Visiting the Buck Rock Fire Lookout is a Combination of Adventure and Play

Buck Rock a great day trip for those visiting the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park and the Lodgepole area of Sequoia National Park.

A visit to the Buck Rock fire lookout in Sequoia National Forest is a combination of adventure and play. Just getting there from the main road is exciting: you drive up a dirt road through forest lands, then climb a rugged staircase up to the side of a granite wall to a fire lookout on top of a massive rock dome.

Most people who see Buck Rock will view it from Kings Canyon Overlook along the General’s Highway. The General’s Highway is the primary road between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. From this often crowded car turnout folks who look east will see a small, and remote looking fire lookout about 2 miles in the distance.

We wanted to go exploring and take a closer look.

Our trip started from the General’s Highway at the Big Meadows Road turnoff. We drove east on this paved road for about 3 miles through beautiful forest service lands to a Horse Camp. Here we turned north onto a dirt road and continued for roughly another 2 miles. The dirt road became a little rocky in some areas and was a little intimidating. We were glad to have a car with some higher clearance. [Note: later that day we did notice a mini-van and a small sedan that had made the drive.]

The parking area was essentially a pull-over along the side of the dirt road. A sign directed us to walk the last quarter-mile. As we rounded a bend in the trail and saw the impressive looking Buck Rock (shown); a chain of stairs rose from the base of great stone and directed people to the fire lookout at the top.

blog_20100814_img2At the bottom of the stairs were several friendly volunteers from the Buck Rock Foundation, the nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the tradition of fire lookouts and other historic facilities. The volunteers gladly answered questions and told us more about the history of the fire lookout.

We started our ascent on some very rugged and sturdy looking stairs with equally solid side-rails. The wind was a little strong so we tightened down our hats and continued on. The stairs included 172 steps – each with a breathtaking view. Finally, we reached the top of Buck Rock (shown) and entered the 14 x 14 foot, well-maintained fire lookout staffed by Ranger Kathryn. She is on duty 5 days a week during the fire season. Volunteers and other staff help maintain the station during her days off. This tiny station, located at 8,500 feet in elevation, commands some fantastic views!

blog_20100814_img3In the corner of this tiny space was a small, but comfortable looking bed. In another corner was a tiny refrigerator and cooking stove, next to it was a miniature wood stove. All of the food, water, and firewood must be carried up the same 172 steps. One wall included a desk and work area. In the middle of the lookout was an Osborne Fire Finder device, an instrument that allows Rangers to sight a fire and determine the directional bearing (shown). The Ranger demonstrated how it worked by using two sighting apertures on the side of a large circular map. A fire was actually burning in the distance and from this high vantage point, we could easily sight it. The fire was burning 8 miles away! The sides of the lookout had large and roomy windows that made this small space feel spacious. I was surprised at how organized, comfortable and non-claustrophobic this tiny place was.

Outside, the building had a small walkway around the perimeter of the structure. Looking over the edge you felt as though you were suspended over open air. On the roof, hanging from one corner was a Hummingbird Feeder. During our visit, several times a Hummingbird (Anna’s or Rufus) zipped up and drank from the feeder.

We thanked everybody for a great visit and slowly walked back down the 172 stairs enjoying amazing views with each step.

For her adventurous spirit and climbing Buck Rock our youngest family member (age 9) earned an “I Climbed the 172 Steps to the Top of Buck Rock Fire Lookout” certificate. All kids who make the ascent can earn this certificate.

Continue your own explorations of Buck Rock:
Buck Rock Foundation

Buck Rock

Hiking to Mist Falls, Kings Canyon National Park

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 sightseeing.

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 is 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 afterward 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.

Whale Watching in Monterey Bay

Humpback Whale in Monterey Bay

A great family adventure is to go whale watching. Recently we heard the Blue and Humpback Whales were in large numbers in Monterey Bay off California’s Central Coast. The whales were feasting on the great population of krill, a shrimp-like a creature, that baleen whales love to eat.

Several companies in Monterey offer whale watching trips. We selected “Monterey Bay Whale Watch,” because they were recommended and have Marine Biologists and Marine Naturalists as guides on all trips. On the day we selected the morning trip was booked but we were able to reserve space for an afternoon 3-hour trip. The price was $36 per adult and $25 for kids – a price well worth the experience.

We boarded the 70-foot (21 meters) Sea Wolf II with about seventy other people. At first, this seemed to be a large number but we later found space not to be an issue. We had brought daypacks stuffed with hats, gloves, and extra jackets. At first, we felt awkward with our plump packs but once we entered the open water the wind became colder and we were glad to have the extra clothes.

The waves ranged between 2 and 4 feet (.6 -1.2 meters) that afternoon and the unpleasant sense of nausea was not felt – any suspicion of it was even forgotten when the whales appeared.

In the distance, we could see small geysers of vapor on the water. The whales were close!

We watched several groups of Humpback Whales before moving on to see the mighty Blue Whales. Blue whales are immense creatures – at 90 feet (27 meters) in length, they are the largest creatures ever on earth. These giants glided in the waves and apparently took no notice of us. At one point you could hear them breathe as they passed by.

Then we moved near a group of Humpback Whales. This group included a mother and calf that came within 40 feet (12 meters) or so of our vessel. The Calf was about 10 to 12 feet (3- 3.6 meters) long, the mom was possibly 45 feet (14 meters) in length. The mom made several dives to feed while the calf stayed near the surface. The calf seemed to enjoy frolicking, splashing and playing. Much of our video includes footage of this Humpback Whale Calf.

All too soon we returned to the harbor. Everyone in our family had a great time and no one had been sick. Even if we had felt sea-sick it would have been a treat to see these amazing animals – especially the Humpback calf who gave us great memories.

Enjoy the Majesty of the General Grant Tree of Kings Canyon National Park

If you and your family have the opportunity to visit the General Grant Tree of Kings Canyon National Park you are in for a treat.

Parents can walk among and appreciate the majesty of these ancient and immense Giant Sequoia Redwood trees. Kids will enjoy being outside, playing in an old cabin and walking through the Fallen Monarch, a cave-like giant redwood that is so big that it once stabled 32 U.S. Cavalry horses.

The General Grant Tree is important because it is the world’s third-largest living thing (by volume). The General Grant is 268 feet (81.6 meters) in height and has a circumference of 107.5 feet (32.7 meters)! It is not just big, but ancient; although the exact age of The General Grant is not known the National Park Service’s web site estimates the tree to between 1800 and 2700 years old.

When visiting this tree spend a few minutes contemplating about the civilizations and people who lived about 2,000 years ago – then consider, the General Grant was likely an old tree when those people walked the earth. Wow.

Some ‘fun facts’ displayed on a placard near the General Grant Tree help visitors better understand more about this immense redwood.

  • If the trunk of the General Grant Tree was a gas tank on a car that got 25 miles per gallon, you could drive around the earth 350 times without refueling.
  • The General Grant Tree is so wide it would take about twenty people holding hands to make a complete circle around the base.
  • If the General Grant Tree’s trunk could be filled with sports equipment, it could hold 159,000 basketballs or more than 37 million ping-pong balls.
  • President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the General Grant Tree to be the Nation’s Christmas Tree in 1926. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated it as a National Shrine, a living memorial to those who have given their lives for their country.

Many of the Giant Redwood trees in the Sierra Nevada Mountains were named just after the American Civil War. It was at this time the General Grant Tree was named after Ulysses S. Grant the final leader of the Union forces. A short distance away from the Grant Tree is the Robert E. Lee Tree, named for the leader of the Confederate forces. The Lee tree is the 12th largest tree on the planet.

The General Grant Tree and other Giant Sequoias are located in Kings Canyon National Park and the adjacent Sequoia National Park. Visitors to the Grant Tree can enjoy a self-guided trail that is half a mile (.8 kilometers) in length. The trail from the parking area is paved so wheelchairs and strollers are welcome. The location of the Grant Tree is roughly a 1.5 hours drive east of Fresno, California.

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 of 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 footholds carved into the rock; well-worn handrails 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 trail drops sharply then levels out revealing even more bizarre rock formations that hint at the monument’s volcanic past.

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 Park

This is a great family hike at Pinnacles National Park.

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.