Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Kearsarge Pass

Kearsarge Lakes and the High Sierra
9 miles round trip, 2600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

The view of imposing, snowcapped granite spires and pinnacles and deep blue lakes from Kearsarge Pass is one of the most striking scenes of California's High Sierra. This high mountain pass, on the crest of the Sierra Nevada and on the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park with Inyo National Forest, has views usually reserved for intense backcountry hikes but can actually be accessed with relative ease. The hike to reach this high pass in the Eastern Sierra travels up scenic Onion Valley under the shadow of massive University Peak and passes numerous sparkling alpine lakes. This is an excellent hike and a good way for visitors to the Eastern Sierra to catch a glimpse of the vast wilderness of Kings Canyon National Park on a day hike.

The hike up Onion Valley can be easily adjusted to fit different schedules and levels of fitness: hikers looking for a shorter and less strenuous journey can opt for a 4.5 mile round trip hike to Gilbert Lake with 1200 feet of elevation gain, while backpackers and extremely fit day hikers can use Kearsarge Pass as an access point for the vast Kings Canyon backcountry. The entire hike is at a high elevation, with Kearsarge Pass itself at nearly 11,800 feet, so hikers should be prepared for potential altitude sickness.

I hiked Kearsarge Pass during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra. I was initially unsure whether I'd be able to do this hike at all at such a late point in the year: although Onion Valley Road was still open to the trailhead, the first snowstorm of the season had swept through and I came with the expectation that snow might force me to turn back at some point on the hike. Luckily, I was able to make it all the way up the pass with microspikes; however, in most years, this hike becomes inaccessible by late October. 

The Onion Valley Trailhead is far from any major metropolitan area- hikers from Las Vegas, the Bay Area, or Los Angeles will have to drive hours to reach the Eastern Sierra. The closest town to Onion Valley is Independence, in Owens Valley just east of Kearsarge Pass. To reach Kearsarge Pass from Independence, I took the Onion Valley Road west and followed it uphill through many switchbacks to its end at the Onion Valley Trailhead. The drive up featured excellent views of Owens Valley and the soaring ramparts of the Eastern Sierra, including towering Mount Williamson, California's second tallest peak. White Mountain Peak, the third tallest mountain in the state, was also visible on the drive up on the opposite side of Owens Valley. During my return down this road, I spotted a set of well-formed lenticular clouds piling up on the leeward side of the Sierra Nevada.

Lenticular clouds over Owens Valley
From the hiker trailhead, the Onion Valley Trail made a long initial switchback to join up with the stock trail, passing a junction with the Golden Trout Lake Trail at the second switchback about a third of a mile into the hike. The grade of the trail was quite steady: the trail was well built and the elevation gain was generally fairly evenly-distributed over the course of the hike. The terrain around the trail was rocky and fairly open, with sparse tree cover at this elevation and on this side of the Sierra Crest. Continuing the moderate uphill along the trail, I entered the John Muir Wilderness at three-quarters of a mile. From here, the trail embarked on a set of switchbacks, from which I had nice views out into Owens Valley while also approaching the stream banks of Independence Creek. At 1.5 miles from and 800 feet above the trailhead, I emerged into the basin holding Little Pothole Lake, which had frozen by this point in the season. The granite ramparts of University Peak- a summit that would dominate the views on this hike- rose behind the lake.

Little Pothole Lake
The switchback ascent continued after Little Pothole Lake, the trail climbing moderately but relentlessly. Here, I started encountering more snow and ice on the trail during my November hike and I donned my microspikes for traction. The trail climbed another 400 feet from Little Pothole Lake before entering a large talus field. Here, the ascent started to level off as I was treated to excellent views of the mountain amphitheater at the head of Onion Valley. Looking back to the east, I also had a great view into the desert plains of Owens Valley, with the treeless Inyo Mountains rising across the valley marking the transition from the Sierra Nevada to the Basin and Range.

Looking down Onion Valley to Independence, Owens Valley, and the Inyo Mountains
The talus slope ended as I arrived on the shores of Gilbert Lake, about 2.2 miles from the trailhead. The trail skirted the north shore of the lake and I had incredible views of massive University Peak rising to the south above the lake. The lake itself had frozen, although the ice in center of the lake was not particularly thick yet and displayed numerous delicate cracks. On the day of my visit, the handful of other hikers on the trail turned around here as most had not brought traction devices to deal with the snow further up the trail. Gilbert Lake was very pretty and would have made for a satisfying standalone day hike.

University Peak rises above Gilbert Lake
At the west end of Gilbert Lake, the trail passed a massive rock with a pretty view of Independence Peak and University Peak rising over the lake, with a peek of the distant Inyo Mountains. This was a pretty scene and any hikers to Gilbert Lake should at least make it out this far.

Independence Peak over Gilbert Lake
Leaving Gilbert Lake, the trail reentered a sparse forest and made a short, gentle ascent to arrive at the junction with a spur trail to Matlock Lake. I ignored this spur trail and continued forward on the main trail, but I kept my eyes peeled for a social path to the left of the main trail just past this junction that led to Flower Lake. Flower Lake was a short distance from the main trail but was worth the brief detour to visit; it was not as spectacular as Gilbert Lake but still had a pretty setting at the foot of a tall granite peak, surrounded by forest. During my visit, the lake was frozen solid. At 2.5 miles from the trailhead, this could also make for a nice day hike destination.

Frozen Flower Lake
The trail resumed the moderate but steady climb after passing Flower Lake. After a few switchbacks through the forest, the trail emerged on rockier, more open slopes. After traversing the side of a small, rocky basin, the trail emerged onto a ridge above Heart Lake about 3.3 miles from the trailhead. Nestled beneath soaring granite walls far below the trail, Heart Lake was a striking scene, one of the most wild and beautiful views on the hike to that point. Its dark, deep blue waters remained unfrozen well into November, even as its shores were coated in snow.

Heart Lake
As the trail embarked on another switchback ascent above Heart Lake, views from the trail continued to widen. Gilbert Lake and Flower Lake became visible back down Onion Valley. This set of switchbacks ended as the trail entered the highest of the many small basins in Onion Valley. Here, massive Mount Gould rose ahead and Kearsarge Pass itself, a high saddle on the jagged crest of the Sierra, finally came into view. I could see the final stretch of trail, which cut across the slopes of Mount Gould to reach the pass. I passed the last few stunted trees around the trail as I emerged into the barren alpine world above the timberline.

Looking past Gilbert Lake out Onion Valley
Mount Gould
As I started this final ascent to Kearsarge Pass, Big Pothole Lake appeared in the high basin to the south. Big Pothole Lake was the most dramatic of the five lakes that I saw in Onion Valley: its nearly perfectly round form was set in a rugged granite bowl, with soaring granite peaks rising directly behind it. Although at a high elevation, Pothole Lake had not yet become fully frozen.

Big Pothole Lake
The trail made a long final switchback on the last stretch of the ascent, which crossed rocky terrain on Mount Gould's slopes. As I approached the pass, a number of jagged peaks began to appear to the west on the other side of the pass, joining the views of University Peak that I had enjoyed for the past few hours.

University Peak rises above Big Pothole Lake
At last I arrived at Kearsarge Pass, 11,760 feet above sea level. I was welcomed by a sign informing me of my arrival at Kings Canyon National Park and by blasts of tropical storm-force winds that were blowing over the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Challenging the wind and taking a few ginger steps onto the Kings Canyon side of the pass, I found a spectacular alpine landscape of snow, granite, and lakes laid before me. Just below the pass lay the Kearsarge Lakes, a series of treeline lakes in varying states of freezing, at the foot of a row of granite spires known as the Kearsarge Pinnacles. Further to the west was the lower elevation Bullfrog Lake. Behind the Kearsarge Pinnacles rose the great granite pyramids of Mount Brewer, North Guard Peak, and Mount Farquhar, which are the northernmost summits of the Great Western Divide. To the south, the wildest part of the view encompassed the Kings-Kern Divide, a fearsome wall of granite spires that included Mount Ericsson and Mount Stanford. As I could also see Big Pothole Lake and Matlock Lake on the other side of the Sierra Crest in Onion Valley, there were no fewer than seven lakes in my view from the pass. This was an extraordinarily grand view and an incredible reward for a reasonably moderate day hike.

View to Kearsarge Lakes and Kings Canyon National Park from Kearsarge Pass
Big Pothole Lake from Kearsarge Pass
From Kearsarge Pass, it is about another 16 miles of hiking to reach Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. At just over 20 miles hiking from Onion Valley to Cedar Grove, this is the shortest trailhead-to-trailhead crossing over the High Sierra. In fact, Kearsarge Pass was once the intended route for California Highway 180 to cross the Sierra Nevada and Onion Valley Road was once signed as the eastern stretch of Highway 180. However, the establishment of the John Muir Wilderness and the Ansel Adams Wilderness ended plans to extend roads over the Sierra Nevada both here and further north at Minaret Summit, leaving us today with one of the largest stretches of wilderness in the contiguous United States.

The name Kearsarge is actually derived from a name that the native Pennacook people of what is now New Hampshire bestowed upon a mountain in that state: a successful Union Navy ship in the Civil War was named Kearsarge after the New Hampshire peak, which in turn was the namesake of an Eastern Sierra mine and this alpine pass.

Mount Ericsson rising amidst the granite crags of the High Sierra
Kearsarge Pinnacles
I saw just a handful of other hikers on the trail on a November weekday, but you should expect Onion Valley to be quite popular on a summer weekend. The scenic delights of this hike are no secret and plenty of day hikers and backpackers alike head up this trail to access the stunning High Sierra when the snow has melted and the weather is nice. I can confirm that this hike deserves every ounce of attention it receives: Kearsarge Pass is a stunning spot that is worth putting up with crowds.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Cottonwood Lakes

Mount Langley rises above Cottonwood Lake No. 5
12.5 miles round trip, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required, permit quota for overnight hikes

The many lakes of the Cottonwood Lakes lie beneath the gleaming white granite of Mount Langley, marking the southern end of California's famed High Sierra. This is an enjoyable if slightly long day hike to visit four lakes in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin, a starkly beautiful region that can be accessed by a fairly easy paved drive and then a fairly easy hike. While many hikers choose to make overnight trips to the lakes and use them as a base camp for climbing Mount Langley or exploring other High Sierra destinations, this makes an excellent day hike for visitors to Lone Pine hoping to sample a bit of what makes the High Sierra so magical. The hike visits both the Golden Trout and John Muir Wildernesses in Inyo National Forest.

I hiked to Cottonwood Lakes during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra. It's easy to reach the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead from Lone Pine, although the area is a long drive from either the Bay Area, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas. From Lone Pine, I took the Whitney Portal Road uphill for three miles and then turned left onto the Horseshoe Meadows Road. I then followed the paved Horseshoe Meadows Road for about 20 miles. This road is one of the most extraordinary in the Sierra Nevada, cutting wide, sweeping switchbacks up the slopes of Wonoga Peak. As I drove up this road, incredible panoramas of Owens Valley and the great front of the Eastern Sierra provided constant wonderment; I also spotted distant Great Basin summits like White Mountain Peak and Telescope Peak, as well as a view at one point of Mount San Gorgonio far to the south. The dry lakebed of Owens Lake filled the valley below. 

Owens Lake and Telescope Peak from the Horseshoe Meadows Road
The Horseshoe Meadows Road then delved into the mountains and arrived at an intersection once it came to the Cottonwood Campground; here, I turned right at the junction for the Cottonwood Lakes and New Army Pass trailhead. I followed this road to its dead end at the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead. There's no fee or permit necessary for day use here but overnight campers must reserve or claim in-person one of the quota-limited camping permits for staying in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin.

Leaving the trailhead, I started the hike with a gentle ascent through the forest, joining up with a stock trail from the Equestrian Camp 0.3 miles into the hike. The trail soon entered the Golden Trout Wilderness, which is named for the spectacularly colored trout endemic to the watershed of the Kern River, the now-threatened species that is the state freshwater fish of California. At a half mile, the trail crossed a nearly imperceptible saddle and then descended gently through the forest for the next mile to reach a crossing over South Fork Cottonwood Creek at 1.5 miles into the hike.

Illuminated tree husk along the trail
On this cold mid-November day, South Fork Cottonwood Creek had frozen solid. I rockhopped across the creek and then continued along the trail to Cottonwood Lakes. The trail was sandy at times and slightly rocky at times over the next mile and a half as it ascended very gently through the valley of North Fork Cottonwood Creek; at times, the tree cover would break enough for partial views of the granite ramparts of nearby Flattop Mountain.

About 1.2 miles after the creek crossing and about 2.7 miles into the hike, I came to the first open views of the hike as the trail skirted the edge of a pretty meadow along Cottonwood Creek. Soon afterwards, around 3 miles into the hike, the trail entered the John Muir Wilderness and then crossed the north fork of Cottonwood Creek. 

Meadow along Cottonwood Creek
After crossing the creek, the trail began to climb a bit more steadily as it passed another meadow, this one with a nice view of Flattop Mountain. In November, the meadow grasses had turned yellow for the winter, but visitors in July are likely to find lush green meadows with blooming wildflowers here.

Flattop Mountain rises over meadows
As the trail began to climb more aggressively, it passed a junction with the trail to New Army Pass at 3.5 miles from the trailhead. I took the right fork at this junction and followed the Cottonwood Lakes Trail up its steepest stretch, in which it ascended nearly 600 feet in a mile. This was still a fairly moderate grade: the trail was almost never truly steep. The trail generally ascended through the forest but there were frequent breaks in the trees that yielded partial views of nearby Flattop Mountain and the impressive pyramid of Cirque Peak. A number of foxtail pines dotted the trailside; upon death, the foxtails leave behind gnarled, twisted trunks with rich, golden wood.

Foxtail pine on the ascent
The ascent ended at 4.5 miles from the trailhead as I passed the turnoff on the right side of the trail for Muir Lake: at the junction, I emerged into a beautiful, flat subalpine meadow set at the base of a collection of mighty High Sierra peaks. The most renowned of these peaks was Mount Langley, one of California's rare 14,000-foot peaks, but Cirque Peak to the southwest struck a remarkably symmetric and beautiful profile, a fitting form for the mountain that anchors the southern end of the High Sierra.

Cirque Peak and Army Pass Point rising over the meadows on Cottonwood Creek
I crossed another fork of Cottonwood Creek as I entered the broad meadow. Looking back to the east, I had a great view out of the Sierra Nevada to mighty Telescope Peak, an ultraprominent peak that is the highest point of both the desert Panamint Range and Death Valley National Park.

Telescope Peak from the meadows
The meadows were a fulfilling reward after 4.5 miles of fairly uneventful (almost boring!) hiking. I soaked in the views of Cirque Peak as I continued along the trail through the meadows. Although I was the only person on the trail on that cold weekday, I realized I wasn't alone in these meadows: a coyote was wandering about nearby but bolted when it noted my presence. I spotted the first of the Cottonwood Lakes off to the left of the trail; the lake was small and frozen, so I chose to bypass it and continue on to the later lakes.

Coyote near Cottonwood Lake No. 1
Cirque Peak

The trail stayed flat for about a mile after entering the meadows. After leaving the main meadow, I passed through a patch of trees before emerging into a second meadow with great views of Mount Langley ahead. Here, the trail passed a small cabin and skirted the west side of a shallow, unnamed lake that filled the center of the meadow.

Mount Langley
Frozen unnamed lake
At 5.7 miles into the hike, the trail passed the north end of the unnamed lake, skirted a forest, and then made a short descent to the shores of Cottonwood Lake No. 3. Cottonwood Lake No. 3 was quite long and unfortunately the trail skipped over most of its shoreline; however, as the trail wrapped around the northern end of the lake and began to ascend, I had a magnificent view down the length of Lake No. 3 with Flattop Mountain rising behind it. Cottonwood Lake No. 3 had frozen as well, but not to the same extent as the previous lakes; the result was a mostly clear surface to the lake that was decorated by a beautiful lattice of cracks.

Frozen Cottonwood Lake No. 3
Leaving Cottonwood Lake No. 3, the trail made a brief final ascent, pushing uphill a bit to reach a slightly higher level of the Cottonwood Lakes basin. After the trail flattened out again, this time in a basin right below the granite walls of Mount Langley, I followed the trail a hundred meters and then bore left at an unmarked junction to reach the shore of Cottonwood Lake No. 4. Nestled in a bowl beneath high granite cliffs, Cottonwood Lake No. 4 had a stark, alpine feel. This lake had frozen over as well and the nearby granite cliffs still retained their recent dusting of snow. Old Army Pass rose above the far end of the lake; an unmaintained trail continued along Cottonwood Lake No. 4 and then climbed precipitously up to the pass, providing access to the main summit route up Mount Langley. Old Army Pass lies atop nearly vertical granite walls and it amazed me that this was considered a pass at all: the trail to reach the pass was visible from across the lake and was clearly both very steep and very precarious.

Old Army Pass above Cottonwood Lake No. 4
I enjoyed lunch and a brief nap on a set of large rocks on the northeast shore of Cottonwood Lake No. 4. After my siesta, I moseyed over on a social path over to Cottonwood Lake No. 5, which was right next to Cottonwood Lake No. 4, separated only by a low isthmus about 50 meters wide. This was the end of the hike, 6.2 miles from the trailhead.

Cottonwood Lake No. 5
The southeast face of Mount Langley rises vertically above Cottonwood Lake No. 5, an impressive sight. The high pinnacles on the cliff are not the true summit of Mount Langley, which is set slightly back from this massive wall of white granite. At 14,032 feet tall, Mount Langley is the ninth-tallest peak in California and the last fourteener of the High Sierra when counting from the north; it also has the distinction of being the southernmost fourteener in the United States. While the other lakes in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin had frozen for the winter, Cottonwood Lake No. 5 was just beginning to freeze, so I was still able to see into its waters to the rocks below the surface. This was my favorite of the lakes along the hike and a fitting coda to an enjoyable hike to this alpine lake basin.

Mount Langley rising over Cottonwood Lake No. 5

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Merced Grove

Giant sequoias of Merced Grove
3 miles round trip, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

Merced Grove is the quietest of the three groves of giant sequoias in California's Yosemite National Park, a tranquil collection of a handful of massive trees reached by a short and not terribly difficult hike from a trailhead just minutes away from the park's Big Oak Flat Entrance. After its waterfalls and granite domes, giant sequoias are perhaps the next most heralded attraction at this extremely popular national park. Almost all visitors head to Mariposa Grove in the southern part of the park and a good number stream into Tuolumne Grove during summer months as well. Merced Grove sees the fewest visitors of these groves, despite having some impressive big trees. The grove is quiet and beautiful, but at the end of the day has fewer and smaller trees than the more famous Mariposa Grove. First time visitors to the park will probably want to stick with seeing Grizzly Giant in Mariposa Grove, but repeat visitors will find this an enjoyable hike to experience these great trees with just a fraction of the crowds. The trail heads downhill on the way to the grove and requires hiking uphill on the return, so make sure you're in appropriate condition to hike up before you head down to the grove.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Yosemite National Park has used a permit quota system to restrict the number of visitors in the park during peak tourist season. Check nps.gov/yose before you go to see whether there are currently restrictions on visiting the park.

I hiked to Merced Grove during a mid-April visit to Yosemite. The trailhead is conveniently located just off of California Highway 120, just a few miles from the Big Oak Flat entrance that most Bay Area visitors use to pile into this park. To reach the trailhead, I followed Highway 120 east from Manteca in the Central Valley, staying on Highway 120 at the junction in Oakdale and Chinese Camp. I passed Groveland as the sun began to rise and arrived at the Big Oak Flat entrance around 7 AM. The Merced Grove Trailhead was four miles beyond the entrance station on the right side of the road: there was parking for about 10 cars and a pit toilet.

The hike to Merced Grove started out by following a road trace south from the parking area. The initial 3/5 of a mile were flat and easy as the trail passed through a sparse and fairly uninteresting forest. At 0.6 miles, the trail came to a junction; I took the left fork for Merced Grove. This left fork was another road trace but this time, the trail began a steady descent. Over the next mile, the road trace dropped about 550 feet down into the valley of Moss Creek.

As I approached the bottom of the valley, I began to catch glimpses of soaring, burnt-orange tree trunks of enormous girth. The trail then arrived at the base of a cluster of five old-growth giant sequoias. This collection of trees- which marked the start of the grove- were perhaps also the grove's most spectacular sight. Although there are larger trees elsewhere in the grove, this is the only spot in Merced Grove when so many sequoias are in such close proximity. A fence kept visitors away from the base of these trees to protect these sequoias' sensitive roots.

Cluster of sequoias at the start of Merced Grove
Continuing on from this first cluster of big trees, the trail descended a bit more to reach the Merced Grove Ranger Station, passing directly in between two old growth giants at one point. The ranger station was a rustic wooden structure that was unstaffed at the time of my visit; it was surrounded by a number of soaring old growth redwoods. The trees were not particularly dense here but a few of these trees were of impressive size. This was the heart of the grove and marked the end of the hike. I stuck around the ranger station for a while, gazing up at the massive giants nearby before returning to the trailhead.

Giant sequoia
Giant sequoias- Sequoiadendron giganteum- are the largest single-trunk organisms on our planet. These trees can reach diameters of about 30 feet and grow up to 250 feet tall. While their coastal cousins, the redwoods, are taller, no other tree on Earth is as massive. These trees likely had a much more widespread range but today these species are confined to a number of groves scattered along 250 miles of the west slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Merced Grove is one of the northernmost giant sequoia groves left: only nearby Tuolumne Grove, the famed Calaveras Grove, and northernmost Placer Grove are at higher latitudes. As there just tens of old growth sequoia groves left in the world, the species is in increasing danger, not only from development and logging but from climate change. Sierra snowpack is diminishing and wildfires are becoming more severe. Merced Grove survived the 2013 Rim Fire that devastated the area around the Big Oak Flat entrance, but in the summer of 2020 some of the southernmost giant sequoia groves were lost multiple old growth giants to the Sequoia Complex Fire.

Giant sequoias near the Merced Grove Ranger Station
Giant sequoias are the species' most common name for the moment, but I'm not sure it is a name that necessarily makes as much sense as more descriptive names like the Sierra redwood. This is partially because the name "Sequoia" has little to do with these massive trees: it is not a name bestowed by the local Miwok or any other native peoples of California. Instead, the name was most likely settled upon by European scientists, who named the tree after Cherokee leader Sequoyah. While Sequoyah developed a syllabary for his people's language and certainly deserves to be honored, it does strike me a bit odd that his name has stuck on a tree that has no real relation to him.

Soaring sequoias
I had the entire grove and the entire hike to myself. Granted, this wasn't surprising as I wrapped up my hike by 9 AM; still, I visited on a nice spring weekend when traffic was terrible in Yosemite Valley. While Merced Grove is far from being the most impressive grove of giant sequoias, it is still a beautiful and tranquil spot to appreciate these mighty trees and a good place to escape Yosemite's crowds.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

High Rock (Humboldt Redwoods)

Eel River from High Rock
1.2 miles, 200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Short dirt access to trailhead, no fee required

The old growth redwood forests of California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park are among the most extensive and beautiful such forests left on the planet. The short hike to High Rock visits some of the most extraordinarily beautiful alluvial flat redwood forest in the park and leads to a pretty view over the winding Eel River. The river view- while not remarkable- gives this hike more variety than most of the other hikes in the area that stick to forest alone, while the beauty of this particular forest makes this a hike that can challenge the better known trails through Rockefeller Grove and Founders Grove in Humboldt Redwoods. While few hikers choose this hike, the trail's proximity to the traffic on the Avenue of the Giants somewhat disrupts the quiet; still, this is an excellent hike for visitors to Humboldt Redwoods looking for some variety and a place to avoid the crowds at the more popular redwood groves.

I hiked to High Rock during a January trip to Northern California's Redwood Country. Humboldt Redwoods State Park is far from any major metropolitan area, about a four hour drive from either San Francisco or Sacramento, although it is just 40 minutes driving away from Eureka, the main population center in Humboldt County. Regardless of which direction you're coming from, you'll have to take US 101; to reach the trailhead, leave US 101 at exit 663 and follow Highway 254- the Avenue of the Giants- north. The Avenue of the Giants started out by following the Eel River but soon left the riverbank and enters forest; I came to the High Rock Trailhead 2 miles after turning onto the Avenue of the Giants. The road to the trailhead was unmarked and difficult to find if you're not looking for it: a short dirt road led to the right off the Avenue of the Giants and towards the river, with a slightly wider parking area about 50 yards off the Avenue that marked the start of the hike. The turnoff is on the east side of the Avenue of the Giants just slightly past the signed turnoff for the High Rock Conservation Camp.

There's no sign telling you that you're at the start of the trail, so you'll need to do your homework in advance to make sure you know where you are. An unmarked but well-established trail headed off to the right (to the south) from the dirt road and entered one of the most glorious old growth forests I've experienced. Humboldt Redwoods is particularly well known for its alluvial flat redwood forests and that's exactly what the trail goes through here. Although the forest is not particularly expansive here- its width is only the two hundred meter distance between the Avenue of the Giants and the sandbars of the Eel River- the flats here are magnificently lush and the trees here are stately and soaring. The generally open redwood sorrel ground cover at the start of the trail is similar to other areas of sorrel ground cover in the park like the Grieg-French-Bell Grove, but the redwoods along the High Rock Trail are certainly more impressive.

Redwoods along the Eel River
The trail passed by a number of signs indicating the names of the groves. The Save the Redwoods League- the organization responsible for the preservation of most of California's old growth redwood forests- uses naming rights as a fundraising tactic to raise money to save these forest giants. The Save the Redwoods League was founded in the 1910s when Stephen Mather, the then director of the National Park Service, dispatched a group of conservationists to northern California to investigate the claims of soaring trees of immense height. Upon reaching coastal northern California, these conservationists- who went on to found Save the Redwoods League- realized that California's two million acres of old growth redwood forest was rapidly being consumed by voracious sawmills to feed California's booming economy. Banding together to found the League, they worked to have some grand old growth forest along the Eel River protected in Humboldt Redwoods State Park with the help of funding from John D. Rockefeller.

Save the Redwoods League's efforts ultimately resulted in the preservation of Humboldt Redwoods State Park and what is today Redwood National and State Parks. However, public lands today protect only about 100,000 acres of old growth redwood forest of the 2 million acres that once stretched across this area of the state. Almost no privately owned old-growth forest remains. The great redwood forests that once would have lined the shores of Humboldt Bay and the Mendocino Coast are now no more. Thus, while the world's tallest known tree today is the coast redwood Hyperion in Redwood National Park, there's a good chance that taller redwoods might have once stood in these forests but then fell to loggers' saws. The forests that remain today are inspiring with their skyscraping canopies, but contemplating the removal of vast tracts of redwoods here also imbued me with a deep sense of loss.

Redwoods along the trail to High Rock
There are few things that can make me feel as small as standing on the floor of a redwood forest. Looking up, I could see straight and sturdy trunks of the redwoods around me soaring over three hundred feet high. The tallest known coast redwood today is a specimen in Redwood National Park reaching 379 feet tall.

Soaring redwoods
At a quarter mile from the trailhead, the trail crossed a bridge over a creek. Soon after crossing the bridge, the trail left the alluvial flats of the early stretch of trail and began a gentle ascent through redwood forests on a slope. The trees became a little smaller here and the ground cover transitioned between the a sorrel-fern mix to predominately ferns, but the forest was still very beautiful and impressive here. 

Redwoods rise above an understory of ferns
As the trail climbed gently, it passed by an unmarked spur trail heading off to the left that I believe led down to the banks of the Eel River. The main trail continued onwards, passing close by the roadway of the Avenue of the Giants before making a couple switchbacks up the north slopes of High Rock. The forest here transitioned from redwoods to a drier mix of oaks and madrones. The trail going up to the viewpoint atop High Rock was unmarked but obvious: I kept following the switchbacks up to the top of the low ridge and then I followed the trail on the ridge out to a fenced-in viewpoint. There is no grand, sweeping view here: just a narrow view of the Eel River through a medium-sized gap in the trees. That said, this was still a nice view of the Eel River, with faraway forested mountains rising over the river and three-hundred foot forest giants rising directly from the river's banks nearby.

Eel River flowing through the Humboldt Redwoods
I saw just two other hikers on my evening hike up to High Rock. While the forest may not be as expansive as some of the other groves at Humboldt Redwoods, it still exemplifies many of the qualities that make redwood forests so special and makes for a lovely hike when paired with the views of the Eel River. I recommend for both visitors to the region and those who hike here frequently.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Richardson Grove

Redwoods of Richardson Grove
0.6 miles loop, 0 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Richardson Grove State Park entrance fee required

For many northbound visitors, Richardson Grove signals their arrival into northern California's Redwood Country. This small state park protects a majestic old growth redwood grove that is bisected by US Highway 101. While the narrow drive through the grove on US 101 is already quite scenic, many visitors will find that the grove is even more beautiful when explored on foot on this short and flat loop trail. Richardson Grove does not quite match the lushness of the more famous groves to the north in Humboldt Redwoods State Park or Redwood National Park, but it is an easily accessible and enjoyable leg-stretcher for travelers on US 101. There are more extensive trails in Richardson Grove State Park, but the short loop described here visits the most impressive part of the grove.

I visited Richardson Grove during a January trip to Northern California's Redwood Country. Richardson Grove State Park is far from any major metropolitan area, about a 3.5 hour drive from either San Francisco or Sacramento and still over an hour away from Eureka. Regardless of which direction you're coming from, you'll have to take US 101, which passes through the grove a little bit north of Leggett and a bit south from Garbersville. As this is perhaps the most impressive redwood grove directly along US 101, you'll know you're at the park when you arrive; there is a signed turnoff into the park on the west side of the road, which I took and then followed the park road to the visitor center, which was the trailhead for this short loop.

The Richardson Grove Visitor Center- which occupies the structure once known as the Richardson Grove Lodge- is in the very heart of the grove, surrounded by towering redwoods on all sides, with the lodge itself built around a number of redwood trees. This lodge was once a popular retreat for vacationers from the Bay Area; its location as the southernmost of the major groves in the Humboldt Redwoods area made it a popular destination for tourists not looking to travel much farther north. Many aspects of this lodge- including the choice to build it amongst and around old growth redwoods- would be considered abominations by modern environmental preservation standards but these structures still stand as they were built long before these environmental considerations came to mind.

Richardson Grove Lodge (now a visitor center)
From the visitor center, short loops branch off to both the north and the south. This short hike through Richardson Grove combines both loops, each of which are flat and wide. The southern loop is particularly enjoyable to hike and is only about a third of a mile long. To reach the southern loop, I left from the left (south) side of the visitor center, where a nature trail with many interpretive placards led around the bases of these massive redwoods.

Richardson Grove had a majestic feel with its soaring, pillar-like trees reaching over 300 feet into the air. Although the soil and branch litter groundcover here was more reminiscent of the drier redwood forests to the south, the size of these trees and the number of exceptionally big trees made this grove substantially more impressive than groves in the Santa Cruz Mountains or Sonoma County. 

Soaring redwoods at Richardson Grove
The southern loop was intuitive to follow, despite a few intersections with side trails that led to a camp amphitheatre and out to US 101. The interpretive placards gave good background on the trees, noting that these trees- the tallest known in the world- have many odd quirks. For example, redwoods are extremely resistant to fire and many still stand and grow even when their trunks have been hollowed out and blackened by fire. These remarkable cavities in the trees are today known as goosepens, as that's exactly how many early European American settlers in the region used them. Redwoods are also notable in their ability to regenerate, sprouting new trunks from burls in the trunk or base of existing trees after damage. 

Near the far end of the southern loop, I came upon an absolutely massive redwood that sported two massive burls on either side of its trunk, about thirty feet off the ground, each of which then supported another soaring vertical trunk. This was an extraordinarily voluminous redwood- surely one of the largest trees in the grove- and a highlight of this hike.

Massive burl on a redwood giant

Soaring redwoods of Richardson Grove
After finishing the southern loop, I found myself back at the visitor center. Walking along the backside (western side) of the visitor center, I came to a parking lot at the north end of the visitor center and then set out on the northern loop. The forest here was still beautiful but the trees were perhaps somewhat less impressive than those on the southern loop. The trail ran quite close to US 101 and the sound of traffic was constant. The trail intersected with trails leading to the western section of the park; stay right at every intersection to do this loop clockwise and return to the visitor center.

Richardson Grove
Richardson Grove's proximity to US 101 has become a problem for both the highway and the grove itself. The grove marks the narrowest stretch of US 101 in its 808-mile journey up the state of California as the highway is confined by the trees themselves. In fact, the current highway is too narrow here to accomodate tractor-trailers carrying freight up this main coastal arterial, forcing cargo traveling from Eureka to San Francisco to take a nearly 300-mile detour up through Grants Pass, Oregon. As the redwoods line both side of the Eel River here, it's not feasible to simply reroute US 101 around the grove; therefore, Caltran's current plan is to widen the highway in the grove itself. Such a plan would require a number of trees in the grove to be cut down, although Caltrans claims that the trees affected would only be second-growth. 

As of early 2021, work has not begun on this road expansion yet, but Caltrans is fighting with environmental groups (including Save Richardson Grove) to break ground. The commercial need for widening US 101 is obviously clear for Humboldt County, but old growth redwood groves like Richardson Grove are a rarity now that 95% of Northern California's old growth redwood forests have been logged. While Caltrans states that no old growh trees will be removed, it has acknowledged that roadwork will likely overlap with the delicate root systems of the old growth here, which is a problem as redwoods- tall as they are- have very shallow and sensitive roots. Ultimately, this tug of war between economic development and saving soaring trees some 2000 years old will depend on our priorities and our values.

In case you're worried about the effect that road expansion will have on Richardson Grove, it's probably better to visit sooner rather than later. If you visit Humboldt Redwoods or Redwood National Park, you'll see more impressive forest. But if you don't bother to leave the highway, this grove remains a place where you'll be forced to slow down enough to notice and be in awe of this majestic forest.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Damnation Creek

Redwoods meet the coast at Damnation Creek
4 miles round trip, 1300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The Damnation Creek Trail passes through an incredibly lush and beautiful redwood forest on its descent from US Highway 101 to the Pacific coast in California's Del Norte Redwoods State Park, which is a part of the larger Redwood National and State Parks system. The hike's coupling of spectacular forest and coastal scenery makes it one of the premier hikes around Redwood National and State Parks.  The hike makes a steep descent through redwood forest to reach the shoreline, meaning that hikers will have to tackle a fairly big hill climb on the way back. Damnation Creek is a good late afternoon hike- the west-facing slopes here allow sunlight to stream in late in the day, even when other redwood forests are largely in the shade. I found this to be one of the more enjoyable hikes during my second visit to Redwood National and State Parks.

The last bridge on the Damnation Creek Trail- which is just a few hundred yards before the trail reaches the beach- has seen structural damage and been closed for a few years now. While the trail is technically closed at this point, many visitors have obviously found ways to continue onward across the gully at that point to reach the coast. Park regulations dictate that you should turn around at the bridge; ultimately, you'll have to rely on your judgment on what to do here.

I hiked the Damnation Creek Trail during a January visit to Redwood National and State Parks. The trailhead is just off of US Highway 101, ten miles south of Crescent City and 30 miles north of Orick. The hike- and Redwood National and State Parks in general- is far from any major metropolitan area, with the San Francisco Bay Area, at six hours away, being the closest. Eureka is an hour and a half to the south. Thus, unless you live along the Northern California coast you'll have to make a trip out here. The trailhead is not clearly signed when approached from either the north or the south; there is an unmarked but well-defined parking area on the west side of Highway 101 at the trailhead. For those approaching from the south, the trailhead is on the left side of the road immediately after Highway 101 turns inland from the coastal bluffs of the Last Chance Grade; those coming from the north will just have to keep an eye out for the pullout on the right side of the road and know that they've missed it if they hit the Last Chance Grade. There are no restrooms at the trailhead and a Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park entrance fee is not required.

Leaving US 101, the Damnation Creek Trail immediately plunged into a soaring old-growth redwood forest with lush undergrowth. The trail began with a gentle ascent as the trail followed the east side of a low ridge with gargantuan coast redwoods; however, the trail roughly paralleled US 101 here, with the highway constantly within sight and earshot, so despite the impressive forest scenery it was not particularly quiet. 

Massive redwoods of Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
After a fifth of a mile, the trail leveled out as it rounded the side of a hill, leaving behind the sounds of US 101 and entering a redwood forest on west-facing slopes. Although the largest redwoods are typically found in valley bottoms and alluvial flats, there were some impressive giants here on these slopes. Late afternoon filtered into the redwood forest. Ferns dominated the understory here, coating the forest floor and contributing to the prehistoric feel of the forest; rhododendron occasionally dotted the understory here, too. This stretch of trail featured the hike's most impressive trees.

Lush redwood forest along the Damnation Creek Trail
Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
The trail descended steadily down these slopes, soon paralleling the Coastal Trail for a stretch (ignore the first use path descending to the Coastal Trail and stay on the single-track Damnation Creek Trail, which stays just uphill of the Coastal Trail. At 2/3 of a mile from the trailhead, the Damnation Creek Trail intersected the Coastal Trail. Crossing the Coastal Trail- which was a wide, well maintained road trace in the Last Chance section here- I continued on the Damnation Creek Trail, which began to follow a ridge.

Sun filtering into the redwoods
The Damnation Creek Trail briefly followed the top of a gently descending ridge, winding between the bases of some soaring redwoods. I really enjoyed this part of the hike: the slight topographic prominence of the ridge helped the trees here catch a lot of late day sun, making for gorgeous lighting.

Redwoods along the ridge
Soaring redwoods along the Damnation Creek Trail
The trail soon began to descend in earnest, dropping down the continent's final western slopes in a series of well-graded switchbacks. Sun filtered through the redwoods and Douglas firs and I caught glimpses of the late-day light glimmering on the Pacific through the trees. The trees here were not as large as higher on the ridge, the understory vegetation was less spectacular, and there were more non-redwood trees mixed in here, but the forest still had a serene and cathedral-like feel.


Forest along the Damnation Creek Trail
Redwood forest
As I descended further down the switchbacks of the Damnation Creek Trail, the composition of the forest began to change: the redwoods became smaller and Sitka Spruce started getting mixed in. Coast redwoods are intolerant to salt, so despite their name they are almost never found directly along the coast. Sitka Spruce, on the other hand, are still able to grow and reach impressive heights even when bathed in sea spray, so spruce trees largely dominate the immediately seaside forests of Redwood National and State Parks (and much of the Pacific Northwest coast!). Though lacking the girth of the mighty redwoods, Sitka spruce are able to achieve impressive heights as well: the tallest known Sitka Spruce reaches 315 feet tall on Vancouver Island and even here along the Redwood Coast they are nearly able to match the height of their more rich-hued and majestic neighbors.


Soaring redwoods
Soon the redwoods ended completely and the forest was spruce alone. The trail turned away from the coast and continued its descent into the canyon of Damnation Creek; some final steep drops brought me to the level of the creek. The trail then began following the creek towards the coast. There were two wooden truss footbridges over gullies along this final stretch of trail; both were damaged during my visit, the first having been partially crushed by a falling tree and the second fenced off with orange netting. As no signage prohibited me from crossing the first bridge, I made my way to the second bridge, where I found a way across the gully and emerged onto the grassy bluffs rising above the rocky beach at the mouth of Damnation Creek.

This was a lovely spot of wilderness coast with sweeping views to the south. The hills of the Del Norte Coast dropped away steeply to meet the ocean here. Far away, the skyscraping skyline of coast redwoods rose above coastal bluffs, making this a rare spot to simultaneously appreciate the world's tallest species of trees alongside the planet's largest ocean. Seastacks dotted the coast, each sending up a curtain of mist each time a wave rolled in off the Pacific.

Beach at the mouth of Damnation Creek
The view to the north was more limited, as a high bluff rose directly to the north on the other side of the mouth of Damnation Creek. While the views from the low grassy bluff were nice, it was not particularly straightforward to get from here down to the beach itself and I stayed at this slightly elevated viewpoint of the ocean to watch the sunset.

Rocky Pacific Coast at Damnation Creek
While I saw a handful of hikers on the way down to the beach, I had the coast all to myself when I arrived about 20 minutes before sunset and did not another person for the rest of the evening. I watched that day- the last day of a particularly bad four years- end as that mid-January sun sank below the western horizon, illuminating the surf on the incoming waves just as it was about to disappear behind the ocean. This is a beautiful spot for a sunset, but if you choose to watch the sunset here it is very important to have a flashlight or headlamp available to return safely up the trail. As dusk settled in, I returned the way I came.

Pacific waves lit by the setting sun
Damnation Creek is an excellent hike, with both a lush and towering redwood forest and access to a rocky and scenic stretch of wilderness coast. While Del Norte Coast Redwoods does not contain the most spectacular of the redwood forests, the varied scenery of this hike still makes it one of the most outstanding hikes on the Redwood Coast.