Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Cave and Rock In Sequoia National Park

Wednesday, May 16th

Our suite was very comfortable and very quiet, so Dave and I ended up sleeping late while Sarah sat in the other room and used the Internet, which was miraculously very good there.  We got up just in time to make breakfast over in the main building.  We were hungry so sprang for the hot breakfast buffet, which gave us access to lots of eggs and meat.  Sarah definitely got her money’s worth of bacon.

We staggered back to our room and loaded up quickly for Sequoia NP … we had the routine down well by that point.  We drove the few miles back down the spur for Wuksachi Village and then along the General’s Highway to the Lodgepole VC.  Even though we got a late start there was barely anyone there and I had a good talk with a ranger about hikes with mountain views while Sarah bought tickets to Crystal Cave.  The tour we got tickets for started at noon and we were advised to leave immediately since they said it would take 30 minutes to drive down to the turnoff and then 45 minutes for the access road to the cave.

Yikes, it takes forever to get places out in California!  We couldn’t believe that our first hike of the day was going to start at noon.  Oh well … it didn’t take us quite as long to get there as they’d warned but it was a while.  We drove past another tourist center of Sequoia/Kings Canyon, the Giant Forest area.  We had originally meant to go there but were changing plans and were glad we did … we had seen the Grant Grove yesterday and that was enough exposure to the popular parts of the park.

Crystal Cave was the feature that had first caught Sarah’s eye about Sequoia and as with the Tioga Road, snow closes the road sometimes until June and we were lucky that it was open that mid-May.  The access road is paved, but it’s still not in the best shape and it took us well over 30 minutes to twist our way down and down into the valley that Crystal Cave sits at the bottom of.  We pulled into their huge parking lot with about another 5 cars … the lot would have held a couple of hundred cars and we once more blessed our luck at not being there in the middle of summer and our luck in beating the crowds out there.

We had to wait a bit before they let us walk down to the Cave, which time we spent disinfecting our shoes (in case they harbored organisms that might be harmful to the cave life) and looking at the beautiful wildflowers in that lower-elevation part of the park.  The narrow, crumbling path goes steeply downhill from there for a half mile, but we were way ahead of the other 4 people (the tour can have up to 30 people … ours had 7) and had time to stop again and again to look at the lovely views of the valley, the ubiquitous wildflowers, and the mosses dangling from the narrower and narrower canyon of Cascade Creek.  By the time we got to the bottom we were sharing a narrow crevice in the rock with the raging creek.

We got down there a few minutes before the previous tour group finished and had a nice chat with Katie the Cave Manager.  There are several veins of marble running through the Sierra Nevada; this is the oldest rock in the mountain range and the marble veins are special to geologists for the secrets they tell about the early time before the mountains were uplifted.  They also can be very porous, and there are over 200 known marble caves scattered throughout that part of California and Nevada.  Crystal Cave is the second biggest, but wasn’t “discovered” until around 8o years ago, when a couple in search of the perfect trout hole braved the depths of the canyon and stumbled on it.

The other people showed up and Katie gave us a bit of history and a bit of “don’t do this in the cave.”  They want to preserve the cave and not bring human-borne infections to the delicate life inside.  We had a well-behaved, small group but I can imagine how out of control it can get when groups of 30 screaming kids (and parents) show up there.  The cave entrance is blocked by a wonderful, wrought-iron “spider” gate that is locked every night, but vandals have still broken in at various times and smashed formations inside.  Why would people do that?

Katie asked for a volunteer to act as tail light for the expedition, and I jumped at the chance.  She took us on a marvelous tour, and was very glad that she had such a small group and so was able to take us to caverns she couldn’t fit large groups into and go in some detail about how the formations we saw were constantly forming and changing.  Yucca Creek has insinuated its way through the marble vein and the moving water is a large part of the story of how the cave formed.  I’m glad it wasn’t until we got outside that I thought about the millions of tons of rock we were under, but we had a marvelous time for the 45 minutes or so we were in there.  We saw not only stalactites and stalagmites, but rippling curtain walls of rock, mounds formed by dripping over the millennia, and terraced pools in miniature like the Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone.  There are more colors deep in the rock than I would have believed, and we also saw cave millipedes and small, sightless fish.

It was cold in the cave (around 50) and we were assaulted by the warmth and daylight when we got out, thanked Katie for a wonderful tour, and slowly climbed back up the path winding through the beautiful ravine.  It was another bright, brilliant, blue-sky day like every one of the days we were in California.  There was pollution-dust haze throughout the central valley of California and there was a bit of fog on the coast later in the trip, but every day of our vacation featured fabulous weather.  We climbed back up to the parking lot, with our heads on swivels between the incredible moss/rock/wildflower garden on our left and the precipitous but breathtaking views into the valley to our right … Dave spied a lone yucca on the far side.  We had a nice chat with the woman at the entrance kiosk back at the top of the trail.  Not only was the weather uniformly wonderful, all of the people we met on our trip were friendly and happy.  Makes you wonder.

It was well past lunchtime when we returned to the car, so we grabbed our supplies from the bear box where we had stowed them and found a lone picnic table in a bit of shade to make sandwiches and have a leisurely meal.  This was in a remote part of the cleared area (with a view of their solar array … no power lines out there) and so was hidden, private, peaceful, and lovely in mid-May but would definitely not be with even a half-full parking lot.  After lunch we saddled up again and slowly drove out the twisting road back up and up to the Generals Highway and back toward the center of the park.

The ranger I had talked to in the morning told me that if we wanted to see mountain views we had to start with Moro Rock of course, like I was an imbecile to not know that.  When we turned off to the access road to Moro Rock and actually got there I realized that if not an imbecile, at least I was ignorant … the mountain views from there were incredible.  Dave and I climbed the 300 feet up to the top of it, though Sarah decided not to.  We stopped over and over on the way up to take pictures, and when we got to the top we had a 360-degree view of this beautiful place, from the smog/haze-enveloped San Joaquin valley to our West, around to the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River to our South (more about this tomorrow!), the snow-capped wall of Sierra mountains forming the Great Western Divide to our East, and the march of the mountains as far as we could see to the North.

We were also delighted by the many, many lizards that called that rock home.  They ran out and posed for pictures, then scurried back to their cracks in the rock.

Dave and I made it back down and all three of us set out on the Sugar Pine Trail, a less-traveled part of the Crescent Meadow Loop.  This was another magical hike and high spot of our vacation.  We saw a few people along the trail, but largely were isolated with the Giant Sequoias popping up here and there, the majestic Ponderosa, Sugar Pines, and other evergreens scattering all around us as we threaded our way horizontally between the steep uphill grade on our left and a sharp, sudden drop into the valley to our right that afforded us vistas of the mountains off in the distance through the tops of the tall pine trees that were rooted hundreds of feet below.  We came out on a rock ledge with a sudden stream cascading down it.  From there the trail climbed steeply up to Bobcat Point, an exposed hillside on a sky peninsula jutting out into the middle of that majestic sky.

We sat down and had some snacks and enjoyed the vista.  We could have stayed there forever, but realized that we were dog-tired and the idea of returning to our suite at Wuksachi Lodge was kind of appealing.  The return trip on the trail was just as beautiful and the great feature of this was that magnificent Moro Rock dominated our view.  We made it back to the parking lot to a lonely Vicky (all other cars there had left), and were just able to catch the store at the Lodgepole VC before they closed and replenish our beer supply and get Dave a great Sequoia t-shirt.  No bears on our way uphill to Wuksachi that afternoon!

Dave and I took turns in the shower when we got back … it had been a hot and dusty day.  Caught the last third of the Celtics victory over the 76ers and then walked slowly over to the main building for dinner.  Sarah got the trout this time while Dave tried the wonderful meatloaf and I got a gluten-free pasta dish that was exactly the opposite of wonderful.  Oh well … we had just as beautiful a table/view as he had had the night before and were enjoying ourselves immensely.  Back to the room and managed to get in a few hands of rummy before it was time for sleep.

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