Did you know Sequoia National Park hosts an extensive cave system? There’s much more to this beloved national park than gigantic trees.
From the colonization and logging-prevention legacy that founded the park, to the indigenous peoples who have called this land home for thousands of years, Sequoia National Park holds some of the most fascinating facts and history in America.
If you’re just beginning your Sequoia adventure, this is a great place to start. Located in California’s southern Sierra Nevada mountains, the national park is actually a partnership of multiple National Park Service (NPS) sites. Here, you’ll find everything from the world’s largest tree, the General Sherman Tree of the Giant Forest, to the underground Crystal Cave and monumental granite dome, Moro Rock. Each holds absolutely fascinating history, which we’ll get into as we break down the Top 10 Things to Know About Sequoia National Park below.
First up, it’s important to explore the story behind Sequoia’s most recognizable manmade structure.
10. The Legacy of Sequoia’s Antique Welcome Sign
Carved by a Great Depression-era worker, George Muno, Sequoia National Park’s iconic 4-foot by 10-foot sign was made from a slab of a fallen sequoia tree that could be well over 2,000-years-old. But the most distinctive feature of the sign is the troubling depiction of an Indigenous American.
When Muno carved the sign in 1935, his inspiration came from a previous, smaller park sign also featuring a similar stereotype. On the record, both signs were meant to honor Sequoyah: the famous scholar of Cherokee origin and inventor of his language’s alphabet. His legacy, too, is thought to be the namesake for the Sequoia trees, and the national park as a result.
But neither sign’s facial carving looks anything like Sequoyah. Nor the Indigenous Peoples of California where the park resides. Instead, it features a perpetuated stereotype of the “Great Plains American Indian.”
Many ask why the sign continues to welcome visitors upon arriving to the park. As NPS states, “It reminds us of the challenges and beneﬁts, cultures and crafts, people and resources that contribute to who we are as a nation.”
9. Sequoia is a Joint National Park with Multiple Sites
Look up information on NPS’s official Sequoia website, and you’ll notice quickly that the park isn’t a lone entity. In fact, Sequoia National Park is managed jointly with Kings Canyon National Park by the Department of the Interior (DOI). Together, these parks protect a whopping 865,964 acres, 808,078 acres of which are pure wilderness.
Originally, General Grant National Park was established to protect the sequoias of General Grant Grove just one week after Sequoia was created in 1890. 50 years later, in 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a new national park called Kings Canyon alongside Congress. This new park incorporated the area of General Grant National Park with the incredible canyons and high Sierra, spreading the boundary eastward.
From that time forward, the parks are managed jointly as Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park.
8. Sequoia National Park Houses the Tallest Mountain in the Lower 48 States
Sequoia’s not just home to gigantic trees, but the tallest mountain in the lower 48, too. With a staggering elevation of 14,494 feet, Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. The peak soars above the eastern border of Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest.
Unfortunately, the Great Western Divide (and it’s monumental ridge) blocks visitors from viewing Mt. Whitney from Sequoia’s western roads. To see this towering peak, head to the Interagency Visitor Center on Highway 395. Or, get read for the ultimate adventure and hike Sequoia’s trails leading to Mt. Whitney.
7. Sequoia Trees are Bigger than You Think They Are
Fascinatingly, the largest tree in the world by volume resides in Sequoia National Park. This may seem less-impressive than being the “world’s tallest tree,” but reserve judgement until you see this wonder for yourself. And that wonder is the General Sherman Tree.
General Sherman stands a staggering 275-feet tall, and he’s over 36-feet wide. It takes a long time to get this big, too. Park officials estimate the General to be at least 2,200-years-old.
Giant Sequoia trees can live over 3,000 years, too, so the General isn’t going anywhere anytime soon if the park has anything to say about it. As devastating wildfires become more common, NPS is taking every measure possible to protect General Sherman (above) and his fellow sequoias from annihilation. Thankfully, an incredible chemical in their bark, tannin, defends these giant trees against fire, rotting, and insects naturally.
6. Sequoia is the First Park Founded to Protect an Organism
After European colonists expanded and discovered giant sequoia trees, a desire to harvest them for wood endangered the entire species. Thankfully, the U.S. Government established Sequoia National Park in 1890 solely to protect the trees from logging. This makes it the very first park created specifically to protect a living organism.
Giant sequoia trees are only found in the western Sierra’s unique environment at 5,000-8,000-ft. This elevation hosts relatively mild winters and also allows for natural wildfires that are, believe it or not, crucial to the species’ survival.
5. Wildfires have Become the Park’s Top Concern
Wildfires are a part of nature. And natural, low low-intensity fires are exactly what allow sequoia cones to open and drop their seeds into fresh ash bed to begin the next generation.
Fire management and prescribed burns began in Sequoia National Park in the 1960s. But as climate change and years of drought push wildfires to burn bigger and hotter, many of the worlds largest (and oldest) trees have been killed. A typical giant sequoia will have survived countless wildfires throughout their lifespans. But the modern, drastic increase in fire intensity can now kill them. In fact, a single wildfire – the Castle Fire – destroyed 14% of all the worlds giant sequoias in 2020.
By 2022’s start, that percentage would rise to nearly 20%.
4. Sequoia National Park’s Subterranean Wonderland
The marvels of Sequoia and Kings Canyon are just as abundant below the surface. Chiefly, Sequoia’s Crystal Cave, a marble cavern with gorgeous formations, is the one cave visitors can access via a half-mile loop trail.
Crystal Cave’s formations are fragile, so the national park’s guided tour is the only way to see it. But once you do, you’ll be glad you did. If you decide to visit, plan on spending about half a day to travel to the cave and complete the 50-minute tour.
*Please note that due to impacts from the KNP Complex Fire to the road and trail, Crystal Cave is closing for the 2022 season. Sequoia National Park looks forward to welcoming you back in 2023 when repairs finish!
3. Over 800 Miles of Trails Wind Through Sequoia
Want to see some of California’s finest wonders? Sequoia National Park makes this possible with over 800 miles of trails available to the public. Walk beneath the famous sequoias, traverse sheer cliffs, river canyons and rocky mountain passes, and hike to your heart’s desire throughout the Sierra ecosystem.
Sequoia’s most famous trial is the John Muir Trail. This 221-mile trail stretches all the way from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney. Complete the entirety of this hike and you’ll have traveled all of Kings Canyon and Sequoia.
To hike the park, staff recommend July to September, when the weather is sunny and dry. Check out the parks’ guide to some of the other fantastic trails here.
2. This is the Homeland of the Mono (Monache), Yokuts, Tübatulabal, Paiute, Western Shoshone, and More Indigenous Peoples
Few landscapes are as unique, or geologically isolated, as the Sierra. This uniqueness is one of many reasons why Indigenous Peoples of America have held these lands in such high esteem.
For thousands of years, Indigenous Americans have “used, tended, occupied, and valued the lands of the high Sierras in many ways,” NPS states. Despite the horrors of colonization, this never ended, either. Indigenous peoples maintain deep connections to the park lands today.
“The displacement and often forced relocation and reorganization of Native peoples have much affected their relationships with lands in the parks, with the National Park Service itself, and with one another,” Sequoia National Park continues. “Nonetheless, these tribes all have numerous descendants living today who continue to steward and tend to the lands now within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.”
1. Sequoia National Park Is America’s Second-Oldest National Park
Want to find the second and third oldest U.S. National Parks? Head to California. The state’s Sierra Nevada mountain range contains the oldest NPS sites outside of the world’s first, Yellowstone National Park.
Specifically, Sequoia National Park came to be on September 25, 1890. President Benjamin Harrison signed the park into existence 18 years after Yellowstone. Harrison did so after the works of John Muir (above) inspired the “great expansion” of America’s national parks. This, and many other things, would earn Muir the moniker: “Father of National Parks.”
By 1940, Sequoia would include Kings Canyon National Park, and the rest, as you’ve learned, is history.
For more on our great National Park Service, head to An Outsider’s Quick History of the National Park Service next.