Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Snow Camping in the Sequoias: November, 2013

(If you want to skip the text and see a slide show instead, just click on a picture and use the arrow keys.  Hit "escape" if you want to get back to the text.) 

We had a few days available, so (naturally) we decided to head for the mountains.  As we were getting ready to go, we were tracking a weak snowstorm that was passing through the Sierra.  We knew that the roads might close and that we might have to make alternate plans; if we couldn’t get to the Sequoias at all, we would go to Yosemite Valley.  Not such a terrible fallback plan!

October 30:  As we drove north on Highway 99, we called the Sequoia National Forest office and they told us that although the roads were technically still open, the forest had received about 6 inches of snow.  The Ranger that we talked to described the forest roads as “iffy,” even though the main highway (between Kings Canyon and Sequoia) was still open.  We decided to take a chance – if the Sequoia National Forest roads were impassable, we would just have to stay in Azalea Campground in Grant Grove (Kings Canyon National Park), rather than boondocking out in the national forest.  Again, not a bad "Plan B."  (“Boondocking” is otherwise known as “dispersed camping.”  The forest service permits camping on most forest roads, but campers have to be completely self-contained and to provide their own water.)

When we got to the national forest south of Grant Grove, we could see that the forest roads were indeed pretty snowy and utterly untracked.  Were they passable at all?  And could we tow the trailer through the snow?

There was only one way to find out.  We unhitched the trailer and left it at a pullout, and we went exploring with the truck, to see what was available (and what we could handle with the trailer).  Yes, we were concerned about getting stuck in the snow.  But we felt that we were reasonably well prepared: we have fairly serious all-terrain tires and four-wheel-drive and high clearance.  We also carry tire chains for both the truck and the trailer, as well as a winch, tow straps, snatch block, shovels, and so forth.    To someone from a snowy climate, our concern and uncertainty would probably be laughable.  But we are “flatlanders” from sunny Southern California, and I had never driven in 6 inches of untracked fresh snow, with no snow plow in sight, and no one else around.

When we came to one of the less-hilly forest roads, it was time for a trial run.  I pulled the truck off the plowed highway and aimed it at the snow bank that had been piled up by the snow plow.   I put the truck in “four-wheel-drive low” and drove slowly ahead.  The truck crunched right through the snow bank and then continued down the untracked road, into the forest.  Some of the snow drifts were almost a foot deep, but it was no problem.  The truck didn’t slip at all, and I didn’t have to push on the accelerator.  We just rumbled along, slowly and carefully.  The "road" was surprisingly smooth.

With a little more confidence, we scouted a couple of possible boondocking sites on a couple of different roads.  Both sites were acceptable; but both of them were surrounded by high trees, with no views of the nearby snowy mountains.  Since we were feeling better about driving through the fresh snow on the forest roads, Felice suggested a more remote area, with better views of the mountains. We were pleased to discover that it was no problem to drive the truck through the snow on some fairly hilly terrain.  We decided that we could safely tow the trailer into the backcountry, especially since this trailer has extra high clearance.

So that’s what we did. We hitched up and slowly pulled the trailer over the hills and then off the forest road, through the snow, and down onto a broad granite slab.  The slab, which was fully exposed to the sun, was less snowy than the road or the surrounding forest:

As far as we could tell, there were no other people within many miles of our campsite.  It was a gloriously sunny and cool day when we arrived; but soon thereafter, it got pretty warm, and the snow started to melt.  Even though we were on a granite slab, there was enough decomposed granite on top of the slab to hold a lot of meltwater, creating a messy slurry.  We dug a shallow trench through the gravel to drain our campsite, and it worked very well:

(In case you’re wondering, we filled in the trench and smoothed out the gravel when we left our campsite a few days later.)  In that picture, you can see the bright orange “Legos” underneath the right wheel of the trailer.  We had to elevate the right side of the trailer in order to level it, because the slab slanted so steeply.  Also, as a result of the slant, the distance from the ground to the bottom step of the trailer was about two feet, so that’s why we put the little step stool next to the front door of the trailer.  In an effort to avoid the muddy gravel, we spread out a tarp as a staging area for our equipment.  After we got all of our stuff set up (which always takes us quite a while), we had time to admire the view of the Great Western Divide to the south:

After dinner, we took a walk, but the roadway was pretty icy because the slush had frozen.  The Milky Way was fairly prominent, although there was some light pollution from the San Joaquin Valley.  This picture was taken at an ISO of 3200 and an exposure time of 20 seconds.  I illuminated the trailer very briefly with an old incandescent flashlight, hoping to avoid the blue cast of the LED flashlight, and it worked pretty well:

In this shot, the snowy Great Western Divide is in the far southern background:

That evening, inside the trailer, we thought we would have to run the heater, since it was in the high 20s outside.  (We almost always run the heater for a few minutes before dinner, at shower time, but rarely run it in the late evening -- it is noisy and it uses a lot of electricity.)  As it turned out, we did not need any heat.  The trailer stayed in the low 50s during the evening (hurrah for thick insulation!), and we were very comfortable with warm clothing and lap blankets.  Felice tried out her latest innovation, an old-fashioned pink hot water bottle tucked under her blanket, and it worked very well.  And at night, even though the inside of the trailer got down to the low 40s, we were plenty warm, thanks to our down comforter.  So although it is true that we were technically "snow camping" (since there was some snow on the ground), this was far from roughing it.  "Smoothing it" would be more accurate.

One of the best parts of boondocking is sleeping like a log in the cold, dark, silent trailer.  On an ordinary night at home, we average about 7 hours of sleep.  On this trip, we got at least 8 hours every night, and one night we slept for 9 hours.

October 31:  The morning was sharply clear and cold.  We walked over to a nearby ridge to look at the view.  During the storm, the snow on the ridge had been whipped up into waves:

Seen from a few inches away, the texture of the snow was very fluffy and crystalline:

We couldn’t resist this shot of our little trailer, sitting forlornly across the gully:

We headed down the highway to Little Baldy, an 8000 foot dome with 360° views of the Sierra.  The Little Baldy trail was completely unmarked – we were the first people to hike it since the storm.  The footing was not too bad – the snow was dry and fluffy (at least in the morning), and it was not too deep:

The oak trees were changing color, and the leaves were scattered on the snow:

As we neared the peak, we discovered that a bear had very recently walked across the trail – this is clearly the bear’s left foot, although I’m not sure if it’s the front or the rear foot.  Note the crisp imprint of the knuckle of the small toe on the left side of the picture:

Although we stayed on high alert, we did not see any bears.  Up at the summit, at just over 8000 feet, the snowy Great Western Divide was etched sharply against the sky:

This is a quick panorama from the summit:

That afternoon, on the way back to the trailer, we stopped off at Lost Grove – Felice is at the bottom center of this picture:

Across the creek, there was a huge downed tree streaked with snow:

We went over to the east side of the grove and climbed up the steep hill, traversing across the snow:

November 1:  We took the Alta trail, which starts in the Wolverton area and climbs to Panther Gap. This trail got us a lot closer to the backcountry -- these shots are of the Kaweah Peaks Ridge area from Mehrten Meadow:

The trail up to Panther Gap was snowy (and very slushy in the late afternoon), but the Alta trail along the cliff was clear and dry because of the southern exposure.  If it had been snowy, the narrow trail would have been too dangerous.  That's Panther Peak on the left, and that's Felice crossing the avalanche chute on the right:

At one point, we passed a couple of hollow logs – we could see the branches sticking in toward the middle of the log.  Apparently, the center of the tree rots more quickly than the knots:

When we got back to our campsite in the late afternoon, our little “rig” was posed against the backdrop of the mountains:

Note the green water cans next to the trailer – when we are boondocking, we have to bring extra water.  It’s a lot of work to fill the cans and then to lift them up and pour them into the trailer’s fill tube; boondocking involves a great deal of physical labor, but it is well worth the effort.

November 2:  We decided to hike to Muir Grove.  Yes, it’s true that we do this hike fairly frequently, but with good reason: this is a premier grove, with enormous trees in a park-like setting, far from the highway.  The hike was longer than usual because Dorst Campground was closed; but that meant that we had the trail all to ourselves.  Once again, we were the first people to hike on this trail since the snow had fallen.

However, we were not the first creatures to use this trail since the snowstorm.  We quickly discovered that the bears and the deer use this trail as an “animal highway” through the forest.  (A Ranger once told us that the animals are not stupid – rather than struggling through the underbrush, they use man-made trails when they really need to make tracks, so to speak.)  And speaking of tracks, in this shot all of the footprints on the trail in front of Felice were all made by bears:

In addition to footprints, the bears left other subtle signs:

Notice all of the partially-digested berries – although I did not get too close, I am pretty sure that these are manzanita berries.  There were lots of manzanita bushes along the trail, loaded with reddish berries.  I tried to eat a few – they were waxy, bitter, tasteless, and full of seeds.  The bears must be pretty desperate to eat manzanita.

Along the trail, the fresh snow coated the rocks like whipped cream over chocolate chips:

Unlike our last trip to Muir Grove in the snow (when the wet snow clumped up under our snowshoes), the snow was not too deep and not too sticky, making for better footing.  When we arrived at Muir Grove, the reddish bark of the trees was illuminated by the slanting afternoon light.  

This picture is an “HDR” (“high dynamic range”) shot of the circle of giant sequoias at the entrance to the grove -- these trees are about 300 feet high.  In HDR, the camera takes three pictures in rapid succession, at differing light values, and then combines the images electronically.  The advantage is that even though the sky is bright, the colors and textures of the shadowy tree trunks are still visible.  In an ordinary non-HDR shot, the trunks would have been much darker:

It seems to me that the HDR technique produces a much more “true to life” image.  The only downside is that the camera has to be mounted on a tripod – otherwise, the slight movement of the hand-held camera means that the three images will be slightly blurred, except if a very fast lens speed is used.  Using the tripod for an overhead shot requires some contortions:

Here is a very short video of the same cluster of trees:

After lunch, we hiked into the western part of the grove.  We passed a tree that had symmetrical openings in the base of the trunk:

We found another odd tree that we had never noticed before – it had been hit by lightning, and the core of the tree had completely burned.  But the top of the tree was still living.  This is a view straight up the center of the tree:

Finally, we visited Felice’s favorite trees, the “husband-and-wife” pair, in a remote portion of the grove:

For the sake of comparison, this picture shows the full height and scale:

Monday, October 07, 2013

Northern Redwoods & Sierra Aspens: September 2013

(If you want to look at the pictures without the text, just click on a photo and use the arrow keys to scroll through them.  Hit "escape" to get back to the text.)

We had wanted to take a more ambitious trip this autumn, but we decided to stay a little closer to home due to some family medical issues.  So we decided to hit the moist, lush coastal redwoods and then the dry, open Eastern Sierra.

September 15: This was our longest day (530 miles).  We stopped at Kelly’s Campground, a very rustic “resort” in Lake County.

September 16: By mid-afternoon, we were at Albee Creek Campground in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and we found a really nice campsite tucked away in the trees:

We even had time for a bike ride along Mattole Road:

September 17:  We hiked the Bull Creek Flats Trail.  The day began with a little drizzle:

But the sun came out in the afternoon – this is taken on the south side of Bull Creek, just south of the Rockefeller Grove. Felice is in the patch of sun in the middle of the picture:

Just for the sake of comparison, here is the same shot edited in Lightroom -- it may not be all that much different:

September 18: We drove a couple of hours north to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and managed to get a campsite right on the creek:

This is a very short video of the creek next to the trailer.  (As with all of the videos on this blog, you can click the gear symbol and watch it in semi-high definition, and you can expand it to "full screen" if you'd like.)


September 19:  We drove out to Fern Canyon on the coast.  Along the road (and along the trail), there were tremendous numbers of bull elk.  This was a little disconcerting, since it was “rutting season.”  But we kept our distance from them -- these are telephoto shots:

Not surprisingly, Fern Canyon is very lush, with “five finger ferns” covering the dripping canyon walls:

The stream has cut a channel straight down through the limestone walls:

After hiking through the canyon, we rode our mountain bikes north on the coastal trail.  It was wonderfully remote – the beach on one side, and the forest on the other, and almost no one else on the trail.  The ride was only a few miles round-trip, but it took us a long time because parts of the trail were pretty rough and muddy:

Along the trail, there were several waterfalls plunging from the cliffs down onto the beach:

That afternoon, we were able to enjoy cocktails in our usual “snacking circle” next to the creek:

September 20:  Although rain was predicted, we hiked the nearby Brown Creek Trail, and we brought our rain gear with us.  (We were glad that we did, but the rain was so heavy that we were soaked anyway.)  The ferns were taller than Felice:

September 21: After a full night of rain, the sky seemed to be clearing up, so we hiked the James Irvine Trail, almost all the way to Fern Canyon (and back).  The sun was streaming through the mist:

This is almost the same shot, edited in Lightroom:

Felice is in the lower right hand corner of this shot:

It was clear that these redwoods are close cousins of the sequoias – some of them are as big as the middle-sized sequoias:

The fungi were enjoying the wet weather -- these pumpkin-colored parasites were each about as big as a dinner plate:

The understory was covered in moss -- there was so much vegetation that the misty sunlight was literally tinted a light green:


Dense gardens of sword ferns covered every inch of soil – in this short video, watch for Felice in a purple shirt waving from the trail in the background:

September 22:  On a drizzly and windy day, we headed out to Patrick’s Point.  The waves were crashing against the rocks:

On our way back to the campground, we got caught in an “elk jam,” as the herd crossed the highway.  In this video, you can hear the bull “bugling” to the females, urging them to cross the road:

September 23:  As we were getting ready to leave Prairie Creek, the fog was drifting through the redwoods on the hill above the campground:

Rain was predicted for the far north coast, and snow was predicted for the Sierra, so we headed south, possibly to visit Matt in Oakland.  (That did not work out -- he was pretty busy.) But as we were driving, Felice realized that the Mendocino area was right on our way -- it seemed like a good place to hide from the weather for a couple of days, since the forecast for that area was dry.  So, we changed our plans on the fly -- it's very liberating to travel without reservations!  That night, we stayed at an RV park near Willits, mostly for grocery shopping, laundry, recharging the batteries (literally), and drying out our sodden possession.

September 24:  We found a very remote campsite in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest – as far as we could tell, we were the only people camping in the entire forest during this time!   Although the forest is only six miles from Ft. Bragg, it takes quite a while to get there because the access roads are narrow, twisty, and rocky.  That afternoon, we did some mountain biking on the forest roads, right near our campsite:

The only problem with this campsite is that it was so dark and cool and silent in the mornings that we slept till almost 8 o'clock each day.  (On second thought, that was not a major problem.)

September 25:  In the morning, we walked along the coast at Russian Gulch -- in places, the sea caves had cut all the way through the cliffs:

Later, we hiked to Russian Gulch falls – note Felice sitting at the top of the falls in the first picture:

This is a rather tame video of biking in the Mendocino woods:

We were happy to discover that the hiking and biking trails were in much better shape than the last time we had visited this area, which was during the state budget crisis.

September 26:  In the morning, we hiked in the Mendocino Headlands.  One of the sea caves formed a tunnel -- the waves swept straight through the tunnel and broke on the inside of the cove:

From the cliffs, we could look down into the tunnel, as part of the roof had collapsed:

The ocean was a deep cobalt blue – this picture almost captures it, but not quite:

The waves had carved a cul de sac cave into the cliffs – each wave would compress the air inside the cave, causing it to explode back out the entrance:

Later that afternoon, we rode our bikes on the Big River Trail.  There were some views of the river, but the trees were fairly dense most of the way:

This is the obligatory shot of our isolated campsite, deep in the redwoods:

And this is the obligatory shot of cocktail hour, sitting by our own private miniature waterfall, all bundled up on a chilly afternoon:

September 27:  We drove across the state to Minden, Nevada, and stayed in an RV park near a casino.  It was another long day, but it put us into position to get to the Eastern Sierra the next day.  

September 28:  We headed south to the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest, northeast of Yosemite and southwest of Bridgeport.  We were just in time for the last gasp of the aspens, which had been hit by a snowstorm a few days earlier and which were being thrashed by the wind.  There were still traces of the recent snow on the mountains.  The peaks in this shot are at 12,000:

Our campsite was at 9000 feet, tucked into the edge of an aspen grove, on a ledge above a canyon.

September 29:  We hiked in Lundy Canyon.  It is a classic “U-shaped” glacially carved valley:

We were amazed that the cascades were still running, at the end of a very dry year:

A blog post would not be complete without Felice's boot shot:

It was very windy – notice that the willow bushes in this shot are blurred by the wind:

The Lundy Canyon area has a lot of metamorphic rock, unlike most of the Sierra (which is granitic).  So the cascades jump down “stair steps” cut into the layers of rock:

At the head of the valley, there is a tricky talus slope, below the Saddlebag Lake region of Yosemite:

This short panorama shows the steepness of the talus slope and the shape of the canyon:

That afternoon, the orange aspens near our campsite were backlit by the sun:

The roaring wind was stripping the trees – Felice rescued three colorful aspen leaves:

As evening approached, the violent winds stirred up lenticular clouds:

The sunset was garish – I had to tone down the gaudy color in this shot.  The real thing was a mix of neon pink and Day-Glo orange:

This is the same shot, edited in Lightroom -- I'm not sure it's any better than the original:

September 30:  After breakfast, I tried to capture the essence of a boondocking campsite -- silence and isolation.  There was no one else near us, for many miles around:

This is the same shot, edited in Lightroom:

We hiked the Barney Lake trail, in the Twin Lakes area.  The aspens formed a tunnel over parts of the trail:

It was cold and windy at the lake:

Little Slide Canyon cuts south from the trail:

That night, the tail of the Big Dipper arched over the trailer:

The sky was so dark and clear that we could easily see the braided structure of the Milky Way.  (For folks who are interested in photography, this shot was taken at an ISO of 3200 for 20 seconds.  Since it was a jpeg file, I could not correct the white balance, so the trailer looks blue -- I illuminated it for a few seconds with an LED flashlight with a bluish cast.)