As locals and international travelers can attest, there are no two national parks that are more frequented in California than Yosemite and Sequoia. Both earned national park status in 1890; and the first attracts approximately 4.5 million people per year, whereas the latter hosts 1.5 million.
Whether you’re relatively new to these parks, which are separated by about 140 miles, or you have visited them on numerous occasions, there is nothing that quite compares to experiencing these wonders of the world through the mind’s eye of a seasoned tour guide.
Certainly, besides having a robust historical knowledge about such natural phenomena, well-regarded tour guides are affable, have an enjoyable sense of humor, and exude a comforting spirit so that both the novice and the expert can responsibly explore. More importantly, tour guides aid in the sharing of a collective experience with strangers-turned-friends over the span of eight exciting hours — amounting to an adventure that will be fondly remembered.
As such, two companies that particularly understand and excel with their full-day tours of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, respectively, are Discover Yosemite and Sequoia Sightseeing Tours.
Sequoia Sightseeing Tours
Based on the full-day tour with Paul Bischoff (activities are subject to change depending on the season)
Co-owned and operated with his Birmingham, England-born wife, Becky, Paul Bischoff does much of the tour-guiding on behalf of his company. He is very open and forthcoming about himself and his supportive family, including his three children, who make their father very proud. Having come from humble beginnings, and a town of only 31 people, Paul is a self-made man in his mid-40s, who began his professional relationship with Sequoia National Park from the age of 19 when he began taking the sinuous Highway 198 route up to the park (first leveled in 1926) from the city of Three Rivers, up to an elevation as high as 7,400 feet. Additionally, Paul has a versatile background, having taught cross-country skiing, kayaking, and river-rafting.
With a demeanor that is infectiously gregarious, Paul speaks to his passengers with an easygoingness that relaxes everyone, offering facts about how, for instance, 99 percent of all visitors see only one percent of the park; how the biggest and second biggest trees in the world (General Sherman and General Grant) received their names because the military was the park’s governing body until 1916; and why people once descended the park by driving in reverse (to access their cars’ lower-gear brakes). Paul’s engaging approach is further complemented with the telling of personal stories, including when he once witnessed 15 bears in a single day at the park (note: there is even a Bear Management team on site) and the time when he and his wife initially lived in a remote tent before moving into a cabin inside the park.
So, when several renowned check-point stops are made on the tour — including spots like Tunnel and Beetle Rock, the Giant Forest Museum, as well as the panoramic views of the verdant park — everything takes on an extra bit of significance because of how well Paul puts everything into a perspective spanning decades of diligence. That said, the main-event unsurprisingly continues to be the gargantuan sequoia trees, which Paul adeptly and suspensefully readies his passengers for.
Home to more than 2,000 giant sequoias, these special trees, which foster a spiritual experience in many, still only comprise one percent of the plant life in the park, which Paul astutely points out. Truth be told, moss-covered white firs make up 60 percent, followed by sugar pines at 10 percent, but it is the sequoias that capture the imagination and hearts of those who are lucky enough to see them in person. As Paul describes, they have been growing for the last 5,000 years because of “an alignment of landscape and climate where they grow.” Even more impressively, natural fires are a necessity for them to flourish, as they help release the 200-300 seeds per cone hanging from each tree, of which perhaps one in a million takes root.
Paul also honorably brings to attention how important it is to continue protecting these gigantic miracles. In recounting the story of when Walter Fry helped fell the oldest known sequoia at 3,266 years — which struck a nerve in him to be their guardian thereafter (Fry later became superintendent of the park) — Paul speaks glowingly of how park staff began to accommodate nature, as opposed to the other way around, starting in 1998. Specifically, three-hundred buildings were torn down to plant new sequoias and give the existing ones the space they require. Consequently, when Paul leads around his troupe to areas where collections of sequoias, such as the “Three Graces,” “Four Guardsmen,” and even the prized “General Sherman” can be treasured, the experience occurs in conjunction with the understanding that we have come a long way in our reverence and deferment to at least some elements of Mother Nature.
Based on the full-day tour with tour guide Glenn Bennik (activities are subject to change depending on the season)
Founded by Southern California native Dee Ann Smith, Discover Yosemite has, since its inception, expanded from one tour guide to approximately 20, all of whom are genial, well-versed, and proficient in the art of assisting with and facilitating a thrilling, but safe, experience.
One of them is Glenn Bennik from Woodland Hills, CA, who, in addition to being an expert drummer, is a superb tour guide. He is as passionate about history as he is about ensuring that everyone has a comfortable ride with the various snacks that are offered, along with a delicious lunch at either The Majestic Yosemite Hotel or outdoors in picnic-like fashion. His knowledge of the area is uncanny, as when he describes the bygone era when Oak Hurst, CA used to be called “Fresno Flats” and when Chief Tenaya of the Ahwahnechee tribe – the last leader of his kind in Yosemite Valley – told the incoming Mariposa Battalion in 1851 that he and his people didn’t want to leave. Of course, the sad fact is that the Ahwahnechee were eventually treated inhumanely by being purposely starved (via the burning of their acorn husks).
Bennik’s method is sincere because it is a reflection of who he is as a person, as one who speaks with honesty and accuracy, even if some of the historical recollections offered aren’t pleasant to hear. Nonetheless, Bennik is encyclopedic in his authenticity, as in when he draws a spectacular analogy between the size of Yosemite to Rhode Island, and how the giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove store up to 30,000 gallons of water in their trunks. The various burn scars on these trees, too, are a reminder of their regenerative life spans, and the reason why they continue to thrive in spite of nature’s “spring-cleaning” cycles (because of the fire-retardant tannins in their barks).
Certainly, Yosemite Valley – with the Merced River running right through it — and its diverse attractions are fully covered by Bennik, as well, who makes the passengers feel contented with the time allotted to behold the incredible granite rocks and waterfalls. Bridalveil Fall, which is 617 feet in length, is an indisputably awesome sight that offers a refreshingly misty experience for those who stand near its base. Its counterpart is the even more magnificent Yosemite Falls, which exists in three sections, for a total of 2,425 feet. Bennik offers another eloquent analogy to help understand its scope when he says that the upper section can fit the Empire State Building, and the lower half is taller than Niagara Falls. Other comparable waterfalls include Ribbon Fall and Horsetail Fall on the west and east sides of El Capitan – the largest monolith rock in the world – which rises 3,563 feet above the valley. Another one is Sentinel Rock, which is similarly a popular destination for proficient rock climbers.
It goes without saying that, while Glacier Point may not be accessible in the winter, the indelible glimpses of Valley View, Half Dome and especially the breathtaking Tunnel View underscore an endless wonderment that largely came about, geologically, because of what melted primeval glaciers left in their wake.
Ultimately, though fun and exploration are always encouraged, the most important maxim to be wary of is that, as beautiful as national parks are, they can be perilous to those who don’t properly heed their warnings. For instance, in Yosemite and Sequoia, one thing to be particularly attentive about are the bears. Despite being usually docile, it is nevertheless incumbent upon the individual to be extra careful. “When visiting, make sure to leave all excess food in one of the provided bear lockers. If you leave anything in a car, a bear can literally smell it a mile away,” says Bennik. It is a message that reflects on the necessity of knowing that to admire nature, one must also appreciate all of its constituent parts that encompass a vast order.