SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Lorraine Cheng didn't get to meet the president during his recent tour of this sprawling western Sierra Nevada park.
"But I was questioned by one of his Secret Service agents," she says. "So that was pretty cool."
That was two weeks ago, and things have since cooled considerably in many ways.
A famous tree named General Sherman has replaced, as the center of attention, a famous Bush named George W.
A dome-shaped granite rock named Moro, and the majestic vistas it affords, has again become a platform for the masses, not merely a landmark on which the president stood during a trip used to tout his administration's environmental policies.
What becomes of "a new environmentalism for the 21st century" and a pledge to repair our national parks remains to be seen, of course.
But one thing is as clear as the Sierra sky: Whether you're a bigwig Texan in black cowboy boots or a weekend nature lover in shorts and hiking shoes, a day in this park is a day to remember.
Of one of the giant sequoia's, Bush told reporters, "Had Christ himself stood on this spot, he would have been in the shade of this very tree."
Leo Burke of Brea, with no speech writers in his corner, followed his eyes up the cinnamon-colored trunk of the giant among giants, the General Sherman Tree, and offered a simpler remark: "It's very impressive, that's about all I can say."
General Sherman stands nearly 275 feet and is believed to be at least 2,100 years old. Cheng tells visitors that its biggest branch "is bigger than most trees east of the Mississippi."
She says if a Cadillac were parked on that branch it would not be visible from the ground. She adds that the tree has the mass of 11 blue whales. Officially, General Sherman weighs in at 2.7 million pounds. The circumference of its trunk is a whopping 103 feet.
If it were a cherry tree, the other G.W. probably would still be chopping.
In any case, it is the preeminent monarch of the Giant Forest, a relative of the redwood that grows naturally only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.
No trip would be complete without a good gawk at a beautiful tree John Muir once said "seems to be immortal."
Says Cheng, "It's amazing what such a superlative does. Because it's 'the largest living thing' it's the most popular tree in the world. If it was only the second largest, people might just say, 'Who cares.' "
Sequoia and adjacent Kings Canyon National Parks receive 1 1/2 million visitors a year. They come mostly to camp, fish, hike and climb amid splendid forests, rushing rivers and meandering streams.
"We come once a year for two weeks," says Burke, visiting with his wife, Reinhilde, and friends from Germany, Manfred Foessel and wife Gabi. "We spend two weeks car-camping and day-hiking. We like to hike to Pear Lake. It's 16 miles but worth it because of the beautiful views. We look down over a waterfall at all the people and they look like little, tiny ants."
For those on day trips, Moro Rock is a favorite. It fit into Bush's one-day schedule because of its accessibility--close to General Sherman and only a short detour from Generals Highway--and its breathtaking panoramas.
The hike is only a quarter-mile, but it's up a steep 400-step trail. The view to one side is of the vast and often hazy San Joaquin Valley. To the other, it's of the verdant valleys leading to the Great Western Divide, where 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks poke skyward and obscure the view of the tallest mountain in the Lower 48, the 14,494-foot Mt. Whitney, at the park's eastern edge.
From Mineral King to Crescent Meadow, to the General Grant tree (a national shrine nearly as impressive as General Sherman), to spectacular Kings Canyon and the powerful Kings River, there seems no end to venues from which outdoor enthusiasts can choose.
Among those are the many caves reaching deep into the earth, still evolving and offering views that some might consider otherworldly.
Perhaps most notably among these is Crystal Cave, developed for human inspection, with concrete paths and subtle lighting to enable visitors an easy stroll through 10,000 feet of passageways and cathedral-like caverns, whose floors and ceilings are lined with the most bizarre formations imaginable.
Crystal Cave, with mostly marble surroundings, was discovered by fishermen working the shores of Cascade Creek in 1918. So named because of its sparkling calcite crystals, it was identified by then park superintendent Walter Fry as a natural treasure, and the push was made to develop it as a tourist attraction.
"He started sending letters to Congress back in Washington, D.C., which held the purse strings then, just like today," Kevin Kirschman, a naturalist with the Sequoia Natural History Assn., said during a recent tour. "Congress thought it was such a fantastic idea--they were completely bowled over by Walter Fry's letters--that they sent the money immediately: 20 years later."