National Parks & Wild Places

Hiking, Eagles, and Restoration in the Whychus-Deschutes Proposed Wilderness

Trip Report:
Leader: Mark Hougardy
Group: Obsidians (met ONDA on site)
Dates: May 22, 2017
Participants: 6
Type: Weekend Camping & Restoration Work

The Whychus-Deschutes proposed Wilderness is a rugged and beautiful landscape in central Oregon. Driving here requires a vehicle with high clearance and some sturdy hiking shoes for the remaining distance. It is a place of weathered cliffs, cold streams, and rocky canyons. If you have observant eyes you might even see bald eagles flying overhead. A prominent landmark is Alder Springs. The main spring appears to spontaneously gush from the dry ground at an impressive 60 gallons per second. These cool waters flow a short distance into the picturesque Whychus Creek and a few miles further it joins the turbulent water of the Middle Deschutes River. These unique waterways provide spawning habitat for salmon, steelhead, and are central to all life in the area. This wilderness is prominent in fueling the region’s robust outdoor recreation opportunities, tourism industry, and a high quality of life. The Whychus-Deschutes landscape is an asset, yet it lacks permanent protection.

The first evening allowed for some hiking and enjoying the local sights. The ridge above the campground offered wonderful views of basalt columns. The columns were between 80 and 100 feet in height.

I wanted to find out more about protecting this land so I led a group of fellow Obsidians for an explore. We joined several other volunteers for an extended weekend of restoration work with the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA). During the summer months, this sensitive area can be hammered by an influx of visitors who are seeking their own interpretation of this place. We were there to learn about the natural history, rebuild trails, fix up campsites, and remove some invasive plants that were taking resources from native species.

First, a shout out to ONDA. Learn more about ONDA’s great work and how you can help at onda.org

Here are some photos of our restoration weekend:

The next morning we drove to the Alder Springs Trailhead and gathered our gear.

This is stark and beautiful country. Our route was about three miles one way. We worked the entire distance.

Volunteers jumped to it keeping the trail open.

This water bar (a small dyke that prevents erosion on trails) had filled in and was no longer functioning. Our team rebuilt this and a good many others that day. The green in the background is courtesy of Alder Springs that flows at the base of the canyon.

Our host, Gena from ONDA, is crossing Whychus Creek.

 

Our group is removing an abundance of Knapweed from a meadow. Knapweed can quickly take over an area and choke out native vegetation.

The creek skirted along the base of this amazing painted cliff. The horizontal bands displayed a multitude of geologic layers. The cliff’s face was streaked with gray which oozed out during recent rains. Several of us enjoyed lunch at this picturesque location.

Our work group is removing a large outcrop of Mullein. Mullein adapts easily to natural meadows and can outpace native plants.

An amazing view looking down Whychus Creek.

We enjoyed a well-earned break at the confluence of Whychus Creek as it pours into the Deschutes River. This view is actually several hundred feet downstream from the confluence. The scenery here is spectacular.

The hot afternoon required a head-dunk in the cold waters of the Deschutes River. This is me.

The next day we were at it again. We easily spent two hours pulling Knapweed in just this little meadow.

More Knapweed! One plant was so tough it snapped a hand trowel.

Such amazing colors on these butterflies. Animals we saw on this trip included two bald eagles, turkey vultures, several meadowlarks, a robin, one gemstone colored Lazuli Bunting, scores of butterflies, and two snakes. Sadly, we saw four deceased deer, victims of an aggressively cold winter.

Our group removes an illegal fire ring that was fifteen feet from the creek. We restored this sensitive habitat as best we could.

Such simple, yet complex, beauty can be observed here. Note the small butterflies.

The last of our group returns down a dusty path after a long and rewarding weekend.

A true delight was spotted next to the trail. This is a primary feather of a Bald Eagle (possibly from a sub-adult). The top edge of my trail shoe is included for scale. This feather was discovered near the final hour of our restoration work – helping to protect public land. Seeing it was a welcome gift.

A Crater Lake Extended Weekend Group Trip

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Trip Report:
Date: June 12, 2016
Duration: 3 Days
Participants: 10
Group: Obsidians
Hiking 5 miles (1,000-foot elevation loss/gain)
Type: Day Hike and Camping

On this trip, Mother Nature reminded our group of nine that she is always in control, and she reminded two members of our group to remember the tent!

Our original itinerary had to be re-worked because of a late July storm, but the unusually cold weather added an extra element of adventure and excitement.

Everyone arrived in great spirits on Saturday, though we knew that rain was on the horizon. Unfortunately, two members of the group had – in their enthusiasm – unexpectedly left their tent at home. Undeterred by the unfortunate error they purchased a tent at the campground store – for a good deal of course! The skies that afternoon were clear and we made good use of the sun by hiking to Garfield Peak.

thumb_IMG_5138_1024On the way we encountered several snowfields, one of which was very steep, but the stunning views from the top were well worth the extra effort in getting there. In the distance Mount Scott was enticingly clear of snow, though we later learned it was impossible to reach because several miles of the eastern rim highway was closed for repairs. Returning down the mountainside we visited the small loop trail of Godfrey Glen where we collected trash that uncaring visitors had left. We collected enough garbage to fill a large bag! That evening we sat around the campfire and commented on the number of stars that were visible, where was the rain? All was calm until 2am when the rain arrived and temperatures lowered to just above freezing. Our two members in their “good deal” tent had a cold and wet night.

Sunday morning I looked out my tent and was excited to see full-bodied snowflakes quietly falling but they only lasted for a minute. Several early risers made a trip to the rim where 3-4 inches of snow had fallen the night before. All of us were off to a slow start that morning. The “good deal” tent had not fared well in the rain and when the drops were shaken off the outer cover a support bar snapped making the tent almost useless. For the entire day temperatures never ventured past the mid-thirties and at times the drippy rain became unrelenting torrents.

_thumb_IMG_5158_1024We explored the Visitor’s Center, the Sinnott Memorial Overlook (featuring an indoor exhibit room) and the gift shop to escape the fog, wind, rain, and occasional snow flurries. The fog was so thick we could not see the lake or a few hundred feet in front of us. In the afternoon we moved below the cloud line to hike the picturesque Annie Creek trail. Although a short hike it was very picturesque. Laurie and Brad had reservations at the Crater Lake Lodge for dinner, they generously increased their table size to include all of us so we could get out of the rain and have some warm food. About 8pm that evening the sky cleared and at first the temperatures seemed warm. The group campfire that evening had just half of the group, the remainder had gone to bed early. The two members in the “good deal” tent had another cold and memorable night. In the middle of the night I awoke and was stunned by the visibility of the night sky – there were thousands of stars! My tent thermometer showed that temperatures had dropped into the upper twenties.

On Monday the sun returned and the group broke camp, but before we did we waited anxiously for two members to return their “good deal” tent. The two walked stoically into the store and presented their ale of woe to a staff person, when the person said “no refunds” the disheveled and muddy remains of the tent was plopped like a large wet sponge onto the counter for all to see. The act proved its point about the product’s poor quality. Their money was returned. Victorious that two of our members had saved their money (and dignity) we traveled to the rim where we hiked for several hours sightseeing and enjoying the views of Wizard Island. We tried to visit Watchman Peak but the trail was still heavy with snow and the area was closed. Although the sun was shining the temperatures remained in the mid 50s and the wind had a nippy bite, the group tabled Cleetwood Cove for another time, jumping in Crater Lake would be for another trip.

Visiting Crater Lake’s Wizard Island

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Crater Lake National Park in Oregon is spectacular to behold, but the park’s centerpiece, Wizard Island, truly enchants visitors.

Wizard Island is striking because it appears unreal, as though it was pulled from the pages of a fantasy novel, here’s how I might [poorly] describe such a mystical setting-

Seeing the island for the first time I could only describe this place as the dominion of a sorcerer, a fortress where he/she can perform incantations in solitude. The isle looks as though it was inspired by a familiar clothing item, something mundane and convenient – the magi’s hat; the island gently rises from all sides to a center point, the top appears mischievous as though the fabric has deliberately toppled to the far side. Surrounding the castle is a beguiling blue-colored lake, a gigantic moat that is miles across and terrifyingly deep! The island is fortified too; soldiers of green trees stand guard, expecting an attack from the water they are numerous near the shore, only to have their numbers fray at the ramparts. In the distance, immense cliffs stab into the sky creating an impenetrable wall of stone. The scene is inspiring, beautiful…serene. A cool wind gently blows past and whispers about the power of a hellish phantasm that was once unleashed and devoured a mountain, possibly of a battle between Gods. The island captivates the soul; its beauty too alluring, this grandeur too inspiring, the enchantment…too intoxicating. The wind’s gentle whisper beckons to visit, to explore this place – to walk in its magic.

The best part about Wizard Island is that it is not a fictional destination, this spellbinding place really can be explored, though your time on the island is limited to just a couple of hours.

Like most adventures, be flexible on your journey; while camping at the park I tried, for several days, to obtain tickets for the boat ride to Wizard Island. Unfortunately weather concerns and mechanical problems caused delays. On the third day, the stars aligned and tickets were quickly in hand. After a quick scramble for gear, my family and some friends drove to the opposite side of the massive crater to the Cleetwood Cove parking lot.

The hike to Cleetwood Cove is a 1-mile long, 700-foot decent down the side of the crater.

At the water’s edge was our boat to Wizard Island, about 25 or so people boarded, then we were off.

What is most fascinating about the boat ride is the perspective – a view not fully appreciated from seeing Crater Lake from the rim. Being at the lake’s surface you feel like a small toy boat in a gigantic bath tub, it is an awe-inspiring method to better appreciate just how immense Crater Lake is-

  • The lake stretched beyond our boat in all directions, the crater’s oval shape is a massive 5-miles by 6-miles wide.
  • Below our boat, at the deepest point, was 1,943 feet of water – that’s equal to a 180-story building below us!
  • Around us the rim towered overhead, it ranged in height from 700 feet to 1,800 feet.

Most fascinating, this entire place literally went to hell about 7,700 years ago when the 12,000-foot Mount Mazama erupted – the eruption was 42 times greater than the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980*. Riding over the waves it is hard to imagine that the original mountain once stood 1 mile above us and a quarter mile below our tiny boat, and within the course of 2 violent days…completely disappeared in one eruption.

The eruption was recorded in Klamath Native American oral traditions; it tells of two Gods, Skell and Llao who fought. It was their battle that caused the eruption of Mount Mazama and left many of the geographic features seen today.

Over time the volcano eventually settled down, though in the process left behind several gigantic cones, which rise from the crater, several are underwater, the one above the water’s surface is Wizard Island.

The water of Crater Lake is entirely of snowmelt – it is clear, pure, and cold! Its clarity allows light to penetrate to great depths, which absorbs longer rays of light (like red) while scattering and reflecting shorter rays (like blue). When we peer into the water we see these scattered/reflected blue shorter rays.

blog_2013_07_13_img02Approaching Wizard Island, even several miles away, is very impressive.

blog_2013_07_13_img03As the boat approaches Wizard Island the size and grandeur of this volcanic cone becomes apparent.

blog_2013_07_13_img04Hiking to the top of Wizard Island the trail climbs 760 feet, but this is nothing compared to the eastern rim of the crater which towers above me. In the photo the Watchman scrapes the sky at 1840 feet above the lake’s surface. Seen between the trees, on the water (crossing Skell Channel) is a small white line, this is one of the boats that transports passengers to the island.

blog_2013_07_13_img05The views hiking to the top of Wizard Island are jaw dropping.

blog_2013_07_13_img06Think of Wizard Island as a small volcano, and it has a crater; this picture shows several people hiking out. The rim of Crater Lake looms on the horizon.

blog_2013_07_13_img07This Ground Squirrel is a resident of Wizard Island. He was demanding a food tithe from me for visiting his island retreat.

blog_2013_07_13_img08A view from atop Wizard Island looking across Crater Lake to the opposite rim which is about 5 miles away. The blue color is just magnificent.

blog_2013_07_13_img09Hiking down the cinder cone we enjoy a rich tapestry of colors – a masterpiece painted by nature!

blog_2013_07_13_img10This is one of the few boats allowed on Crater Lake. It is seen here delivering visitors; this boat will take us on our return trip around the lake’s perimeter in a counter clockwise direction. Our next stop was the southern shore to see a slide area and the Phantom Ship.

blog_2013_07_13_img11The spires of the Phantom Ship, an island in the lake, which under low-light conditions resembles a ghost ship.

blog_2013_07_13_img12Looking into the water from the edge of the boat we saw this dramatic difference in color. The interpreter on the boat said the contrast was because we were passing over an underwater ledge, to the left the water depth was about 900 feet, to the right the depths plunged to 1,600 feet!

blog_2013_07_13_img13Crater Lake’s legendary “blue” water.

*Wikipedia reference “Mount Mazama.”

» Find out more about boat rides to Wizard Island
» Find out more about Crater Lake National Park

Visiting Mount St. Helens During the 2013 Government Shutdown

“Due to a lapse in federal funding this Recreation Site is CLOSED.” This was the sign that greeted us at the Johnston Ridge Observatory Visitors’ Center at the Mount St. Helens National Monument in Washington state.

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We could not believe it; our 2 families had spent months of planning, each of the parents had taken time off work, everyone managed their household budgets, 3 kids juggled school homework, plus everyone had to deal with the expenses related to lodging and traveling.

Although much was closed, we made the best of it. The children were not deterred by the closure, they were very content just to be outside, run, play and have a great time, though for them the eruption of Mount St. Helens was ancient history.

For the parents, we remembered the eruption, we understood that the younger ones needed to see the volcano, touch the exploded trees, walk on the landslides, witness a forest that had been laid flat 30 years ago.

We stayed in the area for 4 days, camping, exploring, hiking, and talking with locals – who were very eager to unleash their frustration about the shutdown and tell us how much income that had lost from canceled bookings. Even though it was the end of the season the late bookings are what helped many small businesses move into the black with their earnings for that year.

Each day we made a pilgrimage to Johnston Ridge in hopes of seeing the volcano, but a thick layer of clouds always obstructed our view. On the last day, our patience was rewarded. At first, we were in the clouds and could only see several hundred feet, then in less than 30 minutes the skies cleared and we were treated to open vistas. The views were amazing.

blog-2013-10-20-img2A view of Mount St. Helens.

blog-2013-10-20-img3A close-up of the smoldering crater.

Note: The federal government shutdown lasted from October 1-16, 2013.

Lassen’s Phantasmagoric Bumpass Hell

Within Lassen Volcanic National Park, at a chilly 8,000 feet in elevation, is a phantasmagoric location known as Bumpass Hell.

Bumpass Hell is the park’s largest hydrothermal area, but to many visitors it appears unnatural, like a scene created by the imagination. Just hiking to the location suggests this is an irregular place. First, the pungent odor of rotten eggs rudely greets the nose. Then the landscape changes appearance; friendly greens and browns retreat to display barren, mineral stained soils of tan, orange, and yellow. Finally, looking into the active basin the ground’s surface is reminiscent of another world, it is etched, pocked and corroded; ghostly apparitions of steam hiss into the air while numerous mudpots pop and gurgle, and aqua marine pools roll with super heated water. It is harsh looking, and very beautiful.

blog-20120929-img2A wooden boardwalk allows for a more safe exploration of the area. Posted signs stress the importance of staying on designated paths for safety reasons. Bumpass Hell was named after an early visitor who severely burned his leg upon falling through the surface’s thin crust and into boiling water.

Upon leaving, the crude odor of Bumpass Hell diminishes with distance, but it haunts the nose for a long time afterwards.

The hydrothermal area is accessible by two trails. The popular three-mile hike begins at the Bumpass Hell parking lot, on Hwy 89, and requires several hours for a round trip. The elevation gain is about 300 feet. Be prepared for a crowded parking area and a busy trail in the summer. If you seek a less explored route the trail leading from the Kings Creek trailhead is very rewarding. This five-mile trail passes through majestic forests, crosses gentle brooks, and meanders through an area of volcanic formations that are layered and twisted. Plan for a hike that covers roughly 800 feet of elevation gain. In the summer, look for retreated snow banks that are hidden with the woods just off the trail.

Learn more about Lassen Lassen Volcanic National Park:
http://www.nps.gov/lavo/index.htm

A Grand Morning at Lassen Volcanic National Park’s Summit Lake

Lassen Volcanic National Park is a great location to start one’s day.

I woke early in the morning. My family slept silently next to me in their warm sleeping bags. I was careful not to wake them as I left the tent. The sky was a mixture of pastel blues, soft pinks and warm yellows as the sun was starting to rise. No one in the campground was awake; if they were they treaded quietly.

The morning was very cool and I was glad to have my jacket as I walked through the campground. The shadows were quietly retreating and shades of gray were slowly being chased away by the morning’s gaining light. The tips of the hundred-foot trees surrounding the campsite were brightly dolloped with sunlight.

Adjacent to the campground was the beautiful Summit Lake. It was spangled with wisps of moisture that danced off the water’s surface into the morning air.

blog-20120922-img3Everything was amazingly still. The only sounds were my soft footsteps on the earthen path that follows the lake’s gentle perimeter. At the lake’s edge, in some places, the water granted peaks into the stillness and you could gaze for many feet along the trunk of a fallen tree.

Breaking the morning’s quiet was a squirrel. It barked at me, while upside-down, from the side of a nearby tree. I had offended his solitary morning. I took leave and walked further down the trail, enjoying the newness of the day.
The sun had crested the trees on the east side of the lake and now fully illuminated the trees on the opposite shore, revealing a curtained wall of greens, browns and tans.

In the distance, the great dome shaped volcano of Mt Lassen commanded the horizon. The impressive scene was mirrored on the still lake before me. A great heavenly painting was being created and I was witnessing the Creator’s casual brush strokes. I felt almost prideful to be only witness of this beauty.

A mother duck and seven babies glided across the majestic natural painting. Their tiny wakes slowly moved across the colorful canvas, blurring the stillness and bending the reflections into a shimmering pallet of colors on the water.

It was a grand morning.

The Point Reyes Hostel is Great for Families

After a long day of exploring the beaches, forests and grasslands of Point Reyes National Seashore, where does a family stay?

In the heart of this 70,000-acre parkland, is the Point Reyes Hostel. The main hostel is located in a converted ranch house, but recently there is a new addition, the “green building.” The green building was constructed to LEED Silver standards so it maximizes water savings, is energy efficient and constructed with materials that support human and environmental health.

I found the new facilities to be clean, roomy and most of all quiet. Our family room had two bunk beds and a larger twin bed on the lower level, but what everyone liked most was the window, which could be opened to allow copious amounts of fresh coastal air inside. The communal kitchen was well stocked with cooking items and the shared bath facilities were well maintained.

Adjacent to the kitchen area is a sizable balcony for sitting outside and having a meal. If you sit outside the entertainment can include a covey of quail running below, or even a deer munching some grass nearby.

Depending on the time of year you can expect sun or rain, but there is always some amount of overcast that rolls in from the ocean. The seashore is located about an hour north of San Francisco, California.

To learn more about the Point Reyes Hostel visit:
http://norcalhostels.org/reyes/

A Family Overnight at the Marin Headlands Hostel

If your family is visiting San Francisco, California, consider overnighting on a decommissioned military base.

The base is now part of an immense national recreation area known as the Marin Headlands where visitors can enjoy hiking, biking, and beach combing. After a long day, when it is time to bed down, the Marin Headlands Hostel is a good choice for families. The hostel has taken great care to restore these historic military buildings, which date to 1907.

Families who stay here get a treat, the opportunity to stay in a solidly built two-story building that served as Officer’s quarters. Inside the house an impressive staircase greets visitors and a cozy living room is stocked with books and games. A broad porch welcomes parents who wish to sit, rest, and watch sunsets or catch glimpses of deer grazing in a field. As part of the hosteling experience be prepared to bring your own food and make use of the common kitchen.

The hostel is a good value for the money, especially considering the high cost of accommodation in the bay area. I would suggest earplugs to guard against any possible late night noise.

What I found most memorable during my stay was hearing an owl hooting in the stillness of the night in this immense and open green space of the Marin Headlands, and knowing that just a few miles away, live several million people.

Some Practical Observations About Visiting Kings Canyon National Park

Some Practical Observations About Visiting Kings Canyon National Park

blog_20100925_img1Most guidebooks and some on-line resources have great information about visiting Kings Canyon, but these sources often overlook some basic questions that families ask. Here are some practical ‘from the ground’ observations:

Can I buy basic food, supplies and ice at the park?
Yes. Small grocery stores are located at the Grant Grove Village (at the park’s entrance) and the Cedar Grove Village (in the heart of Kings Canyon). Both stores have basic camping supplies, toiletries, canned food and a small selection of fresh fruits and vegetables and bags of ice. The store at Cedar Grove has fishing lures and tackle. The prices on most items were fairly reasonable. Obviously come to the park prepared, but if you forget something the stores should be able to help.

Are the restrooms flush or pit toilets? Are they maintained?
The restrooms at the Grant Grove Village and the Cedar Grove Village have flush toilets. Many of the camping and primary sightseeing areas have flush facilities. Note, the visitor center in Grant Grove has a very small restroom and a line can form quickly. If you are not fond of lines, turn around and walk about a minute – past the post office and just past the small grocery store – to a lesser-known restroom with flushies. All of the facilities we found, including a few of the more remotely located pit toilets, were all well maintained.

Where Can I Buy Gas?
Gas is not available in the National Park expect only for emergency situations. Driving to the park on Hwy 180 the ‘last gas’ is supposedly at Clingan’s Junction in a little town called Squaw Valley. However, the adjacent National Forest lands do have several locations to purchase gas. We found gas at the Stony Creek Village located on the Generals Highway which connects Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks; a second location at Hume Lake about a third of the way to Cedar Grove; and at the Kings Canyon Lodge about half-way to Cedar Grove. This lodge did have a six-gallon minimum purchase but the prices were reasonable considering the distance out. What is interesting are the pumps themselves, these pumps are apparently from the 1920’s and are supposedly the oldest gravity feed pumps in the country. Try to keep a full tank before you enter the park, but if you need gas try these above mentioned locations. We always fill up our tank in Fresno and have always made the return trip back to Fresno before needing to fill up again.

How far of a drive is it from Grant Grove to Cedar Grove?
We like to stop and smell the flowers so it takes us a little longer. Expect a drive of about an hour and twenty minutes one-way.

Where can I find out if any campsites are available?
Kings Canyon does not accept camping reservations, it is a first come-first-served system. At the Visitors Center in Grant Grove is a white board with a count of the camping areas and daily availability. We found that campgrounds in the Grant Grove area were very popular and almost always full throughout the summer. The sites around Cedar Grove (in the Kings Canyon Valley) generally had lots of availability during the weekdays. We found that arriving in the Cedar Grove area on Sunday provided the best opportunity for finding a choice camping space. The weekends were busy and the campsites around us filled up quickly late on Friday.

Note the location of your campsite’s food locker.
One item to be aware of when selecting your campsite is the location of the food locker. A food locker that appears to be in a shade location at 3 pm may not be at 10 am or noon. These lockers are made of solidly constructed metal and painted brown. If they are in the sun too long they can become an oven-like food locker – with your ice chest inside! When setting up camp take note of the shade and whether your food will be shaded in the morning and afternoon.

Are black bears a problem?
The problem is more with people not storing their food properly. Visitors should use the sturdy food lockers that are provided to store ALL food and non-food items that have a scent.

Will the altitude affect me?
It might, everybody is different. Some folks get a headache, some even a little nauseous. My experience is that the quick change in elevation, by itself, is not a big issue. But when a change of altitude is combined with a long day of driving, not drinking enough water and being tired a quick change in altitude can make even the nicest folks a little cranky.

Where can I get a map and learn more about the park before I visit?
Visit the Kings Canyon National Park website. You can learn more about the park, read the park’s newspaper and download a map at this address:
http://www.nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/brochures.htm

Sequoia’s Tokopah Falls

Tokopah Falls

Everything in Sequoia National Park is on an immense scale and Tokopah Falls is no different.

Tokopah Falls is the tallest waterfall in Sequoia National Park. Visitors can see it descend along a series of whitewater cascades, falling 1,200 feet (365 meters) in just about one mile of distance (1.6 km)!

Imagine standing in a glacial-formed valley surrounded by tall walls of granite. Before you is the beginning of the valley – a steep headwall that rises a quarter-mile to the skyline. At the skyline a white ribbon of water plummets from a large notch in the mountain. The water rushes down the steep cliff wall, darting and jumping, twisting and turning around jumbles of boulders. Such rocks might look petite from a distance, but they are the size of houses and cars. Quickly the ribbon appears larger and has defined movement, the cascades grow larger and closer. At the base of the waterfall a torrent of water tumbles over a cliff – it crashes into a deep pool of rolling and exploding white. This is Tokopah Falls.

Late spring offers the most dramatic views as snowmelt swells the river; though in the summer, as the snow disappears from the mountains, it is possible for the falls to appear almost dry. Regardless of the water level, this is a beautiful area.

Getting to Tokopah Falls is an enjoyable walk through forests and meadows next to the picturesque Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. The trail is 1.7 miles (2.7 km) one-way with just 500 feet (152 meters) of elevation gain – making it a good trip for families. The trailhead is located within the Lodgepole Campground on the north side of the easy-to-see stone bridge. The bridge area has easy access to the river and on hot days visitors take full advantage of the cool water. The park’s shuttle bus makes a stop at the campground just a few steps from the trailhead.

As you walk up the trail look for an impressive stone feature called the Watchtower on the south side of the valley. It dominates the skyline, rising 1,200 feet over the valley, so it is not hard to miss. The Watchtower is so big that it is a constant companion on the way to the waterfall.

On this trail my family has seen a variety of animals including mule deer and a black bear with two cubs. During summer the trail is used by a lot of visitors; if you want to avoid crowds travel in the early morning or late afternoon.

The Often Overlooked, Yet Curious Hospital Rock

blog_20100904_img1People visiting Sequoia National Park often overlook the Hospital Rock area. To many visitors it is not a destination; rather it is an unusual name on the map that lies between the Foothills Visitor Center (at the south entrance of the park) and the popular Giant Forest with its massive sequoia trees.

If you have the time check out Hospital Rock – it is a curious place. One of the first things to notice is the location; it is in a transition zone between the drier foothills and the mountainous region above. The highway also reflects this transition; after following the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River valley the road turns sharply at Hospital Rock and begins a steep series of switchbacks and a climb of roughly 4,000 feet.

At the parking area is a large, smooth monolith that people might think is Hospital Rock – it is a good place for kids to play, to sit and enjoy a sandwich, maybe wave ‘hello’ to people driving by – but this is not Hospital Rock. Nearby are several picnic tables and an interpretive display. At the display you read about the Native people, the Patwishas, and get a glimpse into their lives within this area. The display introduces Hospital Rock and the petroglyphs; apparently the designs were made before the Patwishas settled here. Finally, it tells about this place’s unusual name, Hospital Rock, which was given when a trapper received medical care for a gunshot wound in the 1870s.

Just across the road is a small sign that reads, “Hospital Rock” and behind it is a house-sized boulder. It is odd how this massive stone was there all the time – but was not easily seen.

This great stone is oddly shaped – it appears to have been cleaved, part of it leaning over to one side from the main form. The cleaved area is flat and has been used as a large canvas for petroglyphs, ancient drawings and shapes that have been carved or etched into the rock. Several steps in the rock allow visitors to get a closer look. Many of the rock ‘drawings’ are somewhat faded and streaked by mineral runoff and time, but some a very visible.

At the backside of this rock are several overhangs and caves that provide great places to explore and play for families.

Nearby is a short paved trail leading down to the river. After a short walk of just a few minutes you arrive to see white and tan colored boulders strewn in the riverbed as blue, white and emerald colored water moves quickly downstream.

Exploring the area around Hospital Rock reveals something curious, even mysterious – whispers of an old story are here.

The Magnificence of Sequoia’s Moro Rock

The Magnificence of Sequoia’s Moro Rock

Moro Rock is an impressive granite dome in Sequoia National Park. If you stand in the valley below it commands the skyline at almost 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) overhead! Visitors who drive from the south entrance of the park (from the Three Rivers area) along the Generals Highway will see this massive dome with increasing detail as they head further into the park.

From the Giant Forest Museum visitors can either drive to the Moro Rock trailhead or take a free shuttle. If you have the time hike the Moro Rock Trail through the Giant Forest. The hike is less than 1.5 miles (2.4 km) one-way to Moro Rock and offers hikers a ‘Wow’ factor not available by seeing these giants from behind the glass windows of a vehicle.

The trail to the top of Moro Rock, at first, appears to be a gentle sloping path, but it quickly ascends 300 vertical feet in just over a quarter of a mile. If you are not used to the altitude take your time and enjoy the views. For those who reach the top the scenery is ‘jaw-dropping.’

If you are visiting in mid or late summer be prepared for a grey looking fog to obstruct your view. Sadly, this grayness is smog; although it might be smoggy do not let that diminish you having a great experience. A visit to Moro Rock is worth the trip.

A park brochure and map of the Giant Forest (sold at the various Visitors Centers) best describes what is being seen from this vantage point, “the often smoggy view includes the foothills of Sequoia National Park, the community of Three Rivers, the San Joaquin Valley, and sometimes even the Coastal Ranges, located over a hundred miles to the west. To the east the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River are visible. Trailside exhibits identify the peaks of the Great Western Divide.”

A Great View from Panoramic Point

A Great View from Panoramic Point

Panoramic Point is an aptly named location in Kings Canyon National Park. It is a short side trip by car from the Grant Grove Village. The drive is about 15 to 20 minutes up a winding road that is narrow in some areas. At the end of the drive is a small parking lot surrounded by trees. Several picnic tables and a pit toilet are nearby. A paved walking trail guides visitors roughly 300 yards (275 meters) up a moderate incline to the Panoramic Point. What a great view! In the distance we saw peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains 30 miles away, several even further. Before us – seen with a full 180 degrees – was the Kings Canyon valley. The valley appeared as though a giant furrow had been tilled out of the earth. To our easterly direction was a small structure on top of a granite dome. This was the iconic Buck Rock fire lookout about 5 miles away. We enjoyed this vista undisturbed for about 10 minutes before another family arrived. Like us, they were quiet, amazed by the view of this aptly named Panoramic Point. If you make it to the Grant Grove Village a side trip to Panoramic Point is worth the view.

Becoming a Junior Ranger Is Not Just for Kids

Becoming a Junior Ranger Is Not Just for Kids

Grandma recently became a Junior Ranger. Yes, Grandma at 67 years of age became an official Junior Ranger at Kings Canyon National Park.

During a Ranger led campfire program Grandma and her 9 year-old grand-daughter proudly walked up to receive their Junior Ranger badges.

Some adults attending the campfire program thought that an older person becoming a Junior Ranger was unusual. One woman in the row behind me thought that an adult receiving a Junior Ranger badge “was just wrong.” Her gruff statement gnawed at me for several days. It demonstrated a common perception that Junior Ranger activities are just for kids and that an adult becoming a Junior Ranger is somehow ‘strange’.

So why did Grandma become a Junior Ranger?
Reason one: she wanted to learn more about the park.
Reason two: it was a great way to help the youngest family member learn about the outdoors and share in cross-generation experiences. What can be better than that?

Grandma did have to complete an ‘older’ section of the Junior Ranger activities to earn her badge while her younger counterpart completed another. Both worked together, learned something new, and had fun. In fact, the entire family was involved with the activities, visiting places, and learning about the park.

The park service has done a fantastic job of expanding the definition of Junior Rangers to ‘kids of all ages’ so it can more easily include parents and grand-parents – a move that is welcome and will help many other families to become involved.

Hopefully, in the coming seasons more parents and grand-parents will be joining their children and grand-children at other campfire programs to receive their own Junior Ranger badges.

To my understanding the oldest Junior Ranger is age 82.

What’s the Giant Forest Museum?

Giant Forest Museum

Giant Forest MuseumThe Giant Forest Museum is the best place to learn about giant sequoias.

The museum is located in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park. The Giant Forest is a plateau of just several square miles that is home to the largest trees on the planet.

Inside the museum visitors will discover interpretive exhibits all about these magnificent trees. Rangers are on hand to answer questions, provide maps and help point folks in the right direction.

The Museum is also the central transit point for the park’s shuttle system. Across the street check out the Beetle Rock Education Center, a hands-on place to learn more about nature for all ages.

Walking the Magnificent Crescent and Log Meadow Loop

Cresecent meadow

blog_20100826_img1Crescent Meadow was apparently one of John Muir’s favorite places – and upon seeing it we quickly understood his appreciation for this splendid location in Sequoia National Park. The abundantly green meadow is about half a mile in length; it’s perimeter is guarded by the reddish-brown colored trunks of the immensely sized giant sequoias. This combination of colors and nature is set like a gemstone against a deep blue sky of the High Sierra.

We walked a short distance and rounded the southern section of the meadow. As we walked up the eastern edge a friendly passer-by informed us a bear was near the trail. A few minutes later we saw the bear; it was almost camouflaged by the tall meadow grass. blog_20100826_img2He was not aggressive and just seemed to be enjoying his day. We watched quietly with just hushed whispers to express our wonder, a heightened sense of awareness and respect. We kept our distance not wanting to disturb the bear or call any additional attention to ourselves.

At the second right in the trail we continued over a short rise and saw another brightly green-carpeted meadow before us. This was Log Meadow and after seeing several large logs criss-crossing the meadow it was easily to see possibly how the meadow arrived at it’s name. Here we found a bench along the trail and enjoyed some lunch.

Tharp's LogToward the north end of the meadow was a very curious sight, a burned out redwood tree that was literally a log home. This is “Tharp’s Log” a fallen giant sequoia that is about eight feet tall at the open end. The open end is covered by a shingled cabin-like outside. An open door allows visitors to step just inside, another sign asks visitors not to disturb the cabin’s interior. Inside the belly of this sequoia is a fireplace, table, hinged window, shelf and a bed frame. The log appears to go back about 50 feet. An interpretive sign tells that Mr. Hale D. Tharp was one of the first residents to the area. He used the meadow as Tharp's Logrange for his livestock. The log was his home for every summer from 1861 to 1890!

Continuing westward the trail ascends over a small ridge. Here we walked through more giant redwoods and made note of the some of trees marked on the map. The trail re-connected with Crescent Meadow and took us back to the parking area.

After a short wait at the shuttle stop a shuttle arrived to take us back to the Giant Forest Museum. We had been out for several hours. It had been a great visit.

Visiting Sequoia? Take the Shuttle.

Sequoia Shuttle

When visiting Sequoia National Park consider parking the car and taking the free shuttle to see the sights.

The shuttles are clean and the drivers are courteous. One driver in particular was a real hoot and kept us well entertained as she drove us through the Giant Forest.

It was really great not having to search for a parking space or having to drive back to our camping spot after a long day.

My family took advantage of the morning shuttles. At this time the shuttles had just a couple of riders and the destinations had fewer crowds. Shuttles run every 15 minutes from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer. The shuttle service makes stops in several areas including:

Dorst Campground, Wuksachi Village, Lodgepole Campground, Lodegepole Visitors Center, the General Sherman Tree Main Trail, the Sherman Tree Wheelchair Accessible Trial, the Giant Forest Museum, Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow.

For complete dates of operation and any route changes check the park’s newspaper. You are given a newspaper when you enter the park.

Time at Muir Rock

muir rock

Muir Rock is a large stone monolith bordering the South Fork of the Kings River in Kings Canyon National Park. It is a short walk from the Roads End trailhead and is a popular destination for families.

Some of the first people I saw included a family with two children. The kids enthusiastically walked around the edge of the rock before plunking down at the opposite end of the great stone. They sat side by side and hung their feet off the edge. Their pant legs were rolled up and they wore shirts that were already splotched with dirt. Their appearance briefly reminded of the literary characters Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. The kids skipped some rocks then something in the emerald colored water captured their attention. One kid shouted, “I see one!” He pointed to a moving shape beneath the ripples. The second kid’s head bobbed to the side to get a good view of the fish. The second one slyly said, “I wish we could eat it.” Then an invisible light bulb seemed to spark over their heads. They talked quietly for a few minute about fishing equipment then bounded down the riverbank apparently toward their Dad.

Around lunchtime a couple came with a large bag. They removed a picnic cloth and spread it over a section of the flat rock. Then removed some plump sandwiches. The rock was warming up from the sunlight and made for a comfortable and magnificent setting for any lunch.

More families had arrived at the rock and some of the older kids were starting to swim in the river. They yelped loudly as they jumped into the cold mountain water – not realizing just how cold it was until they plunged into it.

Later in the afternoon a good number of people had made their way to this large rock. I found the most interesting person at this time was an elderly woman sitting in the shade near the rock. She was knitting a small jacket that was sized for a baby. She worked quietly for a long time on her hand-made gift. Even after I returned from a short hike she was still diligently working on her gift. She must have eventually finished but I did not see her leave.

As the afternoon continued the rock became very crowed with people. Even though it was noisy and the surrounding area was also becoming too crowded for my own comfort it was good to see people enjoy the outdoors and appreciating these great natural gifts.

Returning to the area in the evening I found the rock was void of people. Morning also provides a similar opportunity to enjoy the majesty of this place.

The nearby interpretive display mentioned that conservationist John Muir often used this rock to address people who had traveled to the area to urge the inclusion of this watershed in a national park. The rock is named in his honor.

What Is That Cute, Brazen and Silly Animal in My Campsite; Is It a Chipmunk or a Ground Squirrel?

Chipmunk or Ground Squirrel

blog_20100813_img1While camping at the Lodgepole Campground in Sequoia National Park several cute ‘chipmunk-like’ critters would quickly scurry across the ground, over rocks and under picnic tables in our area.

These critters were not just cute, but brazen. Sometimes one would jump up on the table to see what you were eating, or if the opportunity permitted, to inspect an open backpack sitting on the ground.

They were also silly. One or two would spring with the ease of a gymnast onto a sunny bolder, then stretch their out body on the warm stone and ‘enjoy some rays.’ If they felt unsafe they would quickly dart away.

What exactly was this cute, brazen and silly little creature? Most of the other campers in our area called them Chipmunks; a few called them Ground Squirrels.

A quick look in a California field guide solved the mystery. Chipmunks did exist in the area but these small mammals had a white-strip down either side bordered by a heavy black stripe. Plus they did not have any stripes on their face. These were Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels.

Shown is a picture of a Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel that visited our campsite.

Here are some characteristics to identify these cute, brazen and silly little critters when they visit your campsite at Sequoia National Park-
1) They are very cute.
2) A white strip on each side bordered by a heavy black stripe.
3) Their head and shoulders are plain – no stripes on their face.

Reference: National Audubon Society Field Guide to California.

Hiking to Mist Falls, Kings Canyon National Park

Hiking to Mist Falls

A visit to Mist Falls in Kings Canyon National Park is one of the great sights of the park.

The hike is moderately strenuous with about 800 feet of elevation gain. The round-trip is roughly 9.2 miles and can take up to 5 hours to complete, though we took 6 hours with all of our sight seeing.

Our day began at 8 in the morning. We started at the aptly named, ‘Roads End.’ This circular loop on Highway 180 is literally the ‘end of the road’ as this main Highway in the Kings Canyon stops and doubles back. From this point the rugged wilderness is enjoyed on foot.

Immense glaciers once ruled this place, everything has been scoured and etched in some way by their great presence. Perhaps the most dramatic result are the great canyon walls that rise from the valley floor several thousand feet.

The sand and gravel trail continued for roughly 2 miles through forests, past great boulders and along the beautiful South Fork of the Kings River. Near the Bubbs Creek Trail junction we saw a Black Bear. It was a magnificent sight! We quietly continued on our journey and allowed the bear to enjoy his day.

At the Bubbs Creek junction the trail begins an incline. Here the river can conceal emerald pools hidden like gems along the trail. Quickly these pools turn to gentle rapids then become a series of white-water cascades that continue all the way to the falls two miles up the trail.

We rounded a corner and met a couple who had just returned from Mist Falls. We had seen several backpackers heading into the backcountry but these folks were the first day hikers we had met. This active couple looked to be in their early 70’s. They must have started their hike at about 6 in the morning. We asked about the distance to the falls, both smiled but one answered, “It just keeps getting better from here.”

Soon afterwards we stopped on an expanse of granite. This great monolith provided a good place to rest, drink some water and have a snack. From this place we could turn around to fully see the valley below us. The view was jaw-dropping. Describing this scene is not possible, only that the word ‘beautiful’ is a weak word to define this spectacular sight. Dominating the view, 3 miles distant, was the uniquely shaped 9,146 foot mountain called, ‘The Sphinx.’

Finally, we reached Mist Falls. We could hear a roar as white-water exploded over the falls and tumbled beneath. The wind moving over the falls carried a fine mist downstream and into the surrounding forests. It was actually chilly. After drinking in this view we continued up the trail to another vantage point. Here the river’s channel created a flume. The flume slammed into a submerged boulder and catapulted a frothy and boiling mass of water 20 feet into the air – then disappeared over the edge of the falls. Further up the trail we found a great view overlooking the falls. It was a sight. We enjoyed some lunch and this delicious experience.

Kudos to the Park Rangers at Kings Canyon National Park

Kudos to the Park Rangers at Kings Canyon National Park

Little did we know that in the perceived safety of a parking lot at Kings Canyon National Park that an accident was about to occur.

Possibly we were tired from the long drive that day, or maybe it was a change in altitude, but for some reason Grandma went one way when the car was starting in another direction. Now, Grandma is tough – but not as tough as a two-thousand pound car.

blog_20100728_img1​The result was Grandma tumbling on the pavement. Goodness help us, we hurt Grandma!

Within seconds of the accident a by-stander ran up and said she would call for help (kudos to this stranger). She bounded into the small market.

Grandma was talking and feisty – which was a good sign.

A quick check revealed no visible broken bones and her head was ok. The tip of her shoe, but not her foot, was pinned by the wheel – another two-eights of an inch and it could have been much worse. The shoe was removed from the tire. During the fall Grandma had turned to catch herself and badly tore back the nail of her big toe. It was bleeding.

A family member ran into the store for some ice. The manager of the small grocery store quickly brought out several bags of ice (kudos to the manager).

About two-minutes had passed since the accident. As our family gave some very basic First Aid a Park Ranger’s truck rounded the corner. The Ranger had been close by and just received a call about an accident. Shortly, a second Park Ranger arrived.

It was great to watch the two; they were calm, professional and in control of the situation. They quickly assessed the scene, did a great evaluation of the patient, calmly let the patient know about the situation and how they were helping. Their large bag of medical supplies seemed to hold just about everything and in no time Grandma had an examined, cleaned and bandaged big toe.

It was obvious from their professionalism and actions that were fully prepared to deal with some far tougher situations.

Their work impressed upon me that I need to brush up on my own First Aid skills.

For their professionalism and help – big kudos to the Park Rangers at Kings Canyon National Park!

After mentally collecting ourselves and counting our blessings we made sure to pay for the ice. As for Grandma, she was scuffed up a little but overall ok and ready to continue her trip.

Roaring River Falls in Kings Canyon National Park

Roaring River Falls in Kings Canyon National Park

Every member of the family can enjoy a quick visit to the Roaring River Falls in Kings Canyon National Park.

The falls are beautiful, picturesque and a short distance (.4 miles/.6 Kilometers) from the parking area adjacent to Highway 180, the major road in the canyon. The paved trail leads to an overlook making this a convenient destination for all ages.

Visitors can see about 80 feet of the falls as water tumbles through a gorge and unleashes a loud roar of water and spray into a turquoise pool below. Surprisingly, this visible section is only the lower third of the falls. The rest of the falls remains hidden – except to the imagination. The trail ends at the overlook because of the steep and rugged topography.

The easy accessibility of visiting Roaring River Falls can make the trail crowded and parking hard to find on weekends and during afternoons. If possible, visit the falls in the morning or evening when your family might just be the only people witnessing the sights and sounds of this inspiring place.

Kings Canyon is Rich in Sugar Pine Trees

Rich in Sugar Pine Trees

Sugar Pine Size ComparisonVisitors to the Grant Grove Village in Kings Canyon National Park will notice this area is rich in Sugar Pines. You can identify a Sugar Pine by the extremely large pinecones that cover the ground at the base of these trees. In our photo a dollar bill is used to show the scale of some typical cones located in the Grant Grove area. These giants measure 16 inches (40 cm) in length and 5.5 inches (14 cm) in diameter. Remember, this is a National Park – and a treasure for all visitors to enjoy – these beautiful cones need to stay in the park where you find them.

Tent Cabin Camping at Grant Grove, Kings Canyon National Park

Tent Cabin Camping at Grant Grove, Kings Canyon National Park

After a long day of driving to Kings Canyon National Park the folks at GlyphGuy stayed in a tent cabin at the Grant Grove Village. We found that not having to unpack the car, setup a tent, or deal with cooking stuff was very convenient and welcome after a very long day – especially when kids are traveling in the car.

Several types of cabins, including some with electricity and baths, are available but we had booked a basic cabin with no electricity. The cabin had two double beds and a small dresser for clothes. The walls were not insulated and the wooden frame ceiling was covered by a fitted tarp. The tarp had a patchwork of duct-tape squares to cover small holes. The cabin had several windows that could be covered with a curtain for privacy. A couple of warm looking blankets were folded neatly in a corner.

Since our cabin did not have any electricity we were given a small lantern when we checked in. Although we had flashlights the lantern was convenient to have in the cabin at night.

Nearby was a bathroom, segregated by gender, and several private shower stalls on the backside of the bath building.

Grant Grove Village does provide a small restaurant with standard American fare for visitors and folks staying in the cabins. We were not sure what to expect with dinner so we had brought some food with us. We did visit the restaurant and found the food selection and prices were better than anticipated. Actually, the place was packed and people seemed happy with what they had received.

Also located in the Village is a Post Office, a small grocery store and a gift shop. For those wanting to learn more about Kings Canyon and the Giant Sequoias a visit to the Kings Canyon Visitors Center is a must. The Visitors Center is also in the Village. It offers several great exhibits, a short movie and lots of information about places to hike and explore. Check out the interpretive programs and make time to attend an evening campfire program held in the nearby outdoor amphitheater.

The summer night was not as cool as we had expected and we did not need any of the extra blankets that had been provided. The non-electric cabins rent between $62 and $86 for the night.

One item that needs improvement is a better knowledge of the history of the cabins. How old are they? Did any historical figures stay here? What is the story of this place? I asked three staff members variations of these questions and no one really knew the answers. The little bit of information I found was that the cabins were originally built in the 1940s and have been continually repaired over the years. It is obvious the well-worn door handle on our cabin had seen many travelers in it’s decades of service.

Overall our cabin was clean as were the bed linens and towels. We found the staff working in the office and those working in the area of the cabins all nice and personable.

If you are heading up Kings Canyon and need a place after a long drive you might consider staying in one of these cabins. Reservations are a must.

To learn more about the Grant Grove Cabins visit:
http://www.sequoia-kingscanyon.com/cabins.html

To learn more about interpretive programs at Kings Canyon visit:
http://www.sequoiahistory.org/

Let’s Go Exploring! High Peaks Loop – Pinnacles National Monument

The High Peaks Trail takes you through the heart of the Pinnacles rock formations.

The hike can be strenuous and is not recommended for children. Start at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and walk up the Condor Gulch Trail. This part of the hike offers some great views of the Pinnacles. Stop at the Overlook for some water but also drink in the views.

The trail continues to climb but loops back allowing hikers to see the Bear Gulch area below. In the distance are rolling hills and beautiful views. The trail moves through chaparral and to a sparse, yet beautiful area before joining the High Peaks Trail.

Walking along the High Peaks trail a large monolith rises to the north across the canyon. This is Machete Ridge, below it is the Balconies Cave – but that is another hike. This trail winds through strange finger-shaped Pinnacles rock formations. A sign tells you the trail will become steep and narrow. After a few minutes hikers are rewarded with a vista of the High Peaks.

Continuing down the trail the path becomes steep, then appears to stop. Here the trail becomes foot holds carved into the rock; well-worn hand rails beckons hikers higher.

At the top of the Pinnacles, stop. Enjoy the view.

As the trail descends keep an eye out for Condors gliding overhead.

The High Peaks trails drops sharply then levels out revealing even more bizarre rock formations that hint at the monument’s volcanic past.

Enjoying Condors at Pinnacles National Monument

California Condor

I saw a young California condor. It was 40 days old – it was also the first condor to be hatched in Pinnacles National Monument in over 100 years!

During a recent hike at Pinnacles National Monument my family and I were blessed to see, just forty feet above us, a California condor with roughly a nine-foot wingspan glide over our heads. Whoa! It was over in several seconds but we were able to snap a picture (shown).

A few minutes later down the trail we approached a trail junction. At the junction were spotting scopes pointed at an impressive rock wall about half a mile in the distance. Manning the scopes were biologists and interpretive volunteers helping visitors to see a young condor.

Looking through the scope I could see a light grey, fuzzy looking young bird resting in the crevice of a ledge. According to the interpreters this youngster was about the size of a duck.

What is impressive about seeing these condors is that it highlights the work that has taken decades to accomplish.

After years of over hunting, Lead and Strychnine poisoning and habitat loss the condor population plummeted. In the mid 1980’s only 22 condors remained. The last condors were captured and placed in a captive breeding program to increase their numbers. In the mid 1990’s releases began in California ad have now expanded into Arizona and in Mexico. As of today the total condor population is about 500 individuals; roughly 350 are in the wild while another 150 remain in the breeding program. Slowly the condors are returning to their historic territories, including Pinnacles.

We inquired about the condor that flew over our heads a few minutes earlier. According to the scientist this was the hatchling’s Dad.

To learn more about the Pinnacles Condor Program visit:
http://www.nps.gov/pinn/naturescience/condors.htm

Let’s Go Exploring! Balconies Cave and Cliffs – Pinnacles National Monument

Note: This was produced several years before Pinnacles National Monument was renamed Pinnacles National Park. The references within the article and videos still use the term Monument.

The Balconies Cave and Cliffs loop is a great family hike at Pinnacles National Monument.

Start at the Chaparral Ranger Station at the West Entrance of Pinnacles National Monument to walk this easy to moderate 2.4 mile loop trail. The trail passes house-sized boulders and follows a small creek, gradually the trail funnels into a small canyon and the entrance of the Balconies Cave.

Balconies Cave is generally dry, but in the winter and spring wading might be required as you duck under boulders and scramble through tight squeezes. A flashlight is required. It is easy to imagine that this hidden trail takes you to a lost-world on the other side.

Just past the cave is the Balconies Cliffs Trail junction. Walk up the trail while keeping an eye open for a possible Condor or Turkey Vulture. At the top of the trail take a break and enjoy the breathtaking views of the surrounding area; in the background are the towering Machete Ridge and the immense Balconies Cliffs.

Walking down the path the scenery becomes greener. Enjoy the occasional wildflowers and great views. The Balconies Cliff Trail trail soon reconnects with the Balconies Trail and will return hikers to the parking area. Keep a watchful eye for the small waterfall on the left side of the trail during your return trip.

Let’s Go Exploring! Bear Gulch Cave – Pinnacles National Monument

This is a great family hike at Pinnacles National Monument.

Visitors can start at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and hike up a moderately inclined trail to the entrance of Bear Gulch Cave. The hike to the reservoir is a short hike of 1.3 miles (one way), but it is action packed.

The trail pleasantly meanders past a creek, between the rocks and through the trees. In about twenty minutes we arrive at the entrance of Bear Gulch Cave.

Inside the cave we hear water trickling and light can be seen streaming down onto the trail in several sections. As we move into some dark passages the sound of rushing water becomes louder. Then the cave opens up into a large room. A waterfall rushes next to us as we climb steps that take us further into the cave.

Depending on the season the upper section of the cave might be closed to help protect a sensitive species of bat and their young. In our video this section of the cave is open to explorers – here a flashlight is required. We sometimes have to squat down and duck walk through several narrow sections while wading in ankle-deep water. For an eight year-old (and adults too) this is a lot of fun.

Soon we emerge from the darkness and walk below house-sized boulders that are jammed into the canyon above us. Then we see a staircase chiseled from the rock itself. We walk up and are greeted by a small reservoir. Walking around the reservoir we look back at the dam and several amazing rock features that rise into the sky.

Family Time at Bear Gulch Cave – Pinnacles National Monument

Family Time at Bear Gulch Cave’ was published in the June, 2008 issue of ‘Bay Area Parent Silicon Valley’.

Pinnacles National MonumentMy seven-year-old daughter Anna was first out of the car upon arriving at Pinnacles National Monument, “Come on slow pokes, let’s go!” We walked up a meandering canyon trail to the entrance of the Bear Gulch Cave.

Pinnacles National Monument is a two hours drive south of San Jose. This natural playground includes: bizarre rock formations, house-sized boulders and my daughter’s favorite, Bear Gulch Cave.

We felt a cool breeze from the cave’s mouth. Anna instructed us, “Mama, Papa, don’t forget your flashlights.” My wife, Christiane and I smiled and followed our young adventurer.

At first the cave was dark then our eyes adjusted to the low light. We appeared silhouetted against shafts of light that pierced the ceiling. Small rocks crunched nosily under our feet as we walked. A bat darted overhead. Being mindful of the bat’s home we walked more quietly and lowered the beams from our flashlights. In the distance we heard a low rushing noise from a waterfall. Several minutes later we stood next to a gushing spray of water. Our lights illuminated the waterfall that disappeared twenty feet below.

Pinnacles National MonumentFurther in the cave the trail dove underneath enormous boulders that were interlocked between the walls of the canyon. “These are as big as the house!” exclaimed Anna. The trail snaked between boulders to reveal a narrow staircase carved into the canyon wall. We climbed the stairs and out of the cave. We were greeted by a small reservoir surrounded by amazing and awkward shaped rocks. My daughter spotted our favorite picnic area across the water.

We enjoyed lunch in a shaded area. Overhead a vulture, or a condor, glided on thermals. In the distance rock climbers carefully made their ascent up a stone monolith. A hummingbird zipped in close, startling us, then quickly sped off. The rest of the afternoon we continued to explore the many trails of this natural playground.

Finally the sun became low on the horizon and signaled the end of our day. We returned through the cave and back to the parking area.

As the family car turned onto the highway I asked, “So Anna, what was best about today?” No reply. Our young adventurer was asleep.

To continue your own explorations of Pinnacles National Monument visit: http://www.nps.gov/pinn