Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Down There?!?! Kings Canyon National Park

Tuesday, May 15th

Woke up on Tuesday a bit later than the day before and the heat had already started up by the time we went to breakfast.  The hotel was apparently packed and the hotel lobby was full of tourists from all over the world trying to get in a bit of breakfast before Yosemite.  We were trying to get in a bit of breakfast before heading South, and trying to milk a few screens out of the internet kiosks there.

Internet and phone accessibility ranged from spotty to horrible to non-existent through most of the Sierra.  There were some good spots, but it made you think you were way back in pre-history (or 2007) when you tried to access the Miners Inn “free wifi.”  It was slightly better at the kiosks in the lobby (taking our laptops to the lobby was as hopeless as in the room) but we still had a very hard time getting the internet to show us a map of Radio Shacks in Fresno … hard to believe huh?  We were determined to get a “MP3 to radio” device and figured we’d stop in Fresno since we had to find a grocery store anyway (already out of bread and jelly and we could always use more beer).

We loaded up the car and got out of there by 9:40, slowing down in town to check once more if the music store there was open (hopeless) and then to gawk for a second at the charred ruins of the pizza store.  The fire there had been the biggest story in Mariposa that May and people were coming from all around to see what was left.  We snapped a picture then turned onto route 49 Southwest and headed down and down and then down some more while the slope gradually got gentler and the hills we were cresting like gentle waves in the green universe got smaller and smaller and the trees slowly disappeared like Cheshire cats and the grass turned brown (“in the summertime”).

We drove down a last long and gradual hill into the town of Oakhurst and just as Sarah said, “Maybe there’s a Radio Shack here,” a mall appeared on our right and it had a Radio Shack and a Von’s supermarket!  We were suddenly in shopping heaven, which for us is getting there before it gets crowded.  We were maybe the first people in Radio Shack that day (Sarah detoured to the cheap cigarette store next door).  The guy was a bit taken aback by Dave’s and my foreign accents, but he realized that we were speaking English and making sense and he had exactly what we needed.  That MP3-to-radio device worked very well through the rest of the trip, though it needed to be tuned to a vacant radio frequency and that was sometimes hard to do.

Went from there to Von’s (we forgot the Von’s card we’d gotten in Las Vegas back in 2003!) where we replenished our supplies and found the newest Janet Evanovich paperback, and then filled up at the gas station near the mall exit.  This was a quick trip … so now is probably a good time for my digression on beer!

Digression on Beer – I’d been hoping for a wonderland of beer choices and to have the opportunity to stretch my taste buds with some exotic styles.  I was very disappointed but understood when this did not happen.  Beer availability has kept changing in the US over the past 20 years, and at this point the “micro” market is being dominated by breweries with good business plans, good marketing tactics, or distinctive beers.  Though some spots have a great variety of local beer, most places that aren’t dedicated beer bars have only a few good varieties.  California is no different than Massachusetts or Colorado in this case.  Here are some beers that we sampled:

  • Red Tail Ale from the Mendocino Brewing Company – This was one of the 12-packs we bought on our first grocery trip and was a very solid, session American amber ale with a distinctive malt taste, a bit of sourness, and nice balance.  This was exactly as advertised, truly drinkable, and had a beautiful label.
  • Ruthless Rye from Sierra Nevada – Never seen this style in the East, though most Sierra Nevada beers are distributed there, and I’m very glad we picked up a 12 of bottles.  The sweetness of the rye is offset well by a strong sourness, a bit of spice, and distinctive hop bitterness.  Again, the label is fantastic.  If you get a chance, try this!
  • General Sherman IPA from Sequoia Brewing Company – They had this at the bar at Sequoia NP and it was acceptable though pretty mainstream/bland.  Not distinctive at all and not recommended.
  • Lagunitas IPA from Lagunitas Brewing Company – This was the standard on-tap-everywhere beer … the local beer dominating the craft side of the menu.  Problem is they distribute out East too and I’ve had it.  I like it a lot, nice California well-hopped ale, and I did my best not to order it but it was often the only acceptable ale available.

And that’s it!  We were reduced to drinking Sierra Nevada’s regular ale often as well, which is almost as ubiquitous as Sam Adams.  Most menus had one or two Wits and that seemed to be the craft style of choice in California these days … put an orange in anything and they love it.

We left Oakhurst at 10:43, deliriously happy that we could listen to all flavors of Grateful Dead with a few California songs mixed in, that we now had paper towels and plates, and that we wouldn’t have to stop in Fresno.  The road from Oakhurst flattened out totally, the orchards started, and the haze/smog of the San Joaquin valley enveloped us as the road picked up another lane and then turned into a freeway as we got closer and closer to Fresno.  In the center of Fresno (296 feet above sea level) we turned due East on route 180 for miles and miles of flatness and orchards until we crossed the severely harnessed King’s River and started the climb back up the parabolic curve of the Sierra into Kings Canyon NP.

We passed through Squaw Valley (1631 feet) and though people had done their best to bring the industrial (but pretty) farms as far up the hills as possible, eventually they just had to quit it as the tall pines started up again and the road started its violent twitching and bounding.  This stretch of highway had elevation signs and we very quickly passed from 2000 feet up to 3, 4, 5, and 6000 feet as we entered the park at the Big Stump entrance and then followed route 180 left to the Kings Canyon VC in Grant Grove Village at about lunchtime.  We showed our pass at the kiosk there in exchange for a parking pass for the dashboard, and had a nice talk with a very helpful ranger who was delighted that we wanted to go for a hike as opposed to the great masses, many in tour busses, and most not at all outfitted for a wilderness experience.  She also gave us a quick tour through her pine cone collection and was delighted at our interest, especially when Dave the cool guy with long hair was obviously rocked by the cones … I’m sure park service staff live for those moments when they can show or teach people what they think is fascinating about the world.  Didn’t want to tell her that she didn’t have far to go with us!

We had studied the Sequoia/Kings Canyon Hikes book mentioned above over and over and were bound to go for either the Hart Tree Loop in the Redwood Mountain grove or the Muir Grove hike from the Dorst campground.  The ranger (in her ranger way) gave us the quick once-over and assessed that we were fit enough to do either.  She didn’t overtly favor the Redwood Mountain area but she gushed about it a bit more than the Muir Grove area and told us that since the Dorst Campground was not yet open, and no one had been there that year so she wasn’t sure what condition the path was in, that we’d have to park at the road and walk an extra couple of miles for that one and it might be hard to find the trailhead.  Her soft sell convinced us to go for the Redwood Mountain Grove (which she gave us detailed directions to … it’s a bit hard to find also), but first we just had to see the General Grant Grove since we were there.

The Sequoioideae Family is divided into three species: the Giant Sequoia of the Sierra Nevada, the Coastal Redwood of the California/Oregon coast, and the Dawn Redwood found in a small region of China.  Giant Sequoias live in a number of groves throughout the Sierra Nevada area; Yosemite has three, Kings Canyon has several, and the majority are in Sequoia NP.  One of the most famous is the General Grant grove (most places in this area of California got white-man names soon after the Civil War (you don’t see many reminders of native Americans around there)), and this along with the Giant Forest grove have some of the “biggest trees on the planet.”  We were about to see the General Grant tree which is tree number 3 on the size chart … though we suspect that the measurement of bigness in trees is more marketing and not wanting to call Civil War people liars than it is scientifically factual.

We took a left downhill towards the grove a few hundred yards from the busy village, and the parking lot was filled with burning sun, shouting schoolkids, foreign tourists, idling busses, and surrounded by gigantic trees when we got there.  By that time we were very hungry and our mission was clear: 1) eat lunch before we starved, 2) see the huge trees and then 3) screw out of there ASAP and go for a wild trail.  We made lunch on Vicky’s hood and scarfed it down quickly as the roaring busses left with half the schoolkids and the grove returned to a semblance of sanity.  After the quick sandwiches, and after flaking out our wet clothes (from the leaking cooler and/or the swim in Tenaya Lake) on the car in the hot sun, we took a quick tour around the grove, dodging groups of French-speakers and scuffling kids to suddenly find ourselves in a part of the trail where we were totally alone in the cool shade with brilliant shafts of sunlight, and then face-to-face with the General Grant tree, the “nation’s Christmas tree.”

You can see pictures of Sequoias but of course they don’t really give you the idea how big those trees are, even if you have people in the picture.  The overall sensation is of incredible mass.  A comical sign we saw attempted to add some human perspective and said that 37 million ping pong balls could fit into the Grant tree.  It’s amazing to think of the chutzpah of thinking you could saw one of them down and use it, and it’s even more amazing to think of the tools people would have had to bring to bear to try it (generally unsuccessfully).  The bark of Sequoias can be over two feet thick and the branches in mature trees start several hundred feet up and are as big as large trees themselves.  Their cones are amazing; they’re very small, hard, and dense, opening only when they meet fire and usually not dropping until 20 years or more after they form.  I picked up several pieces of Sequoia bark on our later walk and it’s just amazing how light it is, like it’s made out of Styrofoam and some fine animal hair.

We bowed to the beyond-massive General Grant tree, walked through the Fallen Monarch, a fire-hollowed fallen Sequoia that has been used as a hotel and a restaurant, and then hurried back to the car and got out of there.  These are incredible trees and a lovely place, but it suffers from the waves of humanity.

We left the Grant Village area and turned down the Generals Highway for the 3.5 miles to the Quail Flat turnoff.  Just before it we pulled over at the Redwood Mountain overlook and got a great panoramic view of Redwood Mountain and the grove that surrounds it, the largest existing Sequoia grove and the one we were about to hike in.  The turnoff immediately becomes a rutted dirt road and drops off the edge of the cliff, and we said a few prayers that we’d be able to get back up as we turned Vicky down it and slowly descended the steep, twisting 2 miles to Redwood Saddle.  There was one other car in the parking lot when we arrived, but they were gone when we returned.  We had passed two cars on the road in but besides those people we saw not one person for the rest of the afternoon.

This was the hike we had been waiting for!  We filled our packs with spare clothes, plenty of water, flashlights, whistles, maps, compasses, rope and knife, sunscreen, first aid stuff, mosquito repellent, fruit … oh, and a few bottles of beer in case we needed to use the alcohol to sanitize any wounds.  The rest of the food we had and anything that might possibly smell like food we bagged up and stowed in the bear box in the parking lot.  The story is that bears have an incredible sense of smell, which we were told is 30 times as acute as a dog’s.  Bears have learned that cars are goodie boxes and the National Park Service (and common sense) dictates that nothing that smells like food should be left in cars while they’re unattended in case bears try to break in.  Bears can get into cars (or will severely damage them and themselves trying) but cannot get past the metal sides of the bear boxes or open the simple (to a human with a bit of spatial acuity) locks.

We were off down the hillside some more and the beauty closed in on us.  It was a crystal clear mid-afternoon with the blue, blue sky peering down on us between the great hunks of Sequoia, Ponderosa Pine, Sugar Pines, Incense Pines, and many other varieties of evergreen.  Western Dogwoods delighted us with their sudden exuberances of white flowers.  Wildflowers of yellow, pink, ruby red, pale green, more shades of orange than we knew existed, blue, violet, fuchsia, brown, and gray nestled all around us among the fallen pine branches and an incredible number of pine cones.

We could not believe the Sugar Pine cones, this is the tallest pine tree and has the biggest cones.  Some of the ones we saw were well over a foot long (Wikipedia says they can grow to two feet) and must have weighed 5 pounds; if one fell on you, you would be in a world of hurt.  We looked up nervously.  The greens from the many types of pine needles and the powerful reds of the massive Sequoias dominated your sight.  Golden mantled ground squirrels chirped all around us like this was a Disney movie, and birds swooped among the trees.  We saw about 20 deer on that walk too, as well as a few lizards and a few snakes, but as I say … no people.

We didn’t do the whole Redwood Mountain trail, but did the Hart Tree loop, which is 7.2 miles of it.  The first sight we saw along the trail was the “Log Cabin,” which is a fallen tree that was used as a cabin for years and could still be used for that if you fitted a door to it and weren’t scared of spiders.  A few miles after that we came out onto a rock shelf where we had incredible views and discovered even more species of crazy wildflowers, hiding in the cracks of the rock.  A few miles after that was the “Fallen Tunnel,” a hollowed out log that far surpassed the one at Grant Grove in length and had the added attraction of being way off in the woods where there were no packs of schoolkids.

We trudged and trudged along after that, enjoying ourselves immensely but beginning to get a little worried about ever getting out.  We were deep into the grove at that point and still heading away from the trailhead, and downhill.  We crossed several sudden streams on fallen Sequoias, climbing up on the trunks with the help of other fallen trees and then sliding down to the ground after walking along them for a few hundred yards.  We eventually got to the Hart Tree itself, which the Civil War-era people had decided was the 4th biggest tree on the planet, but which to our eyes was not even as big as some of the other trees on that trail.  Finally we approached the most downhill part of the trail and saw the “Fallen Goliath,” an old, old fallen tree with a trunk three times as thick (that is, high off the ground) as I am tall.  There was no chance of climbing up on top of this one!

A bit more downhill after that and the trail crossed Redwood Creek itself on bridges of fallen Sequoias.  Some deer watched us nonchalantly as we crossed and then started the long but gradual climb back uphill to the trailhead.  Still one and a half miles to go on this stretch, but we made it fine while enjoying the profusion of riparian trees and squirrels along the creek.  The trail turned sharply uphill again finally and we were back to the start of the loop, and then the slog back up the steepest part: the third of a mile to the parking lot.  We expected to see a whole committee of bears trying to figure out the bear box, but nothing … the parking lot was totally deserted except for Vicky, who was very glad to see us.

Boy that was great!  We had just experienced the heart of the Sierra for several hours and seen thousands of some of the most majestic trees on the planet, from old monarchs to young teenagers.  Some Sequoias live thousands of years and some can hold a great number of ping pong balls.  For most of the walk I was picking up and carrying with me perfect pine cones at various stages of life, large hunks of Sequoia bark, and/or shattered chips of dense wood so I could connect even better with what I was seeing, smelling, hearing, and touching (ooh!  I forgot to taste the trees!!).  Being a dedicated leave-no-tracer, of course I discarded them before I left the woods, but I hated to.

Our stuff in the bear box was still intact and we threw it back in the trunk, swallowed down some more water, and then took off up the twisting, bumpy, rutted trail in our not-very-happy, rear-wheel drive, 6-cylinder hunk of metal.  Finally made it back to the pavement at about 6:30 and still had many miles to go on the Generals Highway to get to Wuksachi Lodge, where we had room and dinner reservations for 7:00.  We took off as fast as we could, continuing our path uphill past another small grove of Sequoias, other trails we wished we had the time for, and several closed campsites.

And then I saw it, a flash of dark black moving among the trees!  We pulled over and shut off the engine and the music, it was a black bear hunting dinner.  This was in the gerrymandered peninsula of the Giant Sequoia NM that sticks out between the two NPs.  Sarah got some still pix and a short movie of him coming about 50 feet away from us, ripping the bark off downed logs to look for grubs, and listening for the suddenly silent squirrels.  He did up that area quickly though and was off over the crest of the hill to the next one while we fired up the car again and finished our trip up to Wuksachi Lodge, just over 7000 feet.

Sarah had found this place while researching the trip and we’re very glad we decided to go for it.  The cost was not unreasonable and it was fantastic to not have to drive the many miles and many hours back to some cheap (or expensive!) hotel after that long day.  We pulled in at around 7:30 and while Sarah went to check in at the desk in the beautiful main building, I dashed over to the dining room and told the maĆ®tre d’ that we were late but present, which he acknowledged.  We had to wait a bit for the couple ahead of us at the desk, who apparently had never checked into a hotel before.  And as happened all trip long the crowds were right behind us; by the time we checked in (with a free room upgrade because they screwed up (room 208 in the Silliman Building; the desk clerk actually snickered at the name of the building … she was cool)) there were about 8 more groups waiting in line behind us and almost stretching out the door.  We were definitely feeling pooped, dirty, dried-sweaty, and chilly (it was getting cold quickly), perhaps out of place in such a fancy resort.  But a quick look at the state of the others checking in made us realize that there was nothing wrong with that!

After checking in we went over to the restaurant and got drinks while we waited a bit to be seated.  We were soon ensconced at an incredible table near the window overlooking the pine forest, given lots of water to drink, and had time to exult.  Service was slow but that was ok with us: Sarah got the Tandoori chicken and a butternut soup, Dave got the salmon (he’s a salmon fool), and I got the wonderful meatloaf with crispy onions, bacon, and barbecue sauce.  The food was excellent, but then after dinner we had to find our way to our “superior room,” a suite in one corner of the Silliman Building (named after a nearby mountain), which was several hundred yards from the lodge itself on what had suddenly become a dark, dark night.  Dave and I found it and dragged all the luggage in, and then Sarah found us and helped.  Plenty of space to spread out here, but after a little spreading and a little bit of a silly Will Ferrell movie we realized we were exhausted and went to bed.

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