoia National Park in winter is the beauty of bright, white snow against the red and rugged Giant Sequoia trees. Scattered in between the Sequoias are pines, cedars, and firs with their prickly green needles. And with few visitors there’s often long periods of total silence resulting in an unbelievably beautiful and peaceful scene.
Driving In Sequoia National Park In Winter
While I grew up in Chicago and spent plenty of time in the snow, I had never driven in the snow prior to our visit to Sequoia National Park. I’m happy to report that all went well. But I’m certain it was our preparation for these driving conditions that prevented any problems, so I encourage everyone else to do the same.
First, if there’s snow on the ground you will be required to have chains to enter the park. As you pay your entrance fee the Park Service Ranger will ask if you have chains. We opted to buy ours before leaving Orange County, but they can be purchased outside the entrance as well.
The National Park Service has a video on their site about safe driving in snowy conditions and I definitely recommend you watch it. If you’ve never put chains on your car I also recommend watching a YouTube video that offers step by step directions.
We own a car that has four wheel drive and all weather tires, so we never needed to put the chains on. Our car also has a snow and ice driving mode, so if you have this, definitely engage it as needed. Sequoia is in the mountains, so on the way down I drove in low gear to reduce the use of my brakes. And finally, I just drove slowly and carefully. You never know when you may hit a patch of ice, so stay alert and be cautious.
Visiting The General Sherman Tree
Our visit began at The General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world by volume. No, it’s not the tallest or the widest, but it has more wood in its trunk than on any tree on Earth. It’s 275 feet tall and approximately 2200 years old. The tree is named for the American Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman. For a brief time it was renamed for Karl Marx by the utopian community, Kaweah Colony. However, when they left, it reverted to the original name.
The General Sherman Tree is about a forty-five minute drive from the park entrance during good weather. In snowy conditions it took us over an hour, but we didn’t mind. We enjoyed the spectacular views along the route and even stopped a couple of times for photos.
Snowshoeing in Sequoia National Park
The highlight of our time in Sequoia was definitely a guided snowshoeing experience. We were met at The General Sherman Tree parking lot by Krista, owner of Sequoia Guides. She had snowshoes ready for us and spent the next two and a half hours leading us along the Congress Trail while sharing stories of the park’s history and regaling us with the life of Sequoias. We had never met someone so passionate about trees and it was oddly infectious.
Here are a few fun facts about Sequoias;
- Each tree has a shallow root system that connects with surrounding Sequoias for support. As a result, to survive they must grow in groves and not individually
- Sequoias regularly survive forest fires. New growth surrounds the burnt portions allowing it to live for centuries
- Sequoias live only on the west slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range (so if you’re fortunate enough to live in California, you really need to visit this park!)
About halfway through our trek we took a break on a large wooden bench and enjoyed hot beverages. Krista came prepared with a thermos of hot water and several beverage options including tea, hot chocolate, and coffee. I had also packed some snacks so Jason wouldn’t have to listen to me complain about being hungry.
As we headed back to the parking lot Krista stopped a few times to point out animal tracks in the snow including rabbits, bobcats, and deer. Our final stop was the “Room Tree”, a Giant Sequoia damaged by fire that was partially hollowed out like a room. We climbed into the “room” and marvelled at the oval shaped hole that looked like a window.
One of the challenges of snowshoeing is knowing where the trail is since you may be venturing out on fresh snow that covers previous tracks. This problem is solved in Sequoia with the placement of yellow triangular shaped signs depicting a pinecone nailed into the trees.
If you are visiting Sequoia during Spring, Summer, or Fall, Krista can lead guided hikes of all lengths and difficulty. She will also customize the experience to accommodate kids and folks with limited mobility.
Hiking in Sequoia National Park in Winter
It’s also possible to hike in Sequoia in the winter, either at lower elevations, or when there is no snow on the ground. You are likely to have the trails to yourself!
Here are a few hikes recommended by Krista;
Crescent Meadow-This 2 miles roundtrip hike allows you to explore the Giant Forest grove of Sequoias. Head towards Tharp's Log, a single Sequoia log cabin, and look for animals and wildflowers in the meadow. On your way to the trailhead, you’ll drive through the famous Tunnel Log.
Tokopah Falls- This 3.4 miles roundtrip hike follows the Kaweah river into a glacially formed valley with towering peaks above on your way to beautiful Tokopah Falls.
Moro Rock-Climb 350 steps to the top of this enormous granite rock for amazing views of California's Great Western Divide and see the Giant Sequoias from above.
Jason and I love hiking, so we will definitely be back to explore more of the trails in Sequoia.
What To Wear In The Winter
It was 25 degrees the day Jason and I visited Sequoia National Park. For my friends in colder climates, I know we sound like wimps, and you’re right, we are. But you do want to come prepared if visiting Sequoia during the winter.
Dress in layers that can be removed if the temperature rises, or you get warm from the exercise of hiking or snowshoeing. Be sure to wear thick, knit hats and gloves. Both Jason and I wore down filled coats, which I highly recommend. I decided to wear ski pants and I’m glad I did--my legs were toasty warm the whole time. My only mistake was wearing hiking boots instead of snow boots. Despite the thick wool socks I wore, my feet were cold the entire time.
My new tip for cold weather is to travel with hand warmers. We purchased several of these recently and are so glad we did. At the last second Jason remembered to toss one in our backpack. About halfway through our snowshoeing adventure my hands were getting seriously cold, so I switched on the hand warmer, and in a few seconds I was much happier.
In case any of your clothing gets wet from the snow, it’s also wise to bring a change of clothes for the car ride out of the park.
Purchase The America The Beautiful Park Pass
If you plan to visit three or more national parks or monuments in one year, be sure to purchase the America The Beautiful Park Pass. It’s available online or at any national park entrance. For just $80 this pass will admit you to over 2,000 federal recreation sites around the country. Jason and I started purchasing this pass two years ago, and love it. Not only do we save money on our park admissions, but we’ve found it also motivates us to visit more parks as well.
Using the National Park Service App
Earlier this year the National Park Service released an app that includes every national park and monument. This is a nice alternative to the many individual apps that were previously available for each park.
For each site the app includes what to see, things to do, where to stay, visitors centers, and much more. Many of the parks have information about accessibility. There are also sections unique to each park. In Sequoia there’s a section called “Notable Sequoias” detailing the best known trees, their stats, history and a map to each location.
If you’d like to use the app, but aren’t sure of cell coverage, there’s an option to save the park’s information for offline use.