We went up to the mountains for 4 days, leaving on a Thursday mid-morning and getting to the Giant Forest in a record 4.5 hours from northern L.A. There's construction on I-5 that shunts the two faster lane into one claustrophobic, no-passing lane for several miles and that was the only slow-down. We take the 65 route up to the 198, and with the exception of a newly-started grass fire, it was uneventful.
We were car camping. At the entry kiosk, the ranger told us there were still spaces at Dorst, but when we got there, the sign said "full." We went in to check it out, and yes, there were still a few campsites left at 4:30. It was a zoo in Dorst. No enforcement of the 6 person per campsite rule (the group just behind me was a 9 person group, all on one campsite and when we got to our assigned site, there were as many as 3 tents with 18 chairs on some sites, lots and lots of people milling about). Knowing that we were just going to sleep at our site (and spend our time elsewhere, out in nature) and that we had come prepared to be at completely unimproved campsites, we pushed on to see if we could find a better place to stay (we did).
We love Sequoia for its nature and its wildlife, so one of our favorite things to do is to find some exfoliating granite outcropping (like Beetle Rock, but all to ourselves) in a mixed forest area and just be quiet, looking around. Birds were the highlight of this visit, although we saw an amazing array of unusual insects (and some usual insects - like mosquitoes, which are tiny and less audible than mosquitos elsewhere and one definitely needs bug spray). A tiny creek ran by where we were hanging out, and a lovely mule deer showed up a few times to have a drink. There were of course chipmunks, gray squirrels and golden-mantled ground squirrels (saw no Douglas squirrels). Had my first glimpse of weasels at a rock outcropping at 7800 feet, they were in haste to get as far away from us as possible, but unmistakably not squirrels.
We sighted a yearling bear cub near the Lost Grove, heard bats and owls at night, and in general it was very good for the soul and the senses.
All the major Big Trees sites were crowded. Trailheads were crowded. Someone had a drum set and amplification near the campground (although they only played until 10 pm, we moved our campsite yet again to be someplace quieter). Grants Grove and its adjacent campgrounds were very busy. Stoney Creek Lodge area did have self service gas ($3.99 a gallon for regular unleaded), there were lines for it.
Key fact: it is very, very dry in the Sierras. Almost no water in the creeks (some completely dry). Clover Creek falls area looked like two small swimming pools. Lodgepole Creek had a couple of swimming holes (much more shallow than usual) and these were both completely packed with people. Lodgepole Campground was, if possible, even more crowded than Dorst, and again, many sites with more than the limit of people (the limit has been strictly kept in years past; the park has a temporary supervisor and fewer rangers than usual - not sure if that's the reason for the problem). Lodgepole and Dorst were still allowing campfires, but the NF campgrounds were absolutely not (and a permit is needed to operate a camp stove).
Dorst ranger said the campground may close early due to running out of water. Park literature says that they were going to try and keep the numbers at Dorst lower than usual in order to preserve water, that's obviously not happening (and I suppose closing it saves them the cost of having personnel there).
General Store and Visitor's Center Gift Shop have had some revamping - but still the old basics there. Shuttle stops were crowded, shuttles were crowded, but apparently the most popular place is still General Sherman; Crescent Meadow wasn't too crowded and was sublime. Staff at the Visitor Center was very young and relatively uninformed about trails and trail conditions (but highly informed about souvenir mugs). The old practice of posting weather records on the whiteboard at the Visitor Center has been abandoned. :( The sky was completely clear on the first day, with wispy, fast-moving clouds on the other days. Smoke from the fires near Mammoth (I think that's where they are) definitely clouded the already-impaired views from the General's Highway out toward the Valley and the Coast. Overnight lows (according to RAWS data acquired after we got home) were in the low 40's, so a bit nippy.
We finished out our stay with some time on the real Beetle Rock. Most of the people we ran into there were from other countries. We heard many different languages during our stay, lots of German, some French, Portuguese, lots of Spanish, some Italian, some Russian, Japanese, Mandarin, and some other Slavic languages we couldn't quite identify. We had our dogs with us and so naturally spoke with other dog-people; one family was from Greece but spending a long vacation (with their dog) in the U.S. We visited some trees near Beetle Rock that I've known since childhood, when Camp Kaweah was there.
It's lovely to see people stopping for pictures at Tunnel Rock, Tunnel Tree, Auto Log, and all the other classic sites of Sequoia. Lots of groups taking pictures where 15 people could stand in front of a tree and still not look like a very large group.
Driving out of the park was very very slow, due to slow traffic refusing to pull out for the excruciating 27 miles or so of switchbacks. Everyone had to go 5 mph (or come to a complete stop if that lead car, with a very timid driver, decided to actually stop on some of the hairpins). We started counting the cars in the other direction that were over the double line (1 in 5) and saw many near misses. On one afternoon, in the park, we were all similarly trapped behind two motorcycles going way under the speed limit - but that may have been a good thing, because eventually one of them stopped working altogether - right in the traffic lane, and there was much screeching of tires and veering off the road to avoid collisions, as many people were tailgating at the front of that car-train.
So, please go prepared to drive slowly, to keep your distance from the car ahead of you (you just never know when something unusual is going to happen), to keep from hitting animals, and to stay on your side of the road. Use the many well-constructed and safe pull-outs if you have even one car tailgating you, but certainly if there are 20 cars piled up behind you. Take moisturizing lotion and be prepared for bear activity at any picnic site or campsite. There's no need to pound pots and pans all night long at every sound, a good flashlight will deter even intrepid bears (they have notoriously poor sight and bright light is not their friend). Be prepared for a very large group, communal experience (with every form of human behavior) if you are staying in a NP campground during the Summer.
The world up there was still lush and green, with many wildflowers still in bloom, and only the barest hint of brown in the center of the larger meadows. Beautiful grasses and ferns everywhere, lots of wonderful natural food for bears. No cell service at any point in the park that we found (not until well outside the park). We Three Bakery in Three Rivers was open only on weekends (we didn't stop, but really like it when we do). Two newish motels on the south side of Three Rivers appeared nearly full (Comfort Inn and America's Value Inn). The ones near the 1922 bridge were doing a brisk business.
Less crowded trails included the Heather Lake Trail (a bit steep in the beginning, but so worth it if you make it to the Watchtower - not for the vertiginous, but there is a safe, non-cliffside alternative to going out on the edge there). I have to say that the Lodgepole Canyon area thrills me scenically about as much as Yosemite Valley, although it is much smaller, the walls are also much closer to the viewer, and it is altogether lovely.