If you go down to the woods today...

Trip Start May 07, 2011
Trip End Nov 09, 2011

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Where I stayed
University Inn Fresno
Read my review - 4/5 stars
What I did
Met a bear
Drove through Sequoia national park
Walked amongst giant sequoia trees

Flag of United States  , California
Sunday, May 15, 2011

Today was fantastic! We went to Sequoia national park to see the giant sequoia trees but we were also lucky enough to see a black bear!

The drive into the park is very scenic. The speed limits are very low to prevent bear deaths and at some points are as low as 25 mph. Normally this would be annoying but the views are so good that you just don't mind. In fact, I nearly drove off the edge once whilst staring at the view. The front right tire was only half on the road and the car slid sideways slightly. Lucky the car has four wheel drive.

On the way up we stopped at hospital rock. This is bear country so we put anything that smells like food (to a bear) such as toothpaste, sun cream etc in a steel bear proof container whilst we had a look around. Native americans used to live nearby and they have left some petroglyph paintings behind. There are also holes carved in to the granite where they ground up acorns to produce flour (once boiled to remove poisonous tannic acid). Hospital rock is pretty much like the bowder stone in the Lake District only larger. There is a gap underneath it where you can reach through to the other side.

The roads up to and through the forest get quite high; up to 7146 feet at one point. We definitely noticed the altitude when we got out of the car at the Giant Forest Museum. The air was noticeably thinner.  Getting out of the car, the first thing that hits you is the wonderfully fresh smell that the forest gives off. The air is alpine fresh and cedars give off a great scent. This is definitely my favourite smell. The second thing we noticed was the temperature. It is still very cold at the moment and at points on the drive, the temperature reached as low as 30F (-1C) with snow on the ground. We really appreciated our new down vests.

For the last few miles up the road to the museum, there are a few Sequoias dotted amongst the ordinary furs. They have noticeably thicker trunks and had red bark. It was very exciting to get out at the museum car park and see some trees up close. They are so big that they leave you in awe. The feeling of awe didn't leave me all day and I took at least 122 pictures of them. Probably a little excessive so I've only put a small sample in the picture gallery.

The museum is worth visiting and has plenty of interesting facts. Sequoias are only found naturally on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and only between about 5000 and 7000 feet. They grow to about 275 feet tall and the oldest is about 3500 years old. They can live so long because the tannins that are naturally present in their wood makes them are resistant to insects and fungus. It also makes them a nice red colour. They have thick bark and a fire resistant layer underneath. Amazingly, fire damage can be healed over time. Fire is a natural part of their lifecycle and is required to clear the undergrowth for seeds. The pine cones are also dried out and opened by the fire. For about 100 years after their discovery, fires were suppressed in the forest and hardly any saplings were produced as a result. Probably enough facts for now! 

Outside the museum is the Sentinel tree. This tree is just an average Sequoia. As the picture with Alison standing next to it shows though, it is absolutely huge! The tree is so close to the museum though, that it is fenced off to protect it from tourists.

We left the car at the museum and went for a wander. First to Beetle rock where on a clear day, you are supposed to be able to see all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Not today though. We could barely see the valley below. We then headed off through the snow to walk around a meadow which has many great sequoia trees growing around the edges. On the way, I took a picture of Alison standing right next to one. The snow around its base was hollow and Alison sunk up to her waist

Just on from there was the highlight of the week. We came right across a bear eating grass in the clearing! This was so exciting. We'd come out of the trees and standing about 30 feet from us was a bear. He was totally unbothered by our presence and carried on eating grass and drinking water. We sat and watched him for a good 15 minutes and took lots of pictures. It knew we were there and looked around when I accidentally snapped a twig but didn't pay us any attention. Again I got carried away and took about 100 and a few videos. I've posted a short one to the gallery so take a look. 

Luckily we'd brought our binoculars with us so we had a really good view. The bear had an incredibly fluffy brown fur coat and it alternated between eating grass, drinking water and washing its face with a paw. Very peaceful and cute. It looked quite small so we kept an eye out for an angry mother bear but didn't bump in to one. The bear could have been small because it had just come out of hibernation and/or it could have been a female bear which are smaller. They can lose up to half their mass whilst hibernating.

We weren't in any danger since black bears (they come in colours other than black - ours was brown) are not really aggressive. The last grizzly bear in California was killed in 1922. We later read that if you come across a bear, you are supposed to keep at least 300 feet between you and it. Mostly for their safety so that they don't become accustomed to humans and then wander into our areas looking for food. We were more of a threat to it than it was to us and we'll give the next one more space (if we are lucky enough!).  
I spent 3 weeks in Yosemite backpacking when I was 15 and I didn't see a bear on that trip so it was great to see one today. It gave us a huge buzz! Although I didn't see a bear last time, one did come in to our camp and it cut down our food which was hanging in a tree and ate the lot. It also found my bowl and had a good chew on it. I've got it with me on this trip and it is still bent where the bear chewed it.

After returning to the car, we drove on to see some famous trees. The General Sherman tree is the largest non-clonal tree in the world. Not the tallest or widest at the base but the largest by volume. It's still 275 feet tall and 102 feet in circumference at the base. Its largest branch has a diameter of 2m and the tree is about 2200 years old. The General Grant tree is the largest tree at its base at 106 feet in circumference and the second largest tree in the world. These two trees are surrounded by wooden fences to protect them from tourists (like us). The fences whilst necessary, take away from their majesty and its much nicer and more impressive to see the many other trees which are left alone in their natural environment. Until recently, there was a whole village amongst the sequoia trees in the forest. This has been dismantled in order to prevent further damage to the forest by humans. Looking at pictures of how the park was before, it's much nicer now that it is more natural again.

The grove that we visited today has the largest collection of sequoia trees in the world. This was not always the case though. There was a grove a few miles away that contained many more trees until European settlers discovered them and logged the lot of them. Very sad but luckily people realised in time what a treasure this area is and turned the remainder of the forest in to a national park. Today was brilliant and is the highlight of our trip so far.

We left the park as the light was fading and drove north to Fresno on our way to Yosemite. We plan on visiting Yosemite tomorrow to check out the weather conditions to help plan our hiking trip there before heading to San Francisco for a few days. We lucked out tonight and have found a cheap and clean motel with fast wifi; the University Inn. Time to sleep now. Looking forward to visiting Yosemite in the morning.
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