Escape to Kings Canyon, part 6: Grant Grove and the national park story

This post is part of of a series. Click here to read the first post. To see the gallery, click here.


The weather changed overnight at Hume Lake. Rain was beginning to fall and a chill was in the air when I woke up. I drank my coffee quickly and ran down to the lake with my camera.

Though I’d seen plenty of fog in Santa Cruz, I’d never seen anything quite like the mist hanging over the lake that morning. It looked like smoke rising from a hundred tiny fires under the surface of the water. Fog drifted in iridescent segments between stands of trees on the opposite shore. Clouds smothered the sun, and the fogbanks turned white and opaque; when the sun came out, the fog became translucent. The effect was both spooky and sublime.

The sun seemed to have emerged for the day, but suddenly it went behind a cloud again and stayed there. It was time to run back to our campsite and confer with my companions. Snow was likely, we heard, and we decided not to spend another night here. We decided to drive back to Grant Grove, visit the big trees, and then keep going until we got home.

It was hard to tear myself away from the lake. I ate breakfast, packed my things and ran down for a few more minutes of shooting the ghostly miasma, plus some bonus droplets on green leaves. Everything looked different this morning. Was this the same body of water we’d circled just yesterday? Strange physics were at work here in this parallel universe.


Snowflakes landed on our windshield as we left Hume Lake, but once again Bev showed calm and poise in the driver’s seat. Back at Grant Grove we parked in the lot for the big trees. We saw snow turn to sleet as we got out of the RV. Sundari and Bev weren’t thrilled to be out in such icy weather. I was determined to take pictures, even if I had to cover my camera with a plastic bag. We split up to explore General Grant Grove loop. Nobody wants to be stuck with the slowpoke photographer in a frozen rain situation.

The trees in this grove are quite ancient. Sequoias can live to be 4,000 years old; the General Grant Tree is over 3,000 years old. They are rare trees and took a long time to become what they are. This grove is one of only 68 stands of naturally occurring giant sequoias. All 68 are on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, especially concentrated south of the Kings River, on slopes where topsoil-stripping glaciers did not reach or were not as thick as in the valleys.

In the photo below you can see the General Grant Tree, off in the distance, its top hidden by fog. In 1926, President Coolidge declared the General Grant Tree to be the Nation’s Christmas Tree, and every year people visit the tree to place a wreath on it in a ceremony. 270 feet high, this tree is the second tallest known giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) on earth. It is not, however, as tall as the 329-foot-tall Mother of the Forest, one of the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) trees I visited at Big Basin State Park in 2012.


The native people who lived here first were familiar with these trees, but Europeans didn’t discover them until 1833, and it wasn’t until Augustus Dowd encountered giant sequoias in the Calaveras Grove in 1852 that their existence became widely known. The biggest tree there was called the Discovery Tree. One year after it was discovered, the Discovery Tree was chopped down for no apparent reason, leaving a stump which measured 24 feet in diameter. It’s almost impossible now to imagine people reacting that way to the discovery of such an enormous and ancient tree, but that was how they did things during much of the 19th century.

News of these giant trees spread to the east coast and to Europe, and people who heard about them often found it hard to believe in their existence, suspecting that reports of tree heights and girths were exaggerations. In those days, tall tales were always being told by explorers of the western frontier. Slices of tree trunks were sent to various places as proof. Once people believed in their existence, loggers were determined to cut them down, thinking they’d grow rich from the wood. As the previous post showed, such ventures didn’t yield the financial windfall they hoped for.

Two people who hoped to make a living here were the Gamlin brothers, whose interest was in raising cattle rather than logging. They settled on a 160-acre claim in Grant Grove and built a cabin to stay in during the summers while their cattle grazed. The first photo below shows a reconstruction of that building. Before they had a cabin, they lived in the hollowed out tree pictured below, now called the Fallen Monarch. As a summertime residence, the Fallen Monarch probably worked just fine.


The Grant Grove section of Kings Canyon National Park was once a separate national park. Called General Grant National Park, it was one of the first three national parks ever established. In 1890 the creation of General Grant National Park was the outcome of a fierce political struggle in which John Muir’s writing and advocacy played an important role. Muir, as you know, fell in love with the Sierras and wrote rapturously about them. He founded the Sierra Club in in 1892 and served as its first president. His articles, published in places like Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, had a powerful influence on public thinking about wilderness and its preservation at a time when these areas were threatened with exploitation and destruction.

Just as influential in securing parklands was the Southern Pacific Railroad and its behind-the-scenes workings in the political system. It wasn’t until after I visited Grant Grove that I learned just how large the Southern Pacific’s role was in park creation, and how much they used their influence on legislators. Known for having an excessive amount of control over California state government, the company was frequently criticized for allowing a few rich men to become richer by grabbing the state’s natural resources.

These railroad barons were the only people who really made money from the logging operations I described in the previous post. They built the rail line to Sanger, CA which allowed logging companies to ship their lumber from there if they could get it that far. The Southern Pacific pushed for the creation of Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant National Parks because they could expect a great deal of revenue from tourist operations to these places. Such tourism wouldn’t have been possible had the land been destroyed and used for its natural resources.

The role of the railroads in park creation has been controversial; the railroad companies’ tactics were often ruthless and extreme, and their ability to control the government was frightening. But it’s impossible to deny their crucial role in bringing about the creation of the national parks.


Even after General Grant park was established, the forests within were threatened. They could still be logged. Many thought forests should be protected to a limited extent while allowing timber sustainably harvested. John Muir opposed this idea, advocating for preserving forests and other wilderness resources in their entirety, just as they were. He doubted that the forests and other natural resources within the parks could be protected without stronger laws and a dedicated government entity.

In 1916, two years after John Muir’s death, the National Park Service was created, the end result of a massive campaign led by Stephen Mather who was inspired by John Muir. Mather was incredibly wealthy. He started first as the sales manager for the Pacific Coast Borax Company - he was responsible for the creation of the Twenty Mule Team Borax advertising campaign, which you may remember sort of from this post - and then he made a fortune by starting a rival borax company. He had enormous resources to throw into this campaign for creating a Park Service, and he had a powerful personal motivation: being out in nature was the only thing that could cure his depression.

Mather’s contribution, besides laying the foundation of the National Park Service, was to bring parks into the public eye and make them more accessible and appealing. He became National Park Service director and went on to create and protect many more parks, urging wealthy friends to donate land to the park service and often purchasing land with his own money to give to the parks. Mather was yet another person who relied on wilderness to soothe his emotional self, recognizing and preserving this resource just as it was on the brink of being lost.


Parkland was still in danger of exploitation even after the institution of the National Park Service and the establishment of protective laws. The effort to make a national park in the other, more enormous part of Kings Canyon - the one with the deep gorge and Monarch Wilderness - was a struggle which continued after Stephen Mather died in 1930. Numerous groups had tried to gain control of the resources in this valuable wilderness area, and it was only because these competing interests fought their way into a standoff that conservation and preservation efforts were able to gain ground. The Sierra Club had by now become one of the first major environmental preservation organizations, and it played the most prominent role among the groups actively seeking to protect Kings Canyon. Creating this national park was one of their top priorities in the 1930s.

An influential character entered the story when photographer Ansel Adams, also a Sierra Club member, visited Kings Canyon country in the 1920s. His photos of the wilderness here, especially those contained in his book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, inspired Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to join the effort to create Kings Canyon National Park. Ickes dreamed of a vast wilderness park without roads, protected from all development. Plenty of scheming and political maneuvers were required for him to make this dream come true. It was a struggle in which many people took part on both sides.

The fight over the fate of Kings Canyon demonstrates the very different approaches to land use that were emerging at the time. It’s a fascinating story, one that’s expertly told in the PBS series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and in a book called Challenge of the Big Trees. Of the signing of the 1940 bill which finally established Kings Canyon National Park, the book’s author says: “Thus ended a sixty-year conservation struggle, one nearly unrivaled for rancorous debate, emotional character assassination, and political wheeling and dealing.”

Even after Kings Canyon National Park was established, another 25 years passed before the Cedar Grove and Tehipite Valley areas were added to it. Until that happened, there was always the possibility of those areas being inundated if a dam was constructed for hydroelectric power. After my experience of the serene wilderness at Cedar Grove, I found it shocking to imagine the beautiful canyon underwater.

I knew nothing of these deep political undercurrents as I walked around the loop that day in Grant Grove. Freezing rain had long since driven Bev and Sundari back to the RV to brew hot tea. I began to fear for my camera and cut short the photos, which were getting blurry anyway because of the fog on my lens. As I returned to the vehicle, I saw tourists huddled under the overhang of the bathroom building, many of them looking unprepared for the weather. We ate snacks and contemplated their shivering forms. Bev was ready to leave this cold, wet place. I was reminded of our departure from Bryce Canyon the year before, when we escaped from an unexpected snowstorm.


We drove back down the way we’d come in, on 180, across the margin of the Sierra Nevada batholith. As we descended into Fresno, the weather changed back into something more desertlike. Snow was left behind. My mind was still full of the vastness and seclusion of Kings Canyon, with its rocks churned up from deep in the earth and its stories of so many unique, solitary people. I’d gotten the merest glimpse of another place where profound isolation was possible, and now I was rocketing back down the hill into society.

As more roads and shops and homes came into view, I felt the return of some of my familiar worry. I sat in the back of the RV and contemplated the return to my daily life with trepidation. This always happens when I’m on my way home from a trip: a vague disappointment at leaving behind the exploration of new places, a slight fear of returning to the familiar struggles. This year I was worrying about climate change too. The drought that gripped California, now in its third consecutive year, showed no signs of relenting. The Sierra Nevada snowpack for the winter we’d just finished had been only 18 percent of the average. What would become of the giant sequoias, I wondered, if these changes continued? What would the future be like for the places I’d just seen?

Not wishing to be jostled on County Road J-1, we took a different way home. On California State Route 152 we passed the San Luis Reservoir, now depleted by drought to only 30 percent of its normal capacity, and suddenly I realized we’d taken this road to Yosemite in 2008. I remembered stopping at the reservoir then, how blue and cool it had looked through my 24-70 lens. So much had happened in just seven years. This water level had dropped, and landscapes had altered; I’d taken many thousands of photos, and become a different person.

In an echo of the beginning of our trip, I felt the collapse of those years into a much shorter time. This future has arrived a lot sooner than I expected, I thought. What could possibly be next? And then the old, odd optimism bubbled up inside me as I got lost in the beauty of a flawed world through my wide-angle lens.

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