The Payne family is an outdoorsy people. I grew up in the country, in a house with a giant yard surrounded by woods, reading Ranger Rick magazine. I couldn’t see our nearest neighbor’s houses through the trees and there were no sidewalks for miles. My favorite hiking spot was (and probably still is) directly behind my parents’ house – an area of forest cut by logging roads that was once supposedly a park in the early 1900s called Little Rock City Park because of the presence of large glacial deposits sprinkled among the ferns and trees. All of our family vacations growing up consisted of camping out at a nearby state park. We’d be there for weekends in the spring and fall and weeks in the summer – hiking, biking, canoeing, playing tennis, roasting marshmallows over campfires, catching crayfish in cups in the creek, getting into mischief with our cousins, climbing trees to pick apples, handfeeding peanuts to chipmunks, chasing geese, roaming free….
I read a lot as a kid, probably because I did live in the country without a lot of noise or other kids or distractions around, and also because we only had two TV channels until I was a pre-teen. The other kids at school would mimic Steve Urkel, and I’d mostly just sit there wondering what the hell they were talking about (and not caring much). I mostly read fiction, but I was also always so incredibly interested in learning about the world – especially the animals and ecosystems of the world – so I read and read about that too. And it made me want to see it.
My dad, though a homebody himself who hasn’t traveled much, talked a great deal when we were kids about the amazing places out there in the world – specifically the national parks out west. One year, I even convinced him to sign an agreement saying he would take us on a family vacation to Yellowstone. We never did go (though I took myself in my 20s) for one reason or another, but I always had it in the back of my mind that it was a dream of his. So this year, as he turned 59 (I mean uh, 39?) and our typical family beach vacation was cancelled due to my brother’s wedding, I told him it was high-time he finally went west. I told him to pick a park and I would do all the planning, and he could finally see a piece of the world that he’s been talking about for the last 25 years. I expected him to pick Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, but out of left field, he picked Sequoia National Park, one I probably wouldn’t have even thought of myself. So this past week, we went and spent five days together in the Golden State.
Sequoia National Park is about four hours northeast of Los Angeles, so we flew into LA on Thursday night and drove up to Sequoia on Friday morning. We drove through desert most of the way there, with dusty mountains occasionally dotting the horizon and sporadic patches of contrasting green citrus farms decorating an otherwise very beige drive. Once we entered the park, through the Foothills entrance, we had about an hour drive on a winding mountain road, where we passed from hot, dry desert to spectacular forest filled with some of the largest, most beautiful trees I’d ever seen. By volume, giant sequoias are the biggest trees in the world, and the biggest among them are thousands of years old. And they are BEAUTIFUL!
The first night, we stayed at the park’s most popular (and busy) campground, Lodgepole. We had a few hours left in the day, so decided to set up camp and head out on a hike that left from the campground to Topokah Falls. Though there was no sign of the giant trees on the hike, it was a great introduction to the local landscape. It was about 3.5 miles roundtrip, and the first half was a slow, easy decline up a mountainside. We passed through green, mossy forest, meadows full of wildflowers and, finally, through rock beds to arrive at the waterfall (which was actually not much of a waterfall this time of year). We took in the view and headed back to camp to rest up for the next day’s activities.
Over the next couple of days, we strolled through sequoia-filled forests, packed our food in bear boxes (apparently black bears are a frequent nuisance in the park), went on a tour of Crystal Cave (which has the most wild rock formations inside), almost got lost on our way to check out the world’s biggest tree (the General Sherman Tree) (my dad did not have faith in my navigating abilities – which did NOT get us lost, by the way), ate way too many goodies (pastries for breakfast, pie for lunch!), moved to the Sunset Campground (which as the name suggests, has the most gorgeous sunsets) (and also had bear tracks coming up the hill behind our campsite – yikes!), went horseback riding (and learned the guides frequently see rattlesnakes, mountain lions and bears), played Yahtzee and Euchre (of course) and even showered once (hehe). During the time we were there, the Perseid meteor shower was peaking, so at night, our eyes turned to the sky. I saw the most spectacular shooting star of my life while we were at Sunset Campground. It was completely unexpected. I was sitting at the campfire talking to my dad, who was facing the other direction, and it wasn’t even fully dark out yet. The sun had set and the color was fading from the sky. Suddenly, this bright, white, sparkling light shot through the sky, leaving a tail behind that looked like it went on for miles. I’ve seen a few shooting stars in my life, but never anything even close to this one. It was seriously one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my life. You better believe I made a wish on that star! 😉
As you may or may not know, Sequoia National Park is actually connected to the Sequoia National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park. So our last two nights, we stayed at the Hume Lake campground in the Sequoia National Forest (which is en route to Kings Canyon National Park). As the name suggests, the campground is right next to a lake! I love swimming and watersports of all kinds, so this was strategically planned. Though I looked into hikes in Kings Canyon before the trip, I really did not know anything about the area before going. A friend of mine had messaged me to tell me it’s amazing, but I didn’t quite know what to expect (and wanted to be surprised). OH, I was surprised! Sequoia was beautiful, but overcrowded and busy with tourists. Kings Canyon was one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever been, and it was nearly empty. There is no way in or out of Kings Canyon except through one winding road (where we drove on singing along to John Denver, the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac) through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. You go in and out the same way, on the same road. I imagine this deters people from going, and its beauty must be an incredibly well-kept secret. I can’t even begin to explain to you the beauty of the place. We hiked about six miles on a dusty trail along the river, through meadows, piles of fallen rocks, green forests and burnt forests (due to forest fires) to a waterfall, where I went for a dip in a natural pool. Afterward, we bought ice cream and went swimming in Hume Lake. It was my favorite day of the trip. Kings Canyon was just such an amazing surprise. It made me wonder why I don’t live in California (seriously)!
I asked my dad what his favorite part of the trip was, and he said he couldn’t decide. He loved seeing the big trees, but Kings Canyon was “the icing on the cake.” He said he’d love to take the whole family back one day (though I’d love to convince him to go to another park and see more amazing sites instead). On our way back to catch our flights, we stopped at Venice Beach in LA so he could see the Pacific Ocean for the first time (and because hello! I love the beach). I feel so lucky that I could go on this trip with him and finally get him out west. Even if I did have to go to work after catching a redeye back to the East Coast.