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Five Days of Heaven

Here's the report on our recent trip to Kings Canyon.

DAY ONE: We spent the night at our cabin above Sonora, and then south, stopping in Madera for a chicken salad sandwich from Rancho San Miguel. In the middle of the day and a couple of days before Memorial Day weekend, there was no traffic at all. We stopped for lunch at Big Stump picnic area, then drove on to find Sentinel Campground in Kings Canyon almost deserted. It was hot--over 90 degrees--so we took a nap in the shade, then had a chat with a couple rangers who were spreading the work in the campground: store your food safely, put out your fires, and quiet hours are 9 to 9. The visitor center was closed, as was the lodge.

In the late afternoon we drove to Road's End...the pavement on that stretch is getting worse...and found no ranger there either, only a station for self-registration wilderness permits. With the heat in mind, we settled for salad for dinner and relaxing around the campsite. The Kings River here was absolutely roaring with snowmelt, and it sang us to sleep that night.

DAY TWO. We got off to a slow start, taking it easy, and getting acclimated by hiking to Mist Falls. The first people we met on the trail were a young couple with a dog, which is completely illegal in Kings Canyon. Grrr. As a ranger said to us later, "I love dogs, but there are some dog people I really dislike." It was a lovely hike. Hot, but the river was roaring and the falls were explosive, filling the air with icy mist. I got an additional shot of adrenaline when I damn near stepped on a diamondback while I was taking a photo...paying so much attention to the scenery of the river that I didn't watch where I was putting my feet. That woke me up. I heard the snake first, and don't remember how I did it, but I was quickly about four feet away. The snake slithered off between some rocks before M could catch a glimpse, much to her disappointment.

There were tons of people hiking the Rae Lakes loop the day before permit quotas go into effect. We counted at least 60 people on their way to the campground in Paradise Valley--way too crowded for us. We hiked past the falls a bit, then turned around before reaching Paradise Valley itself. We ate lunch back down the trail it a quiet setting away from the hiking hordes.

After lunch we crossed the Bailey Bridge to check out the trails to Bubbs Creek and Kanawer. Lots and lots of water there. If we had been backpacking, we would have taken off our shoes and waded, but we were on vacation and day-hiking, so we decided not to ford in either direction, and and hiked back via the Bailey Bridge. Back at Road's End we met a pair of rangers setting up their post for the following day. They admitted that people are gaming the permit system, and shook their heads sadly at the numbers of people heading up to Paradise Valley, as well as the hikers with the illegal dog. We'll write more on that in a later post.

On the way back to the campground we drove along North Side drive--a quiet way to drive the canyon--and stopped to soak our feet and nap, with only the road of the river to serenade us. Then it was back to camp for more salad and pasta for dinner, this time with wine. It was a marvelous temperature in the evenings, just right for lying about and reading quietly. Of course, our next door neighbor built a massive fire at 4 p.m. while it was still 87 degrees. And to complete the exercise, he gathered large logs to burn, and used a full sized axe to try and but them to size. He was unsuccessful, but burned them anyway. Go figure.

DAY THREE: A trip up Copper Creek this morning. I'd always wanted to hike this trail, and today was the day! We started with a lovely chat with the trailhead ranger...her first day of the season on duty here. She told us to expect a group of nine young men who had a permit for today.

We then began the slow, steady climb up the switchbacks...they were well-graded and maintained, but they did go on for miles. The good news? Great views of the Sphinx Crest as we climbed higher, and the high clouds and moderate shade kept us from overheating. While we'd heard many people warn us about this hike, we really enjoyed it.

There was not much wildlife to be seen, but we did hike through various types of lupine, from stunted pale yellow ones in the almost desert lower switchbacks, to pale purple, to deep purple, to luxuriant lush leaves as we got into the moister meadows. And we heard the booming call of a male grouse higher up, foreshadowing excitement to come.

Which brings us to Lower Tent Meadow. It's not a meadow. There's a bear box and campsite, but only a pleasant stream. We stopped for a few minutes to explore, then decided to hike on until noon, which took us another half mile up the trail past some amazing views of not only the Sphinx Crest, but also Silliman Crest to the southwest. We continued on to find a flat rock, and ate our lunch in complete solitude. We'd seen nobody all day. What a treat, and what a contrast from the day before.

The return trip was a replay in reverse...I did get a heart attack from a female grouse that exploded out of the manzanita a few feet from me on the trail. Yow! That got my heart racing almost as much as rattler the day before! And then it ran away as if its wing were broken. We've seen that trick before...but didn't check for its nest or chicks. Why ruin the day for them?

It was all downhill on the way back...all downhill...and we still didn't see another soul. The nine young men apparently bailed on the hike and never cancelled their permit. Typical. Even the rangers were slightly disapproving. We loved this hike, and are making plans for a backpacking trip up Copper Creek some time in the future--taking it slow, but climbing up out of the canyon into some truly wonderful country.

We drove back to Cedar Grove and stopped in to check out the lodge, which had opened today!.. I treated M to an ice cream to reward her for her hard work on the trail, and earned one for myself as well. They were still stocking the shelves at 3 p.m., and didn't have a cash float, so it credit cards only, but they were open for business and had a good selection of the basics--enough to keep you alive in the woods, if not in luxury.

We celebrated by soaking our feet (and knees) in the icy Kings River, then took a nap back at camp. For dinner we shared a burger at the lodge--and it was so good we shared a second one. After all, we'd earned them.

That night we helped a young woman find her parents in the campground, and then were delighted to see a small bear working its way up the river by the campground. It was bothering no one, and not being bothered by anyone, either. That's two bears in two years for use in Cedar Grove.

DAY FOUR: We made a quick stop at the lodge to buy ice, then hiked up the Don Cecil Trail. We did this one last year, but stopped well short of the top because M's foot was causing some issues. This year we kept going, past the massive pine that had fallen right on the trail. The easiest was around it was to climb up on top of it and walk the log for about fifty feet.

Further up, we discovered the lovely shaded canyon that was littered with snow plants everywhere. We have never seen so many. And that's when we noticed the Sequoias, scattered in among massive pines and firs. A magnificent forest. At the top of the ridge we bailed out of the trail to Lookout Peak and climbed out to the north for a picnic with a world class view. Clouds at 11 or 12 000 feet covered just the tops of the peaks. It was magnificent.

Sadly, there was plenty of used TP and Kleenex along the ridge...this part of the trail is only a mile or so from the trailhead to Lookout Peak, accessed from the other side. Disgusting. And I made a nice catch of four mylar balloons--nearly a limit. I picked up the balloons. I left the TP.

(I saw a fifth balloon in the canyon below the Sheep Creek bridge, but couldn't find a way down to collect it.)

Happily, there were no heart-stopping surprises on this hike, unless you count the snow plants and the Sequoias. We saw only a few people on this trail, most of them near the bottom. Another great hike that doesn't get much attention.

We polished off the day with another ice cream from the lodge and a soak of sore feet and knees in the Kings River--the heat had really jumpstarted the snow melt, and the water was high and fierce.

We had left some unfinished business at home, so we decided to head back a day early. I told the ranger in the visitor center, in the hopes that she'll find someone who can use the site.

DAY FIVE: The weather changed. It was much cooler today--41 degrees in the morning. We ate our breakfast, packed up the van, and started for home, with a stop in Grant Grove to hike the Panorama Ridge Trail, which was a cool, foggy experience. There were great views from Panorama Point, just a couple hundred yards from the trailhead, but then the clouds came in.

By the time we got to the Fire Lookout, it was socked it, and visibility was about 100 feet. Not so Panoramic at that point. Still, it was a pleasant hike and a nice way to close out the trip...and to add a few miles to our total. We figured that we hiked about 35 miles in the four days.

From there it was a drive back up Highway 99 to Merced and a night in our cabin, before heading back to Napa with sore knees, a touch of color on our noses, and a pack full of great hiking memories.

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