The four hour drive from Joshua Tree to Channel Islands National Park requires The Bearded Man to hit a few freeways in and around Los Angeles. Never a good idea. TBM prefers blue highways and crowded freeways tend to make him anxious. As a result, when he arrived at Channel Island Transportation for his scheduled flight to Santa Rosa Island, we had to peel his hands off the wheel. There are tiny nail prints in the wood. I didn't know you could leave nail prints in wood.
Channel Islands National Park encompasses five remarkable islands - San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Barbara - and their surrounding one mile of ocean. Each of the islands is a fascinating world unto itself. Accessible by boat or plane, The Bearded Man chose to take a 45 minute flight to Santa Rosa Island via Channel Islands Aviation and booked his return to the mainland on an Island Packer Cruise ship. "I get to fly over these beautiful islands in the ocean this morning and cruise through them this evening. Not a bad day. This might be a cigar day." That last reference is to his secret stash of three Cuban cigars, given to him by a friend who brought them back from a recent trip to Viet Nam of all places. "I meant to light one up at the Grand Canyon, but after that hike I was too tired to inhale."
With all of their untamed beauty, many consider the Channel Islands miniature versions of the California that many thought was lost long ago. At 84 square miles, Santa Rosa is the second largest of the eight Channel Islands (only five of the eight are part of the NPS). Most of the island is covered by rolling hills. Steep and dramatic canyons, such as Lobo or Water Canyon, cut through the hills and open up to beautiful white sand beaches. There are also two relatively high mountains on the island; Black Mountain, 1298 ft and Soledad Peak 1574 ft. Lying just beyond Point Conception, the weather is more like the Big Sur Coast than that of Southern California and immediately after stepping off the plane in Belcher's Bay, TBM felt the cool breezes coming in off the Pacific. His immediate succinct response - "Tight."
The hike to Torrey Pines to view one of the rarest pines in the world is a fairly easy five mile hike along the flat Coastal Road. Given that Santa Rosa and San Diego are the only two spots where these wind-sculpted conifers grow, the hike is well worth it. But when you see a Torrey Pine for the first time, it's unlike seeing other spectacular wonders of nature. After all it's just a funny looking pine tree. A drunken uncle of the pine tree in your back yard. "Let's be honest. They're not much to look at." The Bearded Man, natures most PC admirer.
From the pines, The Bearded Man hitched a ride over to Lobo Canyon with its native flora, eroded sandstone formations, and embedded pygmy mammoth fossils. Wait...Pygmy mammoth? Yes indeed, a miniaturized 5-foot high mammoth once roamed here. Apparently they drove rather large cars to compensate for their small...stature. But I digress. The mouth of the canyon opens to a secluded beach and expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. The perfect spot to rest and enjoy a lunch of pita chips and a PB&J on whole wheat. "Don't tell anyone about the Cow Tail. I can only go so long without a Cow Tail."
The boat ride from Belcher's Bay to Ventura Harbor was two hours of fairly rough seas. The Bearded Man, for the most part a man of land, emerged from the boat feeling a bit queasy and started looking for a place to have dinner. "When all else fails, eat. It's a simple motto to live by." We agree and ducked into Boatyard Cafe for some Cajun shrimp linguine, with a side of mixed vegetables and a glass of California Cabernet (just one). With a five hour drive to Death Valley, it was time to gas up and hit Route 126 northeast. Any way you slice it TBM knew he would be arriving late.
With only one quick stop at Stoken' Donuts in Mojave (TBM is allowed a few guilty pleasures and a nutty donut just happens to be one of many), The Bearded Man rolled up to The Inn at Furnace Creek and employing his best Bogart imitation, tossed his keys in the direction of the valet stand and said, "Be gentle." Once the young man at the desk finished laughing - not a ha, ha laugh, but a are you seriously that delusional laugh - he picked up the keys and parked the van. The Bearded Man headed straight for the Corkscrew Saloon and a well earned glass of bourbon on the rocks. This was followed by a small thin crust pizza with pepperoni, mushrooms and sweet peppers, before strolling over to his room and passing out. "I need a good night's sleep for my nails to fully recover." He's brawny but tender.
Death Valley is hot. On this day, 120 degrees worth of hot. Do you think the Bearded Man changed his schedule to accommodate the heat? Do you think he cancelled his two mile hike up Mesquite Flat High Dune? No is the correct answer. Making matters worse, there is no formal trail to follow, so you just start walking uphill across the dunes until you reach the highest point, which is about 100 feet off the desert floor. The Mesquite Flat Dunes fill the center of a Y-shaped valley that helped lead to the creation of the dunes and also makes for expansive views. In some areas, the sand has dried to form hard clay, which lies on the desert floor cracked in polygon shaped patterns. The Bearded Man just looked up the word polygon.
On his way back to his room, The Bearded Man stopped at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center to tour the collection of geological specimens. As the lowest point in North America, Death Valley belongs to a world-wide group, whose members share one defining feature. Namely, they all have exposed land below sea level, which requires an extremely dry climate. In wet climates, low places fill with water and overflow to the sea. A dry climate evaporates water, leaving behind salt flats or briny lakes. Like most of these locations, Death Valley was not created by a river’s erosion. But rather by movements in the earth's crust along the active fault lines of the Basin and Range geomorphic province, pushing it below sea level depths. (The Bearded Man was overheard asking a ranger if Death Valley had to pay dues to be in the group of places below sea level.)
After a quick bite, The Bearded Man retrieved his van from the valet stand and over-tipped the young man. You take care of these guys and nothing happens to the van. "I scratch your back, you take care of the van." Alright. That might be a slight deviation from the standard line. In any case, the drive to Charcoal Kilns and up to the top of Telescope Peak (elevations from 7,000 – 11,000 ft) passes through pinyon-juniper habitat and bristlecone pine communities and is prime bird watching territory. "What better way to end a full day in the park than spotting a Mountain Bluebird or a Yellow Headed Blackbird? Unless it's a Western Wood-Peewee." You've gotta give the guy credit - Who would even know a Western Wood Pee-Wee if it flew into their car and introduced itself?
There is no direct route between Death Valley and Sequoia National Park. If one existed you could make the drive in about and hour or so. Unfortunately you can't drive over the Sierras, so you have to backtrack south to Bakersfield before heading north on Route 65. Turning an hour's drive into a five and a half hour drive. "Such is life," says The Bearded Man. "It takes me a hour to go up and down all the isles at Kroger, so what's a few more minutes." (Is life really this simple?) With one stop in Bakersfield for gas and a late breakfast of french toast, three eggs over easy, with well done hash browns at Pappy's Coffee Shop (10595 Rosedale Hwy), TBM rolled up to Wuksachi Lodge at exactly 10:15 AM.
At an elevation of 7,050 ft, Wuksachi Lodge is ideally located in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park, only miles from the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park. The magnificent stone-and-cedar mountain lodge built in 1999, is situated in the heart of the park and surrounded by a mighty sequoia forest and soaring Sierra peaks. After checking in, The Bearded Man did something he has rarely done on this trip - He put a few clothes in one of the drawers of his room. "It's odd to be staying in one place for two nights, but I have Yosemite coming up in a few days and I want to show up well rested." That almost sounds like logic.
If you're looking for wilderness, you've come to the right couple of parks. While the wilds of Kings Canyon and Sequoia bump up against each other, they are also surrounded by Jennie Lake Wilderness, Monarch Wilderness, Golden Trout Wilderness, John Muir Wilderness, Dinkey Lake Wilderness and Inyo National Forest. As is the case with many of the large National Parks, you could wander around for weeks, each day filled with wondrous landscapes of giant trees, vast lakes and soaring peaks. But if your visit is brief, you need a plan in order to see the best the park has to offer. The Bearded Man has a plan and it starts with a short hike to Tokopah Falls. Beginning just beyond the Marble Fork Bridge in Lodgepole Campground, it's an easy 1.7 mile (one way) walk along the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River to the impressive granite cliffs and 1,200 ft waterfall of Tokopah Canyon.
Dear Reader, the following paragraph is brought to you by Mother Nature.
"In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness." -- The Wilderness Act of 1964
Sequoia and Kings Canyon had many champions that worked tirelessly to bring the parks to fruition. Walter Fry, Norman Clyde and Charles Young and his Buffalo Soldiers and Susan Thew to name a few. Thew, was a staunch advocate for preservation, but never more so than in her role in the expansion of Sequoia National Park. It was here that Susan found inspiration: "If you are weary with the battle, either of business or the greater game of life, and would like to find your way back to sound nerves and a new interest in life, I know of no better place than the wild loveliness of some chosen spot in the High Sierra in which, when you have lost your physical self, you have found your mental and spiritual re-awakening." We think she was on to something and wanted to make sure her words are remembered.
In the late 19th century, under the command of Charles Young, the Buffalo Soldiers began building highways that would allow access to the Big Trees. Over the next few decades, roads connecting the two parks expanded and branched into various parts of the parks. On June 23, 1935, at a cost of $2.25 million (roughly the same amount as LeBron James makes for waking up in the morning), the newly named Generals Highway cemented a partnership between Sequoia National Park and General Grant National Park. On the day of the ceremony, 669 cars carried 2,488 people from both the Sequoia and General Grant entrances to create a convoy along the park-to-park highway and meet in the center. By 1940, General Grant National Park was incorporated into the newly-formed Kings Canyon National Park where the highway continued to multiply the visitation between the two parks. And today, on that very highway, The Bearded Man finds himself winding around curves cut into rock by Buffalo Soldiers 100 years ago and awe struck by the beauty at each turn.
Back at the lodge, The Bearded Man showered, trimmed the beard and headed down to The Peaks for dinner. After a few minutes of studying the menu, he says to no one in particular, "I might be here a while." And he was. Starting with a chopped salad of organic mixed greens, shaved turkey breast, bacon, roasted corn, avocado, hard-boiled egg with sherry-thyme vinaigrette, followed by a bowl of french onion soup. Pan-search rainbow trout with a hint of peach salsa was his entree, before topping it off with a small - and at 127.9 proof, I mean small - glass of Booker's Bluegrass bourbon. As The Bearded Man slowly walked back to his room he was heard muttering "I forgot to order dessert."
Up with the sun, The Bearded Man walked over to the visitors center to ask a ranger if there have been any bears spotted along the High Sierra Trail from Upper Kern Canyon to Guitar Lake. His day was going to be spent on that 10 mile section of the 70+ mile High Sierra Trail in Kings Canyon and he wanted to know if there was activity in the area. Ranger Martinez assured him that no activity had been reported and to employ the normal cautionary measures of hiking a remote trail. "Got it. Make noise, look big and use a bear bag for food." I think he's been to this rodeo a few times. Coffee, hiking poles, backpack, two gallons of water...let's go.
The Bearded Man's hike begins in low country by the Kern River and takes him to Guitar Lake, the launching point for a western-approach climb of Mount Whitney. This is a stretch that climbs about 3,500 feet in ten miles. By no means an easy hike, but after climbing out of Grand Canyon, "this should be a walk through the tulips." First passing the walls of Kern Canyon and Wallace Creek, before the peaks of the Kaweah Range come into view, the trail eventually junctions with the John Muir Trail, where it crosses Wallace Creek. Finally reaching Crabtree Meadow where there is a back-country ranger station and water access. From here - after resting for a good half hour - the trail climbs around another 800 feet in 2.5 miles to Guitar Lake, which at 11,400 feet is the highest point of the hike and affords a magnificent view of Mt. Whitney. "Wake me up in about an hour and I'll head back down the trail. I'm pooped." And with that The Bearded Man began snoring within one minute.
After an all day hike, room service was in order, so before heading up to his room The Bearded Man stopped by the kitchen and put in an order. He was informed by the waitstaff that they did not offer room service, but as TBM slipped him a $50 bill the policy underwent a dramatic change. Dinner arrived just as TBM was done toweling off after a 45 minute shower. "Thank you for bending the rules just a bit. I appreciate it. Here you go, buy yourself a new tie." And with that, he slipped the young man another $50 before falling asleep laying sideways across the bed, still in his robe, with his dinner untouched. (His 2 AM dinner was delicious.)