Trail Notes: King's Canyon

A much-needed escape to the mountains.

San Francisco’s an unendingly interesting place. Sprawling, green parks. Excellent restaurants. Local beer and coffee flow freely, enveloping you in a dreamy, creative fog. There are strange people, worth watching for a while, who seem to pop out of the woodwork when the sun shines.

We live near Dolores Park, which is rife with debauchery and every variant of every inebriant you could ever desire. It just takes a wave to identify yourself to some merchant of mischief. The joint man who walks around with a jelly jar of dank strapped to his hip. The LSD man who struts about in his pajama pants selling a fucked-up afternoon for a few bucks a hit. There’s the machete-bearing rum coconut man, with his dreads and odd math. The woman selling vegan edibles out of a basket. There’s the dude who hocks pizza and beer. The support staff of a thousand sunburning hipsters and tech bros frittering Sunday afternoons away, every weekend.

It’s a spectacle, where we live. It always is.

But we were yearning for the mountains. Homesickness for the regal enormity and unspoiled possibility of Utah national parks started setting in. We logged 16 trips of one kind or another in 2016, while we were residents of that state. We made a routine of outings to the mystical red rock of the south. Memories of the absolute solitude of those places linger in my mind like a phantom appendage.

Fiona was feeling that too. So she picked out King’s Canyon. We’d never been.

Friday

The length of the drive out is considerable, but beautiful. As we head south, the banal, strip-mall landscape of Silicon Valley gives way to vast fields: orchards, vineyards, tomatoes. All illuminated in a sideways, golden manner, in the waning evening sun. The highway is littered with fruit stands. There’s a lot of traffic, so our car is slow-going. We roll down the windows and take in the sweet smells. The fresh farm air that wafts through the rows of clean-cut plant life.

We pass through small town after small town. Most seemingly outgrowths of the rest stops for highway travelers who can’t hold it any more or truck drivers who need to re-up on chewing tobacco. Towns like Los Banos (no joke), where we stop in for gas. But, the bathrooms at the gas station there leave something to be desired. You’d think the town would take a bit more pride in its name.

We walk through the gas station convenience store to the attached McDonalds and order up a couple of coffees and apple pies. We need a bit of fuel to power through the rest of the drive up to King’s. I just can’t resist the occasional McDonalds apple pie. I recognize that each pie is like 99% corn syrup with artificial apple flavoring and child’s tears, but it’s a special occasion.

The night quickly overtakes Fiona’s Prius. I’m playing Radiolab and drifting in and out of the story. Something about a Venetian gondolier and feminism. We’re up in the canyon a ways. I glance over at Fiona, who’s white-knuckling the driving wheel, wide-eyed. Some asshole is tailing us through the winding and unforgiving turns of the cliff-side road. But they soon turn off.

Then it’s awe and splendor. The headlights begin to illuminate hundreds of massive sequoias. I roll down the window to let the wind howl in. The fresh mountain air is flavored by pine and dirt. It’s cool and the smell evokes memories of other wilderness adventures with Fiona and friends back in Utah.

Around 11:30pm, we turn into the Sunset Campground. The camp host has long been asleep. At the gatehouse, we find our reservation name/number posted on a list. Spot #57. We drive on. It’s pitch black punctuated by a fire here and there, illuminating groups of tents and campers. It’s just then Fiona and I realize that the entire campground is full and there are more than 150 spots. It’s becoming clear that we’re in for a bit of a crowded experience.

We locate our spot, which is closely adjacent to several other sites. We don our headlamps and get our tent up and the food loaded into the bear box. Then I pull a couple beers out of the cooler and we switch off our lights and drink IPAs in the pitch black at the site’s picnic bench. Fiona and I whisper our thoughts to each other. The beer’s molasses sweetness, the whispers, and the total darkness create an interesting effect, accentuating all of our non-visual senses. The only thing we can see are the stars poking through the treetops above.

Saturday

At 7am we’re woken by the screams of children. Yells of joy and the wailing of complaint. Loud and close and from every direction. There are young families all around us. Ugh.

Fiona remarks that kids wake up super early, then they become teenagers and sleep forever, then they become adults and wake up super early again.

We amble out of the tent and groggily make a light breakfast of oatmeal, bananas and some of the Ritual coffee that Fiona had the foresight to grind and pack in pre-portioned ziploc bags. It helps ward off the irritation from all the kids.

We GTFO as fast as we can and head into King’s Canyon proper (Sunset sits sort of on the outskirt of the park). Suddenly the forest to the right side of the car drops away, and a vast expanse takes its place. My eye follows the mountain and dips down, down, down into the sheer, enormous valley of King’s Canyon. It’s a magnificent view. And I don’t care how fucken nerdy this sounds: It reminds me of the scene in the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, when Gandalf crests a hill and the vast expanse of Gondor and Minas Tirith stretch out on the screen. The same theme plays in my head.

We stop for a few pictures as we travel down the highway. Here and there snapping the walls of the canyon that soar up into the blue sky above. When we reach the bottom, we discover the river.

California had an unprecedented amount of precipitation this past year, so much that my apartment building flooded one day. Water cascaded down the center stairwell from all of the buildup on the roof. It caused the carpets in the public spaces to mold and the whole place smelled nasty after a few days.

Up in the mountains, all that moisture came in the form of snow, and all of that snow is in the process of quickly melting when Fiona and I are in King’s Canyon. What results is that all of the streams, rivers and waterfalls are SURGING. The river at the bottom of the canyon is a pure white, like the snow it originated from. There’s so goddamn much water that rapids aren’t really rapids any more, they’re more like constant watery explosions. It’s violent and terrible and absolutely riveting. We pull off the road several times to gape at the volume of swift water.

Fiona mentions that two people already died this year by accidentally falling in and being promptly pummeled and torn apart by the raging current.

We follow the bellowing water and hike several trails that jut off from the main road.

We come across Grizzly Falls first. The water is so powerful that it mists up in this great windy cloud that feels incredible to let blow over you. It’s icy and tingly and makes you feel fully in the moment. I’m getting goosebumps again as I write this, just thinking about it.

Zumwalt Meadow is next. Part of the trail loop is flooded and we have to wade through the insanely chilly water covering the section of the trail that is boardwalk. It’s so cold on my legs that it gives me a headache. I can barely concentrate, though the water is only up to my shins. My legs are numb for a good while afterward.

We eat a quick lunch in the parking lot of the meadow, and then make our way to Roads End. This is where we spend the majority of our day. It’s a 4-mile trek up to Mist Falls. But by this point in the day, the air is scorchingly hot.

I get a small degree of heat exhaustion on the way up. Fiona survives well because she dips her tee shirt into the freezing water, letting it evaporate as we hike. But I don’t want to follow suit due to the mosquitoes, which attack all exposed skin they find. I fear that even a moment with my shirt off would offer the little fuckers too much opportunity. We finally arrive at Mist Falls, which, like the other parts of the river is hugely engorged by the Spring melt-off. The plume of mist let off by the crush of water coming off of the falls rises a hundred, maybe two hundred feet into the air. You can feel the mist even a quarter of a mile from the fall itself.

The fog is actually so thick at the bottom side of the falls, that we decide to hike up further and watch it spill over its big drop. When we get there, the scene is startling and terrifying. The water sweeps up very close to the trail. There are signs posted in various places warning that one little slip would instantly take your life. The water is so powerful that it is transfixing. It’s like watching a tornado up close, without being sucked into it.

Fiona and I sit on a rock nearby and drink a tallboy just trying to comprehend what we were seeing.

When the beer is gone and we’ve had our fill, we hike back down to the car. The scorching air replacing the chill from the falls with more heat exhaustion.

We roast carne asada on sticks like barbarians that night. It’s a sort of tradition that Fiona and I developed. It grew out of an incident last year in the Wasatch, when I forgot my stove and we had no ability to cook our steaks.

We sharpen sticks and cook the meat over the flames, the grease dripping and hissing in the fire. We devour it, holding it with our bare hands and tearing the charred pieces of flesh off with our teeth. It’s primal and incredibly satisfying.

I’m dog-tired after our day of nearly getting heat-stroke. My skin is red and raised in places because of mosquito bites. After the carne asada, we drink a bottle of red wine as the fire winds down and then sleep a very deep sleep.

Sunday

Yelling again. The kids are up at like 6:30am. I try to cover my head with my sleeping bag but it doesn’t help much.

We eventually rise and stiffly begin assembling breakfast and starting to pack.

Around 9:30am, as I’m boiling water for coffee, a man, a girl and a boy, walk up the road, stop across from me and then just stare and loiter.

After a few minutes, the girl, probably 15, walks toward me and asks “hey, when are you leaving? We have this campsite.”

It’s still early and I’m sore and haven’t had my coffee yet. The audacity of this infuriates me.

“Y’all can wait until we’re ready to leave. We have the site booked until midday.” We do.

The girl looks miffed and returns to her family on the other side of the street. They continue to stand there and stare. I continue to prepare coffee.

One thing I hate is when people make me feel unnecessarily rushed.

I raise my voice a bit: “I told you we have this site until noon so you all can get out of here right now!”. They shuffle off.

But then they return 5 minutes later in their minivan, park in a nearby site, get out and continue to watch us, waiting for us to leave.

“Jesus”, I think. Fiona’s irritated too. We eat the rest of our breakfast, annoyed. These fucking camper families. We vow to make our next outdoor trip a backpacking excursion so we avoid all the gomers.

We decide to just hurry up and finish breakfast and pack up the site. I feel like sticking both middle fingers up at the hawking family as we leave, but think better of it.

We jet off to our last destinations: the Grant tree Grove and Hume Lake.

The Grant tree area sets my mood right as soon as we enter. The caffeine is starting to set in and the sequoias reach high into the air in front of us. They’re so massive and peaceful looking. A feeling of zen just falls over me.

An interesting feature of the grove is this centuries old dead sequoia called the “Fallen Monarch”. It lay on its side, resisting decomposition for an inordinately long time. The carcass of this tree was evidently so hardy that it was used as a shelter by travelers and lumberjacks in the 19th century. The interior of the tree feels like a cave and it stretches some 150 feet from end to end.

The Grant tree itself is a behemoth sequoia. It has a giant fire scar on one side, which burned off the sturdy redwood shell on one side, but apparently had no effect on the tree’s will to live and grow even higher.

We weave our way around the tourists and back to the car and then take off to see Hume Lake, which is accessible by a very long and particularly windy stretch of road.

Fiona feeds a family of ducks on the shore and we stare across the blue water for a time, watching kayakers paddle around and the fishermen cast their lines. Then we’re back in the car setting a course for home.

We stop in some part of fresno at a super janky and un-air-conditioned taqueria, where we get one of the best carne asada burritos I’ve had in some time. It’s roasting in there, but the cooks and the patrons didn’t seem to mind. Fiona and I are sweating. There’s nowhere to stand exactly and it’s not clear where to pay or order. Eventually someone walks up to us and take our money. Staff rushes about all around around. A sweat-laden man nearly bumps into us with a massive slab of pork crackling. There’s shouting in spanish and soccer playing on a TV in the corner and the occasional sizzling roar of meat being thrown on the hot stove.

Fiona and I devour our burritos back in the car while we crank the AC.

We return to San Francisco by way of the Bay Bridge. Home again on our hill overlooking Dolores and the Mission, my sunburned neck and mosquito bites souvenirs from King’s Canyon.

Posted on Jun 25
Written by Nick Roberts