Morons go west. Third Edition. The tradition continues and evolves. The Moron Hikers—Fred, Greg and Rick—decide to try the big trees and alpine environs of Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park (SEKI), after our previous visits to Glacier and Yellowstone.
The plan, after much evaluation, is to do a semi-loop from Crescent Meadow along the High Sierra Trail, branching off to Little Five Lakes, then over Black Rock Pass to Redwood Meadow (sleeping among the giants!) and finally returning with a long day along the Middle Fork Kaweah trail. Total distance: just about 49 miles.
We exchange ideas and thoughts via e-mail, and then meet at Rick’s a week or so before departure to make last plans. No big questions other than how we’d deal with the altitude, higher than we’d hiked before. We expect good weather, with cold nights as we get into the higher elevations in mid-September. That means preparing for the cold with enough of a variety of clothes. More later on that decision …..
Thursday, September 7
Greg and I agree to take a cab from my house to the airport rather than leave a vehicle at the airport for over a week, with the associated $100 + parking fee. Greg arrives before 5:30 AM, and I’m a bit anxious whether the taxi will be here when promised. But before 5:30 Vicki the driver calls to check on directions. She’s here within 5 minutes—in an unmarked Cadillac. Greg is somewhat impressed.
We get to the almost empty airport in plenty of time, soon to be joined by Rick. Comparing notes again, we all feel pretty confident about our gear decisions, with some extra stuff brought along for final decisioning before we hit the trail.
Delta to Salt Lake City, with a transfer to Fresno. The flights go easy and on time. We fly over the Sierra Nevada on our way in, but Fresno is in the middle of the Central Valley. My first time there, and to see the breadth of agriculture grown in this key area.
We get our vehicle (Chevy Trailblazer at a very inexpensive rate!) and head to WalMart for local-required supplies, especially stove fuel. WalMart doesn’t have what we need but we’re referred to Big 5 Sports. After some effort finding it we do, and Rick and I get our isobutane canisters and Greg his (far too much) gallon of Coleman fuel.
To the east. Past grapes, citrus, olives and other examples of the great American agricultural machine. Less than 60 miles away is the entrance road to SEKI. Denise and the girls had been here in 1998, but it’s a first for me (and Greg). We go through the entrance and head to Grant Village, where Rick has reserved a cabin. Can’t check in yet, so we wander around Grant Grove. The highlight is the General Grant tree, one of the world’s five largest giant sequoias. The giant trees are inspirational.
Check out the store for t-shirts and supplies. No opportunity for the extra gas canister we think we might need. Dinner at the park restaurant—pretty decent. We try and find the shower supposedly there by the cabin. Finally we stumble across it. It’ll be our last chance to get clean in the morning …….
Friday, September 8
To the trail. We’re up at 6:00 AM to get ready and drive the 20+ miles to Lodgepole to get our backcountry permit. Helpful ranger who said she’s hiked our route very recently. Among the many who only had good things to say about what we had planned. We pick up an extra gas canister at the very well-equipped store and then go to breakfast and store up on a buffet—overdo it of course.
To Crescent Meadow. A relatively short drive, past Moro Rock to the trail head. A good number of cars in the lot, but as it turns out most are day hikers or visitors to the High Sierra Camp at Bearpaw. We make a last attempt to use cell phones to touch base back home; Greg’s the only one who can get a signal. We’re on the trail about 11:00 AM. The trail is pretty easy going out, but we all are very aware of the weight we’re carrying. When we loaded the packs for good this morning I think each of each of us made a decision to add something to help with the anticipated cold rather than take something out of the pack. Thus we were each carrying more weight than we had ever done before. Mistake?
The trail leaving Crescent Meadow is pretty easy. Shortly we come to a vista called Eagle View, which provides a great view of Moro Rock and the Middle Fork Kaweah drainage below. The Middle Fork trail is where we hope to come out next Thursday. On for about 2 ½ miles to our first break, at Panther Creek. The packs come off for a bit. Last year at Yellowstone we had to get the packs off within the first ¼ mile to apply DEET, the insect repellant! Now, in September, the bugs are notably all but absent.
I’m walking around munching on some nuts when Rick calls out “Bear!” I turn and see a black bear edging on the trail right near my pack, the furthest up the trail, no more than 20 feet from me. I’m pleased with my reaction: first thought is that I’m supposed to throw stones at a bear’s feet to scare it, but don’t hit the animal. Before I can do that the bear heads back into the brush. Some day hikers are coming down the trail from the east. I alert them to the bear in the area, and they say they’ve been following its scat down the trail. About then the bear reappears on the trail by the creek, on the other side of where we are. He nonchalantly heads down the trail as we frantically work the cameras. Fortunately Rick has put the telephoto lens on his, to capture our close-up with Ursus Americanus. Funny, last year in a wildlife-rich Yellowstone, we went seven days without seeing anything larger that a grouse on the trail. Now we run into a very good-sized bear within the first hour or so. He obviously is a well-known bear, with a very obvious collar. I wonder what his trail name is …..?
Our next objective is Mehrten Creek, about 5 ½ miles in. Here are the first campsites on the High Sierra Trail, but they appear to be up the hill out of sight. We take another break, with Rick taking his first brief nap on the boulders in the sun, before heading on to our objectives at Nine-Mile Creek.
We reach Nine-Mile about 5:00 PM or so. Much later than we hope to reach camp each day. And we’re kind of beat. We’ve hiked about 8 ½ miles on this first day, with the heavy packs. It’s hard to assess how the altitude is affecting us at this point, but the last three miles were more than a bit of a trudge. 9-Mile is just an OK camp site; the tent sites are not all that great, and Rick and I settle for one that slopes more than we’d like. The bear boxes are there as promised, and we get dinner ready before it gets dark.
Saturday, September 9
Our objective today is almost 7 miles to Hamilton Lake. This is the start of the most anticipated part of the hike: heading up to the alpine regions. We each report that our shoulders are feeling better from the night’s rest.
We break camp and head the couple of miles to the next camp site, at Buck Canyon. We imagine what this must look like during June as the snow melts: boulders everywhere, with a small bridge that surely would be well under water when the creek is high. We have to climb steadily from there to get to Bearpaw Meadow. This is the location of a camp site and, more importantly, the High Sierra Camp in Sequoia. This is a set of tent cabins, plus a “mess hall.” Somewhat similar, we guess to the five or so High Sierra Camps scattered throughout Yosemite.
The climb’s a bit annoying, but we get there in reasonably good shape. Music is blaring from the mess tent: Dr. Hook and related oldies. We get water from a spigot, but it still needs to be treated. I make one last trip to their outside toilet: a flush job, no less. Wonder if I’m supposed to be using it …..
Then on toward Hamilton Lakes. The first stretch involves ups and downs—mostly down—to the bridge crossing Lone Pine Creek. As we approach the creek the trail starts to get pretty rocky, not a whole lot of fun with the footing. The bridge crosses a pretty impressive chasm; apparently the trail used to wind much further up the gorge and then back around. This is now a bit of a short cut. After a brief break we start to head up. This is the part of the trail advertised as being blasted out of the side of the mountain. And that it is. Many switchbacks, and very rocky footing. We run into several day hikers returning from Hamilton to their tented luxury at Bearpaw. Get some advertisements and advice both about the Hamilton area and further on in our itinerary.
Hamilton Creek Falls comes into view and we think we’re almost there. We cross by the falls, feeling pretty tired at that point. And so, where are the campsites? The first lake comes into view, but it’s a small one, without camp sites. Rounding yet another switchback bend comes Ranger Nina Weisman. She cheerfully asks how I’m doing and I admit to being a bit beat. She says we’re almost there, and notes that camp sites are available at Hamilton. We also talk a bit about the weight we’re carrying, and she offers some advice based on her experience, what she’s dumped in the past, etc. We trudge on.
Finally, the lake comes into view with several campsites scattered along the shore. We ditch our packs and, after first exploring one up above the shore level, realize we can camp on open area, perhaps 60 feet from the shore. (The photo above shows the setting—not bad!) There are several folks already there. Two Austrians who had flown by us on the trail earlier; it turns out they’re just resting and eating before heading on to some ridiculous mileage for the day. There’s also a group of four Californians who return from a day hike, much of which is cross country over a notch to the left of Mt. Stewart, then returning via the trail over Kaweah Gap.
I wash out my clothes and take a dive in the (very cold) lake at the urging of one of the Californians, from Three Rivers. I talk of our uncertainty of going over the gap with the heavy packs, as tired as we are already. At dinner we share our thoughts and agree to see how we feel in the morning. We’d have to climb some 2500 feet to the gap, and staring at it, it looks pretty imposing. The Californians report, though, that the switchbacks are long and not all that steep. We’ll see.
We’re joined around dinner by two single hikers: one an obvious veteran of the Sierra who shares some of his experiences and advice, the other a young seasonal ranger who’s just finished his job. He’s come in from Crescent Meadow in one day, and proceeds to camp out just in his bag on the rocks for the night. Oh, to be young (and smart?).
Sunday, September 10
The decision about the gap is made. Rick has awoken with one of his terrible migraines. He’s not interested in food and has no desire—and is in no condition—to go much of anywhere for a while. Greg and I try and be sure he’ll be OK resting and we make the decision to go over the gap on a day hike. I’ve got to see Nine Lakes Basin, the Kaweahs, and down the Big Arroyo. It’s much of what I’ve been anticipating.
Without the big packs the climb up is not bad. But we realize how much more difficult it would have been with all the weight. Even with day packs it takes us a bit over three hours to reach the gap. On the way we go around a very deep gorge not visible from the camp sites, and then climb toward Precipice Lake. We reach Upper Hamilton Lake, which I hadn’t realized from the trail descriptions was so far from its sibling. Precipice Lake, in particular, is beautiful. A bit reminiscent of Iceberg Lake in Glacier to me. Greg and I linger at several spots, taking many pictures.
As we approach the gap, I comment that I almost wish we wouldn’t get there just yet; the anticipation is wonderful. But when we crest the gap the 270º view is about what I anticipated: Nine Lakes Basin (with the first lake visible) to the north, Black Kaweah right in front of us, and the Big Arroyo stretching out to the south. If we’d stayed with the itinerary, we would have headed down from the gap about four miles down the arroyo.
Instead, we figure we have some time for a cross-country excursion toward Nine Lakes Basin. After considering trying the tracking feature of my GPS, we figure this is all too open to get lost, and we head out. The footing is pretty easy, and it’s kind of fun trying to sight the best line to go along. We skirt the east side of the first lake and see a ledge that may bound another to the north. This is mostly uphill but, again, not too difficult. After about 30 minutes off trail, we get to the crest and view a lake probably larger than Hamilton. All by ourselves ……
A break, some pictures and it’s time to head back. The elevation change up to the gap is far less from the east side and we start back down. This time the rocky parts of the trail start to become a pain, and by the time Hamilton cones back into view we’re starting to feel the mileage for the day, even with just day packs. No sign of Rick as we get lower, but both tents are there and apparently in good shape. We make it back to camp and soon Rick arrives. At “75 percent” he reports, but also with six trout he’s caught this afternoon. At least a bit of a treat for dinner.
We’re soon joined by yet another seasonal ranger who’s headed up this way after his summer assignment has ended. I take another dive into Hamilton; even the brief dip is very refreshing. Over dinner we discuss alternatives for the remainder of the trip. In any event we’ve got to head back toward Bearpaw in the morning. Stays at Hamilton are limited to two nights.
Monday, September 11
At breakfast I comment on this being our version of Lewis and Clark’s Camp Disappointment for our inability or unwillingness to stay with the original plan. Rick responds that, instead, it’s more like Camp Reality. Probably right ...
Rick is feeling much better, we take the first set of team photos, and bid a fond farewell to Hamilton Lake. Rather reminiscent of Stoney Indian Lake in Glacier, but larger and higher. The trip down is much easier, although the rocky terrain is still a pain. We have lunch at the bridge over the gorge at Lone Pine Creek, and then head up toward Bearpaw. On the way we run into Ranger Nina again, explain our decisions
and situation. She provides a few more ideas on “weight management,” and makes a great recommendation for the next couple of days. We’ve talked about heading to Redwood Meadow from Bearpaw, instead of the original way via Black Rock Pass and Pinto Lake. But the trail down from Bearpaw (and, particularly, back up) is pretty steep. She suggests leaving all we don’t need at Redwood in the bear boxes at Bearpaw, significantly lightening the load for two days. She also talks us out of heading out the Middle Fork Kaweah trail, as originally planned. That would require getting a ride back up to Crescent Meadow, and she indicated it might be problematic with so much less traffic this time of year. So we have a plan.
We find the Bearpaw camp sites: many, with a lot of pre-cut wood. There’s a group of six or so guys there, contemplating heading on to Hamilton. I relay our experiences and they decide to head off. They don’t look any better prepared than we were, and we wonder how well they’ll do as the day wears on. We make our camp site selection and Greg and Rick head back up to the High Sierra Camp for a break. They apparently offer lemonade and brownies to the unwashed hikers who stop by. After hanging around the site a bit I go up and join them. Great breeze and views from the porch at the camp. We find out that staying at the camp costs either $350 or $375 per night! Tent cabins, albeit with breakfast and dinner included. And they’re booked almost immediately for the season when the reservations open up. We also get a couple of stories about the trail: the metal bridge across Lone Pine Creek that lasted one season before being destroyed by a falling boulder, and the three seasons required to blast the trail to Hamilton out of the granite.
That night we’re able to have our first fire. Very dry wood and so much of it.
Tuesday, September 12
I am awakened by the sounds of something outside the
tent. Unzipping the screen and aiming my flashlight, I see a mule deer doe right in front of the tent. It’s about time to get up anyway, so I slowly put on my clothes and ease my way out the tent. The doe is obviously very familiar and comfortable with people, and she is not freaked by my behavior and (at least slow) movements. I spend maybe 10 minutes following her around, taking pictures. First Greg, then Rick appear as well. Soon two other deer—a doe and a fawn-wander through as well.
We break camp, leaving mass quantities of stuff (primarily clothes and food) in the bear boxes. Ranger Nina has suggested we leave a note that we’re returning to get this stuff tomorrow, which I do. This time of year there doesn’t appear to be too much demand on the boxes, so we think we’re safe.
Much lighter, we head down toward Redwood Meadow. The first 2 miles or so is all downhill. Very easy trail, very good footing. In all one of the easiest trails I think I’ve ever walked, making very good time. Brief stops to climb an overlook and then to peruse Little Bearpaw Meadow. Reaching the Middle Fork Kaweah we stop for a break. Then we tend to climb somewhat, but not a strenuous one as we head for the meadow and our chance to sleep under the Big Trees. Coming up there are periodic views both of Moro Rock and of the High Sierra Camp, up towards Hamilton.
Rick is ahead for the first time. As Greg and I enter the area of the sequoias neither of us talks; it rather inspires reverence. We get to the camp site very early: around 1:00 PM. Now what do we do? The site is literally right next to one of the larger trees in the meadow. Team photo #2 is recorded for posterity. Greg and I check out the vacant ranger station and associated stock area. Then we while the time away through the afternoon. Where is weight in the form of reading matter when we need it? There are also more bugs than previously on this trip, but they’re manageable—just a little dab of DEET’ll do it.
After dinner I spend about an hour taking sunset pictures from a vista less than ½ a mile away. Moro Rock is the key feature (knob) in the background.
Wednesday, September 13
Out from the grove, retracing yesterday’s trip, at least at the start. The hike back down to the river is easy and so, relatively is the hike back up to Bearpaw. Amazing what a lot less weight will do for you. I get to the sites well before either Greg or Rick. When they arrive Rick reports seeing a bear walking through Little Bearpaw Meadow. He figures I spooked him coming up the trail, and he went off trail through the meadow, whereupon Rick came on him. I’ve gotten all the other supplies out of the bear boxes and we proceed to load back up.
Up to the High Sierra Camp to get water and for one more visit and a final glass of lemonade. Then back toward Crescent Meadow. We’re not sure how far we’ll go, and agree to compare notes at each possible camp site. Leaving Bearpaw we’ve already gone about 5 miles for the day.
Down to Buck Canyon is easy and quick. No reason to spend the night there, which would leave an over 9 mile “out” tomorrow. We reach 9-Mile Creek with a bit more effort, some uphills with the heavier packs. It’s somewhere around 2:00 PM, with another 3 miles or so to the next campsites, at Merhten Creek. We all agree to go on. But these next three miles start to be tiring. Many more uphills and, as we approach Mehrten, we’ve gone about 10 miles for the day. More than the Morons are used to or particularly conditioned for. Rick is talking about going on and trying to head out, but he’s dragging on the trail and I don’t think any of us would be particularly comfortable trying to go yet another 5 ½ miles.
Greg and I trudge up to try and find the campsites above the creek. What are these folks thinking? With packs it’s almost dangerous climbing the rocks to examine these sites. And they’re marginal sites at best. I suggest we just sleep out on the boulders (many quite flat) along the creek. There’s one small site on which we can set Rick’s tent, in case we need to bail if it does rain. (We’re seeing a few more clouds than at any time previously on the trip.) And so we have a plan. Dinner is quite scenic overlooking the boulder field coming down the creek. We eventually all spread out and sleep under the stars. And at 4:15 AM or so, the rain comes. Just a drizzle, but it gets each of us up about simultaneously and we pull our stuff together quickly into Rick’s tent. We document that it, in fact, is a 3-person tent, but these aren’t accommodations we’d want every night!
Thursday, September 14
The last day on the trail. We want to get an early start
to leave time for some “tourist” exploration of Sequoia and then heading up to Yosemite. We’ve decided that would be a great way to spend our “free day” on Friday, with a day trip up there. Again, neither Greg nor I have ever been there.
We’re up and out and make good progress toward Crescent Meadow. We pass one of the High Sierra Camp employees who reports seeing some mountain lion tracks on the trail. We’re pretty alert by that news and are then somewhat spooked when a buck comes right at Greg along the trail, diving off into the brush when he realizes we are in his path.
We hear from one of the Bearpaw tent folks going in that the weather report is calling for much colder weather. NOW we might have needed all the clothes! Reaching Eagle View again, we see how open the Middle Fork Kaweah trail would have been. Getting close to the car we’re glad we don’t have to hitch a ride back. I bomb it out on the easy trail to Crescent Meadow. Take some final “victory” photos, dump the pack, wash up a bit, try the phones (with no luck), and head to Lodgepole to find some showers.
They have a coin-operated system: 12 quarters for 8 minutes of luxurious hot water. Such a deal. We actually get about 12 minutes for our $3.00—I don’t think any of us left early. Then some lunch outside the Lodgepole store. We stop by the campground and they are more than willing to take our remaining fuel, which we can’t take back on the plane.
We’re off to the Giant Forest. The paved trail down to the General Sherman tree and others is very well done. One of Sherman’s main branches fell earlier this year. They’ve left it as is, with cracked sidewalk and all. It gives a real close-up view on how massive these trees really are. We then stop by the Giant Forest Museum. Good exhibits. I pick up a copy of “The Last Season,” the book about long-time SEKI ranger Randy Morgensen, who disappeared in 1996 in the backcountry. We find out later that our friend Ranger Nina is referenced several times in the book. (Highly recommended book, by the way.)
We finally leave SEKI and drive back to Fresno, then northeast toward Yosemite. Our objective is Oakhurst on the SW side of the park. We get there in time for a Mexican dinner and then locate the Best Western with three double beds (“family room”). Relative heaven …..
Friday, September 15
Yes, this is Yosemite. Half Dome from Glacier Point. But more of that later ….
Yosemite. John Muir. Ansel Adams. Can’t wait. A good breakfast at the local place near the Best Western and we’re on our way. The southern gate is easily accessed, but then it’s a good drive to the valley. I’m sitting in the back and the twists and turns of the road start to be a (nausea) problem. Nothing serious, but annoying. The first landmark is El Capitan—just as I envisioned it. There are a good number of people here, but not overwhelming like we’d expect it in July---thank goodness. As we go further in the valley I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be at the height of the tourist season.
The valley is quite scenic. Perhaps the best example of a U-shaped glacial valley that I’ve ever seen. We hike all over. Ahwahnee Hotel, the Wilderness Office, the Ansel Adams museum/shop …. I’m getting motivated about coming out here to hike. They have a good bus network that makes point-to-point hikes more practical.
We get back in the car to check out Bridal Veil Falls and then the drive to Glacier Point. The latter brings you up to eye level with Half Dome. Quite a perspective. And quite a temperature drop brought on both by the altitude change and the cold front that’s finally come in.
At last we head back out to Fresno. California Pizza Kitchen for dinner (“Please come back soon.” “I don’t think that’s very likely.”) and then a somewhat crummy Holiday Inn for the last night.
The next morning and flight home are pretty uneventful. The Morons have conquered another park—or perhaps in this case another park has conquered us …..
To the future!