Parenting: Parents, kids and really big trees

The Murphy family visits Sequoia National Park in California.
David Murphy says things are always looking up when it comes to Redwoods and Sequoias.
August 24, 2011 6:30:31 AM PDT
Keeping with the theme of last week's blog (cheaper airfares in the fall might have some families thinking about an in-school-year getaway), let me suggest yet another nature-oriented western wonder which can be seen in several locations within a day's drive of San Francisco (airfare from PHL, by the way, is running around $400 for flights in October vs. $600 this summer). This time, we're talking trees, the biggest on the planet.

A quick hop over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco takes you to Muir Woods National Monument, which is home to one of the most grand and easily accessible stands of California Redwood trees anywhere in the state. Redwoods are nature's tallest trees and only grow in a few sheltered, narrow valleys that open to the cool, moist influence of the Pacific Ocean. Protected in their hidden valley, the trees are also fire and disease resistant, which explains why they've been able to survive here for so many thousands of years (that, and the fact that they're protected from logging). These are awe-inspiring specimens and not only because of their enormous size. Entering the Muir Woods, even on a somewhat busy day with rambunctious kids in tow, the park takes on a breathless air, as if the bark and needled branches of the redwoods are in the habit of absorbing sound. It's possible to walk quietly through portions of the trails that wind back into the dense forest growth and feel as though there's very little else on the planet other than you and those enormous trees. Whisper to your kids about the grandeur and agelessness of their surroundings and, straining to look up into the highest branches, you may find they are struck as silent and reverent as most adults. It's like visiting a cathedral, only with sky for a ceiling and nature's pure wonder at work on the soul.

"Service" oriented

Being a National Park Service-managed location, there is a visitor center staffed by Park Rangers and filled with interesting facts about the location and history of the place (ex.: it was named for naturalist John Muir at the request of William Kent, who donated the land to the government during Theodore Roosevelt's second term---I've read that Muir, who never would've asked for such an honor on his own, rather humbly went along with the idea). Park Rangers are also available at certain times for nature talks (look for the big yellow slugs in the forest floor debris, they'll tell you!). But even if you miss the talks, the trees do a pretty great job of interesting the family all by themselves. Muir is not all that large an area, so your visit need only last an hour or two. You'll burn a lot of space on your digital camera's memory card while you're there, though!

Big and Tall, Part II

Ready for more? Travel northeast from San Francisco several hours to Fresno and then on along the General's Highway to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks which are home to another species of enormous tree, the giant sequoia. The sequoias are almost as tall as the redwoods, but even more grand in one respect; they're much wider. At one point in Sequoia, you can actually walk through the hollowed-out trunk of a giant that fell eons ago. Of the two parks, Sequoia is the closet to the Fresno approach, and unless you arrive from the south, or have a whole lot of time on your hands, you may choose to skip King's Canyon. Either way, you'll find the same sort of grand horticultural experience. The difference from Muir Woods is that the sequoia groves of California's eastern mountains are larger and less restricted than the Redwood grove in its narrow valley. Sequoia and Kings Canyon have much more of a national park feel, with a longer approach to the park area and far more acreage. The main access roads and various visitor parking lots get you to within a short hike of whatever you need to see, though, including some of the largest and oldest trees, all well marked on both trails and park maps. Visitors who have already been to Muir Woods will recognize the same atmosphere of grandeur and quiet. Like Muir, the main visitor areas can be covered in a couple of hours, or can be taken in through the course of a day, depending on how interested you and your kids are in hanging out with the big guys. Like most national parks, wildlife, including bear and big horn sheep, are sometimes spotted within park boundaries. No small advantage to visiting the Sequoia/Kings Canyon area is that the amazing and stunning Yosemite National Park is a relatively short drive to the north and can easily be made part of the itinerary (really, you're mad if you don't head up the road and see this, too; I'll blog about Yosemite later).

There are plenty of things you can show your kids as they grow-up that can inspire and entertain. In our area, there's everything from history to theater, to big-time sports, and of course, the ocean and forests. But the redwoods and sequoias of California will knock their socks off in a different way than any other wooded wilderness, and tend to settle more firmly in the memory. In an age of quick delight and fast technology, it's still nice (and valuable, I think) to expose your family to an old-fashioned, slow awe, every now and then. The big trees of California provide that sort of experience.

---David Murphy

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