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.
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.
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.