Crescent Meadow Loop, Sequoia National Park; From Crescent Meadow Over Black Rock Pass
(or just barely)
I left Walnut Creek about six, quietly slipping out the deck door, me and my “stuff.” I felt lucky that my sister, Anne, had come the night before so that I would not have to wait for my brother, Philip, on Saturday to look after our mother. I stopped for a bite and gas on my way to Auburn to pick up my nephew, Alex, my hiking partner. It was an easy, almost pleasant ride, early on a Saturday morning, and the sunrise was dazzling.
Alex was ready, and so after transferring the “stuff” that I would otherwise leave in my car at the trailhead – including my computer (a no-no) Alex and I were on our way. Alex drove until we stopped for lunch, a real treat, after he mastered the Honda Fit manual. I talked a lot, probably because Alex is such a good listener, partly because I was not driving, but mostly because I was somewhat apprehensive about such a strenuous hike for me, and because I had been altitude sick (for the first time in my life – I think) a few weeks before. Both of us like the fries at In-And-Out, and so we stopped there. There are a lot of that restaurant on 99.
I drove from that point to Fresno and up into the mountains to the park and the campground where we would spend the night. Except for the orange groves, it is not particularly picturesque ride, and the fact that it was hot and humid, gave the ride a rather miserable quality. The campground was typical of a car-camping place: smokey, noisy, dusty (but with beautiful trees). We made the best of it.
We first visited the Visitor Center at Grant Grove where I bought an excellent map. We went out to dinner – which was pleasant, and then we waited for night to come. I slept in my car to escape some of the smoke and the noisy, oblivious people, but it felt like a long, long night. The morning was better, and I walked around searching for a view of the valley; it was very hazy.
When Alex was ready, we got out of there and went to Lodgepole to pick up our permit and have some breakfast – escaping from the smoke; what a relief! I was hungry and scarfed that breakfast, wondering if I had packed enough food for our six day hike. (My appetite is quite variable and unpredictable.)
At last we found the trailhead and commenced to ready our packs. I transferred my eight pounds of food and my stove to Alex so that my pack would weigh 30 pounds instead of 40. (This was an arrangement we made in advance, which Alex was happy to do as a courtesy and for a stipend. He was confident, having just finished hiking the JMT.) I can forget about a 30 pound pack, but a 40-45 pack is tough for me.
We hiked the 11.5 miles to Bearpaw on the famous High Sierra Trail. It was extremely humid and quite hot. It sprinkled. The walk was unbelievably beautiful after four miles of typical upper foothill pines, oaks, and brush, canyon vegetation that I enjoy so much when I am walking in the Yuba Canyon. The views after about four miles and for most of the way after that, were breathtaking: the great central valley, the canyon faces of the Kaweah River, including glacial sculpting to rival Yosemite Valley, and then, wow! The Great Western Divide: the peaks, the passes, the spires. There were a lot of folks on the trail, and I kept saying, “Can you believe this?” It is an amazing 11.5 miles, mellow since it follows a ridge, crossing few contour lines, until the last two miles which is an abrupt, panting “up.”
Bearpaw was not what I expected, and so I will not tell you what I expected; what I found was disappointing: a dusty, dim space, carved out of a steep hill with big trees (their greenery high and out of view), a water spigot and an outhouse. To add insult, across a little glen is the High Sierra Camp – with a spectacular view. This camp is a tent camp with a quaint building with kitchen, diningroom, little store, decks and seating, etc. Whereas the backpacker's camp has no view, is rather subduing, the High Sierra Camp, 50 yards away, is a place to stay indefinitely if one is willing to spend about $170. a night, reserve way in advance, and walk 11.5 miles. It is a joyful place. However, Alex and I made the best of the campground, talking to other backpackers, using the water to wash up, cooking a good dinner, going to sleep early.
I began hiking to Hamilton Lake by seven, anticipating the six mile hike I had scoped on my topo. It was as beautiful as I had anticipated, except for the last two miles – which I found to be a grueling climb, very hot and humid, with “false summits” which were discouraging. Running out of drinkable water did not help, either. I met a friendly “old guy” dripping with sweat and paraphernalia and panting like a dog, who told me what I was “in for” on Black Rock Pass, and Alex passed me on the “up.” “Get a good campsite,” I gasped, “I hear that Hamilton Lake is very popular. What did you think of that gorge we crossed? And the bridge? What an amazing walk with the views of The Great Western Divide!”
Alex got a good campsite along with more than eight other groups right on Hamilton Lake, a beautiful place that felt good. It was a classic glacial tarn with the beginning of the pass in view (called Kaweah Gap) and trees on western side with talus slopes, otherwise.
The first thing I did was purify water and drink . . . and drink. I ate my cheese, jerky, and dehydrated pineapple, and then went in the water. It was not too cold, and felt good after the initial shock. It threatened rain, and so we weatherized and took shelter on a boulder, under a big pine. We ended up talking for a long time to three middleaged backpackers, sharing various mountain adventures. One of the backpackers from Washington, DC, a mechanical engineer who worked for the Bush administration (but supports this administration) told us the story of how he had severed his femoral artery climbing Eagle Scout Peak. He emphasized the heroics of his friend (who was there and helped tell the story) and the park rangers. I kept thinking that if it were me, I would have been terrified; he seemed copacetic. The afternoon melted away and the evening was beautiful. There were some bright stars.
Next morning at first light, I made coffee, enjoyed it thoroughly in that beautiful place, packed up, and began the climb to Kaweah Gap. I did well, pacing myself, enjoying the views as I climbed higher and higher. It was not too hard, just strenuous, very doable. One of the backpackers passed me on the way up. He sort-of hung around, and I realized, yet again, how much I like hiking alone. First, I zig-zagged though the brush on a easy up and then over the rock. The prize for the last mile (10,000 feet elevation) was a view of Precipice Lake, a famous place photographed by Ansel Adams. (I always wondered where that place was!) I managed the actual pass, after four miles, after a mellow climb through little meadows and up over rocky berms. Alex passed me after the lake, and I met him on the pass (along with several people who were traveling cross-country). Everyone was talkative, but I just wanted to “melt” into the views of the Kaweah range, the lakes basin below us, and the realization that due east of us, over the Kaweah peaks and passes was the Kern, the John Muir Trail, Crabtree, and Mount Whitney (not visible from there, but visible from Black Rock Pass). “I am crossing The Great Western Divide!” I kept thinking; I felt that special happiness I feel when I am part of the wild.
I escaped the talkative “throng,” and began the hike down into the plateau below the lakes basin. What a memorable hike! Gentle descent. Vast. Open. A meditative walk. A walk in the Sacred Way. Browned sedge and rush grasses, krumholtz pines, along the creeks flowers: purple, lavender, yellow, red; joyful birds, sweet quiet. The air was warm and somewhat humid with drops of rain that felt like kisses in that beautiful place.
At a place called Big Arroyo, I left the High Sierra Trail and began an ascent on the Black Rock Trail. There was an historic cabin there, and at that place, both Alex and a park ranger passed me. A black cloud front was moving toward us from the southwest; it meant business, and so I weatherized, forded a formidable creek on logs and rocks, and began a punishing climb (not an engineered trail) up and out of the arroyo. It was about 1.5 miles of straight up. The rest of the climb to Little Five Lakes was not too steep, but very wet. It rained! Thundered and lightninged! Scary at times, but the trail was not exposed. I kept expecting that I would meet Alex, huddled under a tree; instead, I met an older guy that I had greeted on the bridge before the climb to Hamilton Lake. He looked comfortable – under his tree with his poncho draped over him like a tent. I said, “Where are your buddies?” “Not my buddies,” says he. “I was just walking with them; they are continuing on the High Sierra Trail. You alone, too, or are you with that young man who passed me like I was standing still – as a matter-of-fact, I was standing still.” “Same guy. My nephew.” He said, “It seems a shame to stop; the lakes must be just over that hill.” I thought, about two miles – long enough to get really wet – which I did. I seemed ironic that I was also thirsty, but when I stopped to dip water and purify it, I got cold. “Got to move.”
We finally reached a campsite at Little Five Lakes and set up camp in the rain. When the weather improved, briefly, the ranger (a beautiful young woman) came by and checked our permit, saying that the weather had been atypical for a week: warm and humid and rainy. During the short reprieve from the rain, we quickly cooked, and then bivouacked. The sound of the rain on my tent fly was peaceful, and I was ready to be tired, but I regretted missing the beautiful mountain lakes.
In the night, it cleared, and it was cold. I missed the stars, but I slept soundly, aware of the demands for the next day; Black Rock Pass at 11,600. It was not the climb that was making me apprehensive, it was the long descent; a seven mile descent to about 7,000 feet, a 4,600 elevation loss.
The next day dawned bright and clear and had the crisp feeling of high altitude. I packed up and hiked like the young woman I once was. I walked slowly at first just to enjoy the high mountain scenery, and then to catch my breath as I ascended. I love the high lakes and green meadows, the krumholtz trees and the flowers, the little streams and the glaciated mountainsides, the crumbling peaks that prevailed 10,000 years ago in spite of the glaciers.
Alex and I took a long break on Black Rock Pass; there we were, perched on The Great Western Divide, there, under our own power, part of the mountains, part of the eons, part of fire and ice, uplift and crumbling. Alex took pictures, and I made pictures in my mind of glacially-sculpted mountainsides with the Great Central Valley, the long river canyons in view, as well as Mount Whitney. What an awesome pass!
The first part of the “down” was really ok. The trail, though very steep, was relatively rock free. There were flowers, including showy Gentian, and the spectacular view. The middle part of the “down” was a “dog.” It was either rocky with “step-downs” or slippery talus. I had to keep my eyes on the trail; it was hazardous to look up. The last part of the “down” was hot and dry and strewn with slippery cobbles, like a dry riverbed. My knee began to bother me; that was scary. About halfway down, the trail crossed a wet meadow with tall grass and sedges where one of my shoes filled with water; I was feeling pretty miserable by then, and I was only halfway down!
Finally, after walking through a verdant woods of fern and tall grass, and the endless talk of an accomplished woman hiker, we finally arrived at the Timber Gap trail junction where we knew there would be campsites. I think that Alex enjoyed the woman hiker, but I was ready for quiet, rest, and aloneness. We camped on Timber Gap Creek, at the junction, a beautiful cobbled mountain creek with a sweet sound. I went in the cold water and was revived. My meditation that night was one of my best; I think that it was the sound of the creek and the the simple fact that I was in a state of profound relief.
The following day, I walked 11.5 miles, in the loop, back to Bearpaw. Except for the last two dusty miles, and the voracious mosquitos in a place called Redwood Meadow, I thoroughly enjoyed the hike. It took me on a gentle “down,” with views of the forested canyons, to Redwood Meadow with the Giant Sequoias, four foot high cone flowers, a flat with a rustic buildings and a corral – and the voracious mosquitos. It took me across two beautiful creeks and the Hamilton River with perpetual views of forested slopes and canyons – finally climbing the ridge where the High Sierra Camp is located. I loved the wild waters and even took a dip. They are classic white granite boulders and beautiful cobbles like most of the watershed of the western Sierra. These waterways were pristine – and wild. There was a fragrance that took me a long time to identify: it was heady, herbal like sage and sweet like orange blossoms. (After many tries, I finally identified the fragrance as emanating from the blossoms of the Elder – not all the blossoms, mind you, but the blossoms that were at a brief and exact stage of their blooming. What a trip!)
I also enjoyed the good trail up to Bearpaw, well engineered for a backpacker, shady the entire way – many Gold Cup Oaks as well as the pine-cedar mix, and views! When I got to our less-than-favorite campground, I ate and read, and glanced up from time to time to try to get a glimpse of the tremendous view that I knew was there, but hidden by the trees. Alex saw a bear, and then we both saw a big cinnamon bear scratching his back on a tree. That same bear came back to visit us at 4:30 in the morning – my alarm clock. Alex loaned me the Jack Kerouac book that he had been given on the JMT by a young Norwegian hiker. I went to sleep early, anticipating an early start.
The early start was 7:00, with my exit after the 11.5 miles at 3:00. About thirty minutes per mile, including stops and pauses. Not bad. It was a reverse of the first day, and for nine of the eleven miles, I enjoyed the walk, and looked forward to the stunning views. Alex was waiting at the car, and he wanted pizza, and so that was what we did; pizza and salad bar; both very good. We talked about our trip on the four hour drive; it felt right. We talked about meditation; I maintain that it is a natural state that can be identified and sustained.
I had offered my prayers in the temple of The Great Western Divide, and I was proud.