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Weekend Escape: Sequoia National Park

Season Opener

Blossoms on the way, early spring in the Sierra, some snow --and no crowds

March 08, 1998|SHARON BOORSTIN | Boorstin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

LEMONCOVE, Calif. — If there was a theme to our weekend getaway it was trees--plum, cherry, peach, orange, grapefruit, lemon and date palm, not to mention "General Sherman," the largest living tree on Earth. At least that's what occurred to me on the Ides of March last year, as my husband, Paul, and I zipped up California 99 en route to Sequoia National Park.

Turning east on California 198, we passed one fruit orchard after another, each a patchwork of pink and white blossoms, just waiting for an aspiring Monet to come along and be inspired.

Soon the stone-fruit trees gave way to glossy-green-leaved citrus trees, which miraculously manage to have both blossoms and fruit at the same time. Finally, in Lemoncove, population 191, we spotted what we were looking for: two towering date palm trees that frame the white stucco-and-clapboard Mesa Verde Plantation Bed & Breakfast, where I'd reserved a room for the night.

"Plantation" is a bit of an overstatement, for what was once a 20-acre citrus ranch is now only 1.3 acres. Scott and Marie Munger, who in 1996 bought what was then called the Lemon Cove Bed & Breakfast, decided to reclaim the 89-year-old ranch's original name. Then, elaborating on the plantation theme, Marie decorated each of the B&B's eight guest rooms after characters from her favorite movie, "Gone With the Wind."

We asked Denise Subia, the assistant innkeeper, if we could see the "Rhett Butler" room ($95). Denise said, "Sure"--if "he" was unlocked. He was, and we got a peek into the room that Paul liked best, done in masculine burgundies, hunter greens and paisley, with a massive four-poster bed and claw-footed bathtub.

Unfortunately, "Rhett" was booked, so we chose "Aunt Pittypat." Because it was still the winter season (which ends March 15), we got 30% off the $110 price. The decor of "Aunt Pittypat" bordered on kitsch, but we liked the private entrance leading to the back patio, pool and orange grove.

Denise invited us to help ourselves to fresh lemonade from their fridge and to oranges from the trees. Later. We were eager to see giant sequoias.

The terrain at the entrance to Sequoia National Park--16 miles east of the Mesa Verde Plantation--is similar to Southern California's: boulder-strewn hills dotted with craggy oak trees. Not a giant sequoia in sight. But a park ranger assured us: "Take the Generals Highway for 18 miles, and you can't miss them."

What he failed to mention was that those 18 miles climb from 1,700 feet to 6,800 feet elevation, which meant we spent almost an hour driving up an old, narrow and very twisted road. Because some of it was under construction, we had to maneuver over stretches of gravel-strewn dirt.

At 4,000 feet, the terrain became more alpine, with evergreen trees and dramatic vistas of the snow-covered high Sierra. At 5,000 feet, we spotted our first sequoias, majestic, towering beauties with cinnamon-colored bark. It was appalling to read in a guidebook that in the 19th century, even though sequoia wood is brittle and useless as timber, the trees were logged to make pencils and cigar boxes.

The road leveled off after 6,000 feet and we entered the "Giant Forest." Dwarfed by the gigantic sequoias, we felt as if we were in the forest of Planet Endor in "Return of the Jedi." The sun was shining in the valleys below, but because the hulking shadows of the trees blocked out most of it where we were, there still were several feet of snow on the ground. The roads, on the other hand, were clear of snow. We parked the car and pulled on parkas to pay a visit to "General Sherman."

The bad news about touring Sequoia on the cusp between winter and spring was that all the hiking trails at this elevation were buried under snow. The good news was that we had the national park practically to ourselves. There were only a handful of tourists--mostly Europeans--at the 102-feet-circumference base of "General Sherman," a sequoia believed to be between 2,300 and 2,700 years old.

At 275 feet, "General Sherman" is not the tallest tree on Earth, but its enormous volume--about 2.7 million pounds--makes it the largest living thing on the planet.

Paul and I were inspired by nature's ability to produce something that has endured for more than two millenniums, and were less impressed by our car--which, we discovered, had a flat tire. I approached two forest rangers only to learn that there are no gas stations within the national park. Paul changed the flat tire and on a temporary spare we cautiously proceeded down Generals Highway.

In the hamlet of Three Rivers, we searched, in vain, for a gas station that could repair our flat. Since it was getting dark and we were eager to unwind, we scotched our plans to dine in a restaurant and ordered takeout at the local Pizza Factory. The pizza parlor turned out to be a lively social hub of the community, bursting with kids celebrating a birthday party, tattooed bikers hefting beers and senior citizens out for dinner.

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