Exploring Mount Hollywood’s dazzling flowers, Big Sur’s monster seals and John Muir’s “Forest Masterpieces” in the nation’s 31st state.

Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest

Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest

From June 6 to June 18, 2020, I drove from Los Angeles, California to Chicago, Illinois in a Buick Enclave. The car, filled to the brim with my college possessions, took me over 4,000 miles up the Pacific Coast, through the Sierras and Rockies, and across the Great Plains. It traversed the roads of ten different states and coasted along the scenic byways of six national parks. Along the way, we drove by Johnny Cash’s home in Casitas Springs, California and John Wayne’s birthplace in Winterset, Iowa. We visited tributes to iconic generals from Grant to Custer. We marveled at the world’s largest tree, reminisced over ancient history at one of the planet’s premier fossil sites, and braved the country’s highest paved road. We came across stately bull moose, emerald pools surrounded by red cliffs, scurrying prairie dogs, homemade apple pie, the world’s only corn palace, dinosaur tracks, a giant rock protruding out of the sea, “thunder beasts,” a double rainbow and the stuffed remains of the mythic jackalope among many other things. Climb in and buckle up as we embark on the Natural Curios Road Trip!

Flowers (and Quail) On the Trek to the Hollywood Sign

The less glamorous side of the Hollywood Sign. Nevertheless, this angle also captures the skyscrapers of downtown and Griffith Park’s other iconic landmark, the Griffith Observatory.

The less glamorous side of the Hollywood Sign. Nevertheless, this angle also captures the skyscrapers of downtown and Griffith Park’s other iconic landmark, the Griffith Observatory.

The reason for my visit to Los Angeles, the point of origin for our odyssey across the West, was to move out of the apartment that I lived in for 3/4 of my senior year at the University of Southern California. I was also able to visit friends that I had not seen since the coronavirus curtailed our school year in mid-March and enjoy the California sunshine for one final week. The day before I packed the car and pushed off up the California coast to begin the long journey home, I decided to do something that I had once considered a requisite of living in Los Angeles—hike to the Hollywood Sign.

Erected in 1923 as a real estate advertisement, the sign originally spelled out “HOLLYWOODLAND” in 30-foot-wide, 43-foot-tall metal letters. Originally intended to last only a year and a half, the sign quickly became iconic, ditching the “LAND” at the end in 1949. Like most aging stars in L.A., the sign received an extensive face lift in the 70’s, restoring it back to its original splendor from the golden age of cinema. It’s perched near the top of Mount Lee, surrounded by over 4,000 acres of Griffith Park.

Like a few of my adventures, this one was spur of the moment and I began my ascent up the Mt. Hollywood trail without a very clear indication of the length of the trail. I had seen pictures of people on top of the Hollywood Sign pop up on my Instagram feed for years. “I could climb up there in no time,” I thought.

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You can imagine my dismay when I scaled Mt. Hollywood, a much steeper hike than I had envisioned, and found the Hollywood Sign fastened to a distant peak. It turns out I had only arrived at a viewpoint for the famed logo of Tinseltown. After another hour of wandering on dirt trail and roads, with some unintended detours through thick brush, I finally arrived at the top of the Hollywood Sign. Beyond the towering white letters lied the park’s other iconic landmark, the Griffith Observatory, and the sprawling expanse of Los Angeles unfolding in every direction.

Through my accidental backpacking trip through Griffith Park, I stumbled across a blanket of wildflowers. Or more accurately, I had to maneuver through the flowery brush as I climbed, careful not to inadvertently squash any of them. Their lush beauty seemed to be out of place in the middle of such a manicured city like Los Angeles where even the river is paved. This is part of the appeal of Griffith Park, the eleventh largest municipally-owned park in the country that lies in the Santa Monica Mountains. Named after a mining and real estate mogul whose first and last name were both Griffith, the urban wilderness the park offers covers a stretch of habitats from deep canyon wetlands to the forests that grow near the mountaintops. When I visited in early June, the dirt trails were decorated with everything from bright oranges and reds to the palest shade of violet possible. One particularly beautiful flower, called the Plummer’s Mariposa Lily, looked like a dusty golden flower whose pedals had been dipped in bright periwinkle paint. Another orange flower has the amusing moniker of the orange bush monkeyflower.

A California quail hanging out in the brush.

 

A California quail hanging out in the brush.

As I was admiring all of the flowers in the thick carpet that surrounded me, I encountered probably the most interesting looking bird I have ever seen in Los Angeles. Sporting a drooping pompadour-like crest slightly reminiscent of Elvis, the California quail is a plump bird that spends most of its time fixed to the ground. California’s state bird is a popular game species (it has been introduced to places as far away as New Zealand) and releases a loud Chi-ca-go call. This call was a peculiar reminder of how far I had to go over the next two weeks.

Up The Coast To Big Sur

The following day, my calves still aching from the meandering climb through Hollywood’s hills, I picked up my Mom at the airport (unfortunately I was a bit tardy after a preceding late night) and we headed up the coast to Big Sur, one of the most iconic drives in the entire country. Although the actual boundaries of Big Sur are hazy, the 70 mile stretch of California State Route 1 from San Simeon in the south up to Carmel-by-the-Sea in the north is generally the consensus area. Here the rugged coast remains wild, protected by the Los Padres National Forest and Pfieffer Big Sur State Park.

Starting in Los Angeles, we had to approach the iconic drive from the south, passing through the Southern portion of the Los Padres National Forest towards Santa Barbara. While stopping at an overlook, I noticed a large bird flying overhead with a bald, pink head. Initially I was ecstatic, believing we had a sighting of the critically endangered California condor. Alas, this ended up being the condor’s much more common cousin, the turkey vulture. Similar to its larger cousin, the turkey vulture is a scavenger and has adopted its featherless head for this lifestyle. Cleaning off gore and blood is less of a hassle without feathers. Turkey vultures became a staple of our trip, scouring highways from California to South Dakota for tasty roadkill as we whizzed by.

After a pitstop in Santa Barbara, we continued to snake our way up the coast towards Big Sur. At Morro Bay, we took a slight detour to see something too intriguing to pass up: a nearly 600 foot rock protruding out of the Pacific. At 23 million years old and sometimes hailed as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” Morro Rock is the remnant of a massive volcano that once dominated this area. When the volcano was active, a large amount of molten magma hardened deep within the volcano and became what is known as a volcanic plug. Over the 23 million years since its formation, the rest of the volcano has become dormant and eroded away, leaving just the volcanic plug behind. For centuries, this plug has been an immense beacon for wayward sailors along the Pacific, eventually becoming known as Morro Rock. Today the rock is a state historic landmark as well as a bird sanctuary that harbors the world’s fastest animal, the peregrine falcon.

After leaving the blustery beach we continued north towards San Simeon, mindful of the hulking form of Morro Rock slowly disappearing in the rearview mirror. The sun was beginning to fall as we pulled into the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery. Only smaller than their antarctic cousins, the southern elephant seal, central California’s northern elephant seals are monster pinnipeds. Males can reach up to 16 feet long and weigh more than a Jeep at 5,000 pounds. Female elephant seals, often seen lounging near their larger mates, are only between 8 and 12 feet and weigh up to 1,200 pounds. These seals are named after elephants both because of their staggering size and because males have large, trunk-like noses known as a proboscis. These large schnozes are used to intimidate their rivals through their ability to make thundering challenge calls as they jostle with each other for females (an encounter that often leaves both seals covered in blood).

Several elephant seals lounging along California’s rugged central coast.

Several elephant seals lounging along California’s rugged central coast.

Although none of them were battling for a mate this time of year, they were audible as they wrestled for space on the beach. The late spring and summer is molting season, when these huge seals return from foraging trips that take them as far as Alaska and as deep as 5,000 feet, a record for seals. They spend up to 10 months a year out at sea, hunting small sharks and octopuses at around a thousand feet below the surface. Swimming this deep helps them avoid great white sharks and orcas, the only predators in the sea capable of hunting elephant seals.

The air was full with snorts and growls as I watched the mangy seals go about their afternoon. As they molt, they replace their skin and hair, something we do continuously. Elephant seals, on the other hand, do it all at once for an entire month every year. Their old skin peels off in large, brown sheets. The combination of their floppy noses, shedding skin and enormous size make them seem more at home in a Dr. Seuss book than on the beaches of Big Sur.

Above: Male elephant seals, complete with shedding skin, wrestle at the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas.

Tragically, these beaches were once devoid of elephant seals. In fact, they almost disappeared entirely only a century ago. Similar to whales, elephant seals were aggressively hunted for their oil for decades before the advent of kerosene. Their total population, isolated to a single colony on Mexico’s Guadalupe Island, numbered a mere hundred in the 1920s. After Mexico protected them in 1922, the seal population rebounded on Guadalupe Island and these huge seals eventually made their way back to Southern California, aided by similar protection in the U.S. Today there are 160,000 northern elephant seals in the world, and thousands of them haul out on the beach at Piedras Blancas for the breeding season between December and March each year.

After leaving the elephant seals to molt in peace, we continued along the coast into Big Sur proper. Before we drove too far up the road, we saw a few cars parked along the road opposite the ocean. We slowed down just long enough to make out two elk, each brandishing a large rack of antlers, trudging up a hillside.

Spot the elk! There are two tule elk in this picture taken near the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas.

Spot the elk! There are two tule elk in this picture taken near the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas.

Similar to elephant seals, tule elk almost disappeared entirely. Less than 30 of this subspecies of elk endemic to California were believed to exist in the 1870s because of overhunting and habitat loss related to cattle ranching. One of these cattle ranchers, however, had the foresight to preserve the remaining herd and all of the nearly 6,000 tule elk that exist today, including the two we saw in Big Sur, are descended from the final herd of 30. Both tule elk and elephant seals are conservation success stories that illustrate that it is almost never too late to bring species back from the brink of extinction.

As the sinking sun’s golden rays glowed as they bounced off the Pacific, we made our way into Pfeiffer State Park—the wild heart of Big Sur. California Route 1 narrows into two lanes as it becomes sandwiched between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the ocean far below where the road winded along the cliffs. Deeper in Pfeiffer Park, groves of California redwoods, the world’s tallest tree, tower well over 300 feet into the California sky. Content with our plans to gape at humongous trees the next day, we continued north towards Monterey.

Above: Some scenes from the road through Big Sur.

The view after every hairpin turn (and there were a lot of them) was somehow more picturesque than the last as I stopped often to take pictures of the sun plunging towards the horizon. Giant rocks, similar to Morro Rock (albeit on a smaller scale) jutted out of the water far below, tossing foam up as the waves continued their endless assault. You would be hard pressed to find a scene that epitomized California more than this.

The Divine Majesty of Really Big Trees

Standing 275 feet tall and measuring over 36 feet wide at its base, the General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park’s aptly named Giant Forest is truly one of nature’s greatest wonders. Containing over 52,000 cubic feet of wood, it is not only the world’s largest tree. It is the largest living thing on the planet!

The gnarled trunk of General Sherman, the world’s largest tree.

The gnarled trunk of General Sherman, the world’s largest tree.

All together, Sequoia’s Giant Forest is home to thousands of gargantuan sequoias, many of which rival the mighty General Sherman in sheer size. The trees in this area, perched on the Western slopes of the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, was the impetus behind creating the country’s second national park in 1890, a full 26 years before the advent of the National Park Service. John Muir, a Scottish-American naturalist and future co-founder of the environmental organization the Sierra Club, gave the Giant Forest its name and was crucial in establishing this area for protection. He summed up the awe-inspiring role of sequoias, which he often referred to simply as “Big Trees”, in his writings: “Sequoias towering serene through the long centuries preaching God’s forestry fresh from heaven.”

John Muir visited this grove in 1875 and was rightfully blown away by the sheer size of the sequoias here. “This part of the sequoia belt seemed to me the finest, and I then named it ‘Giant Forest’.”

John Muir visited this grove in 1875 and was rightfully blown away by the sheer size of the sequoias here. “This part of the sequoia belt seemed to me the finest, and I then named it ‘Giant Forest’.”

We arrived to Sequoia National Park the day after our sojourn along the California coast. What awaited us here was a far different California natural marvel: intact groves of sequoias high up in the mountains. But before we could walk among giants, absorbing their lessons of “God’s forestry,” we had to climb into the Sierras on the Park’s main road, the Generals Highway. Sequoia National Park tripled in size shortly after achieving protection in 1890, making it one of the largest national parks in the country. In addition to towering trees, the park also boasts the highest point in the contiguous United States at the peak of 14,505 foot tall Mount Whitney, and is next-door neighbors with the smaller Kings Canyon National Park, an area known for both groves of sequoias and its namesake canyon that plunges a mile below the surrounding peaks, the handiwork of a glacier that once tore through this area. Needless to say, there is an incredible amount to see in this area of California, but we had our sites set on visiting the sequoias three thousand feet above our car as we entered the park.

Above: Dug out by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression in the 1930s, Tunnel Rock once hung over the main road into the park. Today only hikers, not automobiles, use Tunnel Rock.

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Generals Highway winds its way into the mountains, reminiscent of California State Route 1. It offers ample opportunities for stunning views of the Middle Fork River that sliced through the Sierras far below (right). Eventually we lost sight of the river as we entered the dense forests that cloaked the mountains. The temperature outside the car plummeted by almost 30 degrees Fahrenheit (F) to 45 F. We had entered a new world.

At last we saw one! Turning around a bend in the road, the broad, rust-red trunk of a sequoia clogged our windshield. Sequoias continued to pop up along the drive, each one seemingly larger than the last until we pulled into the Giant Forest parking lot and decided to take a look at them up close. Giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) are one of three species of redwoods, the group that constitutes the giants of the tree world. California’s other species of redwood are the aforementioned coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) found in Big Sur. A particularly lanky coastal redwood that resides further up the coast in Redwood National Park is almost 380 feet tall, over a hundred feet taller than General Sherman! However, sequoias have much more girth than coastal redwoods as they maintain large trunk widths well up into the air like a column. If you were to measure the width of General Sherman sixty feet above its base, the tree would still be over 17 feet wide.

General Sherman stays wide even as it soars towards the top of the Giant Forest.

General Sherman stays wide even as it soars towards the top of the Giant Forest.

The Sentinel tree (foreground) weighs more than two jumbo jets…and it is still just an average-sized sequoia!

The Sentinel tree (foreground) weighs more than two jumbo jets…and it is still just an average-sized sequoia!

Both coastal redwoods and sequoias can live for an incredibly long time. One sequoia lived for 3,266 years, making them the third longest living tree in the world. General Sherman, estimated to be a spry 2,000 years old, is relatively young compared to some of the other behemoths in its neck of the woods. These venerable trees keep a valuable record of how the climate here has changed over the years in the amount of space between each of its age rings (more space between rings means more moisture as it helps the trees grow). The trees’ ancient aura also transports you to prehistory when gigantic forests like these were common around the world. Walking around Giant Forest, you constantly expect to see a sauropod dinosaur plod out of the dense forest, straining its long neck to reach the lower branches that bristle with pine needles. Sequoia fossils have been found dating as far back as the Cretaceous Period, meaning they cropped up during the dinosaurs’ last stand.

Above: Fallen giants are strewn around the Giant Forest, offering a poignant glimpse into what these groves looked like thousands of years ago.

The mountain yellow-legged frog of the Sierras.

The mountain yellow-legged frog of the Sierras.

Although nothing as big as dinosaurs lives here today, the park is still bursting with wildlife. Over 200 birds, including the California quail, either live here or stop here along migrations. Black bears roam around the park, always a threat to tear apart someone’s car after a whiff of snack food. Sequoia and Kings Canyon are also the sites of potential wildlife conservation victories. Bighorn sheep have been re-introduced here and endangered mountain yellow-legged frogs are making a comeback thanks to an effort to remove trout from several of the alpine lakes in the park. The fish, introduced by humans hoping to entice anglers to flock here, nearly wiped out the frogs by eating their tadpoles and out-competing them for insect prey. Although many trout have been removed here, the arrival of chytrid fungus poses an even bigger risk to the mountain yellow-legged frog in the future.

The potential demise of the mountain yellow-legged frog, despite a valiant trout-removal effort, hints at the environmental scars still present in the shadows of the sequoias. The last California grizzly bear was spotted in the park near Generals Highway in 1924. Two years before that, a grizzly was shot nearby. That turned out to be the last confirmed grizzly bear kill in the state where they only endure on the flag. Many of the sequoias, thousands of years old, have deep, jet-black fire scars. Although sequoias are adapted to sporadic flames, even relying on fire to clear the underbrush for saplings to take root, a warming climate may create longer and more intense fire seasons that could harm even these giants. A prolonged drought between 2012 and 2016 related to higher temperatures contributed to the mortality of 40 giant sequoias as the lack of available moisture exacerbated other issues the trees were facing like disease. Giant sequoias may seem impenetrable when you touch their thick, spongy bark or gaze up at their soaring crowns but they prefer a particular climate where winter temperatures drop to about 10 F and summer temperatures do not exceed 85 F. As the earth continues to warm, will John Muir’s big trees be one of the casualties?

A close-up of the bark of a mighty sequoia.

A close-up of the bark of a mighty sequoia.

The next day, our last in California, we left early to visit Grant Grove, a sequoia grove in Kings Canyon National Park. Similar to General Sherman, the star attraction here is a colossal tree named after another Civil War Uni