Monday, June 01, 2015

A Week Alone in the Clouds: Sequoia & Kings Canyon, May 2015

(You can click on the photos to see a slideshow, and then hit "escape" to get back to the text.  Also, a note on the photo credits: as always, both Felice and I took these shots, and many of my shots resulted from her suggestions.  I do the photo editing using Lightroom.)

After a year of drought, the weather service predicted a wet week in late May: a perfect time to head for the mountains!

Monday, May 18: We arrived at Lodgepole Campground at midday and scored a nice campsite just north of the river.  Even with the low water, we could hear the roar of the river – a very pleasant sound.  After we got set up, we went into the trailer for lunch, and it started to graupel heavily.  ("Graupel” is a form of hybrid rain/snow/hail, sometimes called "snow pellets."  And there is no noun that cannot be verbed.)

Graupel storm? No problem – after lunch, we suited up with our ponchos, rain pants, rain hats, snow gaiters, etc., and headed up the Tokopah Falls trail.  Usually, the trail is quite crowded.  We were wet and cold and (not surprisingly) completely alone, which would be the theme for the whole week.  After a while, the graupel eased up a little, and we could see the Watchtower looming 2500 feet above the valley:

This poor deer was hunting for green shoots under the slushy snow:

When we got to the falls, we were still all by ourselves, an unprecedented pleasure:

May 19:  We were feeling adventurous, so we tackled the hike from Wolverton to Heather Lake, about 9 miles (round trip) with 2500 feet of elevation gain.  We knew that there would be snow on the trail, and there was.  At the lower elevations (around 7000 feet), the ice and snow had started to melt on the trees, and there was just a little bit of sun shining through the droplets, creating miniature rainbows:

As we approached the trail junction at around 8000 feet, we spotted a very fresh bear print in the new-fallen snow:

A minute later, we spotted the very fresh bear in a meadow near the trail.  He ran away before we could grab our cameras.  Too bad – he was a beautiful young cinnamon-colored bear, but evidently very shy.

We were again completely alone as we hiked up the “Hump,” the steeper trail to Heather Lake.  (The Watchtower, the cliff route, was closed due to snow and ice.)  There was plenty of snow on the trail – almost a foot in many places.  It was like marching uphill in mashed potatoes at 9500 feet – quite a good workout.  My pulse was above 140 for much of the climb -- old-fashioned fun!

At one point, we had to cross a small stream.  Ordinarily, this crossing is pretty easy, but not on snowy rocks.  Note Felice’s stylish knee-length snow gaiters:

Up at the summit, the whole Tokopah Valley below us was full of clouds – no views.  But Heather Lake was quite peaceful – we had it completely to ourselves:

Felice thought that this complicated reflection in the lake resembled the pattern in a Navajo blanket:

Surprisingly, the hike back down the Hump was a lot easier than usual, because we could slide downhill through the snow with almost every step.

May 20:  We decided to move to the Kings Canyon area, boondocking in the national forest not far from Big Meadows.  On the way, we spotted a big black bear in Halstead Meadow:

This guy was one of the biggest black bears we have ever seen in the Sierra – several hundred pounds of muscle, with a thick black glossy coat.  He was busily munching on vegetation in a stream, completely unconcerned about us spectators.

After driving for a while, we found our boondocking site unoccupied, which was not too surprising (given the weather and the remote location, miles away from anyone else).  It is always a lot of work to set up camp, but let's be honest: it's fun.  We could see the clouds gathering for another rainstorm, so we took a picture of the snowy eastern skyline reflected in the window of the trailer, in case the view disappeared (which it did for the next several days):

After getting settled, we headed off in the truck, hoping to hike to Kennedy Grove.  We took a very rough forest road, 13S53, which had not yet been cleared for the season.  Even if the road had been cleared, I would not attempt to drive it except in a high-clearance 4X4 – deep ruts, lots of rocks.  Also, the overgrown thorn bushes crowding in on both sides of the narrow road scratched the paint.  (This is not a problem – it's a bonus -- these decorations are known as “Sierra pinstripes.”  It is considered dishonorable to acquire them by deliberately rubbing the truck against the bushes, however.)

At a couple of places, we were forced to stop and get out and move some big logs and rocks that had fallen onto the roadway.  (Note to self:  next time, wear work gloves so that the tree sap does not get all over everything.)  There was one point at which a tree had fallen above the roadway, forming a low bridge; we had to hop out and measure the clearance to see if we could drive under the log.  I was ready to whip out my trusty bow saw and cut the log, but unfortunately there was just enough room to pass safely underneath.     

On our way to Kennedy Grove, we saw a sign that said “Little Boulder Grove Trailhead.”  Surprise! I had no idea that there was a trailhead on this road.  So, change of plans – let’s go see!  (I later discovered that if you google “hike to Little Boulder Grove,” you get no results at all – that’s my favorite kind of hike.)  In less than a mile, we came to the grove, which was strung out along the trail.  Unlike most Sequoia groves, the trees in this area stood alone, without a lot of other conifers around them.  Note the enormously thick branches on this big tree:

Most of the old Sequoias were surrounded by thickets of thorn bushes, making it impossible for us to get next to the trees.  But in one area, a log had fallen across the wall of thorns, providing us with a convenient bridge to the base of this tree:

Shortly after this photo was taken, there was some lightning and thunder in the canyon, not far away.  Along the trail, we saw several odd spherical “geodesic” fungi, something we had never seen before:

When we got home, a little googling revealed that this is “calvatia sculpta,” or the sculpted puffball.  It is supposedly edible when young!  (No, thank you.) Late that evening, back at our campsite, we took a walk at sunset:

That was the only sunset we saw in an entire week – the rest were completely obscured by clouds and fog.  And there were no stars, either – a small price to pay for all of that lovely rain. 

It rained on and off all that night – it is inexpressibly delightful to be buttoned up inside a small trailer on a cold and wet night, in the middle of nowhere, with the sound of wet slush pellets bouncing off the roof, under a thick comforter.  We hibernated until 8 a.m., an amazing luxury.    

May 21:  (Happy birthday, Matt!!)  Although the rain had tapered off, the campsite was wrapped in dense clouds – almost no visibility.  No problem -- we headed off to hike in Evans Grove.  At the Kennedy Meadows turnoff, we spotted another cinnamon bear – he ran to hide in the woods as soon as he saw us.

The trail to Evans Grove, along a ridge, was a little tricky because of the dense fog.  Since the trail gets so little use, there were no footprints to follow, but someone (perhaps the rangers?) had built cairns along the way, which made it a little easier.  The Sequoias seemed to be gratefully soaking up the wet, cold air:

We hiked down through the grove to the east end of 13S05, which in this area is just the impassable ruin of an old logging road.  (Judging by the roadcuts, the grade, and the embankments, it might even have been a narrow-gauge railroad a hundred years ago.)  For whatever reason, the loggers left quite a few old-growth trees:

We walked downstream (north) along Evans Creek, into an area we had never explored – there was a great grove of old trees down there.  The footing was tricky – lots of downed branches, all quite slick due to the wet weather.

Whenever the rain would stop, we would take off our ponchos and jackets.  Since they were too wet to put into the backpacks, we fastened them through the loops in the back of my backpack.  I looked pretty silly – Felice said, “I’ve heard of a clothes horse, but you’re a poncho donkey:”

As we hiked back to the trailhead from the grove, the fog got even worse, with visibility of just a few feet.  Felice figured out that we could stay on trail by retracing the holes made by the points of our poles in the sandy soil along the ridgeline, which saved us from having to search for the cairns through the heavy fog.  Back at the campsite, the clouds were gathering for another rainy night:

After much trial and error, we have developed a number of tricks for dealing with boondocking in wet weather.  Since we are on bare dirt and not in a paved campground, our boots are always muddy. We have (no kidding) a walk-off mat outside the door, and an astroturf mat, and a boot wiper, and a stepstool with astroturf on top, and a stiff scrub brush.  None of it makes much of a difference, but we feel like we are accomplishing something.  And our plethora of wet ponchos and jackets are festooned on coat-hooks inside the trailer -- very festive and colorful.  They don't actually dry, but they look sporty.  The elegant picture is completed by our wet boots inside the doorway, stuffed with newspaper to absorb moisture. (I don't know what we are going to do when all of the newspapers have been put out of business by this newfangled Internet thing.)

That night after dinner, the rain stopped and we took a walk near the trailer.  It was so foggy and pitch-dark that we had to count our steps in order to find our way back!  As was true all week, the evening's after-dinner entertainment consisted of a good book, hot chocolate, and recreational carbohydrates.

May 22:  We headed off to see if we could hike to Landslide Grove.  (This was another “no results” google search –“hike to Landslide Grove.”)  On our way to the trailhead at 13S33 (off of Tenmile Road), we saw a car!  This was our first sighting of another human or another vehicle in several days.  (That is the sign of a great boondocking site -- absolute isolation and silence, with more bears than people.)

We hiked up 13S33 (which is closed to vehicles) for a couple of miles and came to the end – there was no trail to the grove through the thick underbrush, although we could see the big trees a few hundred yards up Tenmile Creek.  So we took a spur road, 13S33D, which heads north from 13S33, and found an outlying cluster of several big trees next to the creek.  Felice and I are peeking out from behind two different trees:

In case anyone is interested in finding the "Landslide sub-grove," here are the GPS coordinates: 36 degrees North, 45.329’, and 118 degrees West, 52.169’.  We hiked to the end of the spur road, but there was no way to get upstream to the main grove, due to the thick thorny undergrowth.

Since the Bearskin Grove was not too far away, we decided to pay it a visit, too.  The access road, 13S98, was extremely rough and rutted – don’t drive it without a high-clearance vehicle.  We hiked around through the grove, visiting several of the really old trees:

Those spindly-looking conifers in this picture are actually healthy, full-grown fir and spruce trees roughly two feet in diameter -- they just look like toothpicks next to the Sequoia.

May 23:  The sky looked pretty clear, so we drove all the way to Road’s End in Kings Canyon, about 90 minutes away, to take the Mist Falls trail.  Usually, the first part of this hike is a hot dry sandy slog, but the wet weather meant that it was much cooler, and the moisture made it easier to walk in the sand without sinking in.

After a half hour of sandy slogging, we were happy to get to the wet part of the trail – fresh green ferns were sprouting along the edge of the creek, which seemed like a miracle in the midst of this terrible drought:

We took our traditional picture on a granite dome looking south along the canyon toward the Sphinx, the forked peak in the middle of the shot, towering three thousand feet over the canyon:

Usually, there is snow in the avalanche chutes on the north face of that cliff.  Not this year.  But up at the falls, we were pleasantly surprised at the volume of water:

This is a semi-slow motion video of that "roostertail" formation in the cascade:

We are obligated to include Felice’s famous boot shot – is it a selfie or a “bootie?”

This is a panorama of the cascades from top to bottom:

After hanging out for quite a while next to the main cascade, we climbed back down toward the bottom to take the requisite “waterfall worship” picture:

On our way back to the trailhead, we came across a patch of lupine with yellow accents – the wildflowers are not doing too well this year:

May 24:  On our last day, we awoke to brilliant sunshine and to a fresh coat of snow on the surrounding mountains.  This is the crest of the Sierra to the northeast of the campsite:

This is the same view from the door of the trailer:

And this was the view toward the southeast:

Note the outline of the window in this shot – this was taken from inside the trailer:

I framed the same view with a cluster of granite boulders:

Before packing up to leave, we drove up to the Buck Rock Lookout tower to take in the view.  We talked to the ranger about all of the dead conifers we were seeing throughout the forest, killed by drought and bark beetles.  We asked whether the dead trees would be removed in order to reduce the fuel load.  She said that because we were inside the Giant Sequoia National Monument, logging was forbidden, and the dead trees could not be removed, even though they were endangering the ancient Sequoias.  We are hoping to contact the District Ranger to see what we can do to change that rule -- the drought has created an emergency situation, and we can't just sit there and hope that the big trees won't burn.

Back at the trailer, before driving home, we could not resist one last shot of the campsite, to remind ourselves of the deep silence, the isolation, and the peaceful mountains: