Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Pinnacles National Park

Pongo Goes to Pinnacles
June 9, 2013

Pongo Handling His Navigation Duties

  • David Bowie -- The Next Day
  • Grizzly Bear -- Shield
The best national parks have an aura about them.  You can feel it when you're in one.  Everything is natural, except perhaps for the road you're driving on, but it's also pristine in a way that is difficult to describe.  Some of the parks--Crater Lake and Yellowstone, for example--were mystical places to the Native Americans, and when you visit them you can get a very strong sense of why that was the case.  You don't just understand it intellectually or see it in the way that you might appreciate a beautiful painting, you feel it in your spine and in your lungs.  It's the kind of feeling that can alter your perspective on the world.

Pinnacles National Park is not such a place.

Honestly, I don't understand why Pinnacles is a national park.  It was a national monument for decades and should have remained so, if you ask me.  One of its best features is how easy it is to find yourself in a spot where nothing can be heard but the buzzing of bees, the chirping of birds and the wind in the trees.  Park status can only hurt that as more people will be drawn to the park than when it was "merely" a monument.

When I say I don't understand why Pinnacles is a national park, that doesn't mean I don't have an appreciation for the place.  It has a calming affect one me, it's some place I'm sure I'll visit many more times in the future.  I can't imagine ever taking a visitor of this great state to the park, though.  There are so many amazing things to experience in California, Pinnacles would have to be way down on the list of places I'd want to share.  Its geology is unique to the region, but that's hard to appreciate unless you've got a good sense of what the area is like.  How would you know how wrong these rock formations are unless you know what should be here instead?

Bush Inspection

I brought Pongo along on this visit to Pinnacles.  Dogs are only allowed on the paved areas and campgrounds, so our access to the park's features was very limited.  However, having Pongo along helped to expose Pinnacles best feature: the native wildlife.

Brush Rabbits

We hiked around the campground, which is much larger than I had realized.  Pongo inspected just about every bush in the place.  He'd often get excited and lunge forward.  We'd then hear a panicked rustling and often a squirrel or a rabbit (or two or three) would erupt from beneath the bush making a beeline for some place a little more Pongo-safe.  Pongo would want to take chase, and of course he couldn't, but he seemed content to move on to the next bush to try it again.  I had no idea there were so many animals hiding so close to the road!  There were a number of mysterious critters I never got a good look at.

Acorn Woodpecker

Happy Camper
When we got back to the Visitor Center Pongo refused to get into the car.  He was having too much fun.  I promised him we weren't done but he wouldn't listen.  We'd been out for over an hour and a half, and often he's ready to go home after that amount of time.  Not here, though.  I had to pick him up and put him in the car.

We drove to Bear Gulch.  I figured we'd be able to see an acorn woodpecker or two since there are a couple of trees they use as granaries right by the parking lot.  Sure enough, there was a sentinal standing guard when we arrived.  Pongo wasn't too interested in the woodpecker, though.  He wanted to scare up some more rabbits and squirrels.

We walked the short distance between the Bear Gulch parking lot and the end of the road and back.  We didn't see any rabbits here, but we saw a few squirrels.  It still wasn't enough for Pongo.  He refused to jump into the car again.  This time he didn't try to duck me when I picked him up, though, so he wasn't completely against the idea of going home, I think.

A Local Biker Gang

We had a little problem, though.  Since we couldn't go on the trails, we were kind of out of options in terms of new places to walk.  We could walk on the roadside, but that didn't seem like much fun to me.  What I've learned from my past visits here is when in doubt, go to the Visitor Center.  There always seems to be something happening there, I even saw a condor there once.  That's where we started this trip, and that's where we'd end it.

Quail Magnet

Things were hopping when we got back to the Visitor Center.  In the big field behind the Center were a few dozen turkeys, a couple of deer and a handful of quail.  We got out and watched as small groups of quail came running from out of the surrounding trees onto the field.  Then I started noticing a number of rabbits.  they weren't quite standing out in the open, but they weren't exactly hiding either.  Pongo was a little more interested in the turkeys at this point, so we followed them as they moved off into a nearby field.

Turkey Vultures
We saw a lot of turkey vultures.  Pinnacles seems to be a favorite hangout for these guys.  We didn't see a condor this time, so that was a little disappointing.  After following the turkeys and watching the quail for a while, Pongo was ready for the trip home.  He hopped right into the car when I opened the door and fell asleep pretty quickly once we got on the highway.  I think he had a pretty good day.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Yosemite National Park: Indian Ridge and Olmstead Point

Bear Whispering
June 2, 2013


  • Blackalicious -- Blazing Arrow
  • Vampire Weekend -- Modern Vampires of the City
  • Nas & Damain Marley -- Distant Relatives
  • The National -- Trouble Will Find Me
I saw another bear this weekend.  Two bears in two weeks after four-plus decades of no bears.  Crazy, huh?

Porcupine Creek Trail Head
This weekend's trip was to Yosemite National Park.  The plan was to hike to North Dome from the Porcupine Creek trail head.  It's a four and a half mile out and back hike with an elevation change of 600 feet down from Tioga Road to the top of the dome.  Nine miles total, which is a long hike for me, but certainly within my range.  I was joined on this adventure by my good friend Jim.

Elegance in Motion

The hike begins on an old paved road.  It looks like the road was probably built in the 1930s and has been since neglected.  the road descends 350 feet and ends at the first of several small creeks that have to be crossed.  None of the creeks were very deep, but the thought of hiking a handful of miles in soggy socks wasn't too appealing, so we crossed carefully.


Pick me out a winner, Bobby.
The next stretch of the trail was pretty flat.  It wound through a pine forest full of fallen trees.  It was looking like it was going to be a pretty easy hike.  We were feeling pretty good, perhaps even a little manly.  You know, rugged and outdoorsy, real Jedediah Smith types.

See, you know there's a 'but' coming, right?  I think I've done a pretty good job setting that up.

I haven't mentioned my sweet blue hat.  It was a beaut.  I forgot my Death Valley hat, so I had to pick something up on the way to Yosemite.  The place we stopped had quite a selection to choose from, especially if you're into camouflage and/or glitter.  I found me a sure-fire chick magnet.

Half Dome
Anyway, after about a mile and a half of easy hiking we had to climb up to the top of Indian Ridge.  I was pretty sure it was a 700 or 800 foot climb.  It kicked my butt.  I had to stop at the top to catch my breath.  We were at 8100 feet above sea level, so I don't feel too badly about it, but when I got home I checked the elevation and we'd only climbed 350 feet, basically back to the same elevation we'd started at on Tioga Road.  That's kind of pathetic even considering the elevation.  I definitely have to start hitting the bicycle machine.  Not tonight, of course.  Tomorrow.

Top of North Dome from Indian Ridge

We hiked down a bit to some spectacular views of Yosemite Valley from Indian Ridge.  North Dome was directly in front of us at the bottom of a steep hill.  Neither Jim nor I had any desire to go any farther.  We stayed where we were, ate some lunch and congratulated ourselves on not committing what would have surely been martyrdom without a cause on the side of Indian Ridge.

While we ate we looked for hikers on the top of Half Dome.  I thought I saw one at one point but wasn't sure.  I snapped a few pictures with the zoom and at least half a dozen people can be seen along the rim in every shot.  They were there, we just couldn't see anyone with our old man eyes.  Also, while we ate a young couple passed us and went on down to North Dome without so much as pausing to catch their breaths.  Our only consolation was that their car was still parked in the parking lot when we drove by on our way out of the park.  Clearly, they lacked the wisdom their elders were showing by not hiking beyond their natural abilities.  A man has got to know his limitations.

Hikers on Half Dome

On our way back, a dude passed us jogging up Indian Ridge.  Show off.  He passed us coming back, too, beating us to our cars by a quarter of a mile or so.  Jim thought we should have sprinted up to our cars, blocking off the trail so he couldn't pass us in the process.  It was a great plan, unfortunately the will to execute was beaten out by survival instinct.  We just watched in awe as he rode off on his motorcycle to his his next manly adventure.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

We only saw a few other people on the trail all day.  I've read that 90% of the visitors to Yosemite only see Yosemite Valley, which I can certainly understand considering how magical that place is.  However, as I get to know other areas of the park it makes me a little sad to think about what people are missing.  This park has so much to offer.

Olmstead Point
After the hike, we drove a little farther East on Tioga Road to Olmstead Point.  Talk about amazing views. From the Point you can see the high end of Yosemite Valley. On the opposite side of the point is Tenaya Lake, which I suspect might be the location for my next Yosemite adventure.

There are a lot of glacial erratic boulders on and around Olmstead Point.  I'm surprised there are any still there.  They look like they're just waiting for somebody to come along and roll them off the hill.  I know I was tempted, I don't see how any could have survived the decades of tourists who felt the same temptation.

Black Bear at Crane Flat
We saw the bear on our way out of the park.  She was in a meadow near Crane Flat.  She was a lot farther away than the bear I saw last week.  This was more like seeing a bear in a zoo rather than seeing a bear in the wild.  Still, it was exciting.  Seeing a bear is seeing a bear.  I think I'm learning their language.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

May 26 and 27, 2013


  • Interpol -- Turn on the Bright Lights
  • The National -- Trouble Will Find Me
  • The White Stripes -- Elephant
My neighbor Rachel told me a few weeks ago that she thought I was on some sort of modern day visionquest.  I suppose it's true, in some ways.  I have definitely been out in the wilderness alone quite a lot these days, and one doesn't enter the forests and deserts of the American West without making a number of discoveries.  I'm not so sure I've had that metaphysical experience a visionquest would imply, but then again maybe that's why I keep getting out there.

The Senate
I had a single goal for this trip: I wanted to see a bear.  I knew I had a pretty good shot at it.  It seems every blog I've ever read online about trips to Sequoia includes seeing bears.  In fact, some people complain about the large number of bears.  Why do people even . . . I mean . . . you know?  I'm sure I'll get into the whole Disneyland Tourist mentality thing in one of these blogs, but for now I'll let it go.

I drove down from Alameda on Sunday morning and entered Sequoia from the South entrance at around 2:00.  Once in the park, the road becomes steep and winding with some breathtaking vistas as it climbs up to the 6,000 to 7,000 foot range.  After the road levels off it enters Giant Forest.  There's a museum and a boardwalk hike, both of which I skipped because of the large crowds.  Even without stopping, though, it's apparent just how unique this place is.  The sequoias seem to almost glow, their bark is so vibrant, and small, lush meadows of bright green are scattered here and there amongst the trees.

General Sherman (in the background)

Driving on, my heart sank a bit when I saw the large crowd at the entrance to the General Sherman Tree area.  I was expecting to see a lot of people on this trip, but I wasn't expecting so many.  These were summer in Yosemite Valley types of crowds, at least that's how it seemed.  It turned out that the park wasn't as crowded as those initial impressions made it appear, rather I was hitting the height of the daily rush at the two most popular spots in the park.  I decided to come back the the General Sherman Tree after getting a campsite at Lodgepole.

"Camping" at Lodgepole

Lodgepole has a visitors center, a store and a snack bar.  My campsite was right across the street from the store.  I guess I should explain my style of camping.  Everyone does it differently.  I'm not a backpacker, so I don't do any back country camping.  It's purely car camping for me, usually quite literally.  I don't normally sleep in a tent.  I don't drive an RV or tow a trailer.  I take out the back seats of my Honda Element (actually, they're rarely seen inside the vehicle) and sleep in the car.  It works well for me.  I lay a cheap foam pad down in the back and, not being the tallest guy in the world, I can stretch all the way out.  Packing up and moving on in the morning is as simple as cleaning out the food locker.

General Sherman
The General Sherman is the largest tree in the world.  If you've come to Sequoia National Park, you've got to see this tree, right?  What I hadn't realized when I initially saw the large crowds was that everyone has this same thought.  So, yeah, there were a lot of people at the tree, but it turns out that most of the people get out of their cars or off the bus, walk to the tree, then walk straight back and leave.  At least that's what was going on the day I was there, because the hiking trails around the General Sherman had few people on them.

The President Tree
More impressive than General Sherman, at least to me, was the President Tree.  It's one gnarly tree.  It's similar to the Grizzly Giant in Mariposa Grove in that sense.  I wish I had been able to capture in a picture what it is about this tree that makes such an impression.  The essence of these big trees seems to get lost in photographs, although I think the spirit of the sequoias comes through a little more than that of the coastal redwoods.  The President is on the Congress Trail, which is a two mile loop that starts and ends at the Feneral Sherman Tree.  It's an easy hike.  The trees are beautiful, the forest is quiet and the air smells amazing.

The Congress Trail
After finishing the Congress Loop, I drove up the road to Wolverton.  It had one of those meadows that are so prevalent in Sequoia and Kings Canyon.  It was pretty, but honestly after the trees of Big Forest I was probably a tough character to impress.  I saw a few mule deer there, but I was hoping for a bear, so if anything I was a little disappointed.  I was clearly ready to light a fire, cook up a couple of dogs and call it a night.

One day down and no bear.  I did see a marmot, though.  I think that was probably a first for me.  I'd see a couple more on my hike to Tokopah Falls the next morning.  Marmots are cute and all, but they can't tear your limbs off.  It's just not the same.  I mean, not that I want to have my limbs torn off.  I always figured I'd see a bear at Yosemite, but it's never happened.

I woke up early Monday, packed up my stuff and drove the short distance to the Tokopah Falls trailhead.  It's a three and a half mile out and back hike up a small canyon that was carved out by a glacier.  It's a fairly flat, easy hike that follows the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River up to the start of the canyon.  There is a rise of about 600 feet, mind you, and you're following a mountain river, so this is a case where flat is a relative term.

Kaweah River, Marble Fork
Tokopah Falls is an interesting sort of waterfall.  It's 1200 feet tall, but it isn't a sheer drop like you'd see with the big boys in Yosemite Valley.  Tokopah meanders down the side of a granite cliff.  Don't get me wrong, it's a dramatic sort of meandering.

Tokopah Falls
It was on my way down from the falls that I saw the bear.  He was by the river at the edge of a meadow, perhaps a hundred yards away, and when I first saw him he was moving right toward me.  I stopped walking, and I imagine I muttered a few curse words.  I have never seen forearms that hairy and that big.  He stopped walking when he noticed me, probably due to my use of golf language.

I don't know why, but whenever I talk about the bear I refer to it as 'he' or 'him'.  For all I know it was a lovely lady bear.  A lovely lady bear with forearms the size of refrigerators.

It was at this point that if I was on a true visionquest the bear would have spoken to me in some way.  He didn't.  He was definitely aware of me.  Like I said, he stopped walking when he noticed me, but he didn't seem all that determined to acknowledge me in any way.  We stood across the meadow from each other for a couple of minutes--me staring at him and clicking away with my camera while he kind of just stood and looked around--then he turned and walked away.

I've reached a few conclusions from this encounter, one of which I'll share with you.  It can't be a real visionquest if you're car camping. That bear had nothing to say to me, I hadn't earned it.  Well, the bear might not be my spirit animal anyway, that just might be wishful thinking.

Seeing the bear was the highlight of the trip.  I wasn't quite done, though.  I drove to the Grant Grove after grabbing a cup of coffee at the Lodgepole snack shop.  I stayed briefly, I guess I'd had my fill of big trees for the weekend.  After that, I drove to the end of ther road in Kings Canyon.  What a beautiful drive.

There's only a single road into Kings Canyon National Park, and it doesn't go very deep into the park.  You've got to hike Kings Canyon to really see it, I guess.  Still, it was a nice drive that follows the roaring South Fork of the Kings River into the park.  I'll have to go back some day to do more exploring.

Roaring River Falls
All in all, it was a nice little weekend trip.  It's hard for me to get out and do overnight trips because Yoshika usually needs my car on Saturdays to transport dogs.  As usual, I barely made a dent in seeing what there is to see in the parks I visited.  Such is as it is.