One Favorite Place
William Tweed is the chief park interpreter for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. He oversees the parks' educational programs, including visitor centers and ranger-guided walks. A member of the park's staff since 1976, he answers questions about Kings Canyon, a place that Ansel Adams helped make a national park.
What is your favorite part of your job?
For me it's the sense that I am doing something of enduring value. Working with the resources of parks like these is a very special privilege.
How does one get to be a park ranger?
There are many paths. Rangers come from a variety of backgrounds, including biology, history, or natural resources management. Rangers are considered generalists who do everything from enforcing the law to educating visitors. Most permanent rangers start their careers as seasonal rangers.
Tell us what makes Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks so special.
These parks are unique. The world's largest trees grow here, and we preserve some of the best alpine wilderness in the United States, including Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the 48 states. Also special are the great canyons, several of which equal the Grand Canyon of Arizona in depth.
How big are the trees?
Giant sequoias are the biggest trees in the world. What we mean by this is sequoias have more wood in them than any other type of tree. Some other species grow taller, but they do not have as much overall volume. The General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park is the largest of all the sequoias. It contains over 52,000 cubic feet of wood in the trunk alone.
How old are they?
We can only be sure of the age if we count the annual growth rings within the trunk. Since this is hard to do on large standing trees, we can only estimate their ages. The oldest known sequoias, by actual ring count, were about 3,200 years old, but this age is not common. Many of the larger trees approach 2,000 years in age.
How rare are they?
Giant sequoia grow naturally only on the southern slope of the southern Sierra Nevada of California, mostly at altitudes between 5,000 and 7,500 feet. There are about 75 distinct groves, which vary in size from a few acres to several square miles. The Giant Forest, for example, is a large grove that covers about 3 square miles. There are many thousands of trees within the groves and nearly all of the groves are now in government ownership in either these parks or the surrounding national forests. There are also three groves in Yosemite National Park.
Do people climb Mt. Whitney?
For a tall mountain, Mt. Whitney is relatively easy to climb. A good trail leads to the top. The challenge is hiking ten miles at such high altitudes. The trail is so popular that the number of hikers each day is limited by a daily quota.
What rivers created the canyons?
Three major river systems created the canyons of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. In the western half of Sequoia, the five forks of the Kaweah River have all carved major canyons. The eastern half of Sequoia National Park is drained by the Kern River, which also carved a very significant gorge. Finally, the two largest canyons in Kings Canyon National Park were carved by the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River.
What should visitors who come to the parks for a short time see?
The primary point here is that one needs time to see these parks. Just driving through the parks on the main highway takes several hours. A minimum of a day is necessary to see even the highlights, which would be primarily the giant sequoias of the Giant Forest, Moro Rock, Crescent Meadow, the Big Trees Trail, and the Grant Grove Trail.
What can people do?
The best single thing to do is to get out of your car and take a walk in the forest. There is no better way to see the sequoias. The park has many trails. There are also opportunities to tour a marble cavern, fish, swim, picnic, photograph, watch wildlife, and much, much more.
What is a marble cavern?
Marble is a metamorphic rock made up primarily of calcium carbonate, which comes from fossilized, mostly microscopic seashells. Since calcium carbonate is water soluble, given enough time, ground water flowing through the rock will eventually dissolve passageways. When mountain uplift moves these passageways above the water table, air enters them and we recognize them as caves or caverns.
What's the best season?
It's not that simple. They're all good. Spring is great in the foothills portion of Sequoia, where wildflower shows are often magnificent. The sequoia groves at Giant Forest and Grant Grove are hospitable and good for strolling or hiking all summer and well into the fall. In the high country, the season usually runs from late June into mid-October. Winter is a great time for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.
Some of the park is undeveloped wilderness. What kind of backwoods skills are needed to experience that wilderness?
About 84% of these parks are congressionally-designated wilderness, which means that they are closed forever to road building or other forms of development. An extensive trail system provides access for both backpackers and stock parties using horses or mules. Wilderness visitors can pick up any number of basic books that will tell them what they need to know. The Sierra is relatively benign, if basic certain common sense rules are followed. The most important thing to understand is that you must take everything with you that you will need.
What are the hidden wonders of the parks?
One of my favorites is the Washington Tree, which is the second largest tree in the world but almost never visited. It is located in the Giant Forest, about a mile by trail from either the Giant Forest Museum or the General Sherman Tree.
What is the Trek to the Trees?
On the second Sunday of each December, we have an event at the foot of the huge General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon National Park, which is the third largest sequoia. At this event several hundred people gather, often in the snow, to celebrate both this tree's status as the "Nation's Christmas Tree," and the fact that Congress has designated the tree as a living memorial to the nation's war dead.
What are the major threats to the parks?
The primary threats to these parks come from the large scale changes in the environment, including especially global climate change and the fact that lands surrounding the parks are being used in ways that leave these parks a biological island. Also significant is the fact that these parks have suppressed far too much fire over the past century, with the result that our forests are overgrown and at increased risk to destructive fire events.
Do you have species threatened by extinction?
We've already lost our grizzly bears; the last such animal in California was seen here 75 years ago. California condors are just barely hanging on, being sustained only by a very active captive breeding program. The Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep is also in trouble, with no more that 200-300 left in the wild.
What animals are thriving in the park?
Fortunately, the list is a long one. Because the environment of Kings Canyon National Park remains largely intact, nearly all of its native animals continue to fill their natural niches. Visitors to the park will see not only squirrels, deer, and bear, but also dozens of species of native birds including woodpeckers, jays, hawks, and much, much more. If they are fortunate, they will see animals that are by nature less comfortable in human presence, like bobcats, weasels, and even mountain lions.
If I saw a bear cub begging for food in the park, would it be okay to feed it?
Absolutely not! The primary reason not to feed bears is that it causes them to abandon their natural foraging habits in favor of seeking out human food. This is not only a problem for people, but is very bad for bears. Bears that become dependent upon human food often become more and more aggressive in their relationships with visitors and must eventually be destroyed. Our slogan is "A fed bear is a dead bear."
What are the best reasons for preserving these parks?
Today, Sequoia and Kings Canyon represent the best remaining sample of the natural world of the Sierra Nevada. Nowhere else in the range are natural systems in as good a condition. Nowhere else are there undammed rivers of such size. These parks must be preserved to serve as the baseline against which the rest of our world can be studied and judged.
What do you find inspiring here?
Personally, I seek out quiet. I seek out places where the mark of humankind is not to be seen. I seek out places where natural systems function as they always have. These places give me a sense of connection with nature that is almost impossible to find in most other locations.
Ansel Adams was a great advocate for the protection of wilderness, specifically of the Sierra. Does the region have as strong an advocate today?
It's hard to say. When Adams was fighting in the 1930s to create Kings Canyon National Park he was a relatively young and unknown man. It is only later that we came to realize what he had done. There are many people active today in protecting the Sierra. Only years from now will we know what they accomplished and who was most significant.
Why do you think Adams advocated especially for creating Kings Canyon National Park?
In the backcountry of what is now Kings Canyon National Park, I believe that Adams found the true heart of the Sierra -- the most remote and unblemished part of the range. There he found beauty as well as inner peace. He knew that if not protected these lands would eventually be developed with roads, dams, power plants, and much more. To him that was like building fast food outlets in a cathedral.
Did Adams contribute specifically to the Kings Canyon Park campaign?
Yes. The two activists who led the campaign in the late 1930s were Adams and David Brower, both of the Sierra Club. As the effort progressed both polished the skills that would later make both famous. Adams learned to tell powerful stories about stewardship through his photographs. Brower learned how to play the political game. They would work together for decades, in an often uneasy alliance.
How did Adams' photographs help protect the Sierra?
In that pre-video era, still photographs were the best possible medium for creating public concern about natural places. Adams took the photos that literally defined how our culture learned to think about the high Sierra.
How has the park changed since the 1930s?
Ansel Adams would find the backcountry wonderfully unchanged. He would take great satisfaction, I think, in the fact that nearly all of the wilderness he fought to preserve in these parks survives still in a very high quality natural state. I think he would be less pleased by the front country. He would probably not find modern California, with its huge numbers of recreationists, all driving around quickly from one place to another, very much to his liking. His dreams were for a more contemplative society.
What do you think is Ansel Adams' legacy?
Ansel Adams reminds us what individuals who care can accomplish, and not just by seeking fame or fortune, but rather by standing up patiently for stewardship and respect of our natural heritage. We could use many more of his caliber.