Grants Grove, Kings Canyon in Winter

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You can’t see a lot of Kings Canyon National Park during the winter months.  The road into most interesting part of the park, the actual “canyon”, often remains closed until mid-April.  So, visitors must be content with what they can access in this small appendage of the much larger park: Grant Grove.

The Grant Grove visitor center is just a few miles beyond the welcome sign, which might be buried in snow if you’re visiting in winter.  The actual grove is slightly beyond the visitor center, far enough that you should drive, unless you have some extra time on your hands (and the trail is cleared of snow).

Grant Grove is home to some of the biggest trees in the world.  They’re not the tallest — the Redwoods claim that title — but because they’re fatter, the Sequoias earn the “biggest” title.

There’s a paved (and shoveled, in winter) path that circles the grove.  For some reason, I chose to walk clockwise, while some guides to the grove recommend a counter-clockwise rotation.  Either way you go, you’re going to walk past a lot of very large trees.  Many of them have names, but once you get home you’ll try to remember which one is which, and you’ll fail.  After all, they’re trees. They all look pretty much the same.

Here’s one that’s easy to remember: the Fallen Monarch.  Unlike most of its brothers, this one is no longer vertical.  It’s also hollow…

… which means you can walk through it.  The trunk is big enough that you don’t have to crawl, or even stoop very much.

There’s a good chance that this is the Oregon Tree…

… or maybe this one is.  Or maybe they’re both the same tree.  Either way, it’s a big tree, and one of dozens in the grove that are named after American states.

The Centennial Stump, buried somewhere under the snow, is all that remains of a tree cut down in 1875.  A huge section of it was sent to Philadelphia, to try to convince easterners that California really did have some unimaginable natural wonders.  They didn’t buy it.

At about the halfway point on the trail, you’ll walk past (and if you want to, walk into) the Gamlin Cabin.  It was built in 1872 by Israel Gamlin.  He and his brother filed a 160-acre timber claim that included Grant Grove, and lived here until 1878.

At the cabin, there’s a side trail that takes you around the outer perimeter of Grant Grove.  It was buried under snow, so I decided to stick with the shoveled path.

The biggest celebrity in Grant Grove is its namesake tree, the General Grant Tree.  This behemoth (seen here in two photos, stitched together, because it’s just too big to fit in one frame) is the second largest tree on earth.

The General Grant Tree was third largest tree on earth until 2005.  No, it didn’t have a growth spurt.  Up until then, the Washington Tree in Sequoia National Park was the second biggest, but damage caused by a lightning strike and fire caused it to collapse.

The General Grant Tree has a trunk that’s 28.9 feet (8.8 meters) in diameter.  It’s 267 feet (81.5 meters) tall, and has a volume of 46,608 cubic feet (1,320 cubic meters).  It’s also celebrated annually as the Nation’s Christmas Tree, and it’s been declared a National Shrine to war victims (the only living object to receive the honor).

As it turned out, I had plenty of time for snow play.  It only takes an hour (or less) to have a satisfying visit to Grant Grove, but I needed to kill three hours.  I was waiting for an escort to the Montecito Resort, which is located a few miles down the Generals Highway, in the Sequoia National Forest.

Normally, the Generals Highway is open year-round, but on occasion, a big snowstorm can cause it to be shut down, until the road crews can catch up.  Much to my disappointment, I had arrived at such a time.  This meant that I couldn’t make a loop through Sequoia National Park, and exit out the southern end, as I had planned.  It also meant that I couldn’t drive to the Montecito, without an escort.  And wouldn’t you know it, I had just missed the 3 p.m. escort by just a few minutes — meaning I needed to wait until he returned at 6 o’clock.  So, after wandering around Grant Grove, I went looking for other points of interest in the area.

I found a roadside area where the snow had been heavily trampled, and someone had built an igloo…

… and a snow man.  The snow was icy, but deep here, and with each step I didn’t know whether I’d stay on the surface or sink down into knee-deep ice.

Since trudging around in the snow wasn’t especially fun, I decided to drive a short distance further on California Route 180.

180 continues past the Grant Grove Visitor Center, and in the summer months, it’s the road you take all the way to the Cedar Grove visitor center, and the stunning views of the actual canyon.  In winter, it’s only open as far as the road to Hume Lake (or possibly not even that far, depending on the weather, I suppose).

I was able to drive far enough to catch a glimpse of the beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  They’re over there, somewhere.  If there was a better viewpoint, it was hidden by a wall of plowed snow.

Eventually I turned around and headed back to the Grant Grove Visitor Center — the meeting point for the escort to the Montecito.

The visitor center was already closed for the day.  But it still provided one valuable lesson for visitors: it snows a lot up here.

The visitor center was almost entirely buried in snow.

Across the parking lot, there’s a restaurant, gift shop, grocery store and motel — all of which were eerily silent, with only a handful of employees running the operation.  I overheard one of them say that there were no guests booked in the motel that night.  I wanted to kick myself.  I had considered booking a room here instead of the Montecito, and if I had, I could have settled into my room, gone to sleep and started early in the morning on my long drive south.  I wouldn’t have needed to wait for an escort.

The escort arrived, as promised, at six o’clock, but one of the three people with reservations at the Montecito didn’t show until 6:30, because of the detour on Route 180.  We didn’t make it to the Montecito until after 7.  It was a long night.

The lines between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are definite on a map, but somewhat blurry in reality.  The two parks are administered jointly, and are often referred to as just one.  And the truth is, the Grant Grove portion of Kings Canyon National Park isn’t even physically connected to the park’s larger portion (the canyon).  Even though both sections of Kings Canyon border Sequoia National Park, I never made it into Sequoia NP.

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