Glacier National Park

1.png

I ended a two week road trip by going to Glacier National Park with my siblings. We had been planning this trip since Christmas and I would receive a text every few months asking if I was still coming. The park is not exactly close to where I live in California or really close to anything at all, but after visiting Mt. Rainier and North Cascades National Parks, I drove to Montana before making my way back to California.

I had a limited amount of time to see Glacier, so I knew before I arrived that I would be returning. It has been at the top of my list for years, because it looks beautiful in pictures and so many people call it their favorite park. After driving all day, I spent my first night outside the park in Lost Johnny Point Campground, which I mention because it can be very hard to get a spot in Glacier, but this was a beautiful and rustic campground right on the water and only 30 minutes away (and I booked it only days before).

I was taken by Montana immediately and would be happy to move there if it was always August.

Like in Washington and California, the wildfires in Montana were very bad this Summer, so the air quality was a problem. You can see in my pictures that smoke was visible in the air and you could see fires burning in the park. I had no problems with the air quality on the ground, but it did mean that campfires were not permitted, which is half the fun of camping. It seemed like the right call and I was surprised that campfires were still permitted in Washington.

I arrived before everyone else, so I started the morning by hiking to Apgar Lookout, which is just inside the West Entrance. The trailhead is at the end of a gravel road. I am still cautious around the black bears we have in California, but grizzlies scare me much more, so I tried to make noise as I hiked through the tall grass to avoid surprising anyone. A moderate hike brought me to a fire lookout. The views were not amazing, but this was the one part of the park where crowds were not an issue.

I stopped at the visitor center briefly and then started up the Going-To-The-Sun-Road. It is a long drive and I did not complete it, but nothing compares to the views. It reminded me of both Yosemite and Zion. Every peak or valley that would be a singular point of interest in another park was one of many in Glacier. I drove a little beyond Logan Pass before turning around. Everyone arrived and we set up camp at Fish Creek Campground where we somehow managed to comfortably fit nine people. That night we went to hear the ranger talk about the effects of climate change in the park.

The next day, my brother, sister, and I hiked to Avalanche Lake. Voluntarily going on a hike together is not something anyone could have predicted when we were growing. There was the hike from the trailhead and then there was the hike to the trailhead from the car. Glacier is a very popular park without the infrastructure to accommodate everyone. The hike to and around Avalanche Lake was beautiful with 360* views.

We spent the afternoon by Lake McDonald, perfecting the sport of throwing rocks at other rocks. There was a fire burning on the other side of the lake and it seemed to grow larger as we watched it.

It was hard to come all the way to spend so little time in the park and to return home when there are other parks so close, but I can only fit so much adventure into one Summer. I hope to return next year to see more of Glacier and visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

2.png

North Cascades National Park

1.png

North Cascades is a park I have been thinking about from the beginning. Not only is it in my home state, but I was reading a lot of Kerouac at the same time that I was becoming interested in National Parks and he spent time in the North Cascades as a fire lookout in 1953.

I had no idea what to expect, but I had seen pictures of the Cascades and the beautiful green-blue water. I was surprised when I arrived to see dams and power lines inside the park boundaries. Because of all the fires in the Northwest this Summer, the air quality was very bad. You can the smoke in all of my pictures.

I stopped at the visitor center and then set up camp in Colonial Creek Campground. I had a private lot to myself, but all of the sites on the water were on top of each other. Unlike Yosemite where they enforce quiet hours starting at 10pm, the people across from me never seemed to stop playing music. Lucky my site was private enough that I hardly noticed.

You can see that my first impression of the park was not a good one and it left me feeling uncertain of what to do with my time there. I regret not going on a long hike and wish now that I had done the Diablo Lake trail as planned. Instead I explored several of the vantage points off of the highway. Some of the best views I found were at the Diablo Lake overlook. There was a ranger there who talked about the effect of the fires and the impending rain they were hoping would improve the air quality.

Despite the smoke in the air, you can see how beautiful the water is. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting by Diablo Lake.

The challenge of North Cascades is that several of the best hikes require multiple-day backpacking trips and many areas of the park are accessible only by ferry. I do plan to hike up to Kerouac’s fire lookout some day, but I was not prepared for the hike to Desolation Peak on this trip. I’ll keep reading for now.

The park took a while to win me over, but it eventually did. I only had another half-day to spend there, so I decided on the Thunder Knob Trail. It is a short trail through the trees that leads to more views of Diablo Lake. It was cloudy and smoky, but you could see the water through the trees because it has an almost unnatural color.

There was a lot to appreciate in the area of Diablo Lake that I saw, but on future trips I want to experience the park more from the trail. Despite being only three hours from my hometown, the North Cascades for so long seemed inaccessible to me. I am grateful for what I learned on this trip and how it will help me to better experience the park next time. North Cascades was the last of the Washington parks I had to see and also the last on the West Coast. I never get to cross any off my list without immediately adding it to the list of parks to revisit.

2.png

Mt. Rainier National Park

Mt. Rainier is the trip I took this Summer that I have been most excited to write about. It is a unique park to me because it was the one I visited the most growing up. It was also the first park I visited at the end of 2013 when I decided I wanted to see the parks. I had experienced Mt. Rainier in small pieces over the course of thirty years, but this was my first time really getting to know it.

Growing up in sight of Mt. Rainier shaped my idea of what a mountain should be and for years had me calling the mountains in California hills. The surprising thing about Mt. Rainier is that it looks smaller the closer you get. I drove up to Washington in August, said a quick hello to my family and then headed for Mt. Rainier. The park is too big to see in one trip, so I chose to visit the Longmire-Paradise area.

I had my tent set up in Cougar Rock less than two hours after I left home, which made me regret all those years I was so close and yet rarely visited Mt. Rainier. My campsite in Cougar Rock was my favorite in any National Park. The way each site is designed, I felt like I had my own apartment. I was aware of people around me, but rarely saw anyone.

I got an early start the next morning and drove up to Paradise, the name of which I remember even as a kid thinking was over-the-top, but I had never seen it when the wildflowers were in bloom. Now it feels like an appropriate name. I hiked the Skyline Trail, which is deceptively steep. I was walking through wildflowers toward Mt. Rainier when suddenly I was surrounded by snow. At the edge of the wildflowers, I came across a marmot who was too busy eating plants to notice me.

There was a detour high on the trail to avoid a dangerous snow field, but somehow I missed the trail. Not for the first time this Summer. With a little snow hiking and rock scrambling, I was back on the trail again. I decided to take a shortcut back to the visitor center on the Golden Gate Trail and was happy I did. More wildflowers! And beautiful views of the mountain. I came home with 100 pictures that all look the same.

After spending time in so many National Parks, I was surprised by how undeveloped Mt. Rainier is. There are minimal services at Longmire and Paradise.

My mom and step-dad Randy arrived the next morning to spend the day with me. We decided to hike the Carter Falls trail. There are warnings and reminders at the campground that you are on an active volcano, but crossing the Nisqually River at the start of the Carter Falls Trail is what drove it home. You can picture the rivers of mud. The trail continues along Paradise River until you reach Carter Falls. The Falls are beautiful, but the vantage point is not ideal. We still had a great time and my mom was very excited to find out she was briefly on the Wonderland Trail. I was too.

We stopped at Longmire Museum where we learned about Fay Fuller, the first woman to reach the summit of Mt. Rainier. I took home a postcard of her for inspiration. That afternoon we sat on the porch at National Park Inn, which is not on the level of Crater Lake, but it still a fine porch. Then we walked the Trail of Shadows, which covers the history of Longmire, before eating dinner at the Inn.

The next morning I went back to Paradise to explore some of the side trails. I followed an unmaintained trail so I could get even more pictures that all looked exactly the same. Next I headed to Reflection Lakes. I knew why the area was called Reflection Lakes, but somehow was still surprised to see the mountain so perfectly reflected.

I was planning my return trip while we were still on the porch in Longmire, so I will be back.

A Week in Yosemite National Park

1.png

When I was planning my adventures for the Summer, I had the crazy idea to spend a week in Yosemite. I had visited twice before, but always felt rushed, so I thought this year that I would take my time. I was at my computer at the exact moment in February when the campsites for July became reservable and snagged a spot in North Pines.

The campsites in Yosemite are cozy. I had about a fourth of the space I’d had in Sequoia and was never more than 10-feet from my neighbors, but you adapt quickly to no privacy. I was there by myself, but still experienced plenty of family drama. The spots in North Pines are in the valley right by the river. I arrived on Sunday afternoon to find the park as crowded as ever.

I set out the next morning for Nevada Fall. On my first trip to Yosemite, I’d found it to be one of the most peaceful places in all the National Parks. I only had a moment to stop there on my last trip, because I was racing the sun after hiking Half Dome, but this time I planned to spend as much time as I wanted up there. I packed my journal and my book, even knowing that despite how wonderful it sounds, I almost never read or write on the trail.

The Mist Trail was very misty this year, making the stairs extra slick and forcing me to decide whether it was safer to go without glasses or with lenses I could barely see through. I dried out quickly when I reached the top of Vernal Fall. The squirrels were out in full force, but they seemed more interested in the backpackers who were responsibly trying to keep their food safe than the visitors trying to feed them. I hate to see people feeding the animals, but to date I have never asked anyone to stop. I want to think it is a lack of information and not defiance of the rules.

I continued on to Nevada Fall. As I hiked up the stairs, I could remember so clearly how painful it had been to come down them after hiking Half Dome. I did apply again for a permit this year, but was not successful. I would have loved to hike it again, but I can wait for another year. The top of Nevada Fall was exactly as I remembered. I like sitting on the warm granite and pretending I am not uncomfortable with how close people get to the edge. I did write, but could not concentrate long enough to read. I took the John Muir Trail back down to the valley; it is another I hope to hike one day.

2.png

I have always been a snack bar camper. Sleeping outside, sure, but having most of my meals prepared warm. I took this trip late in July only a month after going vegan and it was a good opportunity to start preparing my own food. I mostly ate peanut butter sandwiches and pasta, but I still considered it a success and saved some money.

I got it in my mind that I wanted to complete the 13-mile hike of the valley floor. In the past this had always seemed too boring to attempt when there are far more interesting hikes, but I had a small injury that made elevation a challenge, so I decided to go for it. I started from my campsite and followed the Valley Loop Trail to the village. As crowded as Yosemite is, there was almost no one on the trail.

I hiked past Yosemite Falls and Camp 4, which I had seen before, but was much more interested in after watching the documentary Valley Uprising. It seemed to be taking me a long time, even though the trail was mostly flat, but I was still optimistic about completing all 13 miles. I stopped at Sentinel Beach, which I was surprised to find existed.

Finally I reached El Capitan where you could look up and see climbers on the wall. This was several weeks after Alex Honnold had completed his free solo climb. That is where things went wrong. I was on a trail, I was on what I thought was a trail, and then I was definitely not on a trail. I still am not sure what happened, but I found myself fighting my way through the brush. I could see the road into the valley, but there was a river separating me from it. I thought about trying to cross the river, but it looked too dangerous, so I kept going until finally I saw traffic stopped on the other side. I walked up to the side of the road and asked the guy holding the stop sign if I could walk down the road. He said no, but that the trail was just on the other side, so I crossed and finally found where I was supposed to be.

I hiked to Bridalvail Fall. I was relieved to know where I was going, but my feet were really starting to hurt, so I sat on a rock deciding whether it was worth it to make the half-mile detour to the Fall. I decided no and continued on the Valley Loop Trail. I was outside the range of the shuttles and still a long way from the village. Each step became so painful that I didn’t think I’d make it another 5 miles. When I saw a sign pointing back to El Capitan, which because I was on a loop trail was not very far away, I took it and waited for the shuttle there. I was defeated by the Valley Loop, but still grateful for the experience.

Back in North Pines, I grabbed my camp chair and dragged it down to the river where could rest my feet. I had planned to hike to the top of Yosemite Falls the next day. I’d been on my last trip and hadn’t stopped thinking about it since. But my injury persisted, so I decided to spend the day reading by the river, exactly the kind of thing I had hoped to have time for spending a week in Yosemite. I took quick trips to the Visitor Center in Yosemite Village and Bridalveil Fall, and then I spent the rest of the day reading. First Sherman Alexie’s new memoir You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me and then Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick.

The next morning I hiked to Mirror Lake, which I had previously known only as a stop on the shuttle. The lake itself was not so impressive as the sandy beaches and views of the granite walls above. It was interesting to learn about the history of the lake and the way that visitors were once charged for admission. I then returned to the campground to again take up residence next to the river. Watching people float down, I regretted not bringing an inner tube and vowed to next time.

A week was more time than I had ever spent in a National Park and I worried that it would be too long, but when it was finally time to go home I wanted to stay another week. If only to catch up on my reading.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Untitled design.png

I took a year off from adventure. 2016 had a very promising start: after being too scared to sign up the year before, I decided to enroll as a student in the Sierra Club’s Wilderness Training Course (WTC). I had an amazing time, learned new skills, and ventured far beyond my comfort zone (SNOW CAMPING). But I was kind of burned out by the end and did not make any plans for the Summer, which is how a whole season passed without me ever loading my car full of gear and heading for a National Park.

Early in 2017, I knew I didn’t want that to happen again, so I made a very ambitious plan for adventure, stretching my budget and vacation time to the max. It ended up being a little too ambitious, so I scaled it back, but still managed to visit six National Parks, three of them new to me. I put off writing about those trips, but in the last couple weeks, I keep flashing back to them. It’s like they’re haunting me.

My first trip this Summer was to Sequoia National Park, which I had already visited three times in the four years since I was first inspired to start visiting National Parks. I returned a fourth time, because I love it. Not just the giant sequoias, but the mountains. I arrived on a Wednesday in early June and set up camp in Lodgepole Campground. I had camped there once before in what was probably the worst site (and only one left), but this time I had a huge lot to myself, which was bordered by tree and large rock formations.

It had been a very long time since I’d last camped on my own and I was anxious to start a campfire. As I was sitting by the fire reading and writing, I noticed it was getting cold. I put on my layers, but figured I would be fine once I got in my tent. Because it was Summer, I had only packed my lighter sleeping bag. I was so cold that even with a hat and gloves on, I kept waking up in the night. I’d forgotten I was in the mountains.

Despite not getting much sleep, I woke up the next morning ready to see the sequoias. I took the shuttle to General Sherman, the largest tree (by volume) in the world. The walk down to General Sherman takes you through dozens of sequoias. I’ve been there alone, but this time I was surrounded by people. Sometimes the crowds in National Parks get to me, but other times I’m happy to be around people who appreciate them as much as I do. I can always escape the crowds by getting on a trail. I hiked for a ways down the Congress Trail, which connects some of the main attractions of the park and features even more sequoias.

It is hard when revisiting parks, even for the fourth time, to balance seeing new things with returning to my favorites. I decided to hike at least one new trail: Tokopah Falls. The trail to the falls is only 1.2 miles, an easy hike along the river. I was not prepared for the scale or beauty of the falls when I first came upon them. The trail leads to an area to the side of the falls where you have a view of the snow melting and the water falling. It was such a beautiful panorama that I couldn’t capture it all in one picture.

Everyone takes turns getting their pictures taken in front of the falls, but you can scramble up a bit higher and find a quiet place to yourself. I sat there for a long time listening to the water and people watching when I was approached by a marmot. The only other time I have seen a marmot was on top of Half Dome. She was very busy trying to find food between the rocks and neither seemed bothered by me trying to take a picture, nor interested in posing.

Concerned with the crowds getting worse as we got closer to the weekend, I decided to make my trip to Moro Rock that night. It was my favorite place in all the National Parks when I’d only visited three and it remains one of my favorites now that I have seen 21. I climbed the 350 steps to the top and watched as the sun went down. I always meet the nicest people on Moro Rock.

It was another cold night, but I filled my Nalgene bottles with hot water to try to stay warm in my sleeping bag (a trick I learned in WTC). I got up early the next morning, because I wanted to be sure to get a campsite in Kings Canyon, but on my way I stopped to hike Big Baldy. I had hiked it three years earlier and had a real I Love The Sierras! moment, so I was anxious to return.

2.png

My car was the only one at the trailhead and I didn’t see another person until I was on my way back. When I reached the point where I’d had my moment last time, I realized that the trail actually continued further and you could keep walking on the Big Baldy ridge. I continued hiking, not sure if I was still on a trail or not, but the views were amazing and 360*. I could have kept going forever, but I was nervous about not getting a campsite in King Canyon, so I decided to turn back.

On my drive to Kings Canyon, I stopped briefly at Grant Grove Village where I’d always been able to connect to free WiFi in the past. It had been a couple days since I’d had any cell service and I hadn’t told many people where I was going, so I thought I should check in. I should know better than that by now, because I couldn’t get any service and I knew there wouldn’t be any in Kings Canyon. It doesn’t bother me to be disconnected, but it is smarter for my own safety to have people know where I am and how they can reach me.

Kings Canyon is a magical place that not many people visit. My first trip there was very late in the season after the campgrounds had closed, and it seemed abandoned until I reached Road End and found all the hikers and bears. In the Summer it’s more full of life and campers. I was able to snag one of the last sites at Sentinel Campground and set up my tent.

I had a hard time getting my campfire going that night and was sure my neighbors must pity me. That’s when I realized that I had learned all of these new skills in becoming an outdoor person, but I hadn’t done much to develop then. This was a line of thinking that continued the rest of the time I was in Kings Canyon. I finally got the fire going, but it was another cold night.

I had already completed most of the day hikes in Kings Canyon and despite the joy of seeing bears on the Mist Fall trail both times I’ve hiked it, I wasn’t interested in returning. I decided instead to revisit Roaring River, a waterfall just a short walk from the road. When I got there, an old man said to me, “We’ve been waiting for you.” Weird thing to say to a stranger, but it seemed right in a place like Kings Canyon where I feel at home.

Roaring River is a very powerful waterfall and even more so this year. You sit at the base of it and watch as the water turns a corner and flows down the river. You can see on the other side a small set of stairs cut into the rock that leads to a small fenced area. I’ve always noticed this before, but new this year was a large branch that had fallen on the fence and nearly taken it down. As far as I can tell, there is no way to get over there, but I assume it used to be an access point. I'm interested in the history of the parks and the way we experience them, but I don’t know if there is a place to find information about small things like that without digging through archives or finding a ranger who has been in the park a long time.

1.png

Next I visited Zumalt Meadow. I’ve stopped to view the meadow every time I’ve visited Kings Canyon, but I had never hiked the trail. There was a ranger talking to people near the trailhead, but I just continued on my way, only stopping to read the notice that said Kings Canyon had received 128% of its normal snow pack this year, so water was high. The trail goes through the trees and then a boardwalk takes you across the meadow. When I reached the boardwalk, I realized what the ranger had been warning people about: it was almost completely underwater.

If it had not been such a beautiful and sunny day, there would have been something much more creepy about a boardwalk disappearing into the water. There was no one else around, so I thought about whether I should continue, but it reminded me too much of the Dead Marshes. I took the other side of the loop up into the rocks, which has beautiful views of the meadow.

It was on that hike that some ideas began to coalesce. This was my third trip to Kings Canyon. I love it, but there is not much more to see without going into the high country. I realized I was not interested in another trip next year where I go on the same hikes and see the same things. I have had four years to explore the parks on my own and experience them, which was all that I wanted at first. But now I am ready to go beyond my own personal experiences, diving into the history and conservation of National Parks, and sharing that with other people. I'm not sure what form that might take, but this new website is the start of it. I’ll continue to share my personal experiences, but hope to gain a deeper perspective on the National Parks.

I continued on the Zumalt Meadow loop until again the trail disappeared under the water. Then I hiked back the way I came. Now there was a ranger at the start of the loop talking about how the increased snow pack had affected the park. The water level in Zumalt Meadow was fluctuating, sometimes swallowing the whole boardwalk and sometimes allowing visitors to walk out into the meadow. The always/never changing nature of National Parks has fascinated me from the beginning.

I loaded up my car and headed back to Southern California with a lot to think about.

Home to Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park 1.jpeg

I want to tell the story that I have always loved nature and been fascinated by National Parks, but the last time I visited Olympic National Park, I was a bored teenager.  The only thing I remember was one stop on the way to Hurricane Ridge where I wasn’t unimpressed, but I couldn’t have predicted that I’d be back in a decade or so with a new appreciation. I am lucky that my mom and step-dad, Randy, have supported me in my new love of National Parks and were willing to take me back to Olympic National Park.

I am used to traveling alone to National Parks or dragging friends with me where I still serve as Captain, so it was strange to sit in the backseat as we drove into the park. Our first stop was Lake Crescent, which I fell in love with instantly. The blue color of the lake reminded me of Crater Lake, but it was also huge and surrounded on all sides by trees. We decided to hike to Marymere Falls, but first I tried to capture the ombre color of the water.

The hike to the falls was short, but included wooden bridges. As our reward for such effort, we sipped adult beverages on the patio of Lake Crescent Lodge. Our next stop was Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, where we were staying for the night. Before going in the hot springs, we decided to hike to Sol Duc Falls, which is a beautiful waterfall that divides into three. The bridge you stand on is above the waterfall, so you can see the water pool below you.

Olympic National Park 2.jpeg

It was a pretty short hike, but still a good enough excuse to rest our tired limbs in the hot springs. I had seen the hot springs before, but this was my first time going in. They really just look like normal pools, but they’re hot and smell of sulfur. It was a weird contrast to my trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park where there were dangerous boiling lakes and mudpots.

The next morning, after one more dip in the hot springs, we made our way back to Port Angeles and began the drive up to Hurricane Ridge. Even though I am from Washington and spent most of the first 22 years of my life living there, I have been in California long enough now that just the trees were impressive to me. They seemed endless. And then there were the mountains. When we made it to Hurricane Ridge, it was less green than normal and, of course, the glaciers are not what they once were, but it was still so beautiful. How could I not even have a memory of being here before? I think growing up in Western Washington spoils a person with beautiful views.

After stopping at the visitor center, we drove a little further to the Hurricane Hill trailhead. This was a slightly more challenging hike, but we made our way to the top of the hill where we could see all of Port Angeles, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the peak of Mt. Baker. We heard reports of a marmot in the area, but never saw it for ourselves.

The next morning our plans were uncertain, but we decided to visit one last area of the park: the Hoh Rain Forest. I think this was my first visit to a rain forest. The ride there made me a little sick and then we were attacked by bees as we tried to eat lunch, but as soon as we hit the trail, I fell in love. The Hall of Mosses is exactly what you would expect--very old trees draped in moss. Even the creeks were beautiful with water moving over bright green and growing moss. It was rare to see a tree on its own. Most had at least three forms of life growing from one base.

Next we hiked the Spruce Nature trail, which took us into newer parts of the rain forest and along the Hoh River. We saw many backpackers at the start of Hoh River trail, but we made our way back to the car and drove to Forks for ice cream. I had to get a picture of The City of Forks Welcomes You sign, because when I read Twilight years ago, it made me homesick for a city in Washington I hadn't known existed.

Olympic National Park is a huge, and I wasn’t able to visit every part of it, but since it’s in my home state, I’m confident that I will eventually explore it all. Next Summer, though, I have my heart set on North Cascades, my last Washington National Park.

Olympic National Park 3.jpeg

Yosemite National Park: Half Dome

Yosemite National Park 1.jpeg

Days before leaving for Yosemite, I flipped the page in the National Parks calendar my mom gave me for Christmas and saw Half Dome looking exactly as an 1865 report declared it: “perfectly inaccessible.” But I’d made my plans to hike it months ago, so on Thursday morning, I drove to Yosemite and set up camp in Upper Pines.

I grabbed some food in Curry Village, explored the area (put my feet in the river), and sat by the campfire, obsessively checking my phone for weather updates. It was supposed to be clear and sunny every day except for Friday, which was the day I had a permit to hike Half Dome. There was a significant chance of thunder and lightning, and Half Dome is the last place you want to be in a storm. I decided that I would go through with my plans and wait to make a decision until I had more information.

I woke up early the next morning, and I was nervous. I stalled, getting ready slowly and making myself tea, but it was still early when I caught the shuttle to the trailhead. The Mist Trail up to Nevada Falls I had done before on a previous trip in May of last year when Vernal Falls had rained down on the steps. This time--to my disappointment--the trail was completely dry.

I climbed and climbed, feeling like I was making good time at first and later feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere. The trail leveled out for a while as I walked through Little Yosemite Valley, and then became steep again as I made my way to Half Dome. The part of the trail I was least prepared for was Sub Dome, a series of many steps that lead to the base of the cables. I had hiked seven miles by that point and had already heard some rumblings of thunder, but the sky looked clear enough, so I continued on.

There is a lottery system for hiking Half Dome that I applied for back in March. It limits the number of people who can hike to the top each day. If you look at pictures online, you can see what crowds looked like before the lottery, a solid line of people going all the way up. This was the one place in Yosemite that I didn’t have to contend with a lot of people.

I sat for a while at the base of the cables, telling myself I was resting and also waiting for a couple backpackers to go ahead of me. What I was really doing was talking myself out of hiking to the top of Half Dome. From certain angles, it looks like no big deal, but from the base, it looks like a very big deal. There were some dark clouds in the area, but no thunder, so finally I got up, decided to stop thinking, and started hiking. Just as soon as I tied my shoes twice more and put on my gloves.

I remarked when we were in Zion on the number of supportive things that strangers said to my friend Linda as we hiked to Angels Landing. It was really uplifting to witness, though I have personally found it sometimes patronizing to hear “you’re almost there!” when I’m perfectly fine; I carried none of that pride up the cables to Half Dome, though, and I appreciated the number of strangers who told me I was doing a great job and should take my time.

What I was thinking on those cables was not, “this is scary,” but instead, “this is hard!” My legs are strong, but my arms are weak, and they were responsible for pulling me up much of the time. At a certain point I realized my fingers hurt from gripping the cables. I made it to the top and was instantly greeted by a marmot, which seemed like a welcome sign.

I spent some time taking pictures and walking between the different sides of Half Dome. I had cell service up there, but decided to save my, “I made it!” message until I was on safer ground. Soon I heard thunder in the distance and decided to go back. Navigating my way down the cables was physically easier, but also scarier. Sometimes my feet would get far ahead of my hands on the cables. A few rain drops hit my face.

I cheered more when I reached the bottom than I had when I reached the top. It was not just my imagination that there was a group of people playing, “Eye of The Tiger.” I’d worried about getting back down Sub Dome, but it seemed easy after what I’d just done. I stopped and chatted with people on their way up who asked about my experience. As I walked away, I overheard a guy say to his friend, “We do this for fun?”

The trip back down a trail is usually a blur that goes by much faster than the slow hike up, but my legs were tired by that point and the trail was steep with small steps on uneven and slick rock. I took a small detour to the top of Nevada Falls, which on a previous trip to Yosemite I declared one of my favorite places ever, but the sun was getting low, so I didn’t spend much time there.

The sun set just before I made it back to the valley floor where I joined the crowd waiting for the shuttle. In total, I’d hiked 14-15 miles, only 400 feet of which had been the cables up to Half Dome. It was completely dark when I walked back to camp. I started a small fire, ate dinner, and headed for bed.

The next morning I was determined to go for another hike. I was sore, but I figured the 7.2 miles to the top of Yosemite Falls wouldn’t be too bad. I slept a little later and then caught the shuttle to the trailhead. I realized quickly that I didn’t have my normal energy and that my legs were weakened, but I kept going. The final stretch was a challenge, but the top of the falls were beautiful.

At this point in the year, there’s not much water falling, but there are still pools at the top of the falls for swimming or at least dipping your feet. It seemed like a paradise there and it was fun to see all the people I’d been slogging up the canyon wall with having fun.

It was when I started heading back down the trail that I realized this hike had probably not been the smartest idea. My legs hurt with every step and the uneven rocks aggravated the blisters on my feet. I had no choice but to go slowly and yet I still fell three times--THREE TIMES! The last fall was a pathetic slide where dirt became imbedded in my shin. I was so relieved to finally make it back to the valley floor again.

I made it back to camp before dark this time, sat by the campfire for a long time, and then finally went to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, my first thought was that I could not move at all. I packed up camp slowly and then stopped at Tunnel View on my way out of Yosemite for one last picture.

I hope that once I can walk again without pain, it will hit me that I hiked Half Dome!

Yosemite National Park 2.jpeg

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park 1.jpeg

There was only one National Park in California that I did not make it to last year: Lassen Volcanic National Park. I had plans to go, but some combination of work and fear kept me away. This year I was determined to hike that volcano, so I packed my growing collection of camping gear and made the nine hour drive north.

In order to avoid some of the holiday traffic, I left work early on Thursday and drove most of the way that afternoon, so on Friday morning I only had a few more hours of driving. I stopped at the visitor center on my way in, and then continued on to my campsite at Summit Lake.

There was lightning in the forecast, so I set up my tent, but made sure there was room in my car if at some point I needed to grab my sleeping bag and sleep in there. It was cloudy and I heard the rumbling of thunder in the distance. I drove down the road to the store at Manzanita Lake to get dinner and it started raining on my way back. It was still raining when I reached camp, so I grabbed my book and read in my tent for a while. When I emerged, the rain had stopped and the sky had cleared.

On my two previous solo camping trips, I never bothered with a campfire. But this time I was determined to make it happen. Building a fire when you have wood, paper, and matches was not as intimidating as expected, and I enjoyed reading next to mine. It wasn’t until the camp host stopped by later that I learned there had been lightning in the area and it started a wildfire they were working to contain.

I am not one for early starts, but when you wake up to the sound of everything chirping, it’s hard to go back to sleep. I boiled water for tea on my fancy new camp stove and then headed to Lassen Peak--the volcano that gave the park its name.

Lassen last erupted one hundred years ago (this year is the centennial). I visited Mount St. Helens a number of times growing up in Washington, but I never hiked to the top of it, so this was a new experience. A relatively short, but steep series of switchbacks brought me to the top, and allowed many opportunities to “take pictures,” by which I mean, “catch my breath.” There were a number of ways to go from there and two main peaks. I hiked the more interesting one, because it looked a little like a castle.

There were a number of trails through the rocks, none of which you could see before it seemed like you were going the wrong way. At the top of a volcano, I found: flies. It seems they’d had an easier time getting there than I had. Because no one was watching, I had little shame about sliding down part of the trail on my butt until I reached solid footing. It was weird to be crossing snow while wearing shorts and a tank top.

I drove down to the visitor center for lunch and then headed back up the road to Sulphur Works, which features a boiling mudpot (literally a naturally boiling puddle of mud) and the terrible smell of rotting eggs. I guess that wasn’t enough for me, because next I headed to Bumpass Hell, where a nice hike through the wilderness leads to a boardwalk through a geothermal area of boiling springs. I didn’t have to be warned by more than one sign to stay on the trail.

Right across from the trailhead to Bumpass Springs is Lake Helen. There are many lakes in Lassen Volcanic National Park, but I kept returning to this one because of its beautiful location right in front of Lassen Peak and because it’s rocky shore made it easy to dip my tired feet in some very cold water.

It was starting to rain when I got back to camp, so I continued on to Manzanita Lake, the only place on this side of the park with showers. Clean and with firewood and beer, I returned to camp, where it had by that time stopped raining, and wrote next to the fire until it was time to sleep. The sky hadn’t completely cleared, so I was still worried about lightning. It was the Fourth of July and loud, despite a total lack of fireworks (they were prohibited), and for a while I mistook every sound and flashlight for a sign I should sleep in my car until I finally realized I was being ridiculous and fell asleep.

Lassen Volcanic National Park 2.jpeg

I woke up to clear skies the next morning and headed first to Kings Creek Falls trailhead. The overlook is currently closed for restoration, but most of the trail was still open, and the horse trail still allowed for a beautiful view of the falls and the valley nearby.

Next I drove back to Sulphur Works to hike Ridge Lakes trail, which is one of those very short trails you can hardly complain about, even though it’s incredibly steep. I’ll just say that when I reached a certain point and saw that someone had written on a rock, “Keep Going,” I was both cheered by the message and angry that I now couldn’t sit and rest on that rock, which was the only flat surface around. But, it was totally worth the trouble when I reached the top and had an alpine lake to myself. It was only when I was leaving that the stillness of the water struck me as eerie.

After lunch, I hiked Mill Creek Falls trail. I was listening to the audiobook of Heartburn by Nora Ephron as I hiked, and the two will forever be linked in my mind. First you get a panoramic view of Mill Creek Falls and then the trail leads to a bridge that crosses it. It was one of the many experiences I’ve had in a National Park where I realized you had to be there, because I could not capture the valley, the falls, and the perfect pools of water in one picture. I sat for a long time on the bridge.

After another stop at Lake Helen, I headed back to camp and for the first time did not have to worry about lightning! But when I got to Manzanita Lake to take a shower, I found they had no power, and I had to live with all that hiking sweat on me (at least I was sleeping outside). I wasn’t able to buy more firewood either, since the store was closed, but I gathered enough on the ground around camp to make such a nice fire that a girl came by to ask how I’d done it. I told her what I’d done, but also had to say, “It’s ridiculous that you’re asking me this.” I’m not ready to be any kind of authority on life outdoors. I am still mostly making mistakes myself.

The next morning I woke up early, packed up camp, and hit the road. Thanks to some road work on I-5, it took me twelve hours to get home. And yet when a friend asked me if I’d had a rejuvenating weekend, the answer was strangely yes. I almost forgot the joy of flush toilets, was denied a shower, and slept outside with the fear of lightning, but nature has some effect on me that I have been reluctant to acknowledge--perhaps because it seems cliche.

Lassen Volcanic National Park 3.jpeg

Camping in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks

Kings Canyon National Park 1.jpeg

My secret to taking on adventures that scare me is that I make plans and put down money, so that when the day comes, I have no option but to go. If I take ten small steps in advance, then doing what scares me feels like only the next step, rather than a leap into the unknown. But camping in Kings Canyon National Park, which I’d been planning to do since I was first there last October, was just a matter of putting my tent in my car and showing up, and the night before I was supposed to leave, I considered not going.

When I woke up the next morning, I was excited to return to the Sierra Nevada, so I headed north early to make sure I could find a place to camp. My anxiety about camping without reservations (they don’t take them in Kings Canyon) was unfounded; I found a nice spot in Sentinel Campground and set up my tent and chair, which is about all the gear I have. There is only a small lodge, general store, and snack bar in Kings Canyon, and unless you’re a guest at the lodge, there is no internet or cell service.

When I visited Kings Canyon last October, it was all but abandoned for the season, but even in the middle of June, it’s fairly quiet. I ate dinner at the snack bar and spent the evening reading--by headlamp after it got dark and until the bugs started attacking.

The next morning, I continued to Roads End, which is the point at which the only way further into the canyon is on foot. I decided to hike the Mist Falls trail again, since I’d enjoyed it last time. There were more people on the trail this time, and not far from Mist Falls, a couple warned me that there was a bear further down the trail. I continued cautiously until I saw a small black bear pulling at the bark on a dead tree. If you really want to see a bear in the wild, I’d recommend this trail. I have seen one both times I’ve hiked it (and this time I got a picture). 

Kings Canyon National Park 2.jpeg

It was still early when I finished, so I grabbed lunch, and headed down the road to Boyden Cavern, which is in the part of Giant Sequoia National Monument that you pass while driving between the two sides of Kings Canyon National Park. It’s a steep, but short hike to the entrance of the cavern, but very cool inside, which was a relief, since it was in the 90s outside. The cavern is lighted, so you can see all of the formations, but once inside, our guide turned the lights off briefly to give us a sense of what it was like when the original explorer of the cavern dropped his kerosene lamp and had to find his way out.

I roughed it again by eating at the snack bar (they had great wraps!), showered in the public showers (they cost a couple dollars, but were warm!), and then headed back to camp where a migraine sent me to bed early (it’s not all wonderful). I woke up in the early morning cold, but relieved to be feeling better.

Sequoia National Park 1.jpeg

I wanted to do another good hike, but found my guidebook lacking in options, so I talked to a ranger and then decided on the Lewis Creek Trail. It was overgrown and I battled gnats and the sun to reach Cedar Overlook, which I had to myself. The forested area at the top of the trail was beautiful and full of stunning colors. Back on the ground, I stopped at Roaring River Falls, which was so beautiful, it didn’t look real. I continued to Zumwalt Meadow before heading back to the lodge where I put my feet in Kings River. Then I headed back to Roaring River Falls, because I had to see it again.

After a few days camping in Kings Canyon, I packed everything back into my car, and headed to the Grant Grove area, where I had my first internet access in days, and then up to Sequoia National Park, where I set up camp at Lodgepole. I then headed back down the road to hike Little Baldy Trail. I hiked Big Baldy Trail last year, so I thought this might be underwhelming in comparison, but the trail to Little Baldy was beautiful. I felt like I was going to turn around and see elves on their way to the Undying Lands.

Sequoia National Park 2.jpeg

The next morning, I packed up camp again, and headed to Giant Forest. I had seen General Sherman on my first visit to Sequoia National Park last March, but I hadn’t done the full trail, which starts at the top of the grove of Sequoias and takes you down to General Sherman, the biggest tree (by volume) in the world. It was beautiful to be walking under the canopy of these giant trees with the light coming through.

Finally I headed back to Moro Rock, one of my favorite places in all the National Parks I’ve visited. It’s 400 stairs to the top and an easier hike each time. I still can’t believe the National Park Service hacked stairs into this rock and put a railing at the top, but it is a must see. Then I headed down Generals Highway toward home.

After this trip, I can say that I’ve mastered the level of camping where someone else makes most of your meals. Despite my initial hesitation at camping alone, which I had only done once before, I had the best time and never felt unsafe.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park.jpeg

Since first visiting Zion National Park last April, I have been calling it one of my favorite National Parks and one of the best to visit with friends. No surprise, then, that I’ve spent the last year telling the girls, “We are going to Zion in 2015!” After seeing Grand Canyon last year, they didn’t need much convincing.

Nicole and Linda flew into Los Angeles on Friday, and we got on the road immediately, stopping only to replace forgotten pants and a lost water bottle. My goal was to get to Utah before the sun went down, and we just barely succeeded. After checking into our hotel, we walked to the nearby saloon for some good food. We were all exhausted and only made it up in time the next morning to return to the same restaurant for a special “late risers” breakfast.

I have been telling people about Angels Landing for a year. I had an amazing time hiking it and then proceeded to have nightmares about it for months, then began to remember it as fun until the girls and I started planning this trip, and then the nightmares returned. It truly is the craziest hike I have ever done, and it was one thing to do it alone, and another to lead my friends to it. I guess I don’t have the nickname Captain for nothing.

People say that the first part of hiking Angels Landing is the hardest, because it consists only of switchbacks, but I suspect that the rest is just as hard, but you’re distracted by the beauty and terror of being inches on both sides of a drop of thousands of feet. I will stop scaring you now. If you’re in Zion, I highly recommend Angels Landing, and I’ll do it every time I return. But, even the shuttle that drops you off at the trailhead warns that people do fall off the trail, and that’s not hard to imagine.

We made it to the top of the switchbacks and kept going. Everyone we encountered on the trail was not just kind, but over-the-top supportive. They kept saying, “You’re almost there!” and then the girls would look at me and I’d say, “We are not almost there.” Linda doesn’t have much experience hiking and was wearing shoes without great traction, but whenever she apologized for slowing anyone down, they’d say, “You’re doing great. Just take your time.” Even a small group of young boys cheered her on.

I watched as the same thing that happened to me the first time I hiked Angels Landing happened to everyone else: each time they thought they were at the top, they’d look up and see tiny people even higher. There is really no doing the trail justice in words or pictures.  I love traveling and hiking alone, but it was very cool to share this experience with friends. When we reached the top, we were stalked by chipmunks, yelled with some Canadian strangers, and had our picture taken. Then we made it safely back down and rewarded ourselves with beer and burgers.

The next day we had planned to hike The Narrows. I wimped out of it last time, and was determined to do it this time, but we didn’t get an early start and wanted to see more of the park, so we opted for three shorter hikes instead. First we headed to the Emerald Pools. This trail was new to me. It’s a very short hike to the lowest and coolest pool, but we continued on from there, stopping when we saw a 360 rainbow around the sun, and then continuing on to the middle and upper pools.

Next we jumped back on the shuttle and headed to Weeping Rock, a trail not as sad as it sounds. It’s true that the rock weeps, and we sat under it and watched the water fall. Then we started on Hidden Canyon trail. It began with another series of switchbacks, and Linda was about to call it quits when we and some more kind strangers talked her into continuing on. Later we kept saying, “Can you imagine if Linda had missed this?!"

The next part of the trail was strange and seemingly unmaintained. Sandbags sat to the side and parts of the trail looked like it had nearly been wiped out by water. Finally we reached a long set of stairs, and at the top as we passed a couple, the man said, “There’s a hanging sidewalk ahead.” We didn’t know what that meant until we saw it for ourselves.

It looked almost like part of the canyon wall had melted to make it possible, with the help of a chain handrail, to walk along the edge of it. It’s a testament to the number of amazing hikes in Zion that this trail didn’t even get the thumbs up in my guidebook. Nicole and Linda had admitted to me by then that they kind of liked the dangerous trails, so we all had a great time. After navigating the edge of the canyon wall, we reached Hidden Canyon.

A set of stairs carved into the rock takes you into the canyon, which is flat except for a number of obstacles, which we navigated with the help of strangers. This time we had an opportunity to be encouraging to others. We made it as far as we could go with only one incident where we thought Linda might have reached her breaking point, but it turned out she was just stuck between two rocks and laughing at her own joke. Two other hikers told us that the trail used to be longer, but a rock slide had shortened it years earlier, which made me think that National Parks are places where you can always expect that things are changing and yet also count on them staying the same.

We had made it through so many miles thinking that our reward would be pretzels, cheese, and beer at Zion Lodge, but by the time we made it back there, they had closed. It had still made for good motivation, at least, and we stopped at the first place outside of the park.

That night we spent some time laughing by the pool, which is what we do best. We used to make a point of talking about our hopes and dreams on every trip, but now in our thirties, we have grown predictably more practical. After five years of traveling together, we now only see each other once a year, but we’re committed to making that happen. We’re thinking another National Park in 2016, but we haven’t decided which one. 

On our drive home, we encountered another bit of nature—tumbleweeds crossing the freeway and thunder so loud that I ducked once when I thought it somehow struck us.  

Return to Utah: Capitol Reef National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park

Capitol Reef National Park 1.jpeg

I was so taken with Utah last year that I could not wait for warm weather to make my return. My first stop was Capitol Reef National Park, which only ever seems to top the list of most underrated parks. It is a long drive and I was already worried about arriving in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception after dark when the first snow hit my windshield.

I have almost no experience driving in snow. In the years between getting my driver’s license and moving to California, there was only heavy snow once. As I turned off I-15 and headed toward the parks, a mix of rain and snow began hitting my windshield so fast that it was difficult to see and in a few sections of higher elevation, the roads were slick and dangerous. I gripped the steering wheel for three hours and powered through to arrive at Capitol Reef after everything except my hotel and the gas station had closed. 

It was cold the next morning and I was second-guessing my decision to return to Capitol Reef. Was it really worth coming all this way to see again, and why hadn’t I waited at least until May? Some combination of the long drive the day before, back-to-back trips, a hacking cough, and a potential problem with my car, left me feeling unprepared to make the most of my time. I always feel so much pressure to pack every second with adventure, and this was the first time I fell short.

I drove through the park. Visited Goosenecks. Remembered why I wanted to revisit Capitol Reef--it’s stunning! Took a really long time eating lunch. And then finally returned that afternoon with a much better attitude and ready for a hike. Since I was first there last May, I have thought back to sitting on the top of the canyon wall by myself while it rained lightly, and I wanted to do that again, so I hiked Cohab Canyon Trail and detoured to Fruita Overlook. I had the place to myself again and it was perfectly gloomy.

Perhaps it was a subconscious effort to give myself a reason to return to Capitol Reef, because I did not see everything on this trip that I wanted to see. Next time I will wait until it’s warmer and I’ll camp.

Bryce Canyon National Park 1.jpeg

In the morning I headed to Bryce Canyon. After so many trips to Utah, I still can’t make sense of the series of highways that connect Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef. The final one had me driving through a beautiful canyon and by abandoned buildings, all the while believing I couldn’t be going the right direction. The weather had turned around overnight and the sun was out in Bryce. I wasted no time driving right into the park.

My first stop was Sunset Point. I walked around the rim, taking pictures of the view. Bryce Canyon is a must see National Park. There really is nothing like it. It is so bright that I can’t help but feel happy when I’m there. Within minutes of arriving, two people asked me for directions like I worked there; that’s never happened to me before, and I couldn’t make sense of it, but it ended up being a theme of the weekend.

Unlike Grand Canyon, it doesn’t take much to get to the bottom of Bryce Canyon. I took the Navajo Loop, which is not currently a loop since half of it is closed, and then connected to Queens Garden Trail. There were patches of snow on the ground, but it was warm as I hiked. Once I hiked back to the top, I took some time to admire the view and then drove to a few of the other viewpoints. Bryce Canyon is a relatively small park, so it doesn’t take much time to see.

The next morning I set out to do a trail I hadn’t done when I was at Bryce Canyon last year: Peek-A-Boo Loop. The top of the trail was a little icy and muddy. I slid on one section, but remained on my feet, which prompted me to think to myself, “It’s strange that I have never fallen while hiking.” That sealed my fate.

The first mile or so of the trail is just to get to Peek-A-Boo Loop, which begins inside the canyon. It is typical of most trails that you go all the way up and then all the way down (or the opposite if you’re hiking into a canyon), but Peek-A-Boo loop is more like a roller coaster--expertly designed to go up and down, taking you on a ride. It was one of the most fun trails I have done and provided a close view of the hoodoos.

I knew I wanted to pack my day with hiking to make up for the day before, so after lunch, I headed to the Fairyland Loop, which I completed last year, to just hike to Tower Bridge, which I couldn’t remember if I had see before. I had--I should read my own blog--but it was still nice to spend some time on the Fairyland Trail.

Finally I set out to see the last remaining viewpoints in the park, stopping to see Natural Bridge (amazing!) on my way to Rainbow Point. The elevation is slightly higher on this side of the park, and there was more snow on the ground. I took the very short Bristlecone Loop, where I often walked on the snow to avoid the mud. At the very end of my hike, I stepped slightly off trail to see if I could get a better picture, slid on some mud I didn’t even see, and fell right on my butt. It had to happen eventually, so I’m glad it happened at the end of my last day of hiking, because me and my pack were covered in mud.

I have no doubt that I will be returning to Bryce Canyon. It is not only one of my favorite parks, but one of the coolest places I have ever been. Second to the beauty of nature, of course, I love the infrastructure of the parks--the crazy hikes the National Park Service has designed, the signage which varies greatly from park to park, and the small pieces of history everywhere. Bryce Canyon is particularly well designed and maintained.

This trip I found myself thinking a lot about my future travel plans. Do I want to put my time and money into visiting new places or do I want to return regularly to my favorite parks? The only answer I’m satisfied with is both.

Bryce Canyon National Park.jpeg

Back On The Road: Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon 1.jpeg

After taking a long winter off, I am back on the road, and my first stop was a return to Grand Canyon. When I was there last year with friends, I was still making up my mind about hiking, but this year I returned with big ambitions.

Every road trip begins the same way: I wake up feeling tired and not ready for an adventure. My only hesitation is ever right at the beginning. I got on the road and arrived at Grand Canyon before sunset. This time I knew where I was going and didn’t have to ask a stranger to point me in the right direction. I always wonder about people first coming across Grand Canyon, because the wilderness that surrounds it is non-descript, and you can stand fifty feet from the canyon and not know it’s there. After an elk sighting in the parking lot, I walked to Mather Point.

I hope that no matter how many times I see Grand Canyon, it always shocks me. I had the same “Oh my God” moment as the first time I saw it. The sun was getting low and the color was beautiful. I stood and stared, took fifty pictures that all looked the same, and watched as other people took in the sight. The most common thing I heard people say was, “It looks like a painting.”

The next morning I set out on my first big hike: a return to Bright Angel Trail. Last year the girls and I hiked to 3-Mile Resthouse and back. I knew I wanted to go further than that, but left my turnaround point undecided. The top of the trail was crowded with people, but I moved through them quickly. As many signs warn, going down is the easy part. I passed the 3-Mile Resthouse and kept going. When I reached Indian Garden, where I thought I might turn around, I was already on flat ground inside the canyon, so I decided to hike all the way to Plateau Point.

I had been feeling really good up until that point, and couldn’t imagine a flat hike to a plateau would be a challenge, but it is much hotter inside the canyon and there was no longer any shade. When I arrived at Plateau Point, there was no one around. There was only flat rocks and a small section of railing. I walked up to the railing and got my first peek at the Colorado River. It felt really special to be there alone, so I sat at the edge with my legs hanging over, and watched the rafters down below.

Almost immediately after beginning my way back, I started to feel the heat. I’d hiked six miles by that point and had six much harder miles ahead of me. The small throat problem I’d been dealing with suddenly felt like strep in the dry air, and I was worried about running out of water. The short hike back to Indian Garden, where my only view was the huge canyon walls I had yet to hike, was dark in my mind, but as soon as I croaked a hello to the backpackers there and kept hiking, I started feeling much better.

I stopped to rest dozens of times on my out of the canyon. My throat was so sore that I had a hard time getting food and water down. My feet were in pain and I felt like someone who had been out in the sun all day. But despite all that, I remained in good spirits until the last mile when things started looking grim again, and it seemed like only a miracle would get me to the top. When I finally made it, I felt like I no longer had anything in common with the people standing at the rim admiring the view. They didn’t know what I had just been through!

The only casualty of that first day was my voice. Once I was out of the air and drinking hot water, my throat started feeling better, but my voice was barely there. It was a weird thing to be traveling alone and not have a voice; there was no one I had to speak to, but there was also no one to speak for me. My legs were sore and my feet were blistered, but they recovered quickly.

I got a slow start the next morning, and that made me rethink my plans for another long hike. This time I wanted to take on South Kaibab Trail, which is a steeper trail into the canyon. I had secret ambitions of hiking the whole 14.5 mile trail, but the 12 miles I’d hiked the previous day had been hard enough and that was on an easier trail. I decided to hike slowly and see how far I got. Instead of hiking down into the canyon as quickly as possible, as I had on Bright Angel Trail, I took my time.

South Kaibab Trail is beautiful. If you only have time for one hike in Grand Canyon, I’d recommend it over Bright Angel Trail. The first section is switchbacks down the canyon wall, but then the trail takes you out into the canyon. The first stop is Ooh Aah Point, but it was crowded, so I continued on down to Cedar Ridge, a large open area with beautiful views and many tired hikers hiding under every small tree. I debated turning around there, but decided to continue on to Skeleton Point. Much like Plateau Point, there was a view of the Colorado River and I had the place to myself.

The hike back out was even more beautiful. There is so much of the canyon you cannot see without hiking. I was amazed that it looked like a different place from every angle. Though it had been crowded earlier, the trail was quiet on my way back up, and I stopped to take in Ooh Aah Point.

The next morning, I returned to say goodbye to Grand Canyon, wondering when I might see it again (next time I hope to do some backpacking). Then I drove home to California for a few days of real life before hitting the road again.

Grand Canyon 2.jpeg

On The Road: The California Coast

California Coast 1.jpeg

This Christmas I did something I had never done before and drove home to Washington. I had two weeks off from work, so I wanted to make the best of it by taking a road trip back down the California coast after the holiday. I’m not used to having that much time to explore, but California is so big that I still had to make some tough choices.

I knew for sure that I wanted to return to Redwood National Park. I only had a day to spend there in July and it wasn’t enough. The park is in pieces along a significant part of the coast, so my first stop was the beach in Crescent City. When I visited in the Summer, it was overcast and I never saw the sun.  This time I had beautiful weather.

I drove further down Highway 1 to Klamath Overlook. You drive through a residential area to reach a point where supposedly whales can sometimes be spotted. I don’t have the best vision: I thought I saw something and it turned out to be a rock. I put on my day pack and hiked down to the overlook below and continued along on the Coastal Trail.

I spent the night in Eureka and then headed to the Prairie Creek area to hike through the redwoods. It felt like I was in Mirkwood Forest, because I kept hiking and hiking, and though the trail wasn’t too difficult, I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was worried about the setting sun, but wanted to make it to Fern Canyon. I crossed wood bridges and climbed broken stairs before arriving just in time to turn around.

I hiked the last mile in the dark, making it to the parking lot to see a creeping fog in the meadow. I think I was more scared of ghosts than people. My car was the only one in the parking lot and I climbed in it as quickly as possible.

I spent the next day driving down to Monterey. I had just been there in the Fall on a trip to Big Sur, and had seen Cannery Row, as well as the John Steinbeck Center on an earlier trip to Salinas, so this time I was focused strictly on hiking. My first stop was to return to Pinnacles National Park. It is the newest National Park.

When I visited Pinnacles in March, I went for a disaster of a hike where I ran out of water and got lost, so this time I was determined to redeem myself on the High Peaks Trail. I parked and then hiked up to Bear Gulch where the trail begins.  The hike to the High Peaks, though I took a slightly different route, was not as difficult as I remembered, and I loved ducking under rocks and holding onto the railing as I reached the very top. The National Park Service sure is creative.

Figuring I had just enough daylight left, I hiked quickly to Bear Gulch Reservoir, because it is one of those places I go to often in my mind, and I had to see it again in person. It somehow looks too perfect to be natural.

California Coast 2.jpeg

I had planned to return to Big Sur, but so deep into a road trip, the thought of adding an extra two hours of driving was enough to make me reconsider my plans. I did some research and found Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, which is just outside of Monterey. It was a lucky break, because Point Lobos was beautiful and unlike much of the coast that I had already seen. I hiked the trails with much of the Saturday crowd and took dozens of pictures.

My final stop was Morro Bay. After coming across pictures of Morro Rock, I had to see it for myself. I arrived around sunset and walked to Morro Rock, which is right on the water with beaches on each side. It so dominates the landscape that I kept looking up at it in awe. I like things on a big scale. I stood there and watched the sun go down with a bunch of strangers.

The next day was the last of my road trip, and I was disappointed not to find any long hikes in the area, so I settled for Cerro Cabrillo, which is one of the Nine Sisters (nine volcanic peaks, of which Morro Rock is one). It looked like nothing more than a hill from the ground, but as soon as the trail turned upward, I was in for a challenge. The trail is unmaintained and goes straight up, so whenever I wasn’t moving forward, I worried about sliding backward.

Once I reached the end of the trail, I understood what the description had meant by “light rock climbing required.” To get to the top, I climbed over boulders, sweating so much that sweat and sunscreen were stinging my eyes. Despite the low mileage, it was one of the most challenging hikes I’ve done, though within hours, my mind had transformed “grueling” to “fun!” I climbed back in my car with a smile on my face and drove the rest of the way home.

All week I felt like my days were a race against the setting of the sun. There are limits to traveling in Winter, but I tried to take advantage of them, hiking during the day and reading at night. The perfect road trip for those of us who don’t always feel compelled to talk to other people.

California Coast 3.jpeg

One Year and 16 National Parks

National Parks 1.jpeg

About this time last year, I had made up my mind, with the help of Ken Burns, to visit the National Parks. After a lifetime spent indoors with my books and my poetry to protect me, I bought a car and headed into the wild. At first the wild was a cheap hotel room outside of Joshua Tree.

I had in my mind that I loved to travel alone, but on that first night, I realized I’d only traveled alone once and I was scared. I also had no idea what I wanted to do in the National Parks. I hadn’t figured anything out beyond be there, but I trusted that I would figure it out.

National Parks 2.jpeg

After Joshua Tree, I purchased some hiking boots and went to Death Valley. Then Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Pinnacles, Channel Islands, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Saguaro, Yosemite, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, Redwood, Crater Lake, and Kings Canyon. I returned to several parks throughout the year to see them again.

Hiking is the primary activity in most of the parks and I quickly discovered that I loved it. By the time I made it to Utah in April to see Bryce Canyon and Zion, hiking was all that I wanted to do. When I couldn’t travel, I hiked the trail near home as often as possible, keeping my pale skin tan and my calf muscles in knots.

National Parks 3.jpeg

In March, I saw my first bear. I don’t believe in signs, but if I did, that sign would be a bear. I turned around and walked back the way I came, looking over my shoulder often enough to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Seven months later, when faced with another bear, this time, I hid.

I purchased a tent in May, but didn’t have the guts to use it until July. Under the stars at Crater Lake, I read by head lamp.

National Parks 4.jpeg

Separate to all of this, I became happier than ever. The only major thing that changed in my life was that I started going outside and walking up mountains, but I didn’t make the connection, and even though it might make for a good story, I can’t make it now either.

If nature has influenced my baseline feelings, then it has done so in mysterious ways. I didn’t let go of anything in nature and I didn’t find myself there. I experienced zero epiphanies, no breakdowns, and never felt compelled to shout into the void. I do not have enough evidence to attribute this clarity of mind or happiness to the National Parks, but neither do I have enough to rule it out.

National Parks 6.jpeg

The only guidebook I ever needed was Your Guide To The National Parks. It is missing Pinnacles, since it was published before Pinnacles was promoted from a National Monument, but is otherwise complete and very helpful.

My favorite park(s), if I can cheat: Sequoia and Kings Canyon. They are right next to each other, and despite being as beautiful as Yosemite, they are not nearly as crowded. You can find my heart somewhere in the Sierra Nevada.

The most surprising thing was Utah. I have never been anywhere so beautiful. I visited all five National Parks there, and they were all stunning. I can’t wait to go back.

My lowest moment was trying not to throw up off the side of a boat full of teenagers while being swarmed by flies at Channel Islands. My highest moment was hiking to Angels Landing in Zion.

The most underrated park I visited was Capitol Reef. I nearly had the place to myself and it was beautiful.

I never expected to love Death Valley, but I love Death Valley.

There are certainly parks more interesting and beautiful than Grand Canyon, but you have to see Grand Canyon.

The most unbelievable park is Zion. Depending on the day you ask, I might say this is my favorite National Park. It is otherworldly. It is also the park I’d recommend if you’re looking for a good place to go with family or friends, because there’s a cute town right outside the gates, shuttles to take you everywhere, adventurous hikes, and the beauty extends outside the borders, so even when you’re outside the park, you still feel like you’re in it.

If you visit more than a few parks in a year, the $80 Interagency Annual Pass pays for itself very quickly. It gets you (and everyone in your car) into every National Park and many other cool places. Plus, it gets you discounts on camp reservations at many locations.

The phrase I used too often was, “middle of nowhere.” When you’re outside the range of cell coverage and can’t believe you’re going the right direction, drive another 50 miles down that strange road and you’ll find your National Park.

I will continue to visit National Parks in 2015, mostly returning to those I have already visited. I am not in a hurry to see them all, especially since Alaska makes that such a challenge, but that is my long-term goal.

National Parks 7.jpeg

Back to Death Valley National Park

Death Valley 1.jpeg

There was a time in late Summer, after hiking through the heat in July, that I decided to wait for the weather to cool down. But then it didn’t cool down--not in California. Not until one week when we went from blistering heat to snow on the highest peaks, one of which I’d been planning to hike this Fall. I’d missed my window, it felt like, and somehow a whole season. My only consolation was that it was finally time to return to Death Valley.

Death Valley was one of the first National Parks I visited this year. It did not hold much appeal to me, but there weren’t many other options in February, so it moved to the top of the list. To my surprise, I fell in love with it instantly. It’s weird and beautiful, and I could imagine my myself writing there.

It is a very big National Park, and I didn’t see all of it on my first trip. Though I’d fallen in love with the Furnace Creek area of the park, I decided this time to stay in Panamint Springs. I had an even bigger sense that I was driving into the middle of nowhere this time, but I quickly arrived at an off-the-grid resort with 200 different kinds of beer and a beautiful view.

I was incredibly tired when I arrived, and I can only defend my decision to sit on a beautiful porch with a beautiful view drinking one of those 200 different varieties of beer instead of going for a hike by saying that Death Valley is a park I feel like I can take my time exploring. I don’t know that I would have thought to do this on my own, but my dad told me to check out the stars, so I did, and they look exactly like you expect stars to look, but remind you that you haven’t seen the stars in a while.

The next morning I drove over the mountains to Titus Canyon. I was up for a bigger hike, so I decided from there to take the Fall Canyon Trail. Hiking through the canyon was stunning, even if the gravel of the wash became tiring. Most of the time I felt completely alone, so it was a surprise whenever I ran into another person. The trail ended for me when I reached the point at which it is impossible to go further without climbing on the backs of other people. I guess hiking alone has this one disadvantage.

As always seems to happen to me, I spend almost the entire hike feeling like I could hike forever, and then the last mile feeling like my feet hate me. So I climbed back in my car and headed North to Scotty’s Castle. It’s not really a castle, but it was made to look like one, and there is a draw-bridge like entrance. It has a very interesting history, and though it has not held up perfectly, it’s an cool place to visit.

On the long drive back to Panamint Springs, I stopped at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Last time I climbed almost as far as I could, but this time I found a good place to sit and watched the sun go down. Then I drove back over the mountains to Panamint Springs to try another of the 200 beers.

I am already planning my next trip to Death Valley--probably for early next year when it’s still too cold for the non-desert parks. It feels like a weird home.

Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park 1.jpeg

I started my latest National Park adventure exhausted. There are times when I think nothing of driving to some place I’ve never been before and hiking up mountains, and there are times when I wake up and cannot imagine how I’m even going to finish packing. This time I was on my way to a place I had been before, and knowing what was waiting for me gave me the push I needed to get on the road.

Sequoia National Park was one of the first parks I visited this year. It was February and I pretty much had the place to myself. I could say this about every park, but it was the one that cemented the idea that this was something I wanted to spend my time doing: visiting National Parks. Climbing the steps of Moro Rock was one of the coolest and most surprising experiences I’ve had all year, and I have been plotting how to get back there ever since.

The first thing I saw when I entered the park was not Moro Rock--it was a tarantula. You know a tarantula when you see one--and you can see them from your car while driving--but tarantulas were so far out of anything I had considered since seeing Home Alone that it took a moment for my mind to catch up with what I was seeing. Turns out it’s tarantula mating season.

I continued up the main road to Moro Rock, tempted to stop at every view point, but trying to beat the sun. I’d expected the park to be a lot more crowded than it had been in the winter, but again it felt like I almost had the place to myself. I parked and as I was pulling my sweatshirt out of my trunk, I happened to look up and see two small bears walking up the hill.

The 400 steps to the top of Moro Rock were not as difficult as I remembered, but the view was just as spectacular. At the top, a small group of strangers and I took turns taking pictures for each other, and then we just sat and stared. Knowing it would at least be several months before I could return, I lingered until the sun was low.

Saturday I drove back up to higher elevations to see Tunnel Log, which I’d only seen before in pictures. It’s a log that you can drive through. That’s how big giant sequoias are. I drove through the log on my way to Crescent Meadow. From there I hiked the short distance to Eagle Point. The trail eventually leads to John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, so I turned around but kept dreaming of future adventures.

I continued driving until I reached Kings Canyon National Park, which is connected to Sequoia National Park, but that I had little chance to explore before, because it’s mostly closed in the winter. I ate late lunch and then hiked to Big Baldy, a granite peak that it is surprisingly easy to reach. I took so many pictures, but none of them could really capture the beauty of the Sierra Nevada.

The timing of this trip had everything to do with making it back to Kings Canyon before the road to the canyon was closed, so on Sunday I finally made the drive. I had seen pictures, but I still wasn’t prepared for the views from the road as you drive into the canyon. Though it looks more like Yosemite, it reminded me of driving into Zion, where I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

I drove until the road ended and then began my hike to Mist Falls. The first two miles were mostly flat, so I stared at the trees and kept looking up at the canyon walls.  Then the path narrowed and began following the river more closely. I batted away gnats and watched out for the occasional tiny snake. The waterfall is beautiful, and I kept climbing beyond the view point to see if I could reach the top of it, but eventually turned around, thinking of how far I had to hike back.

I was back on flat ground near the river when I stopped to take a picture. When I lowered my phone, I saw a bear walking down the narrow path toward me. It was still a distance away and was in no hurry, so I just stood there frozen for a moment, then wondered if this was really happening, and then turned in a circle trying to figure out what to do. I wanted to get off the trail, but that was no easy thing to do.

Finally I slid down a boulder to a small clearing below the trail and waited for the bear to pass. It stopped and looked right at me and then continued on. What had looked like a full-grown black bear as it was walking toward me I could see was actually a pretty small black bear as it walked by. I climbed back up on the trail and kept walking, a little faster now.

There were all of these years where bears had metaphorical meaning to me, but this year they have become something real.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park 2.jpeg

Redwood National Park and Crater Lake National Park

Redwood National Park 1.jpeg

I left Utah last week to drive hundreds of miles through the color spectrum from red and orange to green and blue. I did not give the contrast a thought until I arrived in Northern California with my sunburned skin and was greeted by cool ocean weather.

A single chapter in Wasted by Marya Hornbacher takes place in Northern California, and I have been haunted by the region ever since. The minute I decided I wanted to see National Parks, the Redwood Forests were at the top of my list. I was delighted to find them every bit as weird and beautiful as expected.

I drove all day and arrived in Arcata just as the sun should have been going down, but the fog was so thick that I wasn’t sure the sun was really there. It looked exactly the same the next morning when I set out to see Redwood National Park.

The park is divided strangely along the coast and dotted with small towns. Unlike many of the National Parks, which have only one main road that leads to every attraction, seeing Redwood National Park means driving up the 101 and turning down dark roads you’re not sure lead anywhere.

I stopped at Lady Bird Johnson Grove where I was shocked to see my first sign of other people. You park in a lot and then walk across a bridge into a grove. While not as spectacular as giant sequoias, there’s something to be said about the redwoods and the fog that surrounds them. It is incredibly quiet.

I drove next to an overlook, and I could tell from the educational signs in front of me what I was supposed to be seeing (a creek and mountains and trees for days), but the fog made it so all I could see was white. I continued up the 101 along the coast, stopping at several viewpoints. I came across an area that seemed almost abandoned: a concrete walkway with large concrete bears on either side of it. There was no one around, so I walked back and forth around the area trying to figure out if this place really existed.

My next stop was Klamath Overlook from which there is a possibility of spotting whales, but I didn’t have the patience to sit and wait for them to arrive, so I continued North to Stout Memorial Grove. Miles down a one-way dirt road is a popular path through the trees. My final stop was park headquarters in Crescent City where I requested one of the official park maps, because even though I insist I don’t collect anything, I have managed to grab one from all sixteen parks I’ve visited this year.

Crater Lake 1.jpeg

The next morning I headed for Crater Lake National Park. Whenever I mentioned where I was going, a member of my family would remind me we took a trip there years ago, but I was too young to remember it, so the only evidence I have is the pictures my mom sent me.

Crater Lake is a significant stop on my National Park tour, because this was my first time camping solo. My first priority when I entered the park was to set up camp. I’d only ever set my tent up once and it was in my apartment, but it was easy enough to set up and I only embarrassed myself while putting on the rain cover. I stacked my food in a metal box to keep it from bears and took off to see the lake.

There is really nothing like Crater Lake. Where once there was Mount Mazama, there is now a large crater filled with the bluest water you’ve ever seen. I drove around the entire rim, stopping to photograph the lake from every angle. Then, because I was really roughin’ it, I ate dinner at the restaurant before returning to my camp to read.

The next morning I woke up early and headed to Rim Village to check out the historic lodge. I figured while I was there I might as well eat breakfast, so I ordered pancakes that tasted like they were made with cake mix. I drove around the rim to the historic (-ally challenging) Cleetwood Cove Trail. This steep trail down the caldera wall is the only water access to Crater Lake.

Crater Lake National Park 2.jpeg

I sat on the rocks while braver people jumped into the cold water as we waited for our Volcanic Boat Cruise. As I was waiting in line to board, a girl asked me if I was alone. I don’t usually mind the question, but I’d been asked it three times within the hour and most recently to a very strange response, so I said yes half-annoyed, and I was surprised when she said, “Me too!” We talked about our experiences in the different parks and sat together on the boat.

A Volcanic Boat Cruise is a two-hour tour of Crater Lake that takes you to the most interesting geological sections of the caldera wall and around both Wizard Island (so named because it looks like a wizard hat) and Phantom Ship (because it looks like a ship). Where the water is deep, it is very blue, and where it is more shallow, it’s an aqua color. I loved the boat tour and didn’t mind the dreaded hike back up the caldera wall.

Next I hiked up the Watchman Trail to a historic fire lookout. I have been thinking for months about visiting the fire lookout in North Cascades National Park where Jack Kerouac briefly lived and wrote, but I did not expect to see one at Crater Lake. As tired as I am of living in small apartments, I wouldn’t mind taking up residence in a fire lookout.

I made my way back to camp where I took a freezing cold shower; it was easy to let go of vanity while camping, because there were no mirrors anywhere. Then I went to the restaurant for pizza and beer. I was going to read by lantern light and then go to bed, but I couldn’t resist driving back to the lake one more time. I watched the sun set and used some lodge wifi before saying goodbye to Crater Lake. My last night in the tent was kind of cold, but my first solo camping trip was a success.

On Monday I made the very long drive back to Southern California.