Monthly Archives: September 2013

Bryce National Park

The hoodoos and fins of Bryce Canyon


When I visited Bryce as a kid, it was during the early spring, and it ended up being snowed out. There wasn’t much to see. This time, it was rained out – both days I was there it was raining sporadically, but at least I could see something. More than any other park, it was different than I remembered. I’d pictured a small, deep canyon with lots of hoodoos. And between the hoodoos (which are the tall stone towers), the sort of slot canyons you’d see elsewhere.

But Bryce is not like that at all. To start with, Bryce Canyon is not a canyon, but rather the edge of a plateau. Second, the rock is very crumbly, and between the hoodoos is quite a bit of fine sand, small shrubs, and so forth.

Rain much?

Like Zion, the park was feeling the ill-effects of too much rain. In this case, a few trails were shut down due to rockslides and hazardous conditions. The trails that were open and not puddled, had sand which congealed together to become a rubbery and bouncy. It was a lot of fun to hike on, actually. The parts that were puddles had a rainbow of sand: orange & red, of course, but also white, purple and pink – quite vibrant when wet, like an oil spill.

I began by hiking the ‘Fairyland Loop,’ an 8 mile trail with some really spectacular views. Although this trail is part of Bryce Canyon, it’s technically a geologically separate section of the park. As with the Grand Canyon, you go downhill first and then have to climb back out. With the weather fluctuating as it was, the sun appeared sporadically and lit up some of the landscape features, then disappeared. By the time I’d reached the rim again, it was mostly gone.

Tree near the canyon rim

After this hike I headed back to my campsite, was driven out by someone running a generator (which is really obnoxious, like camping next to a lawnmower), and went to do some reading near the rim. But the rain was really pouring, so after pulling into the parking lot I watched people running around trying to get to their cars, which if anything was even more fun than hiking.

Among the hoodoos along the Queen’s Garden trail

Nonetheless, after the showers passed I went for another hike, this time a 6 mile loop including several trails: Queen’s Garden and Peek-A-Boo; I’d wanted to incorporate Navajo, but unfortunately it was closed. The dark black clouds on the horizon and the relative quiet in the canyon made for a unique experience. The Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loops are advertised as the ‘best 3 mile hike in the world,’ in the park newsletter, and for once I think it might not be an exaggeration. It really is a spectacular trail, as you wind, twist and turn between different hoodoos. The settler Bryce, after which the canyon is named, remarked that it would be a ‘hell of a place to lose cattle,’ and that’s for sure. With tons of weird rocks and twisted trees, it felt like walking in one of Gaudi’s buildings. My only regret is that by this point I was racing against rainclouds and approaching night.

The Under the Rim trail headed away from the main canyon

That night it rained again, and the following day I woke up early to do what I hoped would be a long-distance hike. The weather threatened the whole hike, of which I only ended up doing about 10 miles. This was along the backcountry ‘Under the Rim’ trail, which I discovered hikes away from the main canyon. It was nice enough, but a far cry from the splendor of the hoodoos.

The hat shop, different from the rest of the canyon

There was one section with perhaps the most bizarre geological sight I’ve seen on the trip. This was the ‘Hat Shop,’ which was a sort of mockery of the rest of the canyon. Basically boulders had been sitting on a ridge, which eroded. Because of the nature of the rock and sand underneath, the boulders provided shelter from rain and remained stranded on these pinnacles. I don’t think they’re technically hoodoos, but either way, seeing dozens of these standing next to the trail, which remained on the ridge, was pretty funny.

When it’s not raining, the clouds in Utah can be quite striking

Although I love visiting these parks – the Utah parks in particular are spectacular – the fact is that there’s not a whole lot to do in them. You can hike, sometimes raft or kayak, and visit the visitor center and gift shop. However, there’s not a whole lot of hiking trails, if you move at a decent rate. I exhausted the bulk of the non-closed trails in two days, covering all the major trails in really the first day – a day that was filled with rain. If you just want to relax and camp out for a while, of course, you can easily do that. But that in itself can be a challenge when you’re alone: reading is really one of the only options.

Each night I was at Bryce, the campground completely filled up; there were cars eagerly circling during the whole afternoon, looking for an open site. Leaving early the next day I headed for Capitol Reef, which I hoped would be quieter.

Zion National Park

Zion Canyon – ‘Court of the Patriarchs’

I visited all five of the major national parks in Utah when I was a kid, and I remember enjoying them more than any other parks I’d seen. As many of the parks I visited bore little relation to fainy childhood memories, I was curious to see how they’d stack up.

The first park on the agenda was Zion, and here I found my evaluation stymied by continuing bad weather. I’d been pursued by rain through Southern California and Arizona, and it was as bad in Utah as it had been in Sedona. I stayed at Zion two days, and it rained intermittently both days. The weather could change within an hour or two, making predictions difficult. Should I hike or not? Tough to tell in advance.

I entered the park from the east entrance. Here the landscape was more astonishing than anything I’ve seen so far. Big swooping sandstone hills, ‘checkerboard mesa,’ it felt like a Doctor Seuss landscape. This section of the park is separated from the far more popular Zion Canyon by an impressive 1.1 mile tunnel, excavated in the 1930s. I passed through this section in clouds and vowed to take some pictures in what would presumably be better weather a few days later. But it was not to be: floods damaged this part of the road and I could not return, having to leave from the south entrance.

View of the canyon during rare sunlight

When I visited in the late 90s, these parks in Utah were considered hidden gems, but they’re secret no longer. The main road in this park is closed to cars and only accessible by shuttle buses, which arrive at every stop in 7-10 minute intervals on an 80-minute route. As you can imagine, this is a pretty substantial system, and many of the buses were nearly full. This in September. According to statistics I looked up, in 1996 there were 2.5 million visitors to Zion. In 2012, this had increased to 3 million, and it’s basically a linear increase. It will only get worse.

Angel’s Landing is at the top of this peak

After grabbing what was one of the last remaining campsites I hopped on the shuttle. I wanted to hike the famous Angel’s Landing trail, and took the long way past the ‘Emerald Pools,’ but the clouds began to darken and a light rain began to fall. I decided to turn back after hiking 4 miles here. It was a good decision – as I later found out, there were sections of the trail narrow enough that a chain is attached to the cliff on one side to provide a handhold. Not something I wanted to face on slick rock!

Dark clouds, about to pummel the campground

I returned to the campground and read for a little while, but the clouds were growing increasingly ominous. I’ve never seen clouds so dark. I was very happy that I was able to sleep in the van – I finished setting up my curtains and rearranging the junk inside just as the rain began to fall. It poured heavily for half an hour, and then continued to rain for another few hours until I fell asleep.

The next morning I wanted to do a strenuous hike, and chose the ‘Observation Point,’ which I believe is the highest accessible point in the park. A 2000 foot climb over 6 miles, I was able to climb steadily, but it was certainly exhausting. Many of these parks in Utah and Arizona are at deceptive elevations: as a ‘baseline,’ both Zion and Grand Canyon are 7000 feet, and here I climbed over 8500. I can definitely feel the difference in elevation.

Narrow slot canyon, 700 feet above the main Zion floor

This trail began with some rather dull switchbacks, but quickly entered a beautiful slot canyon, with a small stream. Crossing the stream, climibing continues around some mountains. Here, the fog began to close in, though it wasn’t yet raining. The last 400 feet of climbing are along a bare cliff edge, by far the most harrowing I’ve seen on my trip so far. The path is about 4 feet wide, with a 100+ foot drop to one side and a vertical cliff to the other. I took it carefully: at some places a slip or collapse of the rain-soaked ground could have been very dangerous.

“View” from Observation Point

Finally a reached the summit and the observation point – but I’d climbed through the fog and there was nothing to observe! The other neary peaks were visible, rising like islands about the clouds, and it seemed like maybe the fog would be lifting: tendrils wound their way around these mountains, sticking close to the rock. The fog moved with surprising rapidity, but seemed to have an endless stock. It just kept coming, and soon I was completely enclosed in fog, with visibility cut down to 20-30 feet. Regretfully I began my return journey.

Fog heading down from Observation Point. 20 feet of visibility, with a drop of hundreds of feet to the right

Soon enough, the rain began, and it really poured. Little streams appeared on the bare rock, and turned into waterfalls, some cascading over the path. I took shelter under one rock overhang with a few other people. Our concern was the flooding across the stream we’d crossed below.

Finally I headed out from safety, the rain just pouring down. The stream was higher than before, but I was able to cross without problems. It was all for naught, though, as rounding the corner there was an enormous waterfall pouring across the path – probably dropping 50 feet before it hit. I hesitated to cross, and when I did I could feel it pushing me. When I took my boots off later, I could literally pour water out.

A typical look at the trail

It cleared up when I finished this hike, but I decided to stay inside; the fog never lifted. Later in the afternoon, and through the night, the rain continued. This was my Zion experience.

Small Parks in Arizona

Wupatki National Monument

Arizona and New Mexico are completely full of National Parks, National Monuments, and other NPS sites. A lot of these sites are quite small – you can see the whole site in an hour or two. I visited several of these sites in Arizona, between visits to the Grand Canyon and Zion.

I was planning on visiting my uncle in Arizona for a few days, in Sedona. The Grand Canyon is a few hours from Sedona, and there are three parks between them: Wupatki, Sunset Crater, and Walnut Canyon. I visited the first two and skipped the latter.

The ‘Citadel,’ a small pueblo in Wupatki

Wupatki is located in what, 800 years ago, was a heavily populated area of the southwest, and the stretch between the Grand Canyon and Phoenix is filled with hundreds of pueblo ruins. Wupatki is one of the larger sites: there’s 3 small pueblo sites, and one large one, which is near the visitor center. I arrived before the center opened, surveyed two of the pueblos and made a quick pass through the museum, leaving by 9:30.

The large pueblo ruins are actually pretty impressive. At one point it was home to 200 or 300 people, who were farming, mining and trading. The other ruins are more isolated, but it turns out that this stretch of land, north of Flagstaff, was more heavily populated 800 years ago than it is today.

One thing that’s pretty cool is that there was a circular ballcourt on the site, surrounded by brickwork and with two diametrically opposed entranceways. Nobody knows the rules of the game, but it’s believed to have been imported from Mexico.

Sunset Crater, covered in cinder from an eruption 800 years ago

Only 13 miles south of Wupatki is Sunset Crater, probably the dullest park I’ve visited. There’s some small lava flows, and a 1 mile trail, which goes nowhere near the crater.

This volcano erupted less than 800 years ago, and the cone is still covered in cinders. There’s a ton of small volcanoes in this area, which is peculiar because it isn’t on the edge of a continental plate. Sunset crater became a national monument in the thirties, after locals protested Hollywood plans to blow it up for a film. At one point in the 60s, there was a trail to the crater, but the cinders were so loose that the trail eventually grew waist-deep. The feeling was that it marred the appearance of the mountain, so it was closed and filled in by a bulldozer.

A prosaic view in beautiful Sedona

I continued south towards Sedona, where I stayed for two days. The saying (in Sedona) is “God made the Grand Canyon, but he lived in Sedona.” It’s a really remarkable tourist town, enclosed in a state park, surrounded by trails, and with lots of monolithic red-rock scenery.

Unfortunately, my good luck with weather wore out. For the first 6 weeks of my trip, I’d only seen two days of rain (in the Badlands, and in Port Townsend). But then I saw more rain in Joshua Tree and the Grand Canyon, and it rained both days in Sedona – hard rain that persisted for much of the day.

Montezuma’s Castle, shot through driving rain

My uncle and I took a quick trip to a nearby monument – “Montezuma’s Castle,” a misnamed cliff dwelling that early explorers thought was an Aztec ruin. Although it rained heavily while we were there, it was still a cool park. The cliff dwellings are up perhaps 40-50 feet along a canyon wall; there’s a small stream and some more conventional pueblo ruins as well.

Funny ducks in a spring-fed pond near Pipe Springs

Leaving Sedona, I headed north – past the Grand Canyon by a different route. Along the way I made my final stop in Arizona, at Pipe Springs. This is jointly administered by the National Park Service and Paiute Indians. As the name would suggest, Pipe Springs has a spring that’s been providing water for hundreds of years. During the nineteenth century Mormons arrived and built a ‘castle’ around it – fearing Indian attacks. But by the time it was completed there was no longer any threat.

A section of the farm at Pipe Springs

I took a short tour of the inside of the castle – really about the size of a modern house. This also served as the first telegraph office in Arizona, for the Deseret Telegraph Company. Deseret, incidentally, is a word used in the Book or Mormon to mean ‘honeybee,’ and Utah is known as the honeybee state. For a while, the area surrounding this bastion was a tithe farm – local farmers would contribute livestock which would be used by the Mormon church. The park is still a small farm today, with horses, bulls, ducks, and other animals.

Pipe Springs is right on the Utah-Arizona border, so leaving the park in late morning I continued my journey north to Zion.

New Route

The new route home

A month ago I began considering a new route home. I had originally planned to head straight east from Cheyenne, Wyoming all the way back to New Jersey. But I started thinking about traveling through the deep south. I’ve never visited Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama. And there’s some sites that are interesting to me – mostly Civil War battlefields. So, I’m now planning on cutting south, and checking out Vicksburg, Shiloh, Chickamauga. I’ve visited a lot of battlefields, but these are all new to me. Then I’m planning on heading in the direction of DC, and maybe revisiting Antietam and Gettysburg on the way back to NY. There’s some other smaller sites I plan on visiting in between, but this is the rough outline of my route home from Wyoming.

The Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon from the rim


Like many of the parks I’ve been to on this trip, I had visited the Grand Canyon as a kid, and I remember I wasn’t particularly impressed.

On this visit I changed my mind: the Grand Canyon really is spectacular. I’d consider it one of the three AAA parks in the country, in terms of size and visitors (the other two being Yosemite and Yellowstone). There’s the normal multiple parking lots, shuttle service, etc. The funny thing is that there’s not a whole lot to do in the park – a few overlooks, a small museum, a few videos, and the famous lodges. The hiking along the rim is minimal, and extensive hiking below the rim is discouraged. The park is particularly popular with German tourists: I think 1/3 of the visitors were German!

Another view – crowds on the rim

The canyon is quite a shock. To start with, the area around the canyon is exceedingly dull, so you’re lulled into complacency. It’s the highlands (7,000 feet elevation) and flat, it’s relatively temperate and covered in low ponderosa forests. There’s no indication of anything like the canyon until you’re right at the very rim. The canyon is 10 miles across at parts, 6000 feet deep, 250 miles long.

Arriving at the park my first priority was to find a campsite: tough in a park this large, on the weekend. I asked in the visitor center and got a very confused volunteer who seemed to think they were full, but I decided to head to the campsite anyway, and they thankfully had plenty of spaces.

Then I took a shuttle to the rim and walked along. Like all these parks, the major overlooks were full but the rest of the trails were empty. At one point I had to edge past a grazing doe elk. These are really lawn mowers, the amount of grass it consumed, and the speed at which it consumed it, was astonishing.

Switchbacks in the canyon

The crazy thing about this (and other parks, like Crater Lake) is that the trails are right next to the rim, and for the most part there are no railings. Generally there’s 5 feet or so between the trail and the rim, so you won’t accidentally fall off or anything. But the parks basically trust you not to be stupid. And although I saw people doing stuff that turned my stomach (standing or sitting right above 200+ foot drops), the park service is right. There’s a book in the visitor center, “Death at the Grand Canyon,” and apparently only about 2 people per year fall off. Usually a guy in his early twenties “jumping from ledge to ledge for a photo op” and some elderly person who gets bewildered. I would have thought it would be much worse.

Elk near my site: bigger than a car!

The next day I was woken up early by some door slams, and also by what sounded like a really creaky restroom door. But when I left my tent and began to pack my bags and brush my teeth, I was shocked to look up and see a buck elk in the campsite adjacent to me. I never realized just how big some of these elk can be. When he ambled past on the road he dwarfed the car in a nearby campsite. The sound elk make is totally ridiculous, like a cross between a creaking door and a tuba (it’s known as a ‘bugle’). I saw some other people watching the elk and cracking up every time it bugled.

Afterwards I packed up for my big hike of the day (actually one of the big hikes of the trip). I wanted to hike from the rim, down to the Colorado river, and back. 15 miles down and up; a vertical mile of elevation gain from the Colorado river to the rim. There are plenty of signs about this hike, warning that it is dangerous. There’s even a sign saying “can you run a marathon?” about someone who ran in the Boston Marathon a few years ago and died on the hike. But reading the details, I was more impressed by her poor preparation than the difficulty of the hike.

The trail down

I packed a ton of water, (running out and suffering from dehydration is the biggest risk), bringing 1 and a half gallons. I was able to set out early, leaving at 6:55. This was the first hike where I started by going down and had to head back up at the end, and as I proceeded further and further down, I grew more and more nervous about the amount I’d have to ascend. Digging myself a proverbial hole! It looked as though it would be a rough return trip. A vertical mile is quite a bit: I was going down switchbacks for 6 miles, 2 and a half hours. It can be tough on the feet and knees.

These guys are used to move supplies and sometimes people

At the bottom I ran into a guy from Seattle and we talked and hiked for about an hour, had some snacks, took some pictures. He went to the ranch, near the river, for a beer, while I started my return trip. There are two bridges across the river, and it’s funny that they’re right next to each other. The reason is that when the park service formed the park, a private owner fought back via lawsuit and wouldn’t sell their trail into the canyon, so the park service constructed their own. Now both impressive suspension bridges are part of the park.

The plain towards the base of the canyon

At the base of the canyon it’s impossible to even see the rim. The reason: the top layers of the canyon are sandstone, which eroded quickly and broadly. When lower layers (the so-called ‘basement layer’) were hit, they were much tougher and eroded narrowly. So you only see this steep lower layer from down below. This also yields a sort of flat, grassy plain about 3/4 of the way down the canyon.

The Indian Garden, deep in the canyon

I started the hike up with some trepidation. It began flat and sandy, meandering along the river and then slowly ascending near a small tributary before hitting switchbacks. At one point you pass through what’s known as the ‘Indian Garden,’ a flat area with plenty of water that features incongruously green trees and dense growth. It’s a beautiful, calm location with the canyon walls rising far above.

There are strange spotted squirrels; those at the north and south rim are colored differently

It turned out that this was probably the best hike I’ve done, in terms of how I felt. The trip up was 9 miles (compared to 6 on the way down), and grew more strenuous as I went. For 8 of those mile I cruised smoothly, passing through a brief rainshower, but never feeling out of breath. This was the second hike where I felt so good, the first being Rainier. After 5 sedentary years I finally felt like my body was operating like it should.


I didn’t want to stop hiking and took few pictures; I didn’t even need much water. Everything was just incredibly smooth. I want to be clear, it was comparatively cool and the clouds obscured the sun for half the hike. The hike is no joke and was the most strenuous I’ve done on the trip. I wouldn’t take it lightly. But everything seemed to come together. When I looked at my watch I found I’d reached the rim in a mere 3 and a half hours – to cover 9 miles and a 5000 feet of elevation gain! My rate of ascent was the same as my rate of descent. I was incredibly proud of the hike and made myself sick with a half gallon of milk, ice cream sandwich, and box of candy as a reward.

Bright Angel Bridge across the river

The rest of the day I relaxed and read, and the following morning I headed south to Sedona.

Through the Desert on Route 66

The famous Joshua Tree, deep in the Mojave


I left Sequoia with the intention of traveling only for an hour or two, but ended up cutting south and then east across the desert to the very border of Joshua Tree National Park, a drive of 7-8 hours. The driving was easy and the roads straight and in good repair.

Hit a milestone!

Route 66 no longer exists, but there are dozens of chunks scattered across the desert. You see signs for these on some of the modern highways, and parts of the route have been co-opted into other roads. What I saw was not all that different from other highways, with the exception that there were a lot more traffic lights.

I ended up sleeping at a Wal-Mart in Yucca Valley, right outside Joshua Tree, and then heading into the park early the next morning.

A common desert lizard.

Joshua Tree is famous for two things: the eponymous trees and its distinctive piles of large boulders. It’s situated where the Mojave Desert meets the Colorado – they each have distinct ecologies. There are four deserts in the United States, the hottest being the Mojave; surprising to me is that most of the southwest is not considered desert at all.

The Joshua Tree is neither a Joshua nor a tree. It is a yucca. These bizarre trees form widely-spaced ‘forests’ that look like something from a Doctor Seuss book. It’s really an awkward plant and can grow up to 25 feet high. The bark, which is formed from old leaves, is tough and fibrous. It was used by native americans for a variety of purposes, including the production of rope.

“Here is where Worth Bagley bit the dust at the hand of W.F. Keys, May 11 1943”

After entering the park I grabbed a campsite at Jumbo Rocks and headed towards Ryan Mountain – but just before I set out on my hike I turned back to check my car was locked… and found it hissing. Bad sign – there was a leak in one tire, presumably caused by the gravel all over the roads (a result of flash floods).

So I had to head back out to town to get the tire patched. Luckily, there are three fairly large towns near Joshua Tree (Yucca Valley, 29 Palms and Joshua Tree). After an hour waiting around, the job was done (for $20… I won’t complain).

View from Ryan Mountain

Then it was back to the mountain, although by this time it was after 10am and getting hot. Actually it was never as hot as I anticipated – although the thermometer hit 105 degrees the temperature could be cool in the shade. It was the intense sun that could prove grueling on some hikes. However, this 4 mile round trip, with an elevation gain of 1300 feet wasn’t that bad. And the views were nice – all around the desert and many of the rock piles were visible. Here on the summit it was actually comfortable – a slight breeze was enough to keep the temperature tolerable.

Lost Horse Mine – perhaps the stereotypical gold mine.

After finishing that hike, I went on another – a 6 mile loop to an abandoned mine. There’s a lot of enduring evidence of people in the desert here. A mile in, a rock shack. And then the mine itself – an operation which produced 9000 ounces of gold and at one point employed 30 people, it looked exactly like an old west mine. Its elderly owner, alone at the mine, was found dead in 1926 and it’s been abandoned ever since.

Jackrabbits are an occasional sight. They’re tolerant of people and use their ears to regulate heat.

It was neat to traipse around here. There were a lot of smashed, contemporary beer bottles, nails, cans, and other artifacts. The mine itself was neat, but unfortunately it was fenced in and impossible to look inside.

The results of a desert wildfire. Absolute desolation.

During the rest of the hike I really began to appreciate the power of the sun – it was draining in the same way as altitude sickness, though more subtle: you simply moved slower than normal. Thankfully, deep cloud cover provided me some shelter – but the 6 mile hike felt like 9. Along the way there were a ton of Joshua trees to look at. The cliches in the visitor’s center are that the desert is full of life, and that is true in a way. Most of the ground is covered with some sort of brush, there are joshua trees and yucca, birds and hundreds of small, lightning-fast lizards.

The gorgeous Jumbo Rocks campground

That night I stayed out of my tent and climbed some rocks near my site, where I was able to watch the stars come out. It was quite a show: about an hour after sundown the Milky Way was visible, and there were several shooting stars, many planes flying to LAX, satellites, and of course the stars. Many, many times more stars than are visible on the East Coast (the dry desert air makes a huge difference in visibility – and of course the distance from people). The lack of stars is one of the most disappointing things, for me, about NYC. Only perhaps 10 (!) are visible through all the streetlights. Here there were thousands and thousands.

There was still water behind the dam in the beginning of September.

The next morning I wanted to check out a few shorter trails: Barker’s Dam and Wall Street Mill. In addition to mining, there were people ranching out here (in the desert!) the climate grew drier at the start of 20th century and the ranches began to disappear. The dam remained a small oasis: there were willows and other trees, hundreds of tiny spotted toads; desert mountain goats are reputed to be in the area, though I saw none. It was a beautiful area and a natural oasis even before the dam: there are ancient indian petroglyphs. These so-called ‘Disney Petroglyphs’ were painted over to make them more visible for the production of an early film.

Abandoned car near the Wall Street Mill

From the same parking lot, a trail leads to part of another mining operation, the ‘Wall Street Mine’ – named in 1929 before the crash. There’s a ton of abandoned stuff out there: a pueblo, multiple trucks, a windmill, and a mining mill for separating ore. It’s crazy seeing these old cars in the middle of nowhere – just pure desolation. They’re in pretty good condition, considering.

The mill, and rock piles.

After this hike I headed into town, having found the heat of a sunny day simply too much to be outside. The clouds returned again and I went and climbed around around some of the rock piles. These look pretty simple to climb from a distance, but the rocks are much larger than they look, the gaps broad or deep. It would easy to get wedged in or fall 20+ feet. I enjoyed wandering around, using my very basic climbing techniques. But I found that in many cases it was possible to easily climb up some section but very tough to get back down… it’s easy to get trapped.

An iguana, pretty rare in the park

I got stuck for a while and was slow getting back to the campground, which I found rained out. I’d unfortunately set up my tent right in the path of flooding and found everything soaked. No problem, it just smelled like gym clothes.

Climbed this pile of rocks, which is about 50 feet high.

The following morning I left extremely early to head to the Grand Canyon, in Arizona.

Sequoia National Park

The biggest living thing on earth, with crowd for comparison.


Sequoia National Park, adjacent to King’s Canyon, has a lot more than sequoias; in fact, the Sierra Nevadas turn out to be more awe-inspiring than the trees.

View of the Sierras from near Muir Grove

Sequioa is a short trip from Cedar Grove in King’s Canyon. It’s a strange park – all the roads are on the west side and the bulk of the park is only accessible by overnight backpacking. There’s a lot going on, actually: mountains, sequoias and even caves. On the first day I grabbed a campsite – very tough on labor day weekend and I got one of the last two available. Good timing!

Past the Muir Grove, this isolated open area had a great view.

From the campground, the John Muir grove of sequoias was accessible two miles away. A simple hike, the grove is very impressive. These trees aren’t much smaller than the famous ones the crowds adore, but I had them to myself. Pushing past the grove I had a beautiful view of the Sierra Nevada range. I read for a while on the rocks nearby and then returned to the campground.

Some of the pines have these huge cones; the cones for sequoias are surprisingly much smaller.

Later I wanted to go on another hike directly from the campground, but it was impossible to find the trail. Instead I took the shuttle bus to the General Sherman tree – the biggest living thing on earth. Like many of these large trees, it’s tough to get a feel for the size, especially since the tree is protected by a fence.

The trail to Moro Rock

There was another short (3 mile), unoccupied trail by which I returned to the visitor center. Waiting for the bus back I talked to an intern who was measuring how many people used the bus on the busy weekends (quite a few). And the bus – one of the last trips of the day – was filled with Jamaicans who were on an exchange program, working for the park.

I’m in a tree.

The next morning I hit some of the major attractions early, before they got crowded. I drove my car through a tree trunk – a rare honor! And I hiked the stairs up to Moro Rock, which had the very best view I’ve seen so far – hampered though it was by some fog and the low sun. This rock promontory stands far out in the middle of nowhere. The twisted stairs and slants up to the summits were pretty stomach-turning for those with an aversion to heights, but it was worth it to me.

‘Curtains’ in Crystal Caverns

I also visited one of the many caves in the park (but the only one open to the public). This ‘crystal cavern’ is the first ‘normal’ cave I’ve visited on the trip, with the usual calcium carbonate stalactites, columns, ribbons, and so forth. It had some of the best formations I’ve seen anywhere. I volunteered and was able to be the last person in line, so I was able to turn around a lot and look at the empty cave behind me, which is a special treat.

King’s Canyon National Park

One tiny section of King’s Canyon


Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park lie east of San Francisco, in the Sierra Nevada mountains. These are an interesting combination – they’re jointly administered but remain separate parks. Kings Canyon actually has a small disjoint section to the west, next to Sequoia, that acts as a gateway to both parks, and which features only sequoias, while the main park is 30 miles to the east. Both parks are nestled inside a national forest, show the beauty of the Sierra Nevada, and prominently feature sequoias. It doesn’t make much sense to me. I knew little about King’s Canyon before I visited; apparently Muir called it a “second Yosemite,” which is strong praise!

General Grant tree: by presidential edict, the nation’s Christmas tree.

After passing through the entrance, I stopped to visit the General Grant tree. This is the 3rd largest living thing in the world; the trunk is 40 feet wide and it’s 280 feet tall.

Sequoias are a strange tree. They’re enormous – as big as a really big tree – and the larger among them have really peculiar bark. They really look like paper mache or something. The top of the trees is also misshapen, so they have none of the elegant beauty of redwoods. The same compound that allows redwoods to grow so large is present in sequoias: tannin, which limits damage from fire and insects.

After checking out the sequoias, I drove the 30 miles to the canyon itself. Along the way I stopped at one overlook and took a few pictures, not impressed. It looked like every forested valley, ever. But then the road turned a corner and I saw the true canyon itself. I was gobsmacked. It’s a huge canyon – measuring over 8,000 feet deep in most places – and composed mostly of exposed granite and sparse conifers.

I proceeded to the only accessible section of the canyon, Cedar Grove, at the very floor and next to the river which carved the canyon. It has a few campgrounds, a small lodge, a ranger station and a general store. An important bridge over the river was closed making travel between sections of this area circuitous.

The summit of the Lewis Creek trail.

After grabbing a camping site and talking to a ranger, I went on a hike. This was on the Lewis Creek trail; many of the trails are similar. The problem is that the walls of the canyon are quite steep before opening out into a somewhat broader highland meadow, so they are all strenuous to begin with. But, the views are just spectacular.

View of just a small section of King’s Canyon.

The next day I’d decided to do an overnight hike, and settled on Copper Creek. This was ambitious for a variety of reasons: it was an 11-mile trail, which gained a vertical mile and finished at 10,500 feet. And I would be carrying 20 pounds more than I was used to, with an overnight pack and gear rather than my daypack. I knew I was in trouble almost from the start – pretty quickly my legs felt like jelly and I was gasping for breath.

Ad hoc tent support…

I made it 5-6 miles and about 2500 feet up, and had to set up camp. Unfortunately, I discovered that my purification tablets were for *already* potable water and so useless with the mountain streams; my fiberglass tent pole snapped as well. So I was considering turning back – I knew the downhill trek would be fast.

But a Czech couple arrived and I was able to get some iodine tablets from them, and then improvised a support for my tent, so I stayed the night. The campsite grew quite crowded with at least 4 groups there, some noisily arriving at 8 pm, after dark and with everyone else in their tent.

Early morning view from the Copper Creek trail, I believe with aldens in the foreground.

I awoke very early, packed, and headed out. On the easy downhill jaunt back, I was treated to some great early morning views of the canyon. The air was cool and I was looking forward to the treat I’d promised myself the next day: an ice cream sandwich and Mountain Dew.

More of King’s Canyon

Driving back along the canyon road, I passed a few ranger SUVs and an ambulance; there was a pickup about 50 feet off the road and terribly smashed up. The driver must have been going incredibly fast to get that far, and cause so much damage. The speed limit was only 35 in the area.

Almost immediately after passing this worrying sight, my check-engine light came on. This was the second time it had happened. The previous time, it had gone out and I never noticed any problems, so I hoped the case was the same here. But of course it’s the last thing you want 60 miles from civilization.

I spent the rest of the day relaxing in the campground (and not driving…). By sheer luck I found a wonderful site on the edge of the campground with a little stream running through it, so I was able to read and relax, preparing for my trip to Sequoia the next day.

From San Francisco to King’s Canyon

The freakish ‘sheep crab’


After returning from San Francisco by train I drove after dark south to Monterey. There I was able to meet a friend’s mother the following morning (I also had a driveway to sleep in – always important!). The following morning I also received a really cool meteorite pendant. I don’t know how people can find meteors (and this came from the Congo!), but it’s neat to have something which was in outer space so recently.

This is what living sand dollars look like.

After breakfast I headed to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, supposedly the largest aquarium in the world. It’s in a really touristy area of a small city, but the aquarium itself has an impressive collection.

There are dozens of tanks of these etherial jellies

There’s a ton of exhibits featuring the usual suspects – crabs, starfish, sea cucumbers, crabs, various fish. There were a few special temporary exhibits: *two* with jellyfish, one with seahorses. I’ve seen a lot of jellyfish at aquariums, and these creatures are surprising crowd-pleasers. Although they have no active mental faculties, and thus no charisma, it’s easy to illuminate jellyfish with a blacklight and watch them elegantly float around, like a real-life screensaver. It’s a good deal for the aquarium, because these animals must be awful cheap to raise and maintain.

I loved these spotted jellyfish, which seemed to have more internal structure than the kind you normally see.

Another popular exhibit were small penguins, which waddle along, torpedo back and forth through the water, and generally act like little clowns. Similarly charismatic are sea otters, perhaps the most popular animals at the aquarium. They’re active, playful, and by nature assume adorable poses.

My favorite exhibit, though, was an opportunity to touch stingrays: their texture is very soft and quite unique, and it’s a rare thing to be able to feel these creatures.

Seals and ptarmigans, visible from viewing decks outside the aquarium.

There’s also an outside section to the aquarium, where a seal was hamming it up on a rock. It was much bigger than the rock and hardly looked comfortable, but it maintained its position and kept other seals from knocking it off. Sometimes it seemed to turn and look right at me through my telescope, with a huge grin on its face.

From the aquarium I drove east to Fresno. Surprisingly, Fresno is a city of 500 thousand people… that’s roughly the same size as Portland! I sequestered myself there in a cheap hotel for two days, catching up on things, charging all my devices, and writing blog posts…

I also had a decision to make: where to head next? I’d initially planned to visit Yosemite, but after mmuch deliberation decided to skip it for this trip. There were forest fires in the north of the park, and although those weren’t much risk, many of the roads and campgrounds were closed. Those that remained open were fully booked for the weekend. It was almost Labor Day, after all. So, I decided to head directly to King’s Canyon and spend more time there and in the other parks; I’d also be able to travel at a more relaxing pace rather than try to cram in all the parks in a rush. So, after my stay at the hotel I got back on the freeway and drove west.

This area is filled with fruit farms and is some of the most fertile land on earth, but what was surprising to me was how dry and arid the land around the fields was. Almost every drop of water must be carefully marshaled so that it goes to crops; the loose soil and lack of natural plants means that most rain must drain directly to reservoirs rather than remaining in the soil. Also in this farmland, I saw my first migrant workers, crouched over in the hot fields. What brutal work; it’s strange that this was the first time in my life that I’ve seen intensive non-mechanized farm labor.

San Francisco


Walking the Golden Gate Bridge

I’d delayed my visit to San Francisco by a few days, spending time in Point Reyes and Silicon Valley, but I’d also figured out a more suitable way to travel into the city: taking a train from Mountain View downtown. For $7 each way, I was able to circumvent the parking, traffic and driving nightmare of the city – definitely worth it.

I didn’t have too much in the way of plans: I wanted to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, and see Fort Point and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Site. Otherwise, I didn’t have much in mind. Mostly, to keep walking. Thankfully, compared to Seattle and Portland, I was able to amble aimlessly around the city, rather than worry about the van.

My walking route: red outbound and green coming back.

San Francisco felt like a cross between New York and Seattle, with good weather. The parts I saw had the same energy and density as NYC, but with the geography and aesthetics of Seattle. I think it’s my second favorite city I’ve seen so far (favorite: Reykjavik!).

I started by angling for the waterfront, to see the ’embarcadero,’ because I knew it would be easy to keep my bearings near the water rather than in the confusion of unnumbered streets. The embarcadero is a sort of park/gallery area along the water, similar to the west side highway and shore in NY. It was nice, but felt a bit sterile.

Lombard Street – the crooked section is in the distance, with lots of gardens

Next I angled in to see Lombard St, famous as ‘the crookedest street in the world.’ Along the way I stopped at a cafe for what I thought would be a quick bagel. It turned out to be a bagel with eggplant, feta, onions, oil, and pesto. It was amazing, and maybe the exact opposite of a bagel in NY (slow, required a fork, very fancy, the bagel itself mediocre with awesome toppings).

Then I walked up Lombard Street. Most of the street is straight but there’s a crooked section on one of the hills. It’s a cable car stop and it seemed a busload of Japanese tourists had stopped here (at 8:30 in the morning). The street seemed to take it in stride: the gardens were meticulously maintained and everything in its proper place. In truth it was a little overdone – a tiny Stepford. The streets of San Francisco are famously steep; everyone studiously turns their tyres into the curb when they park, in case their e-brake fails. The steepest streets have cars park so they aren’t on an angle, like they’re in a parking lot.

A pile of sea lions. There were at least 4 times this many there.

Then I walked north on Hyde along the cable car tracks (they hum ominously) to the waterfront. Because I arrived before the park opened, I walked down the famous Fisherman’s Wharf. This is the San Francisco equivalent of Times Square, with a nautical theme (if you see a Ripley’s Believe It or Not or wax museum, you know you’re in a tourist area). I liked seeing it, but also was glad that it was mostly empty of tourists. The highlight, for me, was seeing the docks covered with sea lions – probably a few hundred dozing just 30 feet away from the main wharf. Some of them were playing – chasing each other in the water, sumo wrestling trying to push each other off the docks, and so forth. They made a constant barking sound and the noise was immense. Interesting, biologists are unsure whether sea lions (and seals) are descended from the bear or weasel families; in any event they acted like dogs.

The lower passenger deck of the Eureka

When the park was open, I headed over to the San Francisco Maritime NHS. This is a set of boats ‘essential to the history of San Francisco,’ and it includes a timber schooner, tugboat, steel sailing ship, and, my favorite, a ferry. I particularly enjoyed the ferry because it was in use through the 50s, but retained the same elegant art deco style from the 30s – the same style you see in old pictures of Penn Station, that’s mostly been erased from public areas. This was an auto ferry so there were some classic cars of 30s vintage as well. There were working coin-operated stereoscope viewers, probably dating from the 30s, which of course I had to try (“THE GREAT 1906 EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE: Authentic! Vivid 3-D! Do not miss seeing these unusual pictures.”)

The Balclutha, a sailing ship. Swimmer in the foreground, Alcatraz behind the ship. The Eureka and a timber schooner are also visible.

The area is enclosed in piers that form an ellipse around a section of port and beach; there were people swimming in the water here, right between the park’s boats. Looking North, Alcatraz was visible. This was a surprise to me, too. I knew Alcatraz was near San Francisco, but the island dominates the waterfront view. It must have been strange living here when the prison was operating, knowing these maximum security prisoners were right there. Wouldn’t you dwell on that? Not that they might escape – just having a prison always on your mind, like a cloud across the sun on an otherwise cheerful day.

Fort Point, below the Golden Gate Bridge

Next I crossed over the first North-South ridge, through the marina area (sterile; pastel; tropical) to the Presidio. The Presidio is a sort of park compound containing a variety of sights: the Walt Disney museum, a national cemetery, a beach, an open field, and so forth. Honestly, I couldn’t find any sort of theme to the place (college? military base? park?), which is vast. It forms the southern anchor of the Golden Gate Bridge. Before I checked out the bridge I wanted to see Fort Point.

Seals, parasailers – even a helicopter flew below the bridge!

Fort Point was on the northernmost tip of the peninsula and the southern edge of the Golden Gate before the bridge was built. Scheduled for demolition, Joseph Strauss redesigned the bridge to preserve it. It’s now also a National Historic Site. For its time (the 1850s) it was considered state-of-the-art, but it was determined to be obsolete during the Civil War (as similar sites on the East Coast proved incapable of holding up to bombardment). It never saw action. A major innovation for the construction of the bridge itself was to put up safety netting (they only thought of this in the mid-1930s!) This saved 19 lives; those who it saved joined the ‘Halfway to Hell Club.’

I liked this graphic design on the bridge. Sinister?

The bridge is actually directly above the fort, and there’s a set of trails leading up to it, all with stunning views. On the bridge, there are six lanes for traffic bracketed by two narrow lanes for people and bikes. When I started across bikes and people were all crowded on one side, each going both directions. It was hectic and frustrating – I looked constantly over my shoulder for bikes bearing down on me. I felt like I was in Amsterdam. At some point they transferred bikes to the other side (the ocean side of the bridge, rather than the bay side) and it became much more enjoyable. The bridge is 1.7 miles across, so the walk constituted more than a stroll, but with pleasant weather, a stunning view of the city, and the waves below dotted with boats, parasailers and windsurfers, it was very relaxing.

Crissy Field, with the city in the background.

Back on the San Francisco side, I stopped at Crissy Field, an open park, to relax. Boy, it was a relief to take off my shoes and socks and let my feet breathe! There were huge steel statues in the park, and nearby was a ‘trampoline gym and cafe.’

After that it was getting dark, and I kept going towards the Caltrain terminal. I definitely passed through a few streets of ghetto around Leavenworth that made me very nervous (15 guys standing around aimlessly on the corner; overheard conversation: “Hey man, you know where I can get some pain pills?”). I also saw someone walking a pig on a leash.

In the end I walked 24 miles around San Francisco, my longest ‘hike’ to date. I really enjoyed the city and would love to come back, I feel I only got to see a very small section and missed some highlights entirely – Chinatown, Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park.