I ride along the 32-mile trail up to Glacier Point as the sun is rising over the range. The scene is overwhelming, with a birdís eye view of the panoramic expanse. Atop a 3,200-foot sheer cliff I sit on the edge of the valley and soak in the sights. Yosemite Falls are dry this time of year, but smoke from park management fires drifts across the face of Half Dome and gives the landscape an eerie stillness. I grew up on Anselís book "Yosemite and The Range of Light", always there on our living room coffee table, and now Iím actually seeing what he saw. Iím standing here at the edge of this beautiful truth.
A few hours from Yosemite, to the south, lie Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The areas protect the Big Trees in Giant Forest, and also contain the Mineral King Valley and Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states at 14,494 feet. Giant sequoias, the largest living things on earth, grow here, only on the western slope of the Sierras. There are 75 giant sequoia groves along the range, between 5,000 and 7,000 feet of elevation, and only 8 groves are north of these parks. The Redwood Mountain Grove in Kings Canyon is the largest grove of the largest living things in the world. The size and the age of the trees are hard to comprehend, reaching hundreds of feet and crossing centuries of time.
Just past the Lodgepole Visitor Center is the Giant Forest and the General Sherman Tree, the largest living thing on the face of the earth. Named after the famous Civil War General, the tree stands unchallenged in sheer size by volume. Itís not the tallest and not the biggest around, nor is it the oldest, but put it all together and nothing can match it. The General Sherman is estimated to be 2300 to 2700 years old. Itís 275 feet high, 102.6 feet around the base, and weighs 1,385 tons. The volume of the trunk is 52,500 cubic feet.
The General Sherman is as tall as a 27-story building. A 6 foot person could lie crosswise on the largest limb of the tree and not be seen from the ground. When it started growing, the Roman Empire was just beginning and when it was 2,000 years old, Columbus discovered the New World. And every year the tree grows 500 board feet in girth. This is equivalent to a tree growing from ground level to 50 feet in height and 1 foot in diameter, in one year! The presence is just incomprehensible. Even standing besides these behemoths, it is hard to comprehend them.
I walk for an hour and a half along the Congress Trail, a two-mile loop though the Giant Forest. Iím an insect among these mammoth beings, dwarfed by the giant sequoia groves. The stillness and quiet of the woods is immensely peaceful and soothing. The winds are hundreds of feet above my head, so there is nothing to disturb the forest floor. I only see four other people along the entire length of the trail.
The roads today have been incredibly windy. Iíve been riding switchbacks all day, for almost seven hours. By the time I get out of the mountains, itís getting dark and Iím exhausted. I reach Visalia, pull off the highway, and stop at the first motel I see: a Best Western near Main Street. The tent last night didnít exactly provide a good nightís sleep. Iím ready for a room with some walls, and a good rest.
There are fires burning all over Yosemite and down into Sequoia Park. Driving along the roads covered in smoke makes for some interesting riding, as a thick haze covers the pavement. The sunlight streams in angled columns, splintering through the trees. And the smoke makes me choke and cough, as Iíve got nowhere to hide. In a car, you can close the windows and have enough air to breathe until you get through. On a bike youíve only got your next breath. I try to hold it, until the haze clears, but Iíll never make it around that next turn. I know this is good for the trees, but get me out of here, fast!
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