Buffalo Soldiers Scenic Route
The Buffalo Soldiers Scenic Route in Sequoia National Park takes you through the edge of one of the largest and most beautiful groves of giant sequoia trees. This stunning section of roadway was built by the Buffalo Soldiers, members of an African-American regiment of the U. S. Army, under the leadership of a remarkable man, Captain Charles Young. This work made the biggest trees on earth accessible to everyone.
For several years before the National Park Service was formed, the military was dispatched to national parks to manage them. In the summer of 1903, Captain (later Colonel) Charles Young and troops of the 9th Cavalry traveled from the Presidio in San Francisco to Sequoia and General Grant national parks. The 9th Cavalry was one of four regiments in which African-Americans served in the U. S. Army.
At the time, Captain Young was one of only four African-American officers, the highest ranking in the U.S. Army. When he graduated from West Point in 1889, he was only the third African-American to do so. This was an amazing accomplishment at the time, due to extreme prejudice toward African-Americans. Young became the first African-American acting superintendent of a national park. Captain Young was an incredible leader. In fact, several Caucasian men from earlier civilian road crews joined the Buffalo Soldiers during a time when it was very rare for Caucasians to work for African-Americans.
Before 1903, the first wagon road had been built leading up to the park, ending at Crystal Cave. Captain Young and the Buffalo Soldiers completed the road another 11 miles to both Round Meadow and Moro Rock in the Giant Forest sequoia grove. The crew accomplished more work in the summer of 1903 than had been done in the previous two summers combined. Local dignitaries were very impressed with their work and suggested a giant sequoia tree be named after Captain Young. Young declined, saying he would agree only if, in another 20 years, he was still deemed deserving of the honor. Instead, as suggested by Young and his troops, a giant sequoia was named for Booker T. Washington.
One hundred years later, in the summer of 2003, a giant sequoia in the Giant Forest was officially dedicated as the “Colonel Young Tree.”
Captain Young promoted inspiration and education to help visitors enjoy and appreciate the parks. Even in 1903, Young and the Buffalo Soldiers valued what is today the dual mission of the National Park Service: providing recreation opportunities for visitors, while protecting nature and history for future generations to enjoy.
The section of road built by the Buffalo Soldiers extends from Crystal Cave along what is today the Crystal Cave Road (7 miles) to the Generals Highway, then north on the Generals Highway to Round Meadow (2.5 miles), and to Moro Rock on the Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road (1.7 miles), a turnoff by the Giant Forest Museum.
Entering Sequoia National Park from the south on Highway 198, continue 14 miles along the Generals Highway to the Crystal Cave road turnoff. Through mid-August 2012, construction along a section of the Generals Highway between the Highway 198 entrance to the parks and the Giant Forest will cause delays. Through May 20, delays will be 20 minutes to 2 hours. From May 21 through mid-August, delays will last 20 minutes to 1 hour. Vehicles longer than 22 feet (combined towing length) are prohibited in the construction zone. Visitors entering with larger vehicles must enter Kings Canyon National Park via Highway 180 east of Fresno to access part of the Buffalo Soldiers Scenic Route, as motor homes are not allowed on the Crystal Cave Road. At the first intersection after entering the park on Highway 180 (2 miles), turn right onto the Generals Highway to continue to the Giant Forest Museum in Sequoia National Park (31 miles). Check www.nps.gov/seki or call 559/565-3341 (press 1, 1, 1) for the latest road and weather conditions before arrival. Stop at any park visitor center for updates about road construction and how you can maximize your fun and minimize delays.
Enjoy the drive through the Giant Forest as you marvel at the huge trees. Reflect on the work of Captain Young and the Buffalo Soldiers in making the “Big Trees” accessible to everyone.
The Crystal Cave Road is narrow and winding; trailers and motor homes are not allowed. Drive down the Crystal Cave Road only if you have already purchased tickets for a cave tour (generally mid-May to late October). Tickets are available (seasonally) at the Foothills and Lodgepole visitor centers.
Stop at any park visitor center and ask for the free brochure “Buffalo Soldiers: Guardians of California’s National Parks ” or purchase the book “In the Summer of 1903” to learn more. Explore hands-on interactive exhibits at the Giant Forest Museum (open in summer) to learn about giant sequoia ecology. Consider walking the Big Trees Trail, which starts near the museum. This flat, paved 1-mile trail around a small meadow (Round Meadow) includes outdoor exhibits with information about giant sequoia trees. When the road was being constructed in 1903, Round Meadow was chosen as a destination because it would make a nice camping area for the public. After the Buffalo Soldiers completed the road to the meadow, a campground was built nearby.
Drive .75 mile along the Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road near the Giant Forest Museum and park by the Auto Log. For many years, cars could drive onto the Auto Log for photos. Today you can walk on top of it. Walk a short distance from the parking area (about 1/8 mile) to see the Colonel Young Tree and related outdoor exhibit. Walk directly across the road to find the Booker T. Washington Tree, marked with a small sign, among other giant sequoias close to the Moro Rock Trail. Continue driving to Moro Rock, where you can walk nearly 400 steps to the top for a fantastic view of many of the high peaks in the parks and valleys/river below. This road ends at Crescent Meadow, one of the largest meadows in the Giant Forest. An easy 1-mile trail circles the meadow, where you can see more giant sequoias, colorful wildflowers in summer, and wildlife, especially birds.
In summer when the shuttle is in operation, cars are not allowed on the Moro Rock/ Crescent Meadow Road on weekends. Ride the shuttle or walk along a trail to Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow. In addition, the Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow Road closes with snow in winter, making the Colonel Young Tree, Moro Rock, and Crescent Meadow accessible only by skis or snowshoes. Cross-country ski equipment and snowshoes are available for rent at Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia National Park and Grant Grove Market in Kings Canyon National Park.
Sections of the road between the parks (the Generals Highway) may be closed in winter due to significant snowfall. Be prepared for winter travel, as tire chains or cables may be required any time (even for 4x4s) on sections that remain open. Winter in the Sierra Nevada can be longer than you would expect in other parts of the United States.
Stop and see the General Sherman Tree, the largest on earth by volume. Captain Young and the Buffalo Soldiers built the first fences around the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park and the General Grant Tree (second largest) in General Grant National Park (now Kings Canyon National Park), to protect the “big trees.” The Congress Trail, a 2-mile loop that starts near the General Sherman Tree, takes you through some of the largest sequoias in the grove. If you want to explore more of the Giant Forest by foot, purchase a map at the Giant Forest Museum or Lodgepole Visitor Center and ask a ranger to help you plan a trip to explore the heart of this spectacular grove. Be prepared for a safe hike with the proper shoes and clothing, plenty of snacks and water, a hat, and sunscreen.
Continue driving along the Generals Highway to the Lodgepole Visitor Center, where you can view an exhibit about Colonel Young and the Buffalo Soldiers. Spend another hour and drive 27 miles to Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park, where you can see the General Grant Tree. More walking trails await you in this area. Purchase a Grant Grove trail map at any visitor center.
A paved path leads from the handicapped parking area to the General Sherman Tree. The trail is gently sloped. The Big Trees Trail is paved and relatively flat.
A free shuttle operates in the Giant Forest/Lodgepole/Dorst Creek area in summer, and includes stops at Dorst Campground, Wuksachi Lodge, Lodgepole Visitor Center, General Sherman Tree, Giant Forest Museum, Moro Rock, and Crescent Meadow. The shuttle does not go to Crystal Cave. For more information about the shuttle, visit http://www.nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/parktransit.htm.
Pets are not permitted on any trails in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but are allowed 100 feet from roads in developed areas (picnic areas, campgrounds, parking areas, etc.). Where allowed, pets must be on leashes no longer than 6 feet. Never leave pets in cars when it is warm, or they will overheat quickly. Pets must not be left unattended in parking areas or in vehicles.