Monday, February 22, 2016

A Forest in Shrouds: The Dead Sequoia Loop at Sequoia National Park

Date: January 11, 2016
Place: Sequoia National Park, California
Coordinates: 36.74969, -118.973005
Length: 2 miles
Level: moderate

After completing the obligatory walk around the Grant Grove, my friend and I were up for a more serious hike. We didn't have the time for anything too long so we headed to the end of the parking lot where the trailhead for the 2-miles long Dead Sequoia loop was.
Our hike, as captured by my GPS, superimposed on satellite image. 
 We changed our crampons for snowshoes. It was my friend's first time walking in snow shoes, but after a few steps she was striding along like she was born in them. 
The trail was groomed, but the snow park was pretty high. A few people went down the trail before us - we were following other snowshoe steps - but we didn't actually see anyone.  
Heading out to the woods
The thick layer of snow was a sight for sore eyes. Particularly when the sad evidence of the long drought were everywhere.
Drought Casualty 
But the forest is resilient and life, even deep in winter, was all around us.

And the most majestic are, of course, the giant sequoia. While most sequoia I've seen are single-trunk straight up trees, some divert from that theme, like this tree in the photo below. This one shows reiteration: the upward parallel side branch that grows when the tree's main apex is compromised. It can, potentially, take over as the main trunk if the original primary one is too damaged.
The needle-like conifers ton't hang on to the fallen snow for too long. The broad-leaf trees were keeping their snow mantle for some time longer, even without the leaves.
Snow-bearing Dogwood
Snowshoeing is a slow business. Our hike was even slower because we kept stopping to look at stuff. At some point I heard a loud call and see a fish of red go past me. It was a pileated woodpecker! I reached for the binoculars only to find out that we had left it by a fallen log we had to climb over about half a mile before. My friend was ready to go back and fetch it but I argued agains it. I hated the thought of leaving it there, where it would become a piece of trash, but it was already getting late and I feared of getting stuck on that trail after dark. So we moved on.
As we were coming round the loop, starting to head back up again, we came upon a sinister scene: the remains of a forest fire.
Sequoia at the edge of the fire
Wildfires are a natural occurrence in California forests and is an integral part of the forest's life cycle. The prolonged drought, however, combined with the boring beetle infestation, had created conditions for monster fires. And indeed, many such fires raged through California over the last summer. One of those minster fires was the Rough Fire that begun late in August in the area of Kings Canyon National Park and lasted for over two months. I was thirty miles south of there when it started and the column of smoke was already immense. Over the period it raged the Rough Fire burned over a 150 acres and has caused the closure of Kings Canyon National Park.
On our Dead Sequoia Hike, my friend and I were snowshoeing at the edge of the Rough Fire Area. We walked solemnly between the burnt trees, smelling the ashes that were still hanging in the air, months after that fire was put out.
Giant Sequoia: resistant but not invincible. 
Giant Sequoia are resistant to wildfires. They have a thick, tannins-packed back that is a very effective fire-attenuator. The giant Giant Sequoia survive many a forest fire throughout their lives. They are pretty resistant, but they are not invincible. A massive fire can destroy them :-(
Dead Sequoia. 
They say that trees die standing. It certainly was the case where we were. We were walking through  forest of dead charred trees.
Rough Fire Aftermath
The brunt trees were still shedding ashes, drawing circle shrouds on the pure white snow.
Ashes to Ground. 
But the forest itself was not dead. Beneath the snow, underground, there is a seed bank, waiting to germinate. It will be years before the forest be restored. Until then it would be the time of herbaceous wildflowers and low shrubs to enjoy the sunlight.
And then again, I was very happy for any tree that had survived. Particularly if it was sequoia.
The last part of the loop was a steep climb and I was glad to have spent a few dollars more for the heel-raise bar of the snowshoes. It made the climb much easier and faster.
Higher up we were out of the fire zone and back in the realm of living trees. Baby trees that would never have survived had the fire reached them were tucked under a thick blanket of snow, waiting for the spring melt.
Tucked-in for winter
Just where the loop closes we saw the leftovers of an old snow fort. A snow fort is a human-made pile of snow with a cavity dug inside. It is a good to know survival skill in case one gets stranded in the wilderness during winter - the snow insulates pretty well inside that think. I know that from a personal experience, after having slept in one on one very cold Wisconsin winter night. (And no, that wasn't for survival. Friends I built it with had dared me to join in for the night :-)  )
Crumbling Snow Fort
We continued uphill on the trail spur that connected back to the parking lot. The light was already failing and I had to use the flash to photograph the only evergreen broadleaf I saw along the trail - a healthy and beautiful manzanita bush. 
A winter evergreen. Manzanita. 
As we were approaching the sequoia duo that marked the edge of the parking lot I noticed a dark object on the snow. The object looked familiar. Could it possibly be ...
Yes, it was! My lost binoculars had miraculously made it all the way up the trail, hitching a ride on another hiker until the strap knot loosened and released, waiting for us on the snow. I picked it up gingerly, inspecting it from all side. It was my binoculars alright, with all the right markings. There was no one around to ask or thank, so I gave a silent thanks to the forest spirit, retied the knot and slung the binoculars around my neck. 
The home stretch
We had planned to drive to Hume Lake after the hike but by the time we had finished it it was obvious we would not make it in time. So we settled for a short drive north until we found a spot with a view and sat there to watch the sunset. 
Sequoia Sunset 
That was the last of our Western Sierra for that road trip. That night we were heading southeast, rounding the southern tip of the Sierra and driving all the way to Ridgecrest. On the morrow we would wake up to a completely different scenery - that of the eastern California desert. A scenery of harsh, naked rocks and of alien-looking formations such as the Trona Pinnacles


  1. The dead trees are very impressive but sad.
    The sunset picture is great!

    And lucky you got your binocolars back...