Updated: Sep 22, 2022
Wednesday, 3 August 2022, Fresno CA
The tendency nowadays to wander in the wilderness is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. – John Muir, writing in "Our National Parks," 1901
Wednesday, 3 August 2022, Kings Canyon NP
The drive to the park took 1½ hours on twisty, busy Hwy CA-180 as I escaped the heat of the valley. Fresno sat at 300' elevation; Grant Grove (home to the world's 2nd largest tree by volume) perched at 6500'. The cooler air enthused me for another fine day in the parks.
About the parks: Sequoia and Kings Canyon (administered as a single park) take the rough shape of a mitten. Grant Grove (part of Kings Canyon) is the thumb; the fingers form the majority of Kings Canyon; Sequoia comprises the palm of the glove. Today I would focus on King's Canyon. Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, which ran for 25 miles through Sequoia National Forest (also designated Giant Sequoia National Monument), connected the two pieces of the park.
I made my obligatory stop at the Visitor Center to get aligned on the day's adventure. I remember seeing people cavorting in Kings River on my long-ago visit, and had penciled in 'take a dip in a mountain stream' as the park's experience. But where could I find that gentle stream? I asked the ranger, who gave the responsible answer: "We don't recommend that anyone actually get into the river. Currents are treacherous, and we don't want any drownings. But let me tell you about some great hikes you can take..." (The park brochure also cautions against jumping into the tempting, cool waters. Drowning is the leading cause of death in the park.)
To do the park justice, I needed to sample both sections. It made sense to hit the canyon first: it lay 3000' lower than Grant Grove, so I would save the cooler Grove for the hotter part of the day. I thus headed down the Byway
- more switchbacks! more hairpins! - stopping often to enjoy the viewpoints.
I followed the Byway all the way to Roads End. The valley, which John Muir called "a yet grander valley" and "a rival of the Yosemite," shares much with its northern neighbor - looming granite mountains, meadows, towering pine trees - but lacked the grand waterfalls leaping off cliffs. Kings Canyon has a reputation as a backpacker's paradise, with trails leading to lakes and waterfalls in the wilderness (and to the Pacific Crest Trail).
A wilderness-permit station stood next to the parking lot, with the ranger busy giving instructions to a young couple preparing to head out into the great beyond. I took the main trail for ten minutes for a photo opportunity,
then headed back to the ranger. "Did you notice?" I asked. "That couple you just gave a permit to? They were wearing Crocs for their hike."
He did a double take. "Really?? I didn't see that. I certainly hope they have better shoes for their long haul uphill. Crocs are great for camp shoes, but not for hiking."
He gave me directions to the trail to Zumwault Meadow. Before I got there, I noticed a well-worn path leading to the river - and the frolicking-spot I remembered from my trip here decades ago. Remember how to get here, I thought, as I headed off for the meadow, shaded by the tall ponderosa and Jeffrey pines.
The trail kept me interested as my lungs filled with the clean air, my eyes sweeping over the scenery.
I followed the creek through the narrow canyon, the granite walls soaring above. At one point a rockfall spread from the slopes to the river banks, and the trail tunneled through it.
Once I reached the meadow, though, a sign revealed that a flood had damaged the boardwalk through the meadow, closing the meadow loop and forcing me to retrace my steps.
Soon I found myself back at Road's End, with the temperature breaking 90°.
I scouted the area where people strolled and splashed in the river. The big boulder was Muir's Rock - a pulpit for the conservationist, where he would address anyone who cared to listen.
He shared how the wild had changed his life, and spoke of his heretical belief that glaciers carved these valleys - a notion ridiculed at the time, but later proven correct. His articles touting this area paved the way for its preservation as a National Park.
The NPS page for Muir Rock is more forthcoming about entering the stream: "In late summer, the pool below the rock may be swimmable, but be careful: the river can be treacherous. Cold water and swift currents lie beneath a placid surface in some areas." [The accompanying picture shows people enjoying the water.] This section of river is placid, shallow, and has little current. I thus felt safe giving my inner scofflaw a chance to shine. After changing into my swim trunks, I found a quiet spot away from other tourists to slip into the water.
The water was COLD! Probably colder than Crater Lake. I tentatively wandered out through still water, getting knee-deep, maybe mid-thigh. My legs acclimated to the chill.
Okay, time to commit. I found a shallow spot out of the current, steeled myself, and sat down. Yikes! Okay, take a moment, start breathing again.
What now? I quickly switched into forest-bathing mode, opening my senses. A slight current swirled around the blockage of my body. Small leaf fragments, pine needles, an occasional stick branched around the obstacle I presented. Cumulus clouds built overhead, squeezing out the blue sky. Downstream, I watched kids and adults play in the pools around Muir Rock. I grabbed handfuls of coarse-grained sand and pebbles from the riverbed (with another burst of cold every time I reached in the water), noticed its texture, dribbling it back into the stream, seeing how it disperses.
I sat there 30 minutes or so. Finally I took note of the clouds darkening above me.
A new family had invaded my beach, so I returned to shore and straggled back to the car. I had one more stop in the canyon, at the short paved trail to Roaring River Falls. Worth a quick stop and a picture.
The signs said 37 miles to climb out of the canyon and return to Grant Grove. I'd saved my longer hike among the Sequoias for the afternoon, where the temps at the Grove stayed in the 70s. I had to take the obligatory paved path to the General Grant tree - the second largest tree in the world.
One sign gave a few silly stats for the tree, such as: If you had a car that got 25 mpg, and it had a full gas tank as big as the General Grant tree, you could drive around the world 355 times (around the equator, presumably) without stopping for gas. Gee, that's a lot of driving! And if you filled the tank up in California, it would cost you a cool $2 million.
After wandering around General Grant and its tall trees, I still had time for one more hike before heading back down to a hot time in Fresno (104° by the time I got back at 6:30). The North Grove was right there, so I ambled on it for almost two miles. Interesting how the giant trees can endure scarring by fire dozens if not hundreds of time over the years, and still keep growing.
But they only thrive in a very narrow belt of elevations. Will they survive this rapidly warming climate?