Westward Wanderlust Day 18
Azalea Campground, Kings Canyon National Park, CA
July 27th, 2012
We woke among brambling manzanitas, pleasantly shaded by towering pines. We had slept on a slight incline, and had positioned our tent in such a way that tall sugar pines shaded us from most of the morning sun, and our tent flap opened to a cluster of young manzanitas. All of my experience with these red-barked trees has, until now, been purely decorative. I recognized the unique bend and curl of the slender branches from many interior arrangements created by my mother, but this is the first time I have seen them live and fully adorned with their natural foliage. Pale green and yellow leaves gathered at the tips of the cabernet-colored limbs, fanning out from the center like lotus petals. When the sun hit the oval leaves, their color became more vibrant; a saturated summer green, a golden grain yellow.
We broke camp and headed off to the General Grant Grove of Giant Sequoias. It was around 8:30 am when we arrived at the Grant Grove trail and we had the place to ourselves. The morning was cool and quiet.
We followed the trail as it curved through the trees and gaped toward the sky in awe. Impossible to photograph justly, each gigantic sequoia stood to staggering heights above us. We tried our best, but it was like photographing an entire horizon, or all of the sky.
At 267.4 feet tall, General Grant Tree is the third largest living thing in the world. It is estimated to be 1800 to 2000 years old, and at 40.3 feet, it has the greatest base diameter of any sequoia. The size of this branched beast is mind boggling. To quote the handy trail guide, “The General Grant is as tall as a 27-story building. It is wider at the base than a three-lane freeway. It weighs more than 700 large cars. If the wood were strong enough for construction, more than 40 average sized, 5-room houses could be built from it.” Unbelievable!
The General Grant Grove of giant sequoias is home to a variety of woody wonders, including a fallen giant called The Fallen Monarch, massive fire-damaged trees, and the double-trunked Twin Sisters.
The Fallen Monarch is a gigantic sequoia that fell sometime before 1800. The huge sequoia was likely hollowed out by fire before it fell and died, but it’s what was done after this tree fell that is even more surprising. From 1868 to 1870 two Franco-Canadian homesteaders, Thomas and Israel Gamlin, turned The Fallen Monarch into a hotel and saloon. From 1870 to 1872, the Gamlin brothers actually lived in the hollow tree while they built their cabin. Then in 1876, the U.S. Cavalry used it as a temporary stable for 32 horses. We walked through The Fallen Monarch and tried to imagine living inside of the colossal trunk. It was a bit more conceivable than living in The Stump I fell in love with in the Redwoods, though an incredible dream. How could you be any closer to nature than living IN a tree?
While walking through the trunk, it was disappointing to see all of the graffiti carved in the interior “walls” of The Fallen Monarch. I don’t understand the purpose is of defacing such a magnificent structure of happenstance. The inside of the actual Gamlin cabin was even worse. Almost every surface, from the walls to the windowsills, was scratched and stained with names, initials, symbols, and dates. The selfish compulsion for people to declare “I was here” superseding the modicum of reverence and respect deserved by such places is, in my opinion, absurd. It’s inconsiderate, unnecessary, egocentric, and sad. I decided not to take a picture of it. Instead, we focused on the natural wonders around us.
We continued along the trail to some of the naturally altered fire-damaged trees.
Then, on to the Twin Sisters. According to the trail guide, “when two seedlings are started close together, the gap between the tree shrinks through the years as they grow and finally meet. The two trees fuse and now share their limited space, soil nutrients, sunlight, and water.”
The Twin Sisters are one of the few trees situated such that we could back up far enough to photograph the entire tree.
Next we headed to the visitors center to stamp our park passport. It was 77 degrees at 9:50 am and a beautiful day.
When we reached the visitor center. we noticed that there was a small coffee stand outside. We stopped for some fresh java and chatted with the woman behind the counter. The pretty young barista asked us where we were from and told us how she came to be here. She had fallen in love with the park and had built herself a small farm nearby. This was one of several jobs she was working to fuel her desire to be near the Canyon and the Sequoias. The only real issue with having a farm around here, she told us, was the occasional chicken or goat being consumed by a mountain lion. We thanked her for the coffee and conversation and wished her luck.
As we continued through the Sequoia National Forest, D and I observed the changes in the landscape. Black and grey granite was still prevalent as in Yosemite, but the foliage and colors were different. Along with the Incense-cedar, White Fir, Lodgepole and Sugar Pine that covered the undulating hills, here, we had Sequoias. The rock here also looked much more jagged and sharp, not smooth like Half Dome.
The underbrush here maintains the palette of autumn harvest; browns, tans, reds, oranges, and yellows. Pale yellow lichen dots the grey, rust, and cream tones of the sheer rock face, as Manzanitaz and Soaptree Yucca grow between the outcroppings.
The road sliced through rock and foliage as we twisted through the topography toward Kings Canyon and the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway.
We drove straight through the rocky heart Kings Canyon. The road is cuts through the river and glacier-carved canyon walls that rise nearly a mile from the canyon floor.
As we crossed over the South Fork of Kings River, I noticed a circle of people sitting in the water. Five people, presumably a family with two or three children, were sitting in the middle of the river bend. They had built a ring of rocks that rose just above the surface of the water. Four of them were sitting on the rocks with their legs in the circle and the fifth, a small boy, was knelling in the water, arranging the arc of the ring’s curve. It looked almost ceremonial, sacred, like a ritual in veneration of the river, or an intimate family tradition. The idea of a ceremony to honor a river or to strengthen a family that takes place in a rock ring in the river captivated me. What a fantastic way to celebrate nature and wildness! Maybe they were just trying to keep cool, but either way, they had made a conscious decision to experience Kings River first-hand in a very personal and authentic way that I find admirable. That’s what going to these places is all about; truly experiencing the natural world in a way that is memorable and meaningful to the self. Our trip so far has been comprised of countless moments like this, where D and I have enjoyed and appreciated the National Parks in ways that are significant to us. From camping and hiking, to exploring, and observing, we have made an effort experience these natural places directly and there is no question that the memories of this summer will be some of our most treasured.
At the bottom of the canyon there was a tiny ranger station. We stopped in to stamp my travel journal, and then began the winding road back out of the canyon. The curling road gave to more and more switchbacks and we coiled our way through the park.We crossed the length of Kings Canyon National Park as we headed to our neighbor, Sequoia National Park.
Within the boundaries of the two parks, there is elevation difference of 14,494 to 1,500 feet. With such a rapid differentiation in elevation, the changes in the environment are obvious. The variety in habitat is huge. Within the boundaries of Kings Canyon and Sequoia, there is desert landscape and arctic high elevation, sparse vegetation, then mounding scrub brush as you descend. Then, the forest begins to close in, and suddenly there are huge sequoias everywhere. This amazing diversity is another unique and fascinating aspect of these parks.
As we entered Sequoia National Park, we headed straight for the Sherman Tree and Trail. The trail winds through a magnificent stand of sequoia trees. To quote one of the champions of the National Parks movement, John Muir wrote “…Sequoias, kings of their race, growing close together like grass in a meadow, poised their brave domes and spires in the sky three hundred feet above the ferns and the lilies that enameled the ground; towering serene through the long centuries, preaching God’s forestry fresh from heaven.”
The biggest of these kings is the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree on Earth. At 275 feet tall, approximate age of General Sherman is 2,300-2,700 years, the circumference at the ground is nearly 103 feet and it is estimated that the trunk weighs 1,385 tons. Again, photographs do not do this being justice.
Awestruck and humbled by the massive trees towering around us, we look the advice of the park signage and strolled through the soaring Sequoias.
Eventually, left the trail and went on our way. As we continued through the park, we drove straight through what seemed to be some sort of controlled burn.
There seemed to be quiet a few projects taking place in the park that warranted traffic control, including a stop at this somewhat precarious curve in the steep mountain road.
I took advantage of our pause to snap a few shots of the surrounding flora.
Then, it was back to the hair-raising mountain roads. The Sierra Nevada Mountains sure know how to keep a driver on their toes!
As wonderful as it would be to spend more time in Sequoia, unfortunately we had to get moving. The fly-by-night fashion of our trip has been exhilarating, but sometimes it also compels us to leave some places much earlier than we would like. All that really means is that we have to come back again some day!
We rolled down into the foothills of the Sierras and were back on the road. It was 3:20 and steamy 94 degrees. We had a long haul ahead of us to a place that stood in sharp contrast to the verdant mixed-conifer forest of the Kings Canyon and Sequoia: Death Valley.
Now, if you look on a map, Death Valley is about 90 miles due east of Sequoia National Park. No problem, right? Be there in an hour or two. Not exactly. There is one big obstacle that stands between here and there: the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The only way to get to Death Valley from where we are now is head south and go around the mountains. The circumnavigation began as we drove southwest on CA Hwy 198.
We continued through Exeter and Visalia, then turned south toward Tulare, Delano, and Bakersfield.
At Bakersfield we were finally able to begin edge east as we reached the end of the Sierra Navada Range. CA Hwy 58 took us through Caliente and toward Tehachapi and Mojave.
At 5:30 pm, the thermometer held steady at 94 degrees and the terrain began to change again. Golden hills of sand spotted with trees, scrub brush, and jagged grey rocks stretched for miles. D and I could see the tan and brown silhouettes of the mountains in the distance, and had our first sighting of the distinctive Joshua trees. The unmistakable curvature of the branching trunks explodes into the bulbous spread of green spikes. The contribution of the Joshua tree to the landscape is almost other-worldly. They seem to slither up from the ground, then erupt into a clutch of green-headed snakes, each head adorned with slender barbs that point in every direction. D snapped some shots as we sped by.
At 6:39 pm it was 91 degrees as we headed due Northeast on CA Hwy 14. The shifting geography of the desert sand continued to display the many faces of this wild and unpredictably beautiful region.
CA Hwy 14 became Hwy 395, then I took the finally right turn onto Hwy 190 and zoomed through the desert evening toward Death Valley.
The moon was up and the sun was setting as we pulled into Death Valley. It was 8:25 pm and 81 degrees.
D drove us down the long sloping straightaway through Death Valley. Hwy 190 maintains a steady decline as it slashes through the open desert, and eventually D put the car in neutral to keep the brakes cool. We coasted for miles as we watched for signs denoting Emigrant campground, a tent–only free campground we had found in Mike’s book.
As we coasted through the hot desert night, the temperature began to rise; 82, 84, 89, 90 degrees. I kept my eyes open for indications of a campground, and finally thought I caught a flash of a sign out the corner of my eye. We turned around and went back to check. Sure enough, a sign about the size of a tarot card on a metal post displayed a picture of a tent and an arrow. We followed the arrow and pulled into an empty parking lot. We had arrived.
The campground was really not much more than a parking lot with strategically placed logs indicating boundaries of the “campsites” and a few picnic tables. To the east was a water spigot a small building with a bathrooms and a sink. But it was exactly what we needed; a place to stop, pitch our tent, and enjoy the hot desert night. To top it off, we also had the campground all to ourselves. It was 9:30 pm and a blustery 94 degrees as we pitched our tent in Death Valley.
As soon as we began to make camp, we realized that this would be unlike any other night of camping. The wind was hot and dry, blowing at least 20 miles per hour, with gusts of 30-40 miles an hour. It was like standing in the hot stream of an enormous hair dryer. The fine dust we had collected camping outside of Yosemite was quickly intermingled with the desert sand as everything flapped and fluttered in the breeze While D tried to pitch our tent, I worked on dinner. I stood at the back of the car making sandwiches on the cooler, while D fought with the elements. The desert ground was so hard, D was unable to drive the spikes to keep the tent from blowing away. He finally had to place large rocks in each corner of the tent to keep it from flying away. I made our sandwiches as fast as I could, but the wind with so hot and unrelenting, that it dried-out the cheese as quickly as I could cut it and slap it on a sandwich. I called to D to hasten to his dinner, or it would soon be topped with cheese jerky. We laughed and marveled at the incredible authority of the elements. This desert wind was not going to not yield. As we laughed, our tongues dried like fruit in the sun. Every inch of our exposed skin was wrapped in the hot blanket of the dry desert squall. The wind gusted over the parched sand and swirled unseen through the darkness. The tactile sensation of this invisible wind and heat was almost incomprehensible, yet beyond palpable. However, most amazing and discernible display of the stunning capabilities of nature was the stars. The sky was besieged with the most dazzling explosion of stars I have ever seen. Each start twinkled and glimmered like a brilliant electric diamond against the bottomless black of the night sky. Over and over, I uttered whispers of astonishment and wonder as I stared into the night’s brilliance. The moon continued to glow brightly, seemingly unable to outshine the shimmering stars. Suspended in the sky like a giant lustrous pearl, the moon glistened among the sparkling gems. I was transfixed. If the stars in Crater Lake were amazing, the stars in Death Valley were absolutely astounding. I didn’t want to sleep. All I wanted to do was stare into the endless night sky.
When we finally climbed into our tent, I lay with my glasses on, gazing deep into the night. Fairly certain that it would not rain, we had not put the rain fly on our tent, allowing ourselves an unobstructed view. The night paraded her most precious jewels to a captive audience until exhaustion moved me seamlessly from stars to sleep, the only sounds the ceaseless flapping of tent corners in the breath of the desert.
Westward Wanderlust Soundtrack Day 18
Following King’s River – “The Seeker” – The Who
“The Rain” – Calvin Harris
“10 Million Slaves” – Otis Taylor
“Look Out Young Son” –Grand Ole Party
NE on Hwy 14 to Death Valley – “Changes” – Blind Melon
Arriving at Death Valley – “Sympathy for the Devil” – The Rolling Stones
“Devil’s Workday” – Modest Mouse
(Pretty appropriate for entering Death Valley!)