Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sequoia-King's Canyon

After a few weeks in the desert, I found myself craving forests, with real trees.

I suppose that counts.
With a fresh battery, I headed west from Flagstaff, Arizona to California and the Sierra Nevada. It was a long drive, so I broke it up by making camp at Red Rock Canyon State Park in California, in the Mojave. The landscape leading up to it didn't raise my expectations, but it was a really bizarre spot.

I don't know what to call these tower-y features in the sandstone

They made good explorable nooks.

Looking up

Inside a nook
The flat land leading up to the canyon was studded with Joshua trees.

Trees and some of the more interesting Mojave hills

Me looking pensive, like maybe I just recorded the definitive rock album of the 80s or something.
After a starry night's stay, it was off north to Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks. Sequoia and King's Canyon are adjacent and managed jointly, acting as two areas of one large park, and they cover much of the same kind of terrain--the sudden and startling forests of the Sierras rising from the deserts of central California. Both parks are home to several groves of giant sequoias, the largest (by volume) trees in the world, and Sequoia boasts the very largest, the General Sherman tree. (Sequoias aren't the tallest; their cousins the coast redwoods beat them out, but not by much.)

Mountain views start to get old eventually. Geysers are cool, but they can't make up for bad park management. But for some reason, I never stopped being awed by giant trees. Every single grove of sequoias impressed me, and I never quit saying to myself, "Damn, tree, you big!" no matter how many damn big trees I saw.

And with few exceptions, you get absolutely no sense of scale from photographs.
You can't tell from the photo, but THIS TREE IS HUGE.
The General Grant, which boasts the widest trunk, 40 feet across at 6 feet up. Which you can't tell from the photo.
In the photo, it looks like just any old tree. But trust me, it's really, really huge.
(Unfortunately, I couldn't take as many pictures as I would like, because my camera's lens was and is still recovering from too many encounters with Colorado River silt. Even after the lens could successfully open and close after a few tries, the failures quickly drained the battery.)

I didn't see any big trees on my first day in the park--in fact, I didn't see anything. The fog was soup-thick through sunset, and solidified into a heavy frost after dark. The next morning, I woke up to a beautiful, if cold, forested mountain landscape. I went for a day hike to a series of alpine lakes. I'm not sure whether it was the laziness of four days in a city, the squishiness I picked up from Grand Canyon food, or weaning myself off unlimited coffee, but I was slow and tired for the first couple of days back on the trail. I actually took a quick nap beside the lake below.

Not sure if sleepiness is the cause of that slant.
Many trees here had appealing Mountain Dew-colored lichens.
My first long backpack was a three-night course out and back on the High Sierra Trail. The High Sierra runs an enormous length from one of the park's main villages all the way to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Though you can climb Mount Whitney on a regular hiking trail, no technical mountaineering skill or gear required, I have zero inclination to do so. Instead, I followed the trail as far out as a place called Redwood Meadow.

This part of the trail kept to a relatively level elevation, given the terrain. As it passed through pines and oaks and granite boulders, it almost reminded me of Vermont.

At least, until I got a view.
Granite domes, small cousins of Yosemite's up north
Or entered a grove of Sequoias.

A lot of them have fire scars and seem very precariously propped up.
You can't tell from the photo, etc.
These foot-long monster cones aren't actually sequoia cones; I never determined exactly which pine they came from. Sequoia cones are about the size of a kiwi fruit.
No matter their origin, the big cones burn awesome.

 After an uneventful night at my first camp, I turned switchback down a hill and ran into a black bear coming from the other direction. It and I stood there for a second, surprised to see each other, until I got the sense to yell and clap and do the things you're supposed to do to ensure that bears don't get desensitized to humans, and he half-heartedly ran off. There are no grizzlies in California, but the black bears are so problematic that you can't even leave food inside your car--they're known to break into vehicles if they see a cooler through the window. Even in bear-infested Glacier, your food was fine in your car. But unlike with grizzlies, black-bear warning literature never mentions attacks or defense strategies or bear spray, so this bear encounter felt benign. Plus he was small.

The second night, I camped under the truly huge sequoia pictured at the top of the update. That and the hike heading out were uneventful, if quietly lovely. I still felt sort of slow and tired, especially with the required rental bear canister weighing down my backpack.

The third night's campsite was next to a stream that ran across a long, open granite hillside overlooking the smoggy San Joaquin valley to the west. The pollution made for a lovely sunset.

A view from my tent site to the Sierras to the southeast
Waterfall near camp

The next day was a short hike out. I spent the afternoon touring the Sherman Grove and visiting The General Sherman, world's largest tree and hero-slash-villain of the great war between the states. I didn't end up taking a single photo. It felt so much more special to sleep under a giant tree, even if it wasn't the most giant evar, rather than see one from a parking lot.

I did take this shot of Nonno and a sequoia root ball. The informational plaque described sequoias as occasionally "losing their balance," which I find quite amusing to imagine.

I then moved on to King's Canyon park, where I did a single-night backpack into Redwood Canyon, which was simply infested with giant sequoias.

A failed attempt at a self-timer flash shot where the trail runs through the entire length of a sequoia log. Then the battery died.
The hike was gorgeous the entire way. As I prepared breakfast in camp, a small herd of deer appeared through the trees. They circled the campsite four or five times, getting closer and closer each time, until they decided I wasn't a threat. Then they contentedly browsed while I finished eating and packed. With a dead camera battery.

When I got back, I had some news to account for. I'd wanted to do one more backpack, but the forecast called for a winter storm, with as much as 7" of snow, wind gusts over 75 miles an hour, and temperatures in the teens. It had been chilly my entire visit, and it seemed safest to retreat into the valley and spend a couple of life-maintenance days in Fresno until the weather cleared. 

I mulled my options. I knew I didn't want to sleep in a tent in 75-mph snow. But I didn't really want to drive out so soon and spend a rainy day in Strip Mall City.

Then I thought, hey, I bought this car specifically so I could sleep in it. Normally, there's too much gear stuffed in the back to make it worthwhile, but since I'm required to stash all my food, toiletries, cooking utensils, and other scented items in a bear box anyway, why not? The car would be warm, wind- and snow- proof, and would fulfill a purpose I'd always intended but never gone through with.

Cell phone photos from here on out.
The car was toasty, the wind never really picked up, and the temperature in the morning hovered around 32 or 33--warm for a snowy day. I'm so glad I stayed in the park for one more night. Even though only about 4 inches of snow fell, it was enough to transform it into a whole new park. In my anxiety over being outside in severe weather, I'd forgotten that I still get excited for the first snow, and I love tramping around in the woods in the winter.

Hot coffee in hand

The Grant Grove includes several logs you can climb inside or walk through.

The "twin sisters," whose tops catch the first flakes of an approaching flurry

After a long morning's walkabout, I headed down the mountain, my car shedding a layer of crusted-on snow well into the desert valley, to the amusement/enragement of other drivers. Now I am, in fact, taking a shower/laundry/blog break in Fresno (blugh!). Despite the fun I had in the snow, I might let another pass of bad weather clear through the Sierras before heading back up into Yosemite Monday or Tuesday.

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