Grand Vistas and Birthed from Fire
The third stage of our journey across Southern California started at 5 am. In order to drive from Furnace Creek, CA to Sequoia National Park you must traverse a rather deviating course that heads south towards Bakersfield–opposite the direction you eventually need to drive. The long ramp out of Death Valley is actually quite incredible. You gain hundreds of feet of elevation as you ascend into Pinto Peak’s foothills. Watching the moon set and the sun rise while driving past desert tundra evokes a curious sense of longing to stay in one of the most inhospitable terrains on Earth.
The six and a half hour drive from Furnace Creek to Azalea Campground is a long haul, but the sights to be seen are spectacular. Barren desert, rolling green hills, smokey forests, and central valley orchards ring the foothills of the Sequoia National Forest. I highly recommend the Azalea Campground because it rests 6,000 feet deep inside the forest. The campgrounds to the south, though easier to get to, tend to get crowded and are in the lower elevation which lends itself to insect infestations and hotter, less pleasant climate.
Azalea is a beautiful campground with mountainous terrain and a dense redwood canopy which blocks out the sun, dissuading scruffy foliage from overtaking the campground. The American Redwood is a unique instance of specialized adaptation. The oily red bark of its namesake is flame retardant, serving to stave off the common forest fires of this region and the blistering winter’s cold. Redwoods survive by outlasting other species of plants. While wildfires rampage through the hills, the redwood’s protective bark resists the heat while competing foliage is destroyed.
Due to the danger of local black bears, and the occasional grizzly, bear boxes are found at each camp site. Leaving food in your car is highly discouraged as bears have been known to tear through the thin aluminum body.
At night, especially early March, the temperatures can drop to below freezing. In our particular campsite, the pitch of the hill created a wind tunnel that effectively blew cold air up the mountain towards our tents. To remedy this, we lined a few trees with cordage and strung our tarps up in order to form a wall. These walls managed to provide some relief to the cold, they also helped contain the warmth from our fire. Nonetheless, the cold is very real. The best way to avoid freezing to death was to drape a tarp over our tents and sleep under layers of blankets. Fortunately, the brisk mornings yielded to relatively warm afternoons.
I highly recommend you bring firewood with you, as the park service frowns upon scavenging from the campgrounds. Also, be sure to have dry kindling. We found it very difficult to get a fire started until we dried out enough kindling. Always think ahead and be sure to keep drying wood while you have a fire going.
On our drive out of the mountains, we stopped to tour the most notable attractions.
Azalea is home to many fantastic views of sprawling mountain and dense redwood forests. The hiking is challenging, yet can be achievable even by novice trekkers. Popular destinations like General Sherman and General Grant are not that far away, offering you a great exploratory look into the history of the mighty redwood.
A must see location is Moro Rock, a grand vista overlooking the San Joaquin Valley and the Great Western Divide. Perched 6,725 feet above sea level, the narrow trail to the overlook is actually rather dangerous, especially during tourist seasons, mostly because nervous mobs of tourists do not make great tour guides.
After a long trip through desert, valleys, and forests, the main takeaway is that our natural resources are comparable to none. I could not help but feel like these places were not real, considering how unusual they were compared to the suburban/urban life I am used to. The isolating enormity that comprises our National Park system is something every person should partake in and endlessly protect and preserve. If you haven’t taken the plunge into an American parkland, what’s stopping you? Get out there!