SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Mother Nature has a Christmas present for us all. She's decorated the age-old groves of sequoias with snow as soft as angels' hair, making this one of the most beautiful and peaceful places on earth.
In woods as quiet as a church sanctuary, visitors in stocking caps stare in awe at trees that have been alive since before the birth of Christ. The green boughs and red bark of majestic sequoias glow with holiday colors in winter's white tableau.
Here on the slopes of the Sierra, far above the season's mad rush, Christmas truly has a magic of its own.
At Giant Forest Village, children build rotund snowmen in front of rustic cabins, while parents admire their kids' creations through frosted windowpanes. It's a scene Norman Rockwell would envy.
Over at the dining hall, a roaring log fire and steaming cups of hot chocolate warm a family that had joined a park ranger for a nature tour on snowshoes. The youngsters are still excited about the deer they saw walking across a meadow.
A few miles away, tire chains rumble over snow-packed roads to a pretty, pine-rimmed valley, where rope tows take beginners up gentle slopes for merry trips down on their brand-new skis. Intermediate skiers ride the poma lift to reach easy runs from a hilltop that has just a 674-foot vertical drop.
Downhill hot-doggers and fashion plates in apres -ski clothes would be out of place in Sequoia's Wolverton ski bowl. It's a snow-flocked center for family fun, especially since becoming the park's headquarters for cross-country skiing this season. The ski shop rents cross-country boots and equipment, and experts offer Nordic lessons.
Today some visitors are enjoying the perfect Christmas gift--a quiet glide over the snow through the forest of giants.
For others, the pleasure of a winter holiday in Sequoia National Park is awakening to the sound of snowplows instead of an alarm clock. Not to mention the absence of televisions and telephones.
It's also sunlight glistening off a snow-laden evergreen, the quiet drip of icicles, the sharp smell of mountain air untainted by smog, and star-filled skies that could be a match for those in Bethlehem two millenniums ago.
Certainly the Sequoiadendron giganteum are a main attraction, whether powdered with snowflakes, shrouded in fog or silhouetted against an indigo sky. It's almost impossible to imagine that some of these redwoods have been living for at least 2,300 years--stalwart survivors of the Ice Age, forest fires and covetous loggers.
Sequoias have been in danger ever since white men first came across them in 1852. So remarkable are the trees--some as tall as a 26-story building and requiring 20 people with outstretched arms to encircle the trunk--that they almost defy belief. When a section of one enormous sequoia was shipped to Philadelphia for the 1876 Centennial exhibition, skeptical observers called it a California hoax.
Describing them as noble kings of all the world's conifers, John Muir was among the many early conservationists who urged their protection. Congress responded in 1890 by establishing Sequoia and General Grant (now Kings Canyon) national parks.
Some of the sequoias have been given titles, such as the famous General Sherman, named by its discoverer in honor of his commander in the Civil War. Also well known is the General Grant, which grows in neighboring Kings Canyon National Park and is designated the nation's official Christmas tree.
On the main route from Los Angeles to Sequoia National Park through its southern entrance, the mountainous road twists to an altitude of 6,500 feet before dividing into one-way lanes that pass beneath the Four Guardsmen trees. Soon after, drivers encounter the Sentinel, flanked by the highway and a plowed parking area for Giant Forest Village.
That lone sequoia is a landmark for the old village market, the first stop for city folks who quickly discover that a white Christmas is no fun unless you're winterized.
With daytime temperatures just above the freezing mark, there's a brisk business in snow boots, wool caps and gloves, and even long underwear. The market's other best sellers are tire chains, ice scrapers and antifreeze.
Visitors often warm up next door at the village tavern, sipping hot, mulled wine before a blaze of logs crackling in the Fireside Room. A shoveled path leads from there to the cafeteria, where rosy-cheeked faces gather before another cheery fireplace.
Giant Forest Village is the center of activity in Sequoia, especially during winter, when roads and facilities are closed in many other destinations in the park.
Also open year-round is Grant Grove Village in Kings Canyon National Park. It's 32 miles northwest via Generals Highway, which may be blocked after a blizzard until snowplows clear the way.