By Keely Allen
It was the sixth day of our road trip and we were already two hours late for our date with the Sequoia Giants. California was officially two days into the winter season, with the frosty mountain weather packing in.
As we began our journey away from the Yosemite area, we called the Sequoia National Park information number to check the road conditions for snow and black ice warnings. The recording on the other line explained the weather was fine but they had begun some serious road works, meaning cars were only let through every two hours.
Armed with that knowledge and plagued with evening plans a three-hour-drive from the park centre, we knew we had to make the 12:00pm cut off.
Our reception grew patchy, prompting us to rely on the GPS packed for the trip, a Navman Drive Duo SUV loaded up with US maps, to save us when we were deep in the national parks and allow us to pocket nearly NZ$300 in would-be rental costs since we were already facing a hefty and inescapable under-25 driver surcharge.
The rush of the morning had me convinced we needed to make it to the visitor centre to make the most of our limited time in the area. I clumsily selected one of the two visitor centre options that rang a bell and hit go.
"You will arrive at your destination in two hours 30 minutes," crooned the robotic female voice - there was a glimmer of hope we could make it.
Following a picturesque drive into the forest along a quiet mountainside, the gentle road approaching the northern entrance of the park began to morph into a turbulent path, swallowing us into the redwoods and pines.
I soon found myself white-knuckled, clutching the seat as we whizzed along a windy cliff side, racing to make it to the beginning of the construction zone.
Zooming through the forest, we passed an unassuming deep brown sign informing us we were entering the Giant Forest. My face pressed against the window, I stared up at the towering Sequoias thickening the woods around us.
My panic subsided, adrenaline transforming into excitement for a brief moment before I was abruptly thrown, my cheek bouncing off the window. The road had begun snaking more aggressively around the giants, snapping me back to reality.
I checked the time once again and saw it was 15 minutes to noon - and we had a good shot at getting there on time - and made a mental note to spend some time in the Giant Forest on the way back.
With just a few minutes to spare we pulled up at the end of the queue of 40 cars waiting to be let through and immediately began our 30-minute descent into the canyon.
As we reached the bottom, we parked up in a quaint yet barren carpark, peppered with picnic tables and large maps outlining the expansive Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Stepping out of our rental Chevy, we glanced around the parked cars of our fellow detour-travellers in the sparse valley; hearing the faint sound of a nearby waterfall, we thought to ourselves - was this it?
Just as I began frantically sifting through our packet of information and maps stuffed in the glove box, I saw a friendly face from yesterday's Yosemite hike who offered me some advice. After driving up through the southern entrance, she'd already zipped past the elusive visitor centre.
"They said everything we'll want to see is concentrated up there, and with the construction they're only letting groups of cars through every two hours. We're about to head up for 2pm," she explained.
It appeared my extensive pre-holiday research had abandoned me in the rush of the morning. I was immediately reminded of a guide I'd read reiterating those same instructions to send us straight to the Giant Forest to see General Sherman.
Cursing to myself, we decided not to waste the opportunity to take a quick peek around at the waterfall and the Native American 'hospital rock' before heading back up the mountain.
At least there'd be time for a nap.
My lesson for the day: Spontaneity is good, but planning is better
After we finally made it to the place with "everything we'll want to see", we took off on the Big Trees Trail, a quick 1km loop around a meadow where I was able to sufficiently ogle the trees and, of course, get some snaps.
Afterwards, a combination of spontaneity and nature seduced us into thinking we had enough time and stamina to embark on a three and a half-kilometre walk (at a gruelling elevation of 2133m) to General Sherman, the world's largest living, single stem tree by volume.
As we began walking, we peeled away from the crowds and were left on our own. The path was poorly signposted at times, which made the trail feel more adventurous despite being obviously well worn and safe. Moving deeper into the woods, we immersed ourselves in nature, spotting some chipmunks and charred trees.
At the higher altitude, it took more exertion but was the experience was entirely worth it. Through the forest and along the cliff-side looking down on the Generals Highway, we wove our way along the marked trail and the desire lines that ventured off the path to get close to the main attractions.
Hiking further into the forest felt otherworldly as the ethereal fog settled around clusters of sequoias blackened by the regular forest fires. It was as if we were transported to some mystical land straight out of an eerie storybook.
Walking through the fog, surrounded by the Sequoia giants, I felt a sense of peace. I had nearly forgotten just two hours before I was certain we would corner our rental car too hard and plunge into the canyon below.
Suddenly the air shifted.
Forty minutes into our mini-hike and the mist around us thickened. The unnerving little droplets betrayed us, building strength as a light rain settled overhead.
In that moment, I began to question the idea of hiking an hour back to the car as dusk descended and the rain gained speed.
"I'm sure the shuttles are still going," I said aloud in an attempt to convince myself. "Otherwise we can totally hike back on the same trail, keeping an eye out for bears."
We crept up to a fork in the path, signalling we were finally nearing General Sherman. Our close proximity and the uncertainty of whether we'd have to hike back had me trying to recall what I had learned from my childhood in the Yosemite area. Apart from some advice about standing on each other's shoulders to scare away bears (not recommended), the mountain survival skills I learned at the age of six had long since faded.
My partner suggested we attempt to hitch a ride on the highway, which I uncharacteristically thought was a superb idea, preferable to the forest monsters and rain.
While we weighed up the pros and cons of getting into a stranger's car in the remote mountains of a country neither of us live in, we took a final turn on the trail and arrived at General Sherman. With a circumference of 31.3m and standing 83.8m tall, the world's largest tree was undeniably grand. Despite this, approaching the legendary tree behind a wall of wood and tourists felt anticlimactic. The walk there was by far the better experience - one I would recommend to anyone moderately fit and keen for a quick hike.
After a few minutes, we said goodbye to the giant to seek the shuttle we hoped would be there. Through the haze, we noticed fewer people around.
As we approached the shuttle stop and held our breath, we spied a park ranger walking through the nearly empty parking lot. We managed to work up the nerve to call out to him, asking whether the shuttle services were operating.
He hastily explained it was closed for the winter season - which began two days prior. After he turned from us and walked towards his rugged truck, we were resigned to the only option we had left: hitchhiking. As we whispered how we'll approach our intrepid idea to ride with a stranger, the ranger paused before turning to offer us a lift to our car, which we gratefully accepted.
Following what we were told was a 'standard' pocketknife check, he put our gear in the boot before ushering us both in the back seat, caged away from the two imposing rifles resting against the separation grate on the front seat.
After some polite yet awkward chitchat where he explained a courtesy ride is common and preferable over the occasional harrowing hiker rescues, he dropped us nearly to our car door at 4pm.
We immediately piled into the car and bid farewell to the forest. With no time to waste on the way to our evening plans, we plugged the next destination into our GPS and gave a parting wave to the giants - until next time.