A California journal, Part IV: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks — and home

Our campsite at Stony Creek Campground with Nebra stretched out reading a book.

August 26, Friday:  Stony Creek Campground, Sequoia National Forest.  It was a long, hot drive from Ventura to reach this forested spot high on the western slopes of the Sierra.  We poked along, 270 miles in 6 1/2 hours, arriving here at 6 o’clock.  When we left the coast it was 68 F. but 86 just 22 miles inland at Fillmore.  It reached 102 in midafternoon at Tulare in the San Joaquin Valley, where the crops suffer from drought.  We passed many acres of corn,  brown and withered.  It is hard to tell from the highway what effect the drought has had on the huge vineyards.  The large Kaweah Lake is filled to 35 percent capacity, I read.  We lucked out here at Stony Creek, nearly 7,000 feet elevation, getting the last campsite open for two nights.  All but one other of the 42 campsites were in use, and many campgrounds had “full” signs up along Generals Highway as we approached.  A small market and gas station is up the road about a half mile. The price of unleaded is $4.30. We  set up our small tent with pine forest on three sides.   A deer, a young doe, ambled by at dusk chased by a clutch of cautious warriors, grade schoolers with deadwood spears.  We saw three black bears earlier, near the Dorst campground, two cubs trudging uphill after a scrawny mama.  At 7, we walked over to the amphitheater for a lecture on bats, given by a nervous young female ranger intern from Seattle.  It was attended by about 30.  Nebra and I and an older couple from Oregon were the only ones from out of state.  Half were young children who knew much more about bats than did the adults and were very vocal.   There are 40 species of bats, we learned, and 30 species have set up home in California.  There is an ecological disaster going on right now in bat world.  It’s called white-nose syndrome, a fungal condition that has wiped out a million bats or more in the northeast U.S. and is spreading west.  California is on guard.    Back at camp, we boiled water on a newly purchased Coleman propane one-burner stove for our freeze-dried supper of lasagna with meat sauce, coffee and tea.  Later, we had little Merlot.  Nebra’s sister, Sue, said we are the only couple she knows that can drink wine without emptying the bottle.   I laid out on a large flat rock by the car and looked up at a brilliant night sky of stars you would never know existed back in the light dome of Phoenix.  It was 70 degrees at 8:30 and the light shower that had passed through about an hour before had dissipated.  A great night for sleep.  We’re here at Stony Creek another day before moving on to the lodge at Wuksachi for two nights, our last before heading back to the heated desert of Arizona.

Man and fires are the chief dangers to the giant sequoia. Here is a fire scar on the trunk of the General Grant Tree.

August 27, Saturday:  Stony Creek Campground.  Awoke about 9:30 to bright sunshine and 66 degrees.  Had our standard camp breakfast of oatmeal and fruit.  I had some freeze-dry coffee bought last night at the market in Stony Creek Village, a half-mile away.  It is the smallest of the four Villages spaced out along the parks’ major road, the Generals Highway.  Lodgepole, nearest the popular Giant Forest, is the largest, followed in size by Grant Grove and remote Cedar Grove, down near the entrance to Kings Canyon.  Lodgepole has a full-service post office, market, laundromat, public showers ($3 for 10 minutes), Visitors Center and up the road a piece, campsites for tents and trailers and a Nature Center.  You can buy unleaded gasoline at Stony Creek Village for $4.20 a gallon.  That’s about 40 cents more than you’d pay outside the parks.   Our campsite is only 50 steps from a restroom with a flush toilet and urinal, a wash-up area with two sinks, a mirror and shelf.  At noon, we steered north 13 miles to Grant Grove to shop for firewood and glean information from the Visitors Center on a hike into Kings Canyon.  Then we drove down another mile to see the Grant Tree, a giant sequoia that is said to be the third largest tree in the world.  It is 268 feet high and is about 1,700 years old.  President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed it “The Nation’s Christmas Tree” in 1926.  School started the previous week in California and the crowds are diminished.  That is a good thing.  Back at camp, I started a log fire inside the metal pit with kindling, old newspapers and, like Daniel Boone, with lighter fluid.  The six split logs cost us $6 in Grant Grove, a dollar cheaper than here at the campsite.  They burned for four hours.  We fell asleep laughing in our bedrolls, quoting passages from the books we’re reading:  Christopher Buckley’s Boomsday (Nebra) and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (me). 

A hiker surveys the forest in Kings Canyon.

August 28, Sunday:   This is our day to hike Kings Canyon.  Awoke at 8:30 to a sunny morning and a nippy 58 degrees.   As I boil water, two Hispanic men in camoflauge outfits troop back to their campsite.  They carry bows and a full quiver of arrows.  It’s the midst of the deer hunting season for archers.  The two men do not look happy.  We must break camp by 11.  It takes only about 15 minutes to tear down our little dome tent, roll it up along with the rain shield and ground cover, fold up the poles, and pack everything into a stuff sack.  We’re staying the next two nights at the Wuksachi Lodge.  The weather has been great so far.  Every day sunny and cloudless, the temperatures reaching toward the 80s during the afternoons.  Kings Canyon rests at the remote northeast end of the Generals Highway.  It is an hour and a half and almost 50 miles of twisting two-lane pavement from our campsite to Road’s End and the start of the Paradise Valley Trail that leads into the Canyon along the whitewater South Fork of the Kings River.   At roughly 5,000 feet elevation at its beginning, the Canyon is almost 3,000 feet below Stony Creek.  After a quick lunch in Cedar Grove Village, we drove the remaining 6.4 miles to the trailhead.  We had intended to hike out to Mist Falls, which I’d read was a 4-mile round trip.  But I had not seen the correction label pasted in a far corner of the map, saying it was 4.6 miles one way.   Change of plan.  We would hike the trail along the north side of the river to the Bubbs Creek Bridge, two miles out, and return on the opposite side of the river via the Kanawyers Trail.  The Paradise Valley Trail, although meandering through a scattered pine forest at first, was hot.  The thermometer in the sun on my backpack showed 105 at one point before we descended through rock outcrops into a kind of bog with lots of ferns and segmented, reedy plants resembling bamboo.  We saw about 24 hikers on the way out. 

Looking south across the Bubbs Creek Bridge, our turn-around point. A man (right) s taking a soothing dip in the South Fork of the Kings River.

At the steel Bubbs Creek pedestrian bridge we crossed over to the south shore where two large-bellied young men with tattoos were taking dips in the cool river water while their female companions watched.  Very soothing, one of the men said, “down to the core.”  Where the trail on the north was notably warm, we found the more-shaded Kanawyers had its own form of misery.  If this trail was bereft of human existence, it was a Ventura Highway of flying insects, all buzzing around the face.  You lived dangerously to open your mouth.  I batted at the front of my face with a notebook for the entire distance of almost 3 miles, in 86 degrees.  But if you looked up to the towering gray cliffs, particularly on the south, or down below to the gushing stream, it was a piece of heaven.   August, the wrong time of the  year to be hiking in Kings Canyon, I decided. 

This is what lays at the end of the Generals Highway in Kings Canyon: A log bridge, a ranger's cabin and the trail into the Canyon.

It was after 6:30 p.m. when we finally ended the 60-mile drive to the Wuksachi Lodge and checked in.  The Prius’s gas consumption slumped to 49 mpg on the ascent to the Lodge from 52 at Road’s End.  It was great to get a warm shower after almost three days.

August 29, Monday:  The Wuksachi Lodge where we’re staying is really four lodges.  The Main Lodge is where you check-in.  Then there are three guest lodges up the hill 100 yards or so away — the Sequoia, Silliman and farthest off the Stewart where we stay.  In front, the Main Lodge has a small gift shop, a reception desk, a lobby which is the only place in the parks to have internet and cellphone service;  and in back, there is a large restaurant that serves a nice buffet breakfast, lunch and supper until 10 p.m., reservations advised.  This is our day to visit the park’s chief tourist attraction, the Giant Forest, where the star is the mammoth General Sherman Tree.  Largest tree in the world, they say.  First things first.  We have the buffet breakfast at the Lodge.  Nebra opts for the $7.50 Continental with cereals, pastries, rolls, bagels, fresh fruit, coffee, tea, milk and juices.  I go for the $12.95 hot breakfast which includes the Continental plus scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, pancakes and waffles.  After that we drive down two miles to Lodgepole to catch the free shuttle bus to the Giants Forest, another four miles away.  Other shuttles go to Dorst Campground, Morro Rock and, with a reservation, into the city of Visalia.  I have noticed many foreigners in the park, most of them German-speaking, but many Asians as well.  At Lodgepole, the post office clerk provided a clearer picture.   Mailings, he said, tell him Germans and French visitors lead the way followed in order by Italians, Brits and probably Asians.  At the Giant Forest we walked down the 8/10 mile paved thoroughfare to the Sherman Tree.  It was like a miniature theme park down there, visitors swarming, vying to get their very own special  photo of a  lifetime in front of the Sherman Tree sign and the trunk of the tree.  These sequoia are so large you can not photograph their entirety from up close.  Most elect to take a photo of the trunk, preferably with little Johnnie or Janie standing in the fore.  Most of the children find the photo ops annoying, but, really, it’s all for the parents who can someday show the photos to their adult children and say, “See what we did for you way back when.”  Wanting to leave the mob scene, we hiked along the Congress Trail, to other huge trees, many with names posted in front.  The  President Tree, The Lincoln Tree, the Senate Group, the House Group and so on.  We passed a man in a wheelchair with a map spread out on his lap.  “Can you confirm this is the Congress Trail?” he asks while the woman who is pushing him offered a friendly smile.   We did confirm, and he told Nebra somewhat bitterly, “We chopped down Congress.”  The joke made us laugh.   It soon occurred to me, a mere layman in the world of forestry, that once you’ve seen one giant sequoia, you’ve seen them all.  While I lacked the proper appreciation of their individual distinctions, I enjoyed their ambience, shafts of sunlight falling through shade on the side of a hill, and the silence and the feel of their spongy and furry trunks.   It was a beautiful day, and thankfully, it was not ruined by the click of cameras and papas and mamas yelling at their kids.  Very few visitors, it seemed, ventured beyond the mighty Sherman.    We got back to the Lodge before dark and had a nice supper at the restaurant, our entrees costing about $20 per.  Nebra had trout, thinking of her late father, and I had the pork chop sirloin which at first looked as large and intimidating as a sequoia trunk.  Tomorrow we begin the long trip back to Phoenix.

August 30, Tuesday:  This is Day 17 of our California adventure, and I had hoped for an early start on our return trip home.   I don’t know why other than it was a mystery but I had to see the lonely Booker T. Washington Tree in the southernmost area of the Giant Forest.  Washington was a famed educator and political leader.  I had read his most noted book, Up From Slavery, many years ago.  That this black man’s special tree was seemingly segregated from the rest of the Forest intrigued me.  What was that about?   Looking at the map, I thought it would be easy to locate the tree, then move on toward Phoenix.  But I was wrong.  It was difficult to find, if indeed I did find it.  (I’ll write more about the search for the Booker T in a separate blog).  And after taking two hours out of the middle of the day for the search and then further delaying our departure with a climb up Morro Rock for terrific vistas, it was obvious our goal of reaching Flagstaff, Arizona, for the night was out of the question.  Far out of the question.  But Morro Rock was worth it.   It’s a steep climb on concrete, including about 400 stair steps, barred only by steel-pipe railings and hip-high boulders from pitching over to your death thousands of feet below.  Up on the exposed summit, there is room only for a half-dozen at the very top, but the views of the high Sierra’s Divide to the east and the smoggy San Joaquin Valley to the west are spectacular.  I wondered what would happen if an earthquake struck while Nebra and I were up there.  Talk about the ultimate ride!  In any case we were running late, and it was 2 o’clock before we passed the turnoff again to the Lodge, driving north on the Generals Highway, in the opposite direction we wanted to go.  But there was too much road work and delays to the south.  We thought we could make better time, by turning west toward Fresno on U.S. 180 and taking a short-cut down to Visalia and beyond.   It was after 4 when we pulled in to the Fifties-themed Main Street Cafe in Visalia (that’s VIE-sale-ya, by the way) for sandwiches.   One of the great little eateries on our trip.  Then it was on to Bakersfield, over the Tehachapi Pass and on to Barstow for the night.   By then we’d traveled 285 miles from the Giant Forest, and it had taken us a good seven hours including stops.  None too impressive.  I found Barstow surprisingly comfortable.  After dark, a cool and soothing breeze came in, stirring the branches of the few trees around our motel.  And yet from way out here, I can almost smell the 116 degree heat that awaits us at the end of our journey.

August 31, Wednesday:  Day 18, the last of this trip.  Arrived home in Phoenix about 6:45 p.m., just in time to catch the Diamondbacks game with the Padres on TV.  I thought the trip would be boring, crossing the barren nothingness of the Mojave Desert between Barstow and Needles.  But as usual I seem to find entertainment in almost anything.   Roads that seem to lead to nowhere, old lava flows, dry lakes, mountain ranges, studying the maps, even noting the emergence of miniature Joshua trees near the tops of a few passes the farther east we traveled.   I had expected excessive heat in the Mojave but as we pulled into the John Wilkie Rest Stop at Fenner, our car thermometer showed only 104.  Three Navajo women sat in the shade of the toilets building, hawking their hand-crafted jewelry and at the same time chatting on cellphones.  Nebra asked one of them why they were selling their wares so far from their Arizona home.  The explanation?  The competition was too stiff back there.   It was only after we began descending South Pass into low-lying Needles on the Colorado River that the temperature ramped up to as high as 115.  We ate lunch on the river’s far side, in downtown Kingman, Arizona, at Dora’s Beale Street Deli.  I swear my cup of vegetable soup was the best I’ve had in many years.  The sandwiches were good too.   We turned onto to one of my favorite highways east of Kingman.  That’s U.S. 93.  It snakes through lonesome country where the only habitation of note in 108 miles is the tiny village of Wikieup.  And beyond that is the aptly named Nothing, Arizona.  We zipped by Nothing so fast that I failed to see if the old gas station was still in business.  It is a memorable drive if you’re into stark desert beauty as I am.   I’d forgotten what a large forest of Joshua trees line the road northwest of Wickenburg.  The highway is the quickest routed from Phoenix to Las Vegas but was surprisingly unbusy today.  Once I saw Vulture Peak in the distance I knew I was near home again. Nebra and I had climbed to the summit for a Thanksgiving Day picnic in 2001.  It was little more than two months after 9/11 and someone had placed a small American flag on the summit.  Very touching moment to see flag there.  I enjoyed our trip to California, but — and I didn’t think I would be able to say it —  it was good to be back home again.  We had missed more than half of the hottest month ever recorded in Phoenix.  The average high in August was 109 and the low 88.  California was a nice get-away, and now it is only another three or four weeks before the heat starts to go way here.  Nebra’s 2002 Toyota Prius deserves praise.  It held up faithfully the entire trip, over hill and dale, everywhere, for the 2,391 miles.  No flats, no breakdowns, no loose fender and under carriage woes as in the Civic when we had to delay our departure from Phoenix by a day.  And, as expected, the Prius provided few gas stops.  It averaged around 49 mpg.   Can’t ask for much more than that.

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