Sunday, September 18, 2016

Skateboarding (Driveway Quarter Pipe)

While Tori and I were visiting the National Parks in the Sierra Nevada mountains, my brother built a new quarter pipe for his kids. As soon as we got back, my nephew, Emery, wanted to show us how he could drop in on the much larger ramp in our driveway.

Four year old Nyla was working on her skateboarding skills too.

(No, no, no, Daddy! I'm not readyyy!!!!)

Sequoia National Park (Giant Trees and Marble Caverns)

After the two days spent exploring Kings Canyon, we drove down to Three Rivers on Thursday to be closer to the southern Ash Mountain Entrance of Sequoia National Park. While we rented a rustic cabin at the Kaweah Park Resort, our friends, Kenny and Jill, drove up in their RV that night to explore Sequoia with us. In the morning, Kenny cooked us breakfast in the RV before we all climbed into our car to drive up 6,000 feet of elevation along 13 miles of steep switchbacks.

Our first stop in the park was the Big Trees Trail, circling the edge of Round Meadow. The meadow lies in the middle of Giant Forest, the second largest sequoia grove in the world. While the park was established in 1890, the area around the meadow was privately owned until purchased by the National Geographic Society and added to the rest of the park in 1916. The surrounding cabins, campground, gas station and restaurant were finally removed in the 1970s to help protect the Giant Sequoias. Even though the giant trees can grow over 300 feet tall, their shallow roots do not descend deeper than 14 feet into the soil. At the beginning of the 0.8-mile loop, lies the conjoined twins, Ed by Ned. These two sequoias grew so close together that they joined at the base. The massive combined footprint of Ed by Ned is 34 feet long and 25 feet wide.

All along this trail are many informative display panels describing the sequoias and the meadow habitat. While the giant sequoias need the water that collects in the meadow's basin, if they grow too close they develop flared bases to remain upright in the moist soil. If the meadow expands around a sequoia, it can topple due to root rot. On a smaller log that had fallen out across the meadow, Tori and I attempted an AcroYoga Shoulderstand. It was much tougher to base with a rounded surface under my back. On the east side of the loop was a Sequoia that fused to a giant boulder as it grew over the centuries. I called them The Odd Couple. Nearby was another fallen sequoia, with a juvenile growing in the exact former spot of the toppled giant.

After leaving Round Meadow, we drove up Generals Highway to the General Sherman Tree Trail.  Even though the half-mile trail descends 200 feet in elevation, the trailhead still sits lower than the crown of the largest tree in the world. General Sherman is 275 feet tall and 36.5 feet across at the base. Standing at a distance behind the perimeter fence, it is harder to judge it's enormous size without someone standing next to it for scale. The giant tree continues to grow almost a half inch in diameter each year, equal to adding the volume of a normal 60 foot tree. Nearby is the cross-section of a giant sequoia that was cut down in 1950 when it began leaning too far and threatened to topple. Counting its rings showed that the tree lived about 2,210 years, which means it started growing before Julius Ceasar turned the Roman Republic into an Empire.

After passing Moro Rock on the Crescent Meadow Road, we arrived at the famous Tunnel Log. In 1937, this giant sequoia fell across the existing road and instead of chopping up the giant tree, the rangers bored a tunnel 17 feet wide and 8 feet high through the log instead. For taller vehicles, a bypass road circles up and behind the exposed roots. It is also useful to avoid a wait if other tourists are posing with their vehicle inside the tunnel. Before it fell, the 2,000 year old sequoia stood 275 feet high and had a diameter of 21 feet at the base. Driving through the tree was a bit anti-climatic so we circled around and did it twice.

At the end of the winding road we parked and hiked the loop trail around Crescent Meadow. Called the "Gem of the Sierras" by John Muir, this golden meadow in the Giant Forest is surrounded by more towering sequoias. At the beginning of the loop we passed the trailhead of the High Sierra Trail. I have hiked to the peak of Mount Whitney from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada's but hikers can also reach the summit from this 49 mile long trail that meets up with the John Muir Trail for the last 12 miles.

When we planned this trip, Tori and I really wanted to find a spot where we could practice our AcroYoga underneath a giant sequoia. Taking a side trail away from Crescent Meadow, we found a nice flat area at the base of a beautiful tree. After six days of hiking, my legs were super tight so it was much harder to balance my wife up in the air on my feet. It was tough but fun. Normally, I need to stretch out my hamstrings and hips for about twenty minutes beforehand. From my position on the ground, the giant sequoia overhead made the other trees look like toothpicks.

After playing under the trees, we followed the trail as it crossed over to Log Meadow. At the far end stood Tharp's Log. Hale Tharp was a cattleman who built this cabin in 1861 as a summer residence inside a fire-hollowed sequoia log. He was the first non-native to enter the Giant Forest and later sold his land to the government. Below is my favorite picture that I shot of a giant sequoia on the trip. The high levels of tannic acid gives the bark its red color and makes it more resistant than other trees to insects, disease and fire.

On our drive back from Crescent Meadow, we finally saw a bear. It was small cub and it quickly jumped off the road and disappeared into the underbrush. Very cool! We then parked at the base of Moro Rock and hiked to the top of the 6,725 foot tall granite dome. The winding staircase climbs 300 feet over a 1/3 of a mile and crisscrosses the rock for amazing views of the Kaweah River Valley descending toward the Sierra Nevada foothills below. A wooden staircase was first built in 1917 but was replaced by a more permanent trail in the 1931. Near the top, a stunted tree grows out of a crack in the granite beside the trail. Nature always finds a way to grow in the most unusual places.

At the summit, we had our best view of Castle Rocks across the valley. Visible at the top of the valley to the east, lies the Great Western Divide. This high sierra ridge separates the Kaweah River Watershed from the Kern River on the other side. Mount Kaweah at 13,807 feet is the highest mountain within the group. Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, lies hidden behind this ridge. To the west, the view overlooks the steep switchbacks of the Generals Highway descending into the haze from the Central Valley. Leaving Moro Rock behind, we drove back down to Three Rivers and Kenny cooked dinner for us in the RV.

On Saturday, we had a noon tour of the Crystal Cave planned. We thought we gave ourselves plenty of time to get there but there was a huge line at the park entrance. When we finally passed the gate we got stuck behind a Tesla going up the long winding highway. The driver was going 5 miles under the speed limit and never used one of the many pullout areas despite have a line of cars stacked behind him. It was frustrating, but once we reached the turnoff onto Crystal Cave Road, I was able to make up for lost time by driving like a rally car. We joined the tour with two minutes to spare. After cleaning the soles of our shoes with disinfectant to protects the bats, we hiked down the half mile trail to the Crystal Cave entrance, passing several waterfalls along Yucca Creek.

Crystal Cave sits under Marble Ridge, formed out of an ancient sea bed pushed up by the Sierra Nevada Range. Out of 240 known caves in the park, it is the only one that allows visitors. Inside, our guide led us alongside an underground stream into a marble cavern filled with crystal clear pools. After describing the biology of the different cave dwellers, she led us upward through tight passages into a series of larger caverns filled with all kinds of rock formations while telling us the history of these caves. Despite the heat outside, it was a cool 48 degrees inside. As we entered the final cavern, our guide asked us to turn off our flashlights. We all sat silently in pitch darkness for a few minutes, listening to the drips of the flowing water that created these caves before she turned on the lights to reveal a giant natural cathedral. It was beautiful!

After hiking the trail back up to the parking lot, we drove to the Lodgepole Visitor Center for a late lunch at 2:30pm. I wanted to hike the 1.7 mile trail up the glacier-carved canyon to the Tokopah Falls, a 1,200 foot cascade, but a ranger said it was dry so the others talked me out of it. After exploring the museum in the visitor center, we said goodbye to this beautiful park and headed back down the mountain to Three Rivers. After a relaxing nap, we all went out for Mexican food at Casa Mendoza and then spent the rest of the evening playing board games in the RV. In the morning, we drove back home to San Diego.

Link to my previous post at Kings Canyon National Park.
Link to my previous post at Yosemite National Park.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Kings Canyon National Park
(Sunny Meadows and Big Stumps)

After four awesome days in Yosemite National Park, Tori and I drove down to Kings Canyon National Park. For our first night, we stayed at The Branded Calf, a Bed and Breakfast in Squaw Valley near the northern Big Stump Entrance. Kings Canyon National Park is split into two parts, a small section that includes Grant Grove and Redwood Canyon and the giant area behind that includes the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River and extends back to the ridge of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Connecting these two areas through the Sequoia National Forest, winds the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. After checking in on Wednesday afternoon, we passed straight through Grant Grove sitting at high altitude and descended rapidly back down into the river valley where two forks of Kings River meet at the base of Junction Ridge. Kings Canyon is actually deeper than the Grand Canyon for a short distance at this spot.

Past the junction, the byway follows the South Fork of the river up into Kings Canyon. Just outside the second entrance to the park is Grizzly Falls. It was a small waterfall but it was easy to reach from the picnic area. Across the road was a pretty section of the Kings River with signs for trout fishing. After re-entering the park, we skipped the Cedar Grove Visitors Center and continued on to the Roaring River Falls. It was a pretty waterfall with the water rushing down a granite chute and into a deep pool but it was in the shade at this point of the day so I couldn't get any pretty pictures. We reached Road's End at 5pm, the farthest point you can drive in Kings Canyon. There is a permit station here with several bear bins for hikers to store there food before taking one of the many trails leading off into the back country .

Backtracking from Road's End, we parked at the trailhead for the Zumwalt Meadow Loop. The trail runs along the Kings River for a short distance before crossing over a suspension footbridge. The water meanders past the meadow in this flat area before picking up speed down a 50 foot step in the valley below the footbridge. The river got its name from the early Spanish Explorers who called it the "River of the Holy Kings".

After crossing the footbridge, we turned left at the fork and witnessed our first view of the grass-filled Zumwalt Meadow lying below the towering Grand Sentinel. (8,504 ft.) Meadows form out of silted up lakes and maintain their size based on the amount of water in the ground. If the soil becomes too dry, the meadow will slowly fill up with trees, but several wet years in a row can kill the trees along the border and allow it to expand into the treeline. This meadow is named after the attorney, D.K. Zumwalt, who worked to preserve this valley from settlement in the early 1900's.

On the south side of the meadow, the trail runs through a talus field of loose boulders that have fallen from the Grand Sentinel. The lighting was perfect as the golden meadow glowed under the setting sun. On the other side of the valley lay North Dome (8,717 ft.) rising 3,600 feet over the canyon floor, almost identical to the height of El Capitan in Yosemite. Like that more famous valley, this u-shaped canyon was also carved out by glaciers. The last one to fill this valley was over 1,600 feet deep. Driving back along Highway 180 at dusk, a huge buck ran across the road ahead of us and galloped straight up a sheer embankment. (Awesome!) On our way back to the The Branded Calf, we stopped for dinner at the Twin Valleys Restaurant in Dunlap. It was nice of them to serve us even though we arrived 5 minutes after the 8pm closing time.

Thursday morning, we walked the Big Stump Trail just inside the entrance to the park. Despite the name there are living sequoias on the hillside as it descends into the Big Stump Basin below. Near the top, we had our first encounter with a truly giant Sequoia. Tori looked tiny standing inside the huge burn scar and the branches up in the crown were thicker than most trees. Down in the basin, we started to find the many sequoia stumps from trees logged back in the late 19th century before the area was protected by the government. In the 1880's, the Smith Comstock Lumber Mill was located in the center meadow. Among the logged stumps is Old Adam, the gnarled and burned remains of a sequoia killed by fire instead of man.

In the smaller meadow down the trail we encountered the Mark Twain Stump from a 1,350 year old sequoia that was felled in 1891 after 13 days of sawing by two loggers. The Mark Twain Tree was 300 feet tall and 91 feet around at the base and cross-sections of this sequoia are still displayed in the New York and London Natural History Museums. Climbing up the small set of stairs to stand on the massive stump was an awesome and sad experience at the same time. The sacrifice of this tree led to the public demanding protection for the remaining giant sequoias. Near the end of the trail loop, we found the Shattered Giant. It is not-uncommon for these sequoias to shatter when they topple due to their massive size. The loggers would prepare a feather bed, an uphill trench filled with branches, to cushion the landing.

Before continuing on to the General Grant Tree Trail, we stopped to check out the exhibits at the Kings Canyon Visitor Center in Grant Grove Village and for Tori to satisfy her caffeine fix. (Good coffee, she declared!) After the isolated or spread out sequoias we saw on the Big Stump Trail and back in Yosemite, it was amazing to see so many giant sequoias growing side by side in Grant Grove. Along the short loop, we walked through the Fallen Monarch, a burned out sequoia log where the US Calvary stabled their horses. At the historic Gamlin Cabin, we listened to a Buffalo Soldier re-enactor tell us the history of the African-American Calvary Unit that was in charge of the park in 1903. They protected the land from livestock grazing and poachers while building many of the park's original trails and roads.

On the far side of the loop, we finally reached the humongous General Grant Tree, the Nation's Official Christmas Tree. While the 267 foot tall Grant is smaller in volume then the General Sherman Tree, it actually has a wider base at 29 feet. It is a fairly young sequoia (under 2,000 years) but its prime location allowed it to grow larger than its elders. Sequoia don't die of old age, instead most die from falling over. The General Grant is now the second largest in the world after the Washington Tree suffered a lightning fire in its crown and then cracked in half under a heavy snow load in 2005.

After seeing General Grant, we hiked down the Sunset Trail leading off from the General Grant parking lot. At the bottom of the hill, we turned onto the Dead Giant Loop Trail that followed the border of Lion Meadow. Bridging the center was a fallen sequoia, its decomposing red bark a strong contrast to the lush green around it. Past the meadow was the trail's namesake, the still-standing Dead Giant. It looked like it was killed by fire a long time ago. The trail climbed up a ridge and overlooked a large grove of burnt trees from the 2015 Rough Fire. The stand of blackened trucks running down the valley looked surreal against the blue sky. Before the trail turned back toward the Sunset Trail, a short spur led to the shaded Sequoia Lake Overlook with views of the reservoir sitting just below the park's border. It was a good spot for a snack.

Hiking up the Sunset Trail, we drove back over to the Grant Grove Village for lunch. Actually, this location at the Kings Canyon Visitor Center had surprisingly good food for a National Park. Their Chicken Burrito was very tasty and the salad was decent. Besides our dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel back in Yosemite, this had the best park concession food on the trip. I went into the post office hoping for some Kings Canyon Stamps but they didn't have any. (Missed Opportunity!) Since we were staying for the rest of the week in Three Rivers near the South Entrance of Sequoia National Park, we drove the Generals Highway out of Kings Canyon and through Sequoia National Park. Except for the Redwoods Overlook with views of the largest sequoia grove in the world, we didn't stop until we reached the Kaweah Park Resort.

I thought I had driven a lot of windy mountainous roads on our trip so far, but the last 13 miles of steep switchbacks on the Generals Highway was the most intense. To avoid burning out my brakes, I had to drive in 1st and 2nd gear all the way down until we reached the exit of Sequoia National Park. It was mentally exhausting. Our cabin at the Kaweah Park Resort was cute with a rustic 1960's camp style. The resort is right along the Kaweah River with cattle fields on the far side. We had dinner at Alferez Rustic Orchard and I would highly recommend their Carne Asada Tacos. Our friends, Kenny and Jill will be arriving late tonight in their RV to explore Sequoia National Park with us on Friday and Saturday.

Link to my previous post at Yosemite National Park.
Link to my next post at Sequoia National Park.