King’s Canyon is my kind of National Park. If it weren’t for the gates, a few campgrounds and picnic sites and impressive road coursing through it’s center, one would have little indication they weren’t simply in the deep California wilderness. In fact, if you were to enter the park from the east, you’d be doing so the way people have for millennia, on a trail over a mountain pass, a small wooden placard to greet you. King’s Canyon isn’t much of a park in the way we think of parks: manipulated green spaces designed with the mark of a famous architect, exhibiting features that capture an essence of nature while emphasizing human convenience. King’s is instead quite raw and unaffected, and after all, isn’t that what the Parks System was setup for, to keep our wild spaces wild?
We had sat in the antithesis of wild, a choked 405 freeway on Friday afternoon, escaping Los Angeles like so many of the other cars changing lanes and honking for futile bursts of progress up the road. By 9:00pm we were up past Visalia racing through the dark acreage of farmland, dotted with warm glowing corner lots with taco stalls and liquor stores. An hour after that, having climbed out of the valley on Highway 180 we were through the gates of King’s Canyon National Park, heading for the aptly named Road’s End in the heart of the park.
Once through the forest and into the canyon itself, we had little sense of presence besides the winding road and the transitions between lowland vegetation to higher elevation conifers and back several times. Finally, by 11:00 we pulled into the large cul-de-sac lot, as far from the ranger shed and SUV as we could, threw our food in the bear locker, had a quick beer and smoke by the rush of the King’s River and went to bed in the back of the car.
The next morning, I tactfully barrel rolled from my sleeping bag and out the back seat of our Jetta (our setup entails sleeping one the folded down back seats, legs through to the trunk and a wedge of plywood bridging the step between trunk and seats. Pads on top and bingo, a $24 rig as opposed to a $24k Westy). It was ten of seven and there was already a small line waiting for the ranger to swing open his window.
At this point in trips I’m always thinking romantically about being a ranger or better, a backcountry ranger. If rangers could take wives back into the cabins and yurts of our dense parkland wildernesses (and perhaps if they paid slightly better) I’d be all over it. The point is moot since neither of those conditions exist and to become a ranger seems virtually impossible.
At any rate, the parties got their permits, I mine and luckily the bulk of them were embarking on Rae Lakes loop in the opposite direction. As Alli stirred, getting ready in the back of the car, I walked over to the river, a wide, clear channel moving remarkably fast for flat water. A huge level boulder on the river's edge invites visitors as to fish or picnic beside this beauty and I began to feel content, forgetting the day ahead of us: up the canyon to Paradise Valley.
As I got back to the car, put my shoes on and got my pack finalized, we heard the flat metallic pings so rarely heard in California these days: fat beads of rain on the roof of the car. Some dark clouds were crawling up the valley a day sooner than expected and we climbed back in the car to wait it out for a few minutes. By 7:45 it had tapered enough and we were off on the sandy trail with rain disappearing softly into the parched dust.
The trail to Paradise Valley hugs the King’s River. After passing through the open sandy stretch speckled with Sugar Pines leaving sweet smelling puddles of sappy water on the trail, we moved into a lush vernal wetland of fern, reeds and thick trees with tributaries flowing throughout. It seemed the sort of place nymphs would hang and get romantic. After passing the Bubb’s Creek junction, the trail climbs out of the greenery and back into open granite, climbing steeper as the river grows more violent.
A few miles out up the canyon, we were treated to the best view of the hike and a strong indication of how far we’d climbed thus far. Looking back down the canyon, the Sphynx, King’s Canyon’s sentinel feature is prominently set on the center of the skyline while steep walls of granite frame either side of the scene. The trail at this point consists of large stretches of granite slab marked with cairns and rock pathways. To the right, the granite cliffs out sharply down to the river which cascades and smashes into the rocks below, an impressive reflection of the usually benign force of gravity.
Shortly after, we reached Mist Falls, cranking at full flow. Though the much hyped El Nino was more or less a dud, several weeks of heatwave had exhausted the majority of snowpack and was sending its summer yield downstream like it was going out of business. The mist spewed off the granite slide, pelting those who ventured close with a drenching shower.
We were moving rather quickly up the trail but it’s worth mentioning this was out of necessity rather than choice. At almost any point on the trail, especially the sections wind blocked with pine or shady oak, a moment of pause would invite dozens of young mosquitos to feast on any bare, fleshy part of our bodies. Having forgot bug spray at home, the motivation to continue moving was an ever-present hum.
Eventually, the river leveled, the whitewater subsided and a peace overcame the trail. We knew we were entering Paradise Valley. The sparse alpine terrain almost instantly became a lush, dense garden of broadleaf shrubs, wildflowers and thick grasses. The trail narrowed to only a dozen inches and we brushed through the thick vegetation. The river was slow, wide and a dark green hue showed off its depth. The sense of volume of this mighty river exemplified in wild torrents downstream was impressively placid in this paradisiacal land.
We arrived at camp in Lower Paradise Valley, a number of designated sites along and uphill from the river. The mosquitos being as they were, we opted for an open spot surrounded by boulders up from the water complete with a bear locker.
We poured some wine and meandered down to the river. There was a deer print in the mud, foreshadowing the culture of our new neighborhood. Rain showered intermittently leaving thousands of rippling discs of the dark green water to give it the look of Malachite.
After some wine we set off collecting firewood for the night, finding an abundance of kindling along the hillside above our camp. In the fifteen minutes of hunting we came across seven mule deer foraging on the shrubs, impervious to our traipsing about. King’s Canyon, being a rugged, unforgiving gorge of earth, I could see why this little valley was such an attractive home for these deer. We watched them casually pick at leaves as the light went flat and dim and absorbed the classic stillness of a summer night.
Back at camp, Alli cooked dinner as I worked on starting the fire. With rain trickling on my back and into my kindling I accepted the challenge of a wet fire. After four years of drought I’d grown accustomed to fires so easy to start they might as well of had an 'ON' switch. After several smoldering disappointments I resorted to a trick I’d probably never do again nor recommend here: Using my MSR stove as a torch to ignite a grip of twigs and brush which I then placed in the fire to jumpstart my kindling. Holding some twigs over a gas flame is fine but don’t get overzealous, pick up the stove and point it at the fire. Just don’t. Not that you would but I’m talking to myself here too.
Fire lit, bellies full and wine reaching the bottom of the bag (Bota Box was made for backpacking), we settled in as darkness covered the valley. Thunder groaned over the mountains as a light wind picked up and as we crawled in the tent we wondered if it was heading in our direction.
An hour later the storm was practically overhead, flashing and shattering the sound barrier with echoing eruption throughout the valley. Rain poured down on the tent splashing muddy fractals across the hem of the rain fly.
Flash…1-onethousand, 2-onethousand, 3-onethousand 4-onethousand…Crash! Flash…1-onethousand, 2-onethousand, 3-onethousand…Crash! Flash…1-onethousand, 2-one…Crash – until the sound and sight of danger were synced up over our tent.
Minutes later the parade of cymbals had marched down the canyon and we were in the clear, relieved, listening to the sound of rain on nylon and fell asleep soundly.
In the morning we woke rather late to a sunny day and did our best to shake out the tent before packing up and heading out. A party camped down toward the river past our site and we talked about the storm the night before, all of us with wide grins of excitement and nervous relief. Much of the trail had turned to mud and we passed a few more deer as we made our descent. Mist Falls threw even more mist into the sky and the sugary puddles were even bigger and sweeter than the day before. As we neared the trailhead we passed an older gentleman walking with a tall staff.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Blessed,” he said, “I’m here.”