More to Sequoia than redwoods

We are 300 feet below the earth’s surface in Sequoia National Park’s Crystal Cave, aptly named for its magnificent, shining stalactites and stalagmites that surround us. Suddenly, the few lights mounted on the walls go out and we stand in blackness. Our group of eight does a collective, controlled gasp.“I don’t think they know we’re down here,” says our guide, Mitch Springer, who knows everything there is to know about the area’s flora, fauna, history and geology. “This was an unscheduled tour.”

Say what?

A few long seconds pass before Springer turns on his flashlight. He wants us to experience what a cave is like before humans discover and invade it.

I get it; utter, utter blackness. A bit scary, but thrilling, too.

Sequoia National Park is mostly known for the giant redwoods that grow in groves scattered throughout the park, but it also has 200 caves. Only Crystal Cave is open to the public. Admissions support the Sequoia Natural History Association, which raises money for the park’s various visitor programs. \The cave is open mid-May to October, and weather permitting, there will be a special Halloween tour.

The half-mile hike down and back to the cave is not for the faint-hearted or the short-of-breath, but it’s worth it.

Springer points out the many plant species on the verdant trail and promises that we’ll have time at tour’s end to enjoy the fairy-tale waterfall nearby. Once in the cave, we move through the various “rooms” and marvel at otherworldly mineral formations still evolving from the water-and-mineral interaction. It’s hard to follow the “no-touching” mandate; we’ll have to be satisfied with taking many photos.

At the 90-minute mark, we begin to feel the chill (the cave is a constant 50 degrees) and head toward daylight.

Sequoia National Park is not only notable for what it offers, but for what it doesn’t.

Gone are the hotel, gas station, sewage treatment plant, markets and the more than 24 acres of concrete that once sat smack-dab in the middle of the gargantuan, ancient trees. Everything was removed in a late 1990s restoration project.

Paul Bischoff, owner of Sequoia Tours in nearby Three Rivers, explains the transformation.

“In the past, building in the middle of (a national park’s) attractions was the norm, but we discovered that doing this harms the resources. Looking at this area now, you’d never know that there were 300 buildings here.”

Bischoff has lived in or near the park most of his 40-some years and provides an informative and entertaining insider’s view. (Recommendation: Take a half-day tour, then return to those areas of most interest.)

Today in the reclaimed area there is only the Giant Forest Museum, which features exhibits on Sequoia ecology. For lodging, drive a few minutes north for the cozy, comfortable and low-key Wuksachi Lodge. It offers 102 rooms in three buildings in a forest setting that deer and bears love, too. You can see both (when not looking for them, of course) just outside your door or on one of the nearby trails. Sometimes guests in The Peaks dining room spot forest wildlife through the huge windows that look onto a vista of sugar pines, white fir and mountain peaks.

Besides a panoramic view, The Peaks offers three meals a day in the rustic, high-ceilinged dining room. The lodge recently welcomed Chef Jeff Graham (formerly of Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel), who is introducing changes to the restaurant’s fare.

“There is a company-wide focus on local, organic, seasonal and nutritious food,” he explains. “Healthy food for healthy people. We also follow the applications of the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, which stresses using sustainable fish (farmed or fished in ways that don’t harm the environment).”

The new menu also includes gluten-free and other entrees that accommodate special dietary needs.

“Just let our staff know what you need,” Graham says.

I enjoyed a superb gluten-free pasta with a flavorful light-and-creamy artichoke dressing that featured two kinds of mushrooms and tender chicken.

While the park was relatively uncrowded in early June, visitor numbers soar starting mid-month and continue through Labor Day. Come after that time and enjoy beautifully crisp, sunny and uncrowded autumn days and spectacularly clear nights. For information on Sequoia National Park visit nps.gov/seki/index.htm; or for more on Wuksachi Lodge visit VisitSequoia.com.

For information on sightseeing tours visit sequoiatours.com; and to learn more about Sequoia Natural History Association, visit sequoiahistory.org. (Future columns will further explore the park.)

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