Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.
This is part two of a series celebrating some of our favorite National Parks in honor of the NPS centennial. View part one.
Sequoia National Park
A rusty bear box opens with a forceful shake as the musty contents open to the late Spring air. At 7200’ feet in elevation, the Wolverton trailhead entrance to the Lakes Trail is enough of a change coming from sea level to leave me feeling a bit light headed when I stand back up. The weather is perfect - high 60’s and sunny. I load a box of food and a few miscellaneous items from my car into the public bear box and close the door for safe keeping.
Lakes Trail is a strenuous 13 mile trail rising over 2000+ feet in elevation and finishing at a series of high alpine lakes. The goal is to get to the first overlook and then I’ll turnaround - 5-7 miles max round trip. Its after lunch and I’ve hiked 5 miles already today. I don’t need to go any further. But then I don’t need to do this at all, I think as my feet crunch through the first steps of fallen pine needles.
This is the high country in Sequoia National Park, a spot famous for the giant General Sherman redwood tree among others. We aren’t far from Yosemite, and Sequoia takes on many of the same qualities but without the quantities of tourists. This is a quieter park, the local spot in a way.
Higher and higher, through sunlit glade and darkened grove, across streams of snowmelt and glades of spring flowers. The trail is beautiful and confined to a few feet in either direction by natural barrier and wave after wave of trees. Every so often a hint of a massive granite slab can be seen between breaks at the edge of a bend.
And higher and higher still through switchbacks until a clearing emerges and the trail levels slightly. I get to Watchtower, a pinnacle of granite some 2000’ above the Tokopah Valley floor below. I stand by a cliff some thirty feet wide creating the feeling of an amphitheater, were I to stand on the top of the stage backdrop and peer out at the audience. I sit down on a natural stone bench and sneak views over the edge before pulling an energy bar from my bag. In nearly every direction are massive granite monuments to time and nature’s creativity. A small sliver of a river far below me flows surrounded by a valley of green trees that seem like insignificant blades of grass from this distance.
My legs are already a bit tired so I have to decide what to do next. This is a beautiful spot and to head back would be perfectly reasonable. But then there is a magnetic draw to taking a few more steps. What if there is something beautiful around the corner? What if I go just a little bit further? I’ll go for a few minutes, then turn back.
But this doesn’t happen. Its the same every time; I keep walking, now fully in the open sunlight. I feel like I could be in the Himalayas with the rough, sharp, tan quality to the rocks on this trail and mountains all around me. And as I walk further into Sequoia National Park the number of hikers thins and the quiet takes over.
I pass by the high alpine Heather and Emerald Lakes, beautiful spots on their own and continue on. I think again about going back, my legs burning at this point. But the end of the physical trail is only another mile or so. I want to press on. The sparse trees beside the lakes give way to bushes that thin again into an openness. I see Pear Lake in front of me, flanked entirely by Alta Peak. This, in the end, is what I came for. I’m alone and exhausted with this ancient granite to keep me company. It is not difficult to see how ancient man would look to a mountain like this and see in it a god or the seat of a deity. The beauty of such a place is difficult to process. It simply exists as it is and as it has for longer than man has walked the earth.
I pull a small flask out of my bag. I take a sip of Bulleit Rye, slightly cool from the still chilly Spring weather. Humans are meant to struggle. I firmly believe that. An elevated heart rate and push beyond a comfort barrier in clean mountain air is therapy for the soul. I take another sip and get close to the ground, pouring the remaining rye into the ground in the cracks between rocks as a token of my thanks for the day. Many miles left and the sun is quickly disappearing behind 11,000’ peaks. I twist the lid on the flask and slip back into my backpack. WIth a nod to Alta Peak I make my way back down the trail with dinner and perhaps another splash of Bulleit yet to come.
The Grand Canyon
My face is numb. A biting wind is whipping across the canyon stirring the lightest of the eight inches of freshly fallen snow and removing any remaining heat from my exposed skin. I could complain but I could have also stayed in the car, gift shop, Las Vegas hotel, or home in relatively warm San Francisco. Instead I’m crunching through the snow and January weather to a ledge overlooking the Grand Canyon.
Looking north from the South Rim my left eye is squinting out the last of the remaining sunlight. The day started early and is still far from complete. Last time I was here was late May of 2007 and it was nearly 100 degrees some 3000 feet down along the canyon walls. My wife and I spent two days hiking then. This time I’m with my parents, sister, and brother-in-law on a quick day trip.
The first time I saw the canyon it was impossible to comprehend. I have seen hundreds of pictures of it but nothing really prepared me for the scale of it all. Its almost too beautiful to be understood and comprehended by the mind. Best to keep looking and hope it will make sense in time. But even after a few days the first time and now coming back years later it still seems obscene in its natural elegance and impossibility.
The snow adds an additional layer of beauty as well, like the frosting of a cake. The white clings to only the top most exposed portions, leaving much of the canyon walls exposed as they have been for thousands of years in stratigraphic blankets of reds and tans. This is desert country, and the trees that live here seem to come alive with the expectation of freshly fallen moisture, like a dog attempting to remain calm with a bone placed on it’s nose. My sister and I walk out a bit further on a trail of still unblemished snow. In between the sparse trees the canyon pushes on into a haze of blues in the distance, beyond our ability to see.
As the last of the sun’s direct light leaves us we pack up and start thinking about dinner and something to warm us. We stumble upon the El Tovar Dining Room, a historic room that once hosted the man himself, Teddy Roosevelt. One whiskey seems right tonight, a selection that has become a personal favorite - High West Double Rye on the rocks. For a new brand the taste fits right in, as though if you squinted just right you could almost make out a table of Rough Riders passing the bottle over tales of one-upmanship. We eat and talk, a deep satisfaction with the moment on each face.
When it is time to leave it is pitch black with no moon and all the stars hidden behind clouds. The cold is deeper now without the sun and we rush to the car to make our way to the park village and out of the cold for the night.
The darkness is a metaphor for what we get with these national treasures. I could be looking at layer after layer of condos or elevators running up and down the side of the canyon to villages with swimming pools at the bottom for the wealthy who can afford to have their produce shipped down a mile of canyon wall, the natural beauty all but vanished in the name of progress. Worse, the walls could be mined for whatever material could be found, the giant redwoods chopped for furniture or structural beams. Luckily wise individuals decided to keep these bright spots so we and our children’s children might get the chance to enjoy them all the same.
Get out there, explore, see something wonderful, and enjoy a dram along the way.