KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Henry David Thoreau shaped a vision for urban Americans in 1845 when he renounced the tumult of Boston and the comfort of his home in nearby Concord for a simple stone hut on the uninhabited shore of Walden Pond.
There, under a thick canopy of oaks and maples only a few miles from New England's hub, he rediscovered the virtues of the solitary, unadorned life when the nation's population totaled about 20 million people.
Since then city dwellers, woodsmen and conservationists have idealized and sought the same, a secluded and unspoiled wilderness retreat. A place to slow down, to regroup.
Despite the passage of 150 years and a population of about 227 million people in 1985, Southland residents can still find their own Walden Pond reasonably close to home.
Village in a Forest
Such a place is Wilsonia, a small community of vacation cabins and a lodge hidden in a pine forest on 320 acres of private land near Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park.
High in the Sierra Nevada east of Fresno and surrounded by protected, national park land, Wilsonia has escaped the scars of commercial development. No through traffic passes this way. The nearest highway loops through Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks before returning to the valley below.
Only a few concessions have been made to travelers' needs: Nearby at Grant Grove village a National Park Visitors' Center, cafe, gift shop, market, gas pumps and summer/winter rental cabins cluster together, providing minimum services.
A mile back in the forest, at Wilsonia, the lodge is the only business. A rustic, unpretentious and comfortable family-run hotel, in winter it offers a quiet, uncomplicated vacation.
December through March are the months to sequester yourself at the lodge. The snow lies deep and smooth under the trees and icicles hang from slanted eaves, dripping holes in the snow as they melt. The cold air is clean and sharp and silence fills the forest. The crowds are gone.
Away from traffic and telephones, you can be active or just relax. Among your choices: cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking on marked trails if the snow isn't too deep, tramping through the woods and playing cards. Or, from a cozy indoor vantage point, you can watch the snow fall.
Be sure to find time to explore the Grant Grove group of Sequoia trees, the original reason for the road and settlement's existence. About a mile from Wilsonia, a large stand of these ancient and stately giants is grouped around the grandest, the General Grant Tree, a specimen of immense dimensions: 267.4 feet tall, 2,000 to 2,500 years old, 40 feet wide at the base and weighing about 1,251 tons.
Officially designated the "Nation's Christmas Tree," it's second in size and age only to the General Sherman tree near Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park, a tree measuring 274.9 feet tall and estimated to be about 500 years older.
These amazing plants are the descendants of trees that flourished millions of years ago over much of the world. Indomitable, their tribe outlived a changing climate and escaped the ravages of the ice ages. They survive in scattered stands on western Sierra slopes.
Tree at Its Finest
Standing majestically in company with several dozens of its peers, the General Grant tree displays its splendor best in winter. Snow piles on the massive upper branches, frosts the green foliage and blankets the earth around the base.
Fenced walkways through the Sequoia grove protect the trees' shallow and sensitive roots. A half-mile nature trail winds between the trees past placards explaining their history and ecology.
As the community social center, Wilsonia Lodge keeps its doors open all year. Summer and winter residents stop by the restaurant for dinner, or for pie and coffee. Campers patronize the general store, buying groceries and camping supplies.
Owners Bob and Elaine Johnson and their son, Joe, the manager, give the lodge a friendly, family feeling. Joe is not only a year-round resident but oversees lodge activities all day, every day. He gives personal attention to his guests, and tries to customize their vacations wherever possible.
Some visitors prefer a quiet winter experience. Sleeping late, a leisurely breakfast in the lodge, and long afternoon strolls through the snowy woods, with time to think.
Other, more physical types can join an overnight cross-country ski touring trip, a 10-mile trek through woods and meadows to Johnson's ski hut in Big Meadow.
The lodge rents as much or as little ski equipment as you need, and Dutch Scholten, a certified ski instructor, guides the group. Even the cook skis right along with the party, and, at the hut, whips up tasty meals on a wood stove, the kind your great-grandmother cooked on. Johnson plans the menus, or you can design your own. "Our cook will try anything," he said. "We've had some unusual requests, but the meals always taste pretty good."