A Park with an Arch, a Beach, and Lots of Butterflies

blog_20101115_img2Along California’s central coast is a wonderful family destination called Natural Bridges State Beach.

The park derives its name from naturally formed arches that were carved from the sand and mudstone cliffs. In the early 1900s three arches were visible, but over the years wave action undercut the formations causing two of them to fall. The third, and last remaining arch is visible today (shown).

Most people think of summer as being the best time to visit the coast, but November can offer clear skies, warm sunshine, very comfortable temperatures, and beaches generally free of crowds – even on weekends. At noon on this weekend day, only two-dozen people were visiting this 65-acre park.

But the park was being visited by hundreds of non-human visitors.

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In just a quick five-minute walk inland were hundreds of monarch butterflies! A stroller accessible boardwalk near the visitors center leads to a monarch preserve hidden in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Here monarchs flit overhead and offer great opportunities for humans to see and photograph these beautiful butterflies. In the side photo is a winsome looking monarch that flitted down and landed near the boardwalk. An interpreter at the preserve said that an estimated fifteen hundred monarchs were currently visiting.

Every autumn, generally mid-October, the monarchs begin arriving at Natural Bridges State Beach. This is just one of several hundred locations along California’s coast where the monarchs stay for the winter. The coast offers them shelter from the cold inland temperatures of winter.

Especially fascinating is the monarchs arrive at the coast after traveling hundreds, even thousands of miles.

North America is home to two distinct populations of monarchs. The continental divide along the Rocky Mountains provides a natural barrier that the monarchs rarely cross. The monarchs from southeastern Canada and the eastern United States migrate to their wintering home in Mexico while the monarchs in southwestern Canada and the western U.S. migrate to areas along California’s coast. When they arrive they bunch together on branches sometimes forming large clusters. In the spring, as the weather warms, the monarchs begin traveling north looking for milkweed. The milkweed plant is the food source for monarch butterflies.

This year at Natural Bridges the monarch population is low compared to previous years when an estimated ten thousand would arrive. When I first saw these monarchs twenty years ago the branches were weighted down by massive clumps of monarchs. Although the number the monarchs are less this year they are still an impressive sight.

To learn more about the park visit the Natural Bridges State Beach website.

Here are some interesting Monarch mini-facts found on an interpretive display in the park’s visitor center:

• If a human baby grew as fast and as large as a monarch caterpillar, it would be about the size of a school bus and 2 ½ weeks old!

• A monarch tagged in eastern Canada was recovered in central Mexico after traveling a distance of nearly 3,000 miles.

• Monarch butterflies have been introduced to every continent in the world except for Antarctica. Only in their native North America do they engage in mass migrations.

Seeing Bears Along Lake Tahoe’s Taylor Creek

blog_20101020_img1Autumn at Lake Tahoe offers beautiful vistas, vibrant colors and the rare opportunity to see Black Bears along a creek catching spawning Kokanee Salmon.

Recently some relatives, visiting from overseas, made a trip to California and included a side trip to beautiful Lake Tahoe. We suggested they see the Lake’s sights in October during a tourist ‘down time’ when the weather is still warm and the summer crowds have disappeared.

The relatives were not disappointed by their visit. One trip particularly amazed everyone in the family from age 3 to 67.

blog_20101020_img2Walking next to Taylor Creek, at the southern shore of the lake, they saw vibrant red colors moving in the clear and cold water. These were spawning Kokanee Salmon. Then hearing some nearby splashing in the creek they looked up and saw a mother black bear and a young cub wading in the water. They were surprisingly close so everyone backed-off a little to allow the bears their space. The bears were catching fish to build up their fat reserves for the coming winter. Several good pictures were snapped including the picture of this young bear devouring a just caught salmon.

blog_20101020_img3Taylor Creek is a picturesque mountain stream that flows into the southern waters of Lake Tahoe. The nearby U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center at Taylor Creek is a great starting point to learn about the Kokanee Salmon and this wonderful area. The Rainbow Trail is a short hike and very good for families with young children. Make sure to visit the underground Stream Profile Chamber for an up-close and fish-eye view of Taylor Creek.

To continue your own explorations by car drive past the “Y” in South Lake Tahoe drive three miles north on Highway 89 to the USFS Visitor Center. To learn more about this area online, and an annual Kokanee Salmon Festival held at the area, visit the USFS website.

Some Practical Observations About Visiting Kings Canyon National Park

blog_20100925_img1Most guidebooks and some online 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 flushers. 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 to 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 1920s 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 to 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 whiteboard 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

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 a 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 Largest Tree in the World

The General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park is the largest tree in the world!

How big is it? An interpretive display near the tree gives some perspective about the size of this giant, “Looking up at the General Sherman Tree for a six-foot-tall human is about the equivalent of a mouse looking up at the six-foot-tall human.”

In our video, we provide a ‘sense of scale’ with a visit to a stone inlay ‘footprint’ found along the trail. This footprint represents the size of the tree at its base. Stand in the middle of this footprint and turn slowly around to better appreciate the size. The tree at its base is 103 feet in circumference (31 meters), and 36.5 feet (11 meters) in diameter.

The General Sherman Tree is approximately 2,200 years old. It is not the oldest or the tallest – it is the biggest in terms of volume. How big? Back to the interpretive display, “If the Sherman Tree’s trunk could be filled with water it would provide enough water for 9,844 baths. That’s one bath every day for 27 years.”

If you want to see the tree even closer continue down the trail. The trail has lots of opportunities to see more, learn about and better appreciate this magnificent wonder of nature.

Visitors to the park can easily travel to the tree via the park’s shuttle. The shuttle is a free service offered to park visitors in the summer. An added benefit is that after walking half a mile downhill from the main shuttle stop you can easily jump on another shuttle and continue to see the sights of the park. Walking half a mile is not that far for some, but if you have an elderly relative who is not used to the altitude they will thank you for not having to climb back uphill.

Car parking is available at the main parking lot, but finding space can be a pain in the summer. Take the shuttle to avoid these headaches.

A Great Family Hike at Zumwalt Meadow

Zumwalt MeadowA visit to Zumwalt Meadow is a great hike for families in Kings Canyon National Park. Everyone will enjoy an easy walk next to a river, through open forest and along the perimeter of a beautiful mountain meadow.

The trail leads downstream a short distance to a rugged looking suspension bridge. It is a great place to snap some pictures. On the other side of the bridge, several kids were splashing in a shallow pool. Dad was nearby about knee deep in the water keeping an eye on them. An older man about fifty feet away (possibly their Grandfather) was fishing.

The trail continued through an open forest for several minutes to an area strewn with massive boulders, this is the result of an avalanche. We walked along the trail between and over the debris left by the avalanche. The trail rose about 50 feet over the meadow and offered some fantastic views of the valley below. After about 15 minutes the trail leveled out and we found ourselves once again surrounded by trees. A large flat boulder sat next to the meadow and provided us with an excellent table for enjoying our lunch.

We walked down the trail and came to a junction. A sign pointed to the Roads End area and to Muir Rock, but we continued with our Zumwalt Meadow walk. The trail meandered through the upper section of the meadow. The shade from nearby trees kept us cool in the afternoon sun.

The river was just ahead. The cold blue and turquoise waters rolled past, in some areas the trail had been eaten away by the river and we had to step to one side to avoid falling in. Around us, the walls of Kings Canyon jutted far into the sky. Some of the peaks loomed almost a mile overhead! In some areas, the afternoon sun was blocked by their presence. The views were just amazing!

A wooden walkway now replaced the trail; it provided a transition between the meadow and the water without getting our feet wet. The views from the walkway were some of the most spectacular of the entire visit. Eventually, the walkway ended and we found ourselves in the open forest and on the trail near where we started. We had completed a loop. The suspension bridge was just a short distance away.

The trail is about 1.5 miles and can take up to an hour to complete, though our trip around the meadow took about 3 hours because of our numerous stops to enjoy this place and just to play. Bears have been known to enjoy this meadow just as much as humans – keep the camera handy.

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

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 gently 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

Panoramic Point is an aptly named location in Kings Canyon National Park. It is a short side trip by car from 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.

What’s the 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

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; its 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 crisscrossing the meadow it was easy to see possibly how the meadow arrived at its 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 are 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 Logthe range for his livestock. The log was his home 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

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, Lodgepole 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 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 minutes 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 crowded 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.

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.

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

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

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, set up 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 its 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/

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.