Friday, December 17, 2010

Glacier National Park - The Second Visit

Glacier National Park in Montana is my favorite National Park. Its beauty is almost indescribable, and the hiking is superb. As I was leaving the park during my first visit in 2007, I was already making plans to return. I made good on those plans this past September.

This time I flew into Calgary, which is about 200 miles from the park. This presented a bit of a dilemma during the planning stage, as Calgary is only about 80 miles from Banff National Park, which I had never visited. I resisted the urge of mission creep and made my plans for Glacier. After picking up my rental car and stopping at Safeway to get some groceries for the week's breakfast and lunch, I drove to Glacier. The weather was rather gray and rainy, and unfortunately this would be true for most of the trip. My destination for the night was the Rising Sun Motor Inn, a few miles into the park on the St. Mary side. This was fortunate because they told me at the gate that it was snowing at Logan Pass, and the road was closed there.

On my first visit, at the exact same time of year, the weather was sunny and warm, and I could hike whenever and wherever I pleased. The rainy weather and a snowline of about 7,000 feet would make planning a hike much more difficult this time. I spent quite a bit of time Sunday night deciding what to do tomorrow. As it turned out, this would become a nightly ritual.  I had two main goals on this trip: the Dawson-Pitamakan Loop in the Two Medicine area and the Highline Trail to the Grinnell Glacier overlook. Dawson-Pitamakan tops out at 8,000 feet, and there are knife-edges to traverse, so it looked like I would not be doing that one, at least until later in the week. The Highline Trail begins at Logan Pass and tops out at about 7,000 feet, so waiting a day or so might be good. I decided that I would do the Grinnell Glacier Trail at Many Glacier. I had hiked this trail the last time, and it was one of the best hikes I had ever taken. This 11-mile out-and-back trail tops out at about 6,500 feet.

Early Monday morning I headed to Many Glacier. The weather was generally gray and rainy, but there was a bit of blue sky, and the sunrise on the mountains as I headed into the valley was beautiful. That would be the last time I saw the sun that day. Although I prefer hiking in good weather, the gray clouds and snow gave everything a totally different feel than the last time, and it was beautiful in its own way. I never did see the top of the Garden Wall or the Gem, but the scenery along the trail was magnificent as usual with the snow on the mountains making them look more imposing. I looked for the huge wildflower patch I had seen last time, but it was too cold this year, and they were gone. The last quarter of the trail had some snow along the trail, and there was snow on the trail at the final approach. Upper Grinnell Lake was iced up, so I did not dip my feet in this time. On the return trip I saw a mountain goat close-up. I ate my lunch at the lower elevations near Lake Josephine.

After the hike, I took the Going-to-the-Sun Road across the park to Apgar. By then it was raining, but the wetness brought out the color in the rocks and trees. The snow on the mountains at Logan Pass was beautiful. The visibility across Lake McDonald was poor, but it was still pretty. I decided to return to the east side via US-2, which hugs the park boundary, so I could check out the view from there. There was nothing exciting, but at least it is a faster road the Going-to-the-Sun. I got a big kick out of driving on US-2 in the mountains, since US-2 is the same road that goes across the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan. Once I returned to the St. Mary area, I headed for my favorite non-hiking spot: Two Sisters Café. I had my usual buffalo burger with a big onion on it. They did not have the home-made tortilla chips any more, but the Cajun-spiced fries were a very worthy successor.

I could see the tops of the mountains on Tuesday morning, so I decided that it would be a good day to take the Highline Trail to the Grinnell Glacier overlook, a 15.2-mile out-and-back hike. I did not know about that little side trail on my first visit, but as soon as I found out about it, I put it on my list for next time. I had seen Grinnell Glacier from glacier-level, and I absolutely had to see it from up on the Garden Wall. The Highline Trail sits high up the Garden Wall and in places is a thin shelf on the cliff. In other words, a great trail for views. As I walked along the trail, Heavens Peak and the Livingston Range came into view. As the sun rose, it touched the tips of the mountains with its light. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. The trail was mostly clear, but once in a while I had to walk on some snow. This was a test of nerves in some spots, as a fall would have been very long indeed. In addition to the scenery, I saw bighorn sheep and mountain goats.

Eventually, Granite Park Chalet came into view. It reminded me of Switzerland, where they commonly have buildings in the mountains. Soon, I was at the trailhead for the Grinnell Glacier spur. It took me quite a while to hike the 0.6 miles to the overlook, both because of the altitude and because of the snow on the trail. The goal was absolutely worth the work. I could look down at Grinnell Glacier, the Salamander, and Upper Grinnell Lake. I could see the spot where I had been standing the day before. Someone who had hiked from the Chalet took my picture there, and then I ate my lunch. It really was too cold and windy to eat lunch there, but how often would I have a chance to eat in such a spot?

The return trip was interesting both for a bad reason and a good reason. The bad part is that my left knee started hurting on the way down from the overlook. My knee has never bothered me before, but the combination of my age and suddenly demanding that my body traipse up and down mountains was too much. I longed for the days when I was 30 and I could do anything I wanted to my body and its only protest would be sore muscles the next morning. Oh well, I’ll just have to open up my wallet and get some trekking poles. I continued the hike at a slower pace.

The exciting thing came later down the trail. There was a curve up ahead and some hikers coming towards me mentioned grizzly bears that were on the trail but had moved off. I put my senses on high alert and continued. I rounded the curve and saw…nothing. Of course I had to relay the news to the next hiker coming towards me, and as we were talking he spotted three grizzlies below the trail. I snapped a picture and moved on. As I explained to my fellow hiker, my policy around dangerous animals is take a quick shot and get the heck out of there. At least this one came out better than my blurry rattlesnake at Kings Canyon National Park. The rest of the hike was uneventful, and it started raining as I was approaching the parking lot. I got in my car and it started really raining. I did a little weather victory dance as best I could while strapped into the driver's seat and then headed to Two Sisters.

Tuesday evening was the time to plan for Wednesday’s hiking. This was the biggest planning challenge I have ever had. The weather showed no sign of getting better. I was at a mountain park, but I had to take a low trail because of the snow and a level trail because of my knee. I had several hiking guidebooks to help me, and I did indeed find such trails. This was the classic blessing in disguise. I ended up taking great trails that I would have ignored under better conditions.

Wednesday morning started gray again, but at least I could see the tops of the mountains. This would turn out to be the best weather day, with some actual blue sky scattered throughout the day. My first hike was to Grinnell Lake, a 6.8-mile out-and-back hike. I had seen Grinnell Lake several times from high above, but this time I would see it from lake level. I would also be able to see Grinnell Falls from below.

The trail begins in the parking lot of the Many Glacier Hotel and passes Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine before ending at Grinnell Lake. The trail was quite muddy, but also quite level. The weather may have made for bad hiking, but it made for great photographs. It doesn’t get much better than blue sky with wisps of clouds among the mountains. It was a beautiful hike. The exciting thing on the trail besides the spectacular scenery was the bridge crossing a small creek not too far from Grinnell Lake. It was made of wood planks and was suspended with rather thin steel cables. Every step sent the bridge violently bouncing. I’m scared of pretty much nothing, but crossing that bridge was something I was not looking forward to repeating on the return trip. After spending some time and having a snack at the lake, I returned to the trailhead. I had lunch at a picnic table at a nearby picnic area.

My next hike of the day was Beaver Pond, a 3.4-mile loop very near the St. Mary entrance.  It was a nice enough hike through the woods and along St. Mary Lake, but not really Glacier-quality.  After dinner at Two Sisters I hiked to St. Mary Falls, a 1.6-mile out-and-back hike. St. Mary Falls is my favorite in the park. On the way down, I saw a deer right on the trail, and ran into her again on the way back.

Thursday was a rainy day, and my hike would be the 7.2-mile Two Medicine Lake Loop. I headed towards Two Medicine hoping that the rain would stop. The rain and fog on the thin and winding SR-49 was quite enough excitement for the day. As I pulled into the parking lot at Two Medicine Lake, the rain had pretty much stopped. I started my hike in a clockwise direction. The trail was quite pleasant, with several clearings and ponds beside it for the first mile or so. At that point, it became a nice walk in the woods with an occasional glimpse of the lake. I could not see too many mountains with the low clouds, but once in a while I could see craggy peaks poking through the mist, much like an ancient Chinese painting. I had to cross another one of those shaky bridges, but this was a loop so I would not have to do it again.

It was on this trail that I found out what unpleasant hiking really is. At the far end of the loop, the views of the lake open up. There are blueberry or some such shrubs along the trail. Although it wasn’t raining at the time, the shrubs were wet, and before long my pants and boots were soaked. Soon, the only sound I heard was squish, squish, squish. Then it started raining. And it was cold. I switched to my Seattle Sombrero and put on my gloves. At the side trail to the boat dock, I sat down and wrung out my socks. On many hikes, once you reach the big scenic destination all that is left is the trudge back to the car. After the highlight of the beautiful lake view, there was a long cold and wet trudge. Complaining is fun, but seriously in all my years of hiking this was the first time I had to hike in such conditions. I consider myself lucky.  My mother would say that it builds character.

I survived the hike and ate my lunch in my car. After lunch, I headed to Browning to check out the Museum of the Plains Indian. This was not the most impressive museum, but there was a display of formal and ceremonial clothing that was impressive indeed. Even more impressive was my dinner at Two Sisters.

Friday was my last day, and I decided to stop at Waterton Lakes National Park on my way back to Calgary. There was a bit of sun in the morning, and this time I was able to see Chief Mountain, which was shrouded in fog on my previous visit. Although it was early September, the light, the trees, and the air all had a pleasant autumn feeling. It was a nice drive to the border crossing. Once at Waterton, I drove the Akimina Parkway to Cameron Lake and hiked the 2.2-mile out-and-back Cameron Lake Trail. The weather was not so nice any more. I ate my lunch at the end of the trail. Then I drove the Red Rock Parkway with the intention of seeing Blakiston Falls. It started raining, and this time I had had enough. I turned around and headed to Calgary.

Though there is a bit of complaining in this post, I certainly enjoyed my visit. In fact, this visit cemented Glacier in place as my favorite National Park. There is often great beauty in bad weather. Also, I was able to see Glacier under totally different conditions than in my previous trip. Snow makes mountains more imposing. Wetness brings out color. Gray skies completely change the feel of a place. Given the choice, I would have asked for warm sunny weather, but I have now been privileged to see different faces of Glacier National Park. Its awesome beauty shines through in any condition.

My visits: September 2007, September 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

My New Favorite National Park

For years, I've been hesitating when asked to name my favorite National Park. I usually name three: Yellowstone, Olympic, and Glacier. No longer. After my recent second trip to Glacier, I can now say that my favorite is Glacier National Park. It is without a doubt the greatest hiking park, but what really tips the scale is its sheer beauty. Spectacularly beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful, heartbreakingly beautiful; I'm not sure we really have a strong enough adjective. The weather pretty much sucked the whole time I was there; it didn't matter. The rain just brought out the colors and the snow tipped the mountains in white. My knee started bothering me, so I had to limit myself to fairly level trails (a real challenge in Glacier); it didn't matter. I took some beautiful trails that I would not otherwise have taken. There is simply no other US National Park like Glacier, and it is my new favorite. My next post will have detailed information about my recent trip. There are photos posted on Flickr.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park in Arizona is divided into two districts separated by the city of Tucson. To the west is the Tucson Mountain District, which has a desert environment. To the east is the Rincon Mountain District, which has both desert and mountain environments complete with pine trees at the higher elevations.

Saguaro is one of my favorite national parks. It does not have the grand scenery of my other favorites, such as Glacier, but it certainly has its charms. There are several reasons why I like it so much. First, the saguaro cacti are just so darn cool. I had seen these for my whole life on TV, both in cartoons and live action, and it was a thrill to see them in person. They are truly impressive plants. Second, Saguaro was my first National Park, though it was a National Monument at the time, and there is always a certain fondness for your first. On top of that, my first visit was also the first time I had been in the desert. The desert is so different from the trees and water of my home state of Michigan, and it is utterly fascinating. Third, it never seems crowded. Finally, I have been there more times than any other National Park. (I have been to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore more.) I know the Tucson Mountain District quite well. This familiarity engenders a connection that I do not have with any other National Park. It seems like my own special place.

My visits to Saguaro National Park always include the Tucson Mountain District, so I will begin there. I usually take Speedway Boulevard from Tucson. Speedway eventually turns into Gates Pass Road, which twists and turns over the Tucson Mountains. That is why I like driving it. It ends at Kinney Road, which goes into the park. Starting roughly at Gates Pass, you are driving through Tucson Mountain Park, a Pima County park. Not too far before the Red Hills Visitor Center in Saguaro National Park is the entrance to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, an excellent combination of zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden. It is definitely worth taking some time from your hiking itinerary to visit.

More or less across from the zoo entrance is the trailhead for the King Canyon Trail. I usually have to drive back and forth a few times before finding it. This is the start for my favorite hike in the park, to Wasson Peak. My usual route is to take the King Canyon Trail to the Hugh Norris Trail to the Wasson Peak spur and then back the way I came for a seven-mile round trip. Last time I tried something different. After rejoining the Hugh Norris Trail I continued to the Sendero Esperanza Trail and took that trail back to the King Canyon Trail for an eight-mile round trip. I do not recommend one route over the other – it depends on whether you want a loop or an out-and-back hike. No matter which way you choose, it is one of the easier mountain hikes I have taken, similar to Ryan Mountain at Joshua Tree National Park. The views from the trail and the top are great, and as an extra bonus you can see the Kitt Peak Observatory from the top.

Wasson Peak is my favorite hike at Saguaro National Park both because it is simply a good hike and also for personal reasons. The first time I visited Saguaro was in 1990, when I was in Tucson for a conference. Of course, I had to go see the saguaros. I saw them and was happy, but then I heard about the hike to the top of Wasson Peak. Wasson Peak is only 4687 ft (1428 m) high, so it was an extremely attractive destination. I found the trailhead and started walking up King Canyon. Even though I was an inexperienced hiker at the time, I soon realized that I was ill-prepared to do the hike. I had no hiking boots, no hat, and no water. Any hiker will tell you that the most difficult thing to do psychologically is to turn back before reaching your destination. What really helped me was imagining the headlines in the newspaper the next day: “Conventioneer found dead in Saguaro National Monument.” It would be especially bad since I was a scientist, a presumably smart person. I turned back. As you might expect, it bugged the heck out of me that I did not do the hike, but I managed to push it to the back of my mind and avoid therapy. In 1994 I was not able to do the hike because of time limitations, but in 1997 I finally made it to the top of Wasson Peak, wearing hiking boots, a hat, and carrying water (and probably a granola bar).


Moving our story back to Kinney Road, the first site that you can find without driving back and forth is the Red Hills Visitor Center, a nice new yet tasteful visitor center. I seem to recall that they opened it soon after receiving their promotion to a National Park in 1994. As usual, there is a short nature trail behind the building. Continuing west on Kinney Road gets you to the Desert Discovery Trail, a short nature trail. Next is the driving highlight of the Tucson Mountain District, the six-mile Bajada Loop Drive. The road is unpaved, but usually in pretty good condition. This is where you can get your saguaro cactus fix. Along the road is the short (0.4 mile) but good Valley View Overlook Trail. You walk across a wash and then up a hill to a nice view of the Avra Valley. Also along the scenic loop is the Signal Hill picnic area. A short trail from there leads up the hill to some Indian petroglyphs and a fine view of hills and saguaros. It is a view that you will often see in photographs.

The Rincon Mountain District is not as fun to drive to as the Tucson Mountain District, but once you are there it is just as fun. The Rincon Mountain Visitor Center is near the entrance. From there you can take the eight-mile Cactus Forest Drive. This drive is nicer than the Bajada Loop in that it is paved. Again, you can satisfy your saguaro cactus craving here. Off of the road is a short nature trail, the Desert Ecology Trail.  Later, the side road to the Javelina Picnic Area leads to the Freeman Homestead Trail, a nice one-mile loop past a huge saguaro, through a wash, and past the site of an old house.

At the end of the side road is the trailhead for the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail. This is the big trail at Saguaro National Park, and it leads to an extensive network of trails in the Rincon Mountains.  It climbs for 6.9 miles to the 7049-foot (2148 m) Tanque Verde Peak and then beyond to other trails to the even higher Mica Mountain and Rincon Peak. At these altitudes, you are no longer in the desert but rather pine forest. I’m sorry to say that I have not hiked in this area, but hiking to Tanque Verde Peak is on my list for the next time if I can tear myself away from all the other things to do in Tucson.

My visits: May 1990, October 1994, May 1997, June 2000, April 2002, December 2006, May 2012

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Shaping the System

When I was writing my last post on Point Reyes National Seashore, I was thinking it may have been the first National Seashore, which would have been interesting to point out. To find the answer to this question, I consulted my copy of The National Parks: Shaping the System. It turns out that it was the second, two years after Cape Cod. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which I mentioned in the post, was indeed the first National Lakeshore.

I love this little book. As you might expect from the title, it is devoted to telling us when each park was added to the system, both in narrative and tabular form. It is interesting reading for a National Park buff like me, and it is an excellent reference book. One especially interesting entry, on the back cover, is the history of the NPS arrowhead logo over the years. If you would like a copy of the book for yourself, you can order it from the US Government Bookstore for $12.50 or you can access a PDF version at the National Park Service web site.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore in California is an hour or so north of the Golden Gate Bridge. We recently took a vacation to San Francisco, and naturally I scheduled some time for my second visit to Point Reyes. The park is on the opposite side of the San Andreas Fault from the rest of the state. This would not be surprising to anyone who has looked at a map of the park. Millions of years ago it was by Los Angeles, and millions of years from now it will be in Alaska. Luckily for me, right now it is in Marin County.

Point Reyes National Seashore reminds me quite a bit of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan. They are both on huge bodies of water (the Pacific Ocean and Lake Superior), they both have cliffs that tower high above the water, they both have lighthouses, and they both have secluded beaches nestled between cliffs. The main difference is the plant life. Point Reyes is largely grassland and Pictured Rocks is largely forest. Also, there are large hills around Point Reyes, something you won’t find too much of in Michigan.

On my first visit in 1993, I only had a half day in the park. First I checked out the Bear Valley Visitor Center and walked the short Earthquake Trail. There is a fence along the trail that was split into two sections 16' apart by the 1906 earthquake.  The Point Reyes Lighthouse is a well-known landmark, so I made that my prime destination of the day. The location of the lighthouse is unusual in that you have to descend about 300 steps to get to it, presumably so it can be right at the edge of the cliff. The parking lot is some distance from the lighthouse, and you have to walk along the road to get there. Along the road are several trees that I assume to be cypress. As is usual for this part of the state, it was foggy that day. I got a nice photo of the trees and fog, which later won a local photography award.  I named the photo “The End of the World,” because that is what it really looked like. Interestingly, the fog cleared as I was at the lighthouse, and the trees just did not look the same on the way back. After checking out the North Beach, I drove to the Mount Vision lookout for a nice overview of the park and Pierce Ranch to check out the elk.

My recent visit was longer, with one full day (minus the drive from San Francisco) scheduled and the possibility of a second day. The second day was originally earmarked for visiting the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, but it turns out that it is closed on that day. So, the day became a contest between a second day at Point Reyes or a visit to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. As you will see, the second day at Point Reyes won.

On the first day, we stopped at the Bear Valley Visitor Center and then stretched our legs on the Earthquake Trail. Then we drove up to Pierce Ranch to hike the Tomales Point Trail. The trail goes to the end of the point, which separates Tomales Bay from the Pacific Ocean. My wife did not want to hike the whole distance, so we decided to hike to the highest point for a 5-mile round trip. We think we did it, but it was hard to tell with the heavy fog. After finishing the hike and poking around the ranch, we went to nearby McClure's Beach. The trail through a canyon was beautiful, especially with flowers covering the canyon walls. At the end, the trail suddenly opened up to the ocean.

Next we visited the lighthouse. I was eagerly anticipating seeing the cypress trees again. They were still there. For kicks, I tried to duplicate my earlier photo from memory. I did a fairly good job with the composition, but the fog and light was just not the same. This one will not win any awards. On the way back up from the lighthouse I tried to walk up all 308 steps without stopping, but there was a section of ramp that was difficult and I had to stop to catch my breath. Maybe next time.

On the second day, we took the Bear Valley Trail from the visitor center to Arch Rock on the ocean. It was an 8-mile round-trip that was the easiest hike in the world. The trail was flat and wide and had no significant elevation changes until the very end. It was a nice walk through fields and forests and along little streams. The view at the end from atop Arch Rock was excellent, even with a touch of fog. I highly recommend this hike. For additional photographs, see my Flickr page.

My visits: June 1993, July 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park in California lie next to each other in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Though separate in name, they are administered as one park. They are about 150 miles from Yosemite National Park, the subject of my previous blog post, so I visited all three parks in the same trip. This was my best hiking trip by distance, with 72 total miles. Out of the three parks, Kings Canyon was my favorite. Yosemite has grander scenery, but the hikes in Kings Canyon were superb and the scenery is quite good. I spent two days in Kings Canyon with a day in Sequoia squeezed between them. My book, National Parks of the Sierra Nevada, available on Blurb, contains pictures from this trip

I arrived at Kings Canyon National Park early on Thursday morning, and the first thing I did was check out the General Grant Tree. This tree is the second largest tree on the planet. It’s big. After staring at the tree for a while, I continued on Highway 180 through Giant Sequoia National Monument and back into the park. The road ends at the appropriately named Roads End Permit Station. Before reaching the end, I stopped at some viewpoints and at Roaring River Falls. Several trails begin at the permit station. (Permits are not required for day hikes.) I took the trail that follows the South Fork of the Kings River past Mist Falls and Paradise Valley for a 13-mile round trip.

The trail had rugged and beautiful canyon and mountain views along a raging river. It was a great hike. Mist Falls was pretty, but the biggest excitement on the trail was just ahead. On the trail just past the waterfall, I saw my first rattlesnake in the wild. I excitedly grabbed my camera, but I did not really want to wait for him to pose for me. I snapped one blurry shot and then moved on quickly. As if this weren’t amazing enough, I saw something even more amazing further up the trail. I am a very good hiker, but I do my share of huffing and puffing in the mountains. I saw a group of high school girls on the trail who were not huffing and puffing, but rather running up the trail. Not only were they running, but they were singing while they were running. Did I mention that we were at 5,000 feet and going uphill? It is a cruel fact of life that there is always someone better than you. I felt better when I came across two huffing and puffing college boys with whom I was able to share my amazement.


I  continued up the trail for a while until it reached Paradise Valley. The trail continues for many more miles, connecting with the John Muir/Pacific Crest Trail, but this was my destination. At this point the river was flat and smooth and there was plenty of flat space between it and the canyon walls. After enjoying the shade for a while, I started the return hike. My next stop was the Cedar Grove Lodge to check in and get dinner at the snack bar. After dinner, I walked 1.5 miles along the river and Zumwalt Meadow. The flat green meadow was a nice change from the rough gray canyon.

Friday was my day for Sequoia National Park. Of course, the first thing I did was visit the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree on Earth. It was quite impressive, and a real treat for a tree-hugger such as me. I combined this site with the Congress Trail and Crescent Meadow for a seven-mile hike. Along the Congress Trail are groups of trees with names such as the Senate Group and the House Group. I did not see a Windbag Group. Crescent Meadow has been hailed by John Muir as a “gem of the Sierras.” It is a nice, mile-long meadow among the giant trees. Many of the sequoias are old and gnarled, but across the meadow I spotted one nearly perfect tree. Near the meadow is a rather unusual sight: Tharp’s Log, which is a house made within a single fallen sequoia.

When I was done with this hike, I headed back up the road towards Grant Grove where I would be staying for the night. On the way, I stopped for a 3.5-mile round trip hike to the top of Little Baldy, one of the peaks along the road. There was an excellent mountain view from the top. Though I enjoyed my day at Sequoia, the park did not really thrill me. I might have a different view if I were a backpacker. After all, Sequoia NP is the home of Mount Whitney. Interestingly, you can't see Mount Whitney from the park without substantial hiking but you can see it from Lone Pine, near Manzanar National Historic Site, on the opposite side of the Sierras. Still, a visit is definitely worthwhile to see the General Sherman Tree, and it is a very short drive from Kings Canyon.

My last day was Saturday, and though I did not realize it at the time, I had saved the best for last. The Redwood Mountain Loop was a great walk in the woods, with the bonus of giant sequoia trees and a descent into a canyon with accompanying views. The trail starts high with the canyon and mountain views and then descends into the woods. There are several interesting hollow trees, including a fallen one through which the trail goes lengthwise. My favorite part of the hike was the lush forest where the trail crosses Redwood Creek. One thing that I love is a nice walk in the woods, and this trail does not disappoint. Though this was my favorite hike of the trip, there were two others that were very close: the Mist Falls/Paradise Valley hike in Kings Canyon National Park and the Lyell Canyon hike in Yosemite National Park. After completing the hike, I stopped at the Redwood Mountain Overlook and then returned to the Grant Grove Lodge to prepare for my return trip to San Francisco. I had only six parks left to complete visiting every National Park in the lower 48 states.

My visit: August 2006

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Yosemite National Park

By mid-2006, I had only nine parks left in my pursuit to visit every National Park in the lower 48 states. There were still two big-name parks left: Glacier and Yosemite, the latter being perhaps the biggest name of them all. It was time to go to Yosemite.

Yosemite National Park in California is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a mountain range much more impressive than one might think. People in the East such as me tend to think of the Rockies when they think of great mountains, but Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, is in the Sierra Nevada. Many of Ansel Adams’ famous photographs were taken there. John Muir named his Sierra Club for them after spending much time “sauntering” among them. I first saw the Sierras rising over the Owens Valley on a visit to Manzanar National Historic Site in 2000, and I was quite surprised and impressed. Besides Yosemite, Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park are in the Sierra Nevada, and they will be the subject of my next blog entry. I have a book, National Parks of the Sierra Nevada, available on Blurb, which contains pictures from this trip. Speaking of books, The Moon Handbook for Yosemite by Ann Marie Brown is an excellent guide book. She is also the author of my favorite hiking guide, Day-Hiking California's National Parks.

Yosemite National Park is impressive, but the thrill was toned down a bit for me because of the excessive hype the park receives. Even Yosemite cannot live up to its own hype. However, it was indeed a thrill to stand in front of Half Dome and El Capitan. They are, of course, immediately recognizable. The park is beautiful, and the rounded granite mountains and cliffs are unlike any I have seen before. I tend not to use the term breath-taking, but there is no other term to use when standing at Glacier Point looking down at the whole valley. Despite the hype, Yosemite is an impressive sight and a great National Park.

San Francisco, about 200 miles from the park, is the obvious place to fly into when visiting Yosemite. I arrived late in the day on a Saturday, so I drove to Oakdale, about halfway there, to shop for groceries and spend the night. On the first night of a hiking trip I stop to get food that requires no refrigeration so I can carry it in my daypack for lunch. Slim Jims, bagels, and granola bars are among my favorites, though for my next trip I may try pouches of tuna. I also get breakfast items that may or may not require refrigeration depending on the motel I am staying at.

On Sunday morning I continued to the Hetch Hetchy entrance of the park. I chose that entrance so I could get miscellaneous sightseeing out of the way before starting my serious hiking in the Tuolumne Meadows area. Hetch Hetchy Valley has been a lake since about 1923 when the O'Shaughnessy Dam was completed to supply water to San Francisco. They may take away my Sierra Club membership for saying so, but I liked the scenery and I think the loss of the valley was not such a great loss. An alpine lake, real or impoundment, is a beautiful site. There are plenty of before and after photos on the internet for you to decide for yourself. From the parking area, there is a trail that goes over the dam and then around the north side of the lake. I took this trail past Wampana Falls and back. I especially liked the view of Kolana Rock.


After hiking at Hetch Hetchy, I drove to the Tioga Road. My destination was Mono Lake on the other side of the mountains. I had wanted to see this ever since I purchased Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here many years ago. If you do not understand this reference you are too young, but please continue reading anyway. Of course, the journey was just as important as the destination, since the Tioga Road crosses Yosemite National Park. The first exciting thing I saw was Half Dome from Olmstead Point. It was recognizable as Half Dome, but it looked very different than the usual view from Yosemite Valley. This was my first “Wow, I’m in Yosemite” moment. My next stop was Tenaya Lake, where I stopped to eat lunch. Tuolumne Meadows was next, and eventually I left the park and headed to Mono Lake. I stopped for gas in Lee Vining and got totally ripped off. Gas was about $3/gallon at the time, but it was $4 there. Travelers, beware!


Mono Lake was just as cool as I expected. I’ve never seen anything else quite like all the tufa formations sticking out of the lake. After poking around there for a while, I returned to the Tioga Road and headed back through the park to Yosemite Valley, where I was staying at Yosemite Lodge. I would have preferred to stay closer to Tuolumne Meadows where most of my hiking would be, but accommodations are tough to get at Yosemite. I was lucky to get even that since I dawdled and made my reservations only ten months ahead of time. I stayed in one of the smaller buildings of the Lodge. The $170 room was decent, and it had a refrigerator. Yosemite Falls was easily visible from the grounds. Of course, I spent some time wandering around the valley to see Half Dome, El Capitan, and the other well-known features. My first view of El Capitan upon heading into the valley earlier in the day was somewhat amusing (at least to me). I was driving along the road taking in the beauty of my surroundings when suddenly there was a huge wall of rock more or less in front of me. “What the heck?” I then realized that it was El Capitan, and I was too close to see the top. It was much bigger than I had expected.

Monday was my first day of real hiking, so I got up early to head to the Clouds Rest trailhead near Tenaya Lake. The drive from Yosemite Valley is rather long and takes over an hour. Clouds Rest is a peak further up Tenaya Canyon than Half Dome, which is more or less at the junction of the canyon and Yosemite Valley. Clouds Rest has what many hikers consider to be the best summit view in the park. I haven’t been to all of them, but I sure cannot disagree. Not too far into the hike, there was a beautiful mirror-like pond. It took me a while to pull myself away from it. As I hiked higher, I passed through both woods and open areas from which the view kept getting better. The final ascent is over step-like granite with drop-offs on both sides – totally cool. The view from the top is as advertised, and it is indeed spectacular.

After seeing the view from Clouds Rest, I made my final decision not to hike Half Dome. The view would be much the same, and I consider Half Dome to be a dangerous hike because of the combination of crowds and cables. After hiking back to the trailhead, I returned to Yosemite Valley to view El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls, eat dinner, and relax. I ate dinner each night at the lodge food court. The food was good and value was excellent for a National Park, where they know they have a captive audience.

On Tuesday Morning I returned to the Tuolumne Meadows area to hike Lyell Canyon. The trail followed the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. It was quite chilly that morning, and at the beginning of the trail steam was rising from a small creek and dew on the grass made it appear silver. I hiked approximately ten miles, round trip. I knew I would not be able to hike to the end of the canyon and back (24 miles) in my allotted time, so I would have to choose a turn-around point. It is difficult planning a hike like this, because the temptation is to keep going until I reach the end. Turning around is difficult, even if it is in the plan. I reluctantly turned back when I thought I had gone five miles. For the portion I hiked, I would call it more of a valley than a canyon, as it was relatively wide and flat.

This hike turned out to be my favorite in the park. I was in a beautiful valley with a beautiful clear river running through it. Being from Michigan, I am genetically programmed to love trees and water over rock. After completing my hike, I popped over to Tuolumne Meadows and walked to the top of Pothole Dome to get an overview of the meadow. Then I returned to Yosemite Valley for dinner and to spend more time among the famous sites. The highlight of the evening was stopping at Tunnel View. This is a superb spot to view the valley all the way down to Half Dome, and is one of the obligatory stops for photographers. Returning to the valley floor, I got a nice sunset view of Half Dome.


Wednesday was my final day in Yosemite. Since I would be leaving through the south entrance, I saved the Glacier Point area for today. My first stop was at the end of the road at Glacier Point. The view was spectacular, one of the best I have ever seen. I could see Yosemite Valley, Half Dome and Clouds Rest beyond it, Vernal and Nevada Falls, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and mountain scenery for miles around. My only regret on this trip is that I didn’t take the shuttle up to Glacier Point and then hike back down to Yosemite Valley. It would have been a spectacular hike. Oh well, I guess that’s what next time is for.


After taking in the scenery at Glacier Point, I started back. Washburn Point is about ¾ mile down the road, and the views are also very good, but not quite as all-encompassing. The view of Half Dome from there is rather unusual in that it looked very skinny. Next I hiked a 2-mile round trip to Taft Point and the Fissures. The Fissures, as you might guess from the name, are big cracks in the cliff near Taft Point. The view of El Capitan was very interesting. It has a much different shape from up there than it does from the valley floor. I also made the 2-mile round trip to the top of Sentinel Dome for a slightly different view. Finally, I took a short walk to McGurk Meadow for a change of pace.

It was now time to leave Yosemite. I passed through the south entrance and stopped later in Oakhurst for dinner and an overnight stay. I had dinner at El Cid, a Mexican restaurant that had the biggest flan I have ever seen. I almost couldn’t eat it after my huge and tasty dinner. The next morning it was time to head to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, the subject of my next posting.

My visit: August 2006

Friday, June 18, 2010

New National Park Book

I recently finished reading a new book on the National Parks, Complete National Parks of the United States by Mel White, published by National Geographic. I have quite a library of National Park books, but this one was a fine addition. When they say complete they mean complete. Not only does it cover the National Parks, but the National Monuments, National Seashores, National Historic Sites, and so on (25 different classifications).

The book covers the history, purpose, features, and things to do and see at each park. The entries are well-written and detailed enough so you know what the park is like and whether you would want to go. Longer more detailed entries would not be a good idea, as the book is already 528 pages and printed on heavy paper. There are maps for all the National Parks, but unfortunately not for the other units. There are color photos throughout.

There are many books covering the National Parks in every possible level of detail, but finding a book about the other units in the system is not so easy. This book has it all and is well-written and well-designed. If you want one book on the National Parks, this would be the one. The list price is $40 (hardcover), but I got mine at Amazon for $26.40.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park in California is yet another island park. I wish they had chosen another name. When I hear “Channel Islands” I think of Guernsey and Jersey, not Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. Oh well, they never consult me about these things.

We had one day to visit the park, and on a one-day trip it is possible to visit only one island. We chose Anacapa because the closest and smallest seemed to be a good choice for our first trip. It turned out to be an excellent choice. The boat leaves from Ventura, and once I got the song Ventura Highway out of my head, it was a great day for a boat ride. The big excitement of the trip was when we saw hundreds of dolphins and birds in a feeding frenzy at a spot where the dolphins had found some fish.

Anacapa Island is actually three islands, East, Middle, and West. The boat goes to East Anacapa Island, and there is a long flight of steps up from the dock. On this end of the island there is a lighthouse. The island is rather small, only a mile or so long and not very wide. The views are spectacular, as the island’s surface is several hundred feet above the surrounding ocean. There are huge swaths of beautiful wildflowers and many birds, seals, and sea lions. There is plenty of time to enjoy the scenery because the boat drops you off for about four hours, and hiking around the island takes a fraction of that time. At the west tip is Inspiration Point, from which there is an excellent view of Middle and West Anacapa Islands.

The different islands have different characteristics, and I would definitely like to return and try some of the others.

My visit: March 2005

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Return of the Sisteri

In my previous post I was talking about how good The Barefoot Sisters: Southbound is. I have now finished reading their second book, The Barefoot Sisters: Walking Home. It chronicles their return trip from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail after having completed the southbound journey in the first book. This is known as yo-yoing in AT parlance. It is a good read, but I did not enjoy it quite as much as the first book. Southbound seemed well balanced between the trail itself and the social aspects of hiking, such as meeting people and going to town to eat and sleep.  Walking Home is skewed towards the social aspect. This is not necessarily bad, but I prefer the balance of the first book. I recommend Walking Home, but you will definitely want to read Southbound first. If only there were a third book...