The house was nearly empty, a wall of brown cardboard blocks stacked high in the living room waiting for the movers. The car was full of houseplants, camping gear, and provisions for our month to come. The bikes were ready on the back. I had lost my job two months prior and after a couple reluctant interviews to extend a career in fashion, one I had been meaning to shake for some time, we decided to pack it in and move back to Vermont. A fresh, idealistic start.
With no obligations or expectations, we had the opportunity to turn this misfortune into a much need change in course to our lives, a meandering adventure through the beauty of the West. Segueing from the frustrations of my career to the fear and anger of not having one, I needed the wilderness.
The movers showed up late but packed up in a flash. By 11:00am we closed the door to our Santa Monica bungalow, bid it farewell and were on the road, singing Guy Clark up the 405 out of Los Angeles. We were headed for Sequoia National Park.
Within three hours we’d passed through the San Joaquin Valley where the highlands of the Southern Sierra lay hidden and began our ascent into the park, winding our way up as the familiar chaparral turned into the biggest trees in the world.
We had reservations to stay at Lodgepole Campground before heading into the backcountry and pulled into our site in the mid afternoon. I’m typically not a fan of car camping. Lodgepole is no question one of the nicest campgrounds I’ve ever been to. Towering Lodgepole pines shelter the grounds built upon a steep slope along the Middle Fork of the Kaweah river. Huge granite walls and rolling slabs, much like it’s neighbor Yosemite to the north, scour the landscape and the Kaweah river rushes with bright alpine water. Sites are arranged tastefully and the facilities are set in charming cabins. Each site comes with a picnic table, fire ring and bear locker.
The smoke of stoking fires filled the air and gave form to shafts of sun darting through the pine bows. The campground felt more like a tribe than a nuisance and I felt a sense of place. I felt a connection to the park and lamented it took until our sendoff trip to discover it.
We setup camp and made our way down to the river for the last lines of sun. There is a beautiful path along the river and we walked upriver, eventually bearing off trail to scramble up a small granite dome. Looking over the river and up the valley, looking at the sharply pointed pines dressing the scene, looking at the stony river and setting sun I felt fantastic. We drank a beer on the rock and moseyed back to camp in the quiet twilight.
Back at camp I started dinner and our fire. Sitting on the picnic bench, I told Alli, “This is the best day of my life,” and certainly meant it. I’ve had superlatives like a wedding and Mt. Everest (basecamp not summit), but this day was existentially unique. I’d been down on work for months if not years. I was a salesman and yearned to be in the field, or at least in a position to do something important with the environment. The outdoors has always been my sanctuary, a place to return to as much as escape to, paraphrasing Muir. Whenever my life has been sullied by misfortune or turmoil I’ve turned to a trail. When aimless, a trail usually leads me somewhere fun. Unsure of what to do next, unsure of the future, I was in the woods cooking dinner with my wife. I didn’t have to know anything. I was “in the peace of wild things,” as Wendell Berry says and I was not taxing my life with forethought, as I always do.
In the morning we were up to explore the canyon. The Tokopah Falls Trail is one of the most trodden in the entire park and it’s easy to see why. The trail starts immediately in Lodgepole Campground and is packed with a lot of classic Sierra in the 3.4 mile round trip. The land was carpeted in dime sized pink wildflowers. The trail meanders through the woods along the river, squeezed in by towering, glacier carved granite walls. House sized boulders litter the trough where marching ice melted and discarded the stones.
After any easy 1.7 we reached the crowd and trails end, where both sides of the steep canyon meet and the Kaweah hazards down the groove of its cupped palms. Tokopah Falls isn’t a continuous freefall but it’s precipitous cascades are marvelous. The High Sierra is really on display here: silvery granite, green meadows of grass and Manzanita, a huge waterfall running strong with snowmelt, an alpine forest and a marmot impressing tourists. He’d pose for pictures, likely expecting favors in return. On the way back we spurred off trail and walked down the river to a secluded pool and hung out for a bit before heading home for camp.
After spaghetti lunch we walked down to the visitor’s center to hop the bus to the Giant Forest. It’s only about a five-minute ride and you can drive there although the road up to Lodgepole from the entrance was longer and steeper than I expected and our Jetta was severely empty of gas. It’s best to use public transportation inside the park as much as possible anyhow, if any motorized transportation at all. King’s Canyon is impressively unknown in comparison to Sequoia specifically because there is one road and no developed sites within it. I believe more parks should mirror King’s Canyon, an archetype Harold Ickes envisioned when he was Interior Secretary in 1940. Inspired by Ansel Adams’s photography, Ickes and Adams rallied to protect King’s Canyon as it survives today.
When we reached the Giant Forest the scale was mesmerizing. The Giant Sequoias look like many pine trees, especially species in the west. You know you’ve seen trees like this but the magnification makes each rib of root, each crack it their veneer, every pinecone that falls from it, insanely new and exciting. Look around the open forest and in every direction you’ll see visitors hugging the trees, introducing themselves to a form of life that inspires even the most jaded. We walked around the paved path toward General Sherman, the largest living thing in the world. Even in the center of a grove of Giant Sequoia’s, General Sherman is impressively unchallenged. It’s enormous. As we approached the tree a ranger was giving a lesson on the park and the trees to a crowd of visitors.
“You smell the fresh air up here? Pretty nice, right?” he asked. Most agreed. “Well it’s actually pretty bad right now. Our air quality is only a six out of ten.”
He continued with a conversation about what we can do to combat climate change and pollution. He hang dries his laundry. I was happy to hear the bluntness but it depressed me a bit thinking of the city we just left who was responsible for the widespread damage and knew the legislative challenges hang drying wouldn’t replace. I’d been reading too much news lately and one of our agreements for the trip was to consume no news at all. Feeling the grips of anti-republican rage we left the group and circled the tree.
As humans we can’t help but think of time and history as you gaze on a creature like that. Further down the trail there is a crosscut of a Sequoia and you can see where Jesus was born, Columbus landing, etc. Thinking of the Industrial Revolution as an onion skin on this chart I was grateful for the park and the stewards who protect it, fostering better judgment and love of nature.
There’s a whole network of trails around the Giant Forest and you can weave through any number of combinations. We took the Congress trail, which passes several of the biggest trees in the forest, named after enduring politicians.
Back at camp, night began to fall and we relaxed in the quiet. Shortly after dark a white van pulled up to the neighboring campsite just up from us. A group of middle aged adults hopped out in office attire and deliberated what to do. A few said they’d setup a tent, a couple others said they’d just sleep in the van. We knew we were in for it. They set up a tent and built a fire. Things were starting to settle down.
Then the hymns rang through the air. The van and the clothes and the what-do-we-do-now added up. The church group of six sang the arrangements of a choir. They had Bass, tenor, countertenor and soprano. They had solos and rising overtures. Alli and I stared at our watches waiting for the 9:00 quiet hours. The singing carried through the campground. Singing alone is much louder than talking, singing with the love of the holy spirit envelopes a space. At 9:00 I kindly asked them to stop. I respected their passion but my congregation is nature and river was already singing. They respected the quiet hours and the night slipped away from there.
HIGH SIERRA TRAIL
In the morning we packed up camp and loaded the car for the backcountry. I was sad to leave Lodgepole but we were eager to leave the crowds and the singing. We drove gently over to the Crescent Meadow Trailhead, coasting in neutral whenever possible. On the road there a mother black bear and two tiny cubs crossed the road. We were stunned. One of my goals was to photograph a bear and I didn’t know what to do. Dumbfounded, I fired off a couple blurry shots on the wrong settings. I also didn’t want to lose any more gas idling so we kept going, bursting into laughter and excitement a few hundred yards down the road.
We reached the trailhead by Crescent Meadow, an idyllic spot that John Muir called the Gem of the Sierra. We were off on the High Sierra Trail, a 49 mile trail that travels from the big trees to the big mountains. It gets you almost to Mt. Whitney, connecting to the John Muir Trail for another 13 miles. It was the first Sierra trail built solely for recreational use.
We were headed to 9-Mile Creek, nine miles from the trailhead as the name suggests. 11 miles in is Bearpaw Camp, a full service lodge with a chef and hosts, stocked by mule every week. Luxury Sierra at its finest.
We set off on the trail through a grove of Sequoias and out onto the rocks. In just one mile your treated with a stunning view of the Great Western Divide from Eagle View. These stunning vistas remain for most of the trail, specifically designed to have the best views with the least amount of up and down. Truly the trail suffers from only a couple switchbacks and is mostly rolling if not a slight grade.
It was severely hot, 98 degrees and at over 7000’, it took its toll. We wore a giant sun hat in shifts as we clapped along the trail yelling, “Hey bear!” at every corner. The trail hugs Mt. Alta to your left as it tracks high above the Kaweah River. The mountains look like "The Sound of Music" and the trail kicks up sunlit dust as you walk. It’s a transformative trail, taking you to another world in a matter of a couple miles.
In heat these weren’t easy miles though. Alli was beginning to show signs of heat exhaustion and we made the most of shady portions of the trail. We’d been nearly running with enthusiasm from the start. It was our first backcountry outing of the great road trip. We had several legs planned out with tons of time set aside for the backcountry and we couldn’t wait to sink our teeth into it. We’d been overzealous in this particular heat and altitude combination.
At mile five we decided to scrap 9-Mile Creek and camp at Mehrten Creek for the night, just another half mile away. The area isn’t much but there are three sites, one with a bear locker, and a couple flat nooks along a steep section of the river with great views of the Great Western Divide.
When we arrived there was a party playing cards by the river. We waved and started heading up to find a site. I asked the lady, “Any sites left?” and she said there was but there were more in her group coming. When we got our permit the ranger said there was an inexperienced group of ten to watch out for and I was afraid this was part of them. One of the girls was wearing a walking cast and I wondered if she crutched out here.
“Well we’re going to snag one,” I said.
“Ok,” she said, “but we’re all just going to have to make room.”
I started to get a little annoyed.
“Well we’re not going to share a site if there’s a free one," I said.
“Well you can’t claim them. Where’s your reservation?” she asked.
“I don’t have one, these are backcountry sites, you can camp anywhere.” I said.
“Well we’re all just going to have to fit,” she said, wincing and shrugging her hands.
I didn’t say anything and we made our way uphill to survey the sites. The one with the bear box was open and we dropped our packs. Opening the bear box we found it full of things, presumably from the party at the river. We ignored it and setup our tent. We had bear canisters anyhow. Thirty minutes later, relaxing in our camp, the group of four, the woman, a younger woman, the girl in the walking cast, the young guy, walked through the camp without acknowledging us, opened the bear canister and began applying lotions and sanitizers, getting toilet paper, changing socks, deciding what to have for lunch, etc. Alli and I initially said hello and sat there as quiet as the marmot in our camp as they went about their business.
“I’ll have this one for lunch and this one for dinner,” they young guy said with two backpacker meals in hand, putting the dinner option back in the bear box.
“Are you guys going to be coming in and out of here all night?” I asked.
“Well yeah,” the woman said. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Well you already set your tents up in the other sites and you’re here using the bear box, I just don’t get why you don’t camp here.”
“Because your not supposed to camp near your food,” she said.
“But this is a campsite for a reason and honestly we just want a little privacy. If you’d like to switch sites I’d be happy to.”
“We’re from Michigan and so far everyone in California has been very nice. This is the outdoors. You share.”
“I get that but we just want privacy.”
The younger woman interrupted our bickering asking what could resolve the situation.
“Let’s just switch,” I said. “You take the bear box and this site, we’ll take the one without.”
“Ok,” said the younger woman.
“No,” said the first woman. “I’m not going to be bullied by this man. You are the rudest people I’ve ever met.”
At this point I was being rude. I concede that we were only 5.5 miles from the trailhead and its our own fault I was fighting over territory but it is also common sense to have etiquette when involving yourself in someone else’s outdoor experience. Most of us go to the wilderness for peace and quiet. The bickering continued for a few more minutes and finally it was agreed we’d switch sites and we didn’t hear from them again. I did hear others come in the night but it was far less than ten. The night was quite nice following the encounter. We blamed ourselves for not making it deeper into the wilderness but were thankful we had a site in the crushing heat. It also had a fantastic view. We rehydrated and relaxed into the night. We’d turn back the next day, bound for Utah.
In the morning a deer hung by our camp, sneaking within a few feet of us at times as we packed up. It was barely sunrise and we filtered water making haste back down the trail. We clapped and shouted for bear and were thankful for the cooler temperature. Despite our run in the night before, the High Sierra Trail was fantastic and I pined to go deeper toward Hamilton Lakes and beyond.
Sequoia National Park holds so much. Much of it is very obvious and in your face. Much of it is easily accessible. But challenge yourself and the park will continue to reveal expanding beauty. I can vouch for only a small portion of that, but it was a promising sampling.
We reached Crescent Meadow and set off down the road. I returned the bear canister at a different station explaining I didn’t have the gas to get back to Lodgepole and we coasted fifteen miles down hill to the first gas station. After a fill up it was sayonara California, a fine parting for the immediate future.