Dan and Hannah Go Large in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (California)

With the promise of a 1200’ waterfalls as well as the second largest tree in the world, we leave Three Rivers, at the Gateway to Sequoia National Park, for a day of awesomeness.

GST Map of parks

Climbing into the Sierras at 6500’ to the Lodgepole Visitor Center on this mid-September Tuesday, we park at the near empty campground parking lot near the Tokopah Trailhead.  It’s 43F.

TF 1A H at TF trail

Ideal for hikers of every age with an easy rating, the 1.7-mile Tokopah Falls Trail with a modest 600’ elevation gain, gently rises along the Keowah River; a mighty river during flood season but now a meandering-between-boulders trickle after another dry summer.

Any trail with a waterfall promise gets our attention.  Seeing twenty-something couples or another with her mom on the trail, I wonder, don’t you people have jobs or school to go to on this Tuesday in September?   No judgement, just wondering and becoming more aware that the kids of California pot farmers must need some time to chill themselves.

TF 1C H at stone steps part of trail

On the easy peezy hiking trail, Hannah and I talk about parenting.  Ever impressed with our daughter Molly’s and her hubby Tip’s very intentional parenting of our grandsons, Owen and Max, we wonder how our own parenting developed.

TF Father knows best

We grew up in a time when Father Knows Best and our dads ruled the roost.  Willing to follow by nature, Hannah and I knew such parenting didn’t match our personalities.  Conventional then as now, Hannah and I shared the decision-making.  Fumbling along, we hoped that spending time as a family and valuing experiences over things would make a difference.

TF 2B H on rocky trail

Planets aligned, for we had the support of our families, I never lost my job over 40+ years in teaching, and we were humble enough to know that we didn’t have all the answers.  Perhaps, like many parents, we just got lucky.

TF 2A under big stone 2

Forty minutes from the trailhead, we leave the rock lined trail along the river for rugged stones and boulders along the mountainside.  Hannah offers to take the picture of two UC Santa Cruz students beneath this overhanging cliff, and they return the favor.

TF 3 falls themselves

Arriving at the landing area of the falls, we can only imagine the 1200′ crashing falls that must tumble in spring after the winter snows; today, we can barely make out any water falling from on high.  Our video captures the last 50’ of watery splendor.

With the giant sequoias in Kings Canyon National Park beckoning, we return to the trailhead in less than an hour.

KC Farrah

Continuing on the Generals Road for 45 minutes over 27 miles, we stop at the Kings Canyon Visitor Center for some hiking suggestions.  At the desk, Farrah, a park ranger, smiles and asks how she can help.  After she suggests the General Grant Trail one mile away, I ask if she was named after Farrah Fawcett.  Grinning for what must be the 10,000th time, she says yes, but adds that she never could get the hair right.   She’s a delight and I wonder what influence a name makes to the direction of one’s life.  I think that if we had hiked these mountains in 1979, Molly just might be named Sierra.   (At least, it’s not Sedona, Molly.)

KC 5 sequoia again

After lunch among the sequoias, we venture to the parking lot of the General Grant Trail.  For a third of a mile, the paved trail encircles the second largest tree in the world (Just south in Sequoia National Park, General Sherman is #1).

KC 2 D and H at sequoia

Taking a side trail, I notice a husband taking his wife’s picture in the crook of this giant sequoia.  I ask if he’d do the same for us.

Nearby Hannah spots a fallen sequoia, which upon examination, is a hallowed out tube with light pouring in at the far end.  Ever adventurous, Hannah makes it her mission to climb through the 70′ massive log.  I don’t exactly see the point for me to follow her.  Pushing her up and over the first interior ridge, she gains her balance and is soon navigating the innards of this fallen sequoia.

KC 3 H at climb through log

And voila, she appears at the far end and immediately says, you have to do it.  Having seen her bend, crouch, and step her way up on what turns out to be very slick, polished wood, I have little interest in the claustrophobia that lines the guts of the tree.

KC 3C H at log better one

She counters, you’ll love it if you do it.  Remembering the claustrophobic lava tubes we slithered through near Mt. St. Helens in Washington (Click here for that blog.), I just don’t see how my life will be fuller if I do this.  On the other hand, the Mt. St. Helens lava tubes were tighter and darker than this fallen tree; and I made it through them.  Hmmm.

KC 4 D at start of log

With me being just not into it, she drops her encouraging-ness, and we hike on the north boundary trail to get in our two miles and one hour of hiking.  As we double back, I think climbing through the sequoia could be blog-worthy.  With that as motivation, I decide to give it a go.  Oh, the things I’ll do for my loyal readers.

KC 4A D in log

Returning to the fallen hollowed out sequoia, Hannah says, You don’t need me to push you because I now see a foothold for you.  Really!  It’s a slick cupped polished indentation, no wider than three silver dollars.  But it’s just enough to get me up the first interior ridge until…

…I start to teeter forward into the abyss.  Out of control, I can see this is not going to end well.  The Vegas betting odds are that I’ll face plant three feet below me into the bottom of the unforgiving sequoia.  And then I catch myself.  Maybe it’s the morning balancing exercises I do.  Or, more likely, I’m just damn lucky.

The hollowed sequoia tunnel is amazingly slick and slippery as if others have done this many times before.  With no chance to go back, I trundle along with the sunlight in the distance.

KC 4B H climbing through a second time

Triumphantly out in the fresh air, I turn around to surprisingly see Hannah, 15’ behind me.  I never sensed or heard her.

Smiling, she says, I wanted to do it once for Owen and once for Max.  She’s one helluva Omi.

Dan and Hannah Hike to Marble Falls in Sequoia National Park (California)

On the continuum from structured to unstructured, I am slowly making headway towards the freewheeling end.  Drawn to teaching, in part, by its autonomy in the classroom (I could be in charge and organize the school day as I saw fit, for the most part – remember this was the 1970s), I got real good at having a plan and making things happen on time during the school day.

That said, the school day can be a strait jacket of structure.  You know the drill in middle and high school; the class periods end with the bell; students move on and a new group arrives.  The university is the same.  Class ends at 630P, which means it ends at 630P!  No one pays attention after the appointed hour!  But in California, the change in me is starting to show.

MF 3 falls in the distance

Marble Falls in the Keowah River Canyon

So, it’s the first full day of my 70th Birthday Road Trip.  And before we even get to our first national park (Sequoia), a local hiker suggests his favorite hike – Marble Falls.  Beginning at the trailhead at 2000’, the Marble Falls Trail is a big girl and boy hike at 7.5 miles round trip with a 2500’ elevation gain.  We had never heard of it and hadn’t scheduled time for a bonus hike, but…

GST 1A D and H at sign

Suckers for waterfalls that we are, Hannah and I are all in to changing up our schedule and stay an extra day in the area.   Ergo, we’ll hike the General Sherman Tree Trail this Sunday and hike Marble Falls tomorrow.

GST Map of parks

Ah, but we have, what turns out to be a $100+ problemo.  You see, we have reservations tomorrow night (Monday) in Oakhurst, at the southern gateway to Yosemite, that only can be changed up until 4P this Sunday.

Finishing our Sunday hike to the General Sherman Tree (click here for that blog) by 1P, we drive back to Three Rivers in plenty of time to easily change our Oakhurst reservation.  Getting a room for an extra night at our current Comfort Suites and Inn turns out to be much more of a challenge.

MF $100 bill 2

Checking the Internet to see if our current motel has a room for Monday night, I learn it does; but… our $103 room tonight is now $209 for Monday.  WTF!  How can that be?  It’s a Monday in September!  Not giving up and hoping to tap into my modest charm, I go down to the lobby and ask if we can stay one more night at our current rate.

Bingo, bango, bongo, the clerk taps his keyboard, nods with satisfaction, and saves us a cool $106.  The stars align, the cosmos returns to spinning left instead of right, and we are on for a hike to Marble Falls tomorrow.

MF 6A active bear sign 2

Setting out by 730A this Monday morning, we wind 11 miles on the two-lane park road to the parking area at Marble Falls.  Parking beyond the Potwisha Campground, we first thank God for not camping (lying on the rocky ground in sleeping bags with only a poly-urethane tent between us and any large wildlife is not our idea of a good time); we then boot up and hit the trail.

After yesterday’s black bear experience near the General Sherman Tree, the Active Bear Area sign reminds me that we may have company.  Fearless, we are vigilant but not fearful (as fearless implies).  Yesterday’s black bear paid us no mind if we kept our distance.  We are hoping any cousins are equally thoughtful.

MF 2 trail begins

Hiking on a gently sloping fire road along the Kaweah River, we wonder when the 2500’ of elevation will kick in.  Not a third of a mile later, the trail shows its steepidity (i.e. steepness), as we turn right into the north facing mountain; that turns out to be a good thing as we’ll be in the morning shade of the mountain for much of the climb.

MF 2C H on trail with distant mountain

Over the first hour, the trail rises steadily, but not where we are huffing and puffing.  Soon high above the river, we have a sweet, easy-on-the-feet dirt trail, whose switchbacks make for an enjoyable ascent on a hike rated moderate, despite the elevation gain.

MF 2D H on rocky trail

An hour in, still hundreds of feet above the river on a narrow mountainside trail, we find the trail steepens noticeably and gets far rockier.   The penetrating 930A sun rears its brilliant head as we hike with the Keowah River Canyon below.

And then most happily, the trail dips down towards the Marble Falls.  Hearing the rapids and the cascades in the river below, we trend downhill 90 minutes into our hike.

MF 4B D and H at falls

The kids from York, Maine at Marble Falls

And voila, the 40’ Marble Falls tumbles over what appears to be marble-looking stone.  We chat up a Parisian couple, who takes our picture at the falls.

MF 3B H climbing down

Out for exercise, not picnicking at the falls, within 15 minutes we head back for the trailhead.   As those of you can imagine who know of Hannah’s 25’ foot fall off the San Ysidro Trail in California (click here for that blog) this past February, Hannah is cautious on this narrow trail with a steep downside to the river.  She steps carefully on the inner half of the trail.

MF 5B deer even closer

Within shouting distance of the trailhead in the dense forest hillside, Bambi pops up on the trail.   We stop as she stares us down, not moving one bit.  Behind her are two fawns.  She stares right through us.  It’s not a tense faceoff, but we consider our options as we and she are going nowhere.  Her babies are minding their own business behind her, oblivious to us.

MF 5C two deer even closer

My thought is no matter the animal, one does not mess with mama when her babies are around.  We back up the trail 200’ and, what do you know, she and the kids follow us.   They show no fear; as national park deer, they must have encountered humans many times and know they are safe.

MF 5D H climbing up mountain

We continue to step back steadily and they keep on coming.  The cliff sides are steep with little place for us to go to let the deer pass us on the trail.  With our backing up strategy having no effect, we finally find a mountainside to climb up and let them by.  And then, with no warning, the deer disappear up the mountain themselves and are gone for good.

MF Molly Owen Max

Owen, Max, and Molly

This event makes me think of our daughter Molly, a mother bear with two cubs (Owen and Max).  Molly is good-natured, approachable, but don’t mess with her babies.  Like mothers all around the world, be they humans or animals, she is hard-wired to protect her babies.  I get that deer are not bears, but mamas are mamas.  I am glad we didn’t find out what our mama deer would do if she felt her babies were threatened!

Our clever friend Patty Puntenney from Oregon, responded to my text about our encounter with the deer, How sweet! And they are telling their family they saw 2 dears on the trail! 

It’s not a dramatic or amazing hike.  The falls are meh.  But it proved to me I can do a tough hike, which is good news with ten days of hiking ahead in California.

Dan and Hannah Hike to General Sherman in Sequoia National Park in California

GST Map of parks

Go early!

That’s the advice we hear all the time when planning to hike the populaire national parks of the central Sierras in California.  Positioning ourselves at that gateway town, Three Rivers, a mere six miles from the southern entrance to Sequoia National Park, we plan to be off by 8A this mid-September Sunday.

GST 1A D and H at sign

Waking at 4A (time change!), while Hannah sleeps, I do my daily stretching exercises, first in the king bed we share, then in the semi-dark to the bathroom light, convinced that an hour of stretching a day is keeping me in the game (i.e. hiking and pickleballing).  Breakfasting at 630A at our Comfort Suites and Inn, we are on the road within the hour.

GST 1C - Sequoias from the road

Stopping at the Foothills Visitor Center at the southeastern end of the park, we are interested in finding the signature hike of Sequoia National Park.  And that turns out to be the General Sherman Tree Trail; we add the Congress and Circle Meadow Loop Trails to give us three hours of hiking.

You must remember William T. Sherman!  He was a general in the Union Army during the Civil War, famous for his 1864 scorched earth March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah that was pivotal in ending the Civil War.  For all that and more, he is remembered by having the largest living thing in the known world named in his honor.

GST 1B one lane road

But, I am getting ahead of myself.  From the visitor center, we must drive 20 miles of winding switchbacks, including one two-mile stretch of one lane road under serious distress, governed by a pilot car leading inbound, then outbound vehicles.

Arriving a little after 9A at the General Sherman Tree parking lot, we have our choice of parking places this mid-September Sunday.  As a magnet for folks who have little time or interest in hiking at length, the half mile 200’+ descent to the GST is paved; it includes steps and benches along the way.  General Sherman is not only the largest living tree, but the largest living organism, by volume, on the planet. At 2,100 years of age, it weighs 2.7 million pounds, is 275 feet tall, and has a 102-foot circumference at the ground, with branches that are almost 7 feet in diameter.

GST 2A redwoods to GST

Let me further develop the CV (i.e. resume) of the GST and his brother and sister sequoias.   Able to live up to 3,000 years, the giant sequoias grow only on the western slopes of the Sierras between 5000’ and 7000’ in elevation.  While the largest of the sequoias are as tall as a 26-story building, their bark can be three feet thick.  Although sequoias were logged in the 1870’s, their brittle wood does not make for good lumber; thankfully now, most of the giant sequoia groves are protected.

GST Chief Sequoyah

Once inspired at Billy’s (i.e. William T. Sherman) awesomeness, we are off to the Chief Sequoyah Tree.  There, what seems like our trail is not.  Unbeknownst to us, we errantly leave the Congress Trail and take the Trail of the Sequoias.  It’s no longer paved, but an easy-on-the-feet dirt trail with stunning sequoias here, there, and everywhere.  Then, Hannah first hears, then sees something move in the berry bush eight feet to our left.

GST 4A bear in bushes

Look closely.  The teenage black bear is near the center of the picture.  Trust me.

If you are thinking black bear, go to the head of the class.  We pick up the pace but don’t run.  I am not one who ever wanted to see a bear of any kind in the wild.  I just don’t need that adrenaline rush to have lived a full life.   Thankfully the bear does not follow, but we do have one slight problem.

Wondering why we are not seeing anyone else as we hike, we check our map and realize we have taken the wrong trail (the aforementioned Trail of the Sequoias) and must double back the way we came.  Yes, back by the berry bush with one active and hungry black bear.

GST bear 1

Fearlessly, I take on the bear (with my iPhone)

As we approach the bush, we see that the bear is not there.  Relieved, but only briefly, we quickly gather that it could be anywhere!  Within sixty seconds, the anywhere it could be is on the trail 100 yards ahead of us.  It’s more than a baby, yet not quite a papa or mama.  I’d call it a teenager, hopefully with no attitude and no tattoos.

GST bear 2

Our teenage bear is not going anywhere soon

We dead stop, wonder what the hell to do next, and don’t move.  Hannah picks up a stick.  I’m not sold on that strategy and look to just stay as far back as possible.   Slowly stepping our way down the trail towards said adolescent oso, we pass another lofty sequoia and no longer see the furry one on the trail ahead.  Looking to our left, we spot it on the hillside beneath us, some 70’ away.  Paying us no mind, the bear chomps away, and we double time it away from the black bundle of fur.

Safe, we think, we see other hikers, including a senior couple and their daughter.  Being my usual chatty, cheery self, I ask if they want to see a bear?  Smiling in disbelief, they reveal in their faces that have absolutely no interest.   But see the bear we all do, unperturbed in the forest below.

Having had enough of teenage Smokey, we tip toe back on the Congress Trail and bid adieu to our surprise bear.  But, no longer are we naively hiking the rest of the trails this morning; we wonder if his cousin or, dare I say mama, is in the area.  Why, even charred chunks of sequoias look like black bears now!

GST 5 more sequoias

Over our nearly three hours of hiking, we soon stop seeing bears in our minds around each corner, and hike the Circle Meadow Loop through these massive sequoias.  On a Sunday morning in the Sierras of California, we find our hike really quite bearable.

And let me end with a black bear joke.

In the middle of the forest, a hunter is confronted by a hungry black bear.  Unsuccessful in shooting the bear, the hunter starts to run.  Trapped at the edge of a steep cliff and with the black bear fast approaching, the hunter gets down on his knees and prays, “Dear God!  Please give this bear religion.”

The skies darken and there is lightning in the air.  Just a few short feet from the hunter, the bear comes to an abrupt stop.  Looking up into the sky, the black bear says, “Thank you, God, for the food I’m about to receive…”