Stranded In The Southland

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

I finally got out to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. I'd meant to go for years, but hearing from a college buddy who got there this year finally got me off my butt, after 10 years as a Californian. After all, I've got the time, why not?

Besides, there were some high campgrounds where I could try to acclimated to altitude, and Kings Canyon NP was the starting point for lots of hikes into the high Sierras. It sounded perfect.

After surmounting some scheduling difficulties, I packed the Miata completely full of camping gear and headed out early Sunday morning, in hopes of beating the always-ridiculous traffic. Apparently, there is no problem getting a camping spot wherever you want on weekdays. Woo hoo, to be a man of leisure!

I arrived the south entrance of the park after a pleasant four hour drive. I'd been planning to camp at Mineral King, which is far to the south of most of the interesting stuff in the park, but the ranger convinced me that the long drive over rough dirt roads probably wouldn't be much of a win. Instead, I wound up getting a ticket to see Crystal Cave and hauled ass up a wonderfully twisty road to get there on time.

I had a quick and easy hike down an asphalt trail to the cave. It was only after I got there that I thought to ask if that had been poison ivy I'd seen on the way down. "Oh, no, that's poison oak. It's all over there." Gee, thanks. I'd've thought that if the trail was civilized enough to be paved over, they might remove the vacation-ruining poison oak, too. Oh, well, I used Tecnu when I got back up to the parking lot and I seem to avoided the poison oak this time.

The cave was fun, although not significantly different from other caves I've seen in the past. I guess this one was situated in marble, but other than that, it didn't really stand out. Factoid for the day: you don't really feel earthquakes down in caves. Hmmm. At least I saw a bear and two cubs on the drive out.

I'd driven far enough north to get to the cave that I figured that I didn't want to reverse that and head down to camp, so I wound up driving all the way to the other end of the park, at Cedar Glen.

Cedar Glen was perfect for me, as it was at 4,600', and near to a hike I wanted to take bright and early the next morning. Plus, I got to drive through to whole park, to get a feeling for what was out there. OTOH, if I'd realized I wasn't going to be camping at Mineral King, I could've just gone straight to Cedar Glen with considerably less hassle from another entrance. Oh, well. It didn't take more than a couple hours to drive from end to end.

I grabbed a camping spot (there were plenty available), smashed a few mosquitoes, and cooked myself some Raman. I then fell into bed and went to sleep by 9PM or so, awakened at around 6AM feeling refreshed and happy.

The camp's water supply was compromised, requiring boiling or other treatment due to high turbidity. Whatever that means. Apparently the river was running so high that it was causing problems for the treatment plant. In any case, I wound up cruising up to the trailhead, where there was a good supply of water.

My guidebook, California Hikes, had warned that the trail to Misty Falls gets extremely crowded, and suggested a very early start. At 7:30AM, there were maybe five cars in the parking lot, and virtually nobody on the trail.

I passed a few CCC workers going the other way; a big, old, happy-looking bear, and a couple women from LA. That was it. So much for heavy use. On the way down, I saw probably five groups of people, four strings of pack mules, and a few volunteer trail maintainers. That was it. So much for early.

The falls were worth the nine mile round trip, though. Due to the amazingly heavy rain we've had this winter, the river was running very high, and was all white-water cascading down rocks for the last mile of the hike.

The falls themselves were amazing, spraying mist for several hundred meters downstream. I wound up putting on my raingear eventually to try to get close -- I got soaked! The water was almost running too high -- it seemed like the river had filled its channel to overflowing, and the gushing water obliterated any details of the rocks underlying the falls. It was all just white water, surging and pounding and roaring. Yow.

Kings Canyon (named for the three Kings of the Bible, IIRC, so there's no apostrophe) is beautiful. It's not nearly as sculpted and cool as Yosemite, but still worth seeing. I can't wait to go back and hike up into the canyons some more.

After getting back to camp, packing up, and heading out, I went to check out the redwoods. These sequoias are not as tall as the coastal redwoods I've seen in the past, but are much thicker. The mature sequoias had branches that are the size of trunks on large oak trees. Amazing.

I checked out General Grant, General Sherman, General Robert E. Lee, and all sorts of other trees, with equally crazy names. While General Sherman was the biggest, all of the mature trees were pretty amazing.

After checking out all of the really big trees, I headed to an early camp out in Sequoia National Forest. It's like SNP, but the camping is free, instead of $18. :-) Plus, the campsite was up at 7,500', so hopefully I could get a bit more acclimated to altitude.

At first, I didn't even notice the altitude -- the bugs were so incredibly thick I couldn't think about anything else. They landed right in the fancy Lemon-Eucalyptus bug lotion I was using and bit right into me. From now on, I'll be using Deet. I even got into the car and took a drive along the rough dirt roads in an attempt to avoid the bugs. Eventually I just dove into my tend, slapped the few mosquitoes the followed me in, and read myself to sleep.

Unfortunately, I had a really rough time sleeping, with bizarre dreams waking me up every hour or so, presumably due to the altitude interfering with the rythmn of my breathing. Normal folks have no problem with altitudes below 8,000', but I appear to be especially susceptible.

I considered just packing up and heading down to lower altitude, but it seemed like arriving into another campsite at 3AM wouldn't win me too many friends, and I wasn't feeling bad enough to merit a spendy hotel room. Besides, I just had trouble sleeping; I didn't have a headache or nausea or any of the other symptoms.

In any case, I staggered out of bed for hot chocolate and oatmeal at 6AM, packed up, swatted a few last mosquitoes, and headed down to a well-earned shower. Except that the showers didn't open 'til 8AM. Doh.

With nothing else to do, I took a quick four mile hike up Little Baldy, which the guidebook suggested was best in the early morning before the smog picks up in the Central Valley. Well, the Central Valley was still smoggy, but the vista from up high was amazing.

Getting up early must be the key to spotting wildlife -- on the way up, I saw a mother bear and two cubs, and on the way down, a couple of marmots. I've seen marmots described as giant squirrels (they are apparently in the same family), but these looked like fat weasels or otters. They were big ol' mothers. Very cool.

I finally got my shower (not even a line to wait in, woo hoo!), and listened to a fairly amateurish ranger presentation on bears. Only a few of the 20 or so people in the audience had seen a bear, so I was feelin' pretty good about spotting four with all that early-morning hiking.

I then wandered through a bunch more sequoia groves, climbed Moro Rock (best vistas in the park, entirely worth slogging up the 400 steps to the top!), and explored Crescent Meadow. I was amazed by the huge meadows, as it seemed strange that no trees at all could gain a foothold there. I learned that the bedrock was just below the topsoil, and that the meadows were in soggy depressions that made it too tough for the trees to get started. All due to the local geology!

Similarly, I was bemused by the height of the sequoias. They all seemed to reach about the same height. Apparently, after 600 or 700 years, they stop getting taller and just get thicker, resulting in an almost cone-like top, with a huge column of trunk supporting it. I tried to get a ranger to explain this to me, but she seemed to think that, "They get a certain height and stop," was all the explanation anyone would ever need.

I was immediately curious about why, say, pine trees didn't grow as big as sequoias. Why all of the sequoias would get to the same height and stop -- wouldn't it be an evolutionary advantage to be taller than the other sequoias around you? Surely it isn't due to the physics of capillary action (an explanation I seem to recall), since coastal redwoods are probably 50 feet taller, on average, than these trees. Weird, and it was too bad the rangers weren't up to explaining all of this a little better.

In any case, I headed out with a brief stop to check out the Kaweah river, but it was so hot down in the foothills that I mostly just wanted to get home! I had a great drive back, just missing rush hour, and was home and kissing my baby by 8:30PM or so. Whadda trip!