Sequoia National Park

Driving Through America’s Southwest – Day 8,9

Southwest Trip: Day Eight – Sequoia National Park

The California leg of our southwest driving trip kicked off with a visit to Sequoia National Park. Since I have never been to the park before, I was excited in anticipation of facing and photographing the forest’s iconic giants.

We woke up before sunrise in the eastern Sierra and were ready to take the 200km drive to the western slopes of the Sierra Mountains that is home to the Sequoia National Park.

We had two driving options. We could take the freeway and drive around the mountains through the desert or we could drive smaller roads through the mountains and face multiple high mountain passes. You can guess which option I chose. Of course, we took the rollercoaster drive instead of the boring desert road. But, since my wife is afraid of heights, I had to convince her with the promise of unforgettable views.

It was a beautiful sunny morning and nothing suggested trouble ahead.

Eastern Sierra

During the first hour, we drove down the narrow, empty roads that took us through a series of small valleys where we saw California’s famous and picturesque farmlands.

Farmlands of California

We stopped for a quick coffee break on the shore of Lake Isabella. The weather was beautiful, exactly what you would expect in California at the end of May.

Isabella Lake is located at an altitude of 800m

That all changed when we started climbing up the first mountain crossing and reached an altitude of 1200m. We realized that trouble was ahead of us since the top of the Sierra Mountains was covered with thick, dark, and rainy clouds.

Driving up to Sierra mountains

When we reached the crossing at around 2000m altitude, we were already driving in a thick, milky substance with zero visibility. It was cold, wet, and slippery. I kept our speed at a maximum of 20km/h to ensure our safety. 

Related: Capturing Horseshoe Bend (Arizona)

It was the same pattern for the rest of the drive. When the road dipped below 1200m, we enjoyed warm and sunny weather with beautiful mountain landscapes surrounding us. But as soon as the road climbed to a higher altitude, we had a submarine-like experience where we could only see up to 10 meters ahead of us.

The solution was obvious—if we could spend the next two days at a lower altitude, we would enjoy great weather and avoid the cold and rain. But guess what? The sequoias grow at altitudes between 1500m and 2500m. To see them firsthand, we had no choice but to deal with the wet milky substance and cold weather.

Fortunately, we had a bit of luck on our side.

It was the week of Memorial Weekend and I could not find an opening at any of the campgrounds across the Sequoia National Park. I had to settle for a campsite further away from the park, which happened to be at a lower altitude. This meant that we spent our nights in warmer, dryer weather and drove up and into the mountains during the day.

Related: Big Sur Coastal Road Trip

Had I reserved a campsite in the park’s main territory, the experience would have been truly miserable.

Even though my exposure to the Sequoia National Park was limited due to poor visibility and the opportunities for photos were minimal, it was still an unforgettable adventure. I thought I knew what to expect since I have read all about sequoia trees and seen countless photos of them since childhood. But their size and grandeur exceeded all my expectations.

I will definitely return to the park and hope to have better luck next time.

Tunnel through the tree
C​resent Meadow in Sequoia National Park
Cresent Meadow in Sequoia National Park
Fallen giant
Aiming high

Unexpected Adventure

While discovering the Sequoia National Park, we found ourselves on a remote and deserted area where we met two unlucky hikers. They spent four days backpacking in the mountains only to end their trip on a bad note when they reached their car and could not find their keys.

Related: Driving Cottonwood Canyon Dirt Road

We offered them a lift to the closest phone where they could call for help. After we dropped them off at the visitor’s center, we drove straight to our next destination—the King’s Canyon. In the middle of our drive, we realized that one of the unlucky hikers left his backpack in the backseat of our car. We drove all the way back to the visitor’s center where the unlucky hiker was waiting patiently for our return.

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by Viktor Elizarov
I am a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada, and a founder of PhotoTraces. I travel around the world and share my experiences here. Feel free to check my Travel Portfolio and download Free Lightroom Presets.