COURTESY JAMES DANNENBERG
Half Dome stands sentinel over Yosemite Valley.
Share the wonder of the Sierras
Traveling with a companion enhances the area's beauty -- and it helps when a bear's nearby, too
STORY SUMMARY »
A tap on my shoulder?
I had been shooting a few photos near Zumwalt Meadow in Kings Canyon National Park and looked up to see my friend Jordan Kramer put a finger to his lips and point to a dark hillock some 30 feet behind us. Almost immediately the hillock rose up and became a large black bear. Looking over its shoulder at us -- in annoyance at being awakened? -- it slowly ambled across the meadow into the adjoining forest.
Some friends -- veteran travelers -- say they prefer solo journeys, suggesting that compromise, well, compromises their enjoyment of far-flung destinations: No arguments about what to see, what to eat, when to go to bed or rise.
Yet my experience suggests advantages to traveling with a companion. As the adventurer Antoine de Saint-Exupery observed in his classic "Wind, Sand and Stars," "(T)here is no hope of joy except in human relations. ... Our sordid interests imprison us within their walls. Only a comrade can grasp us by the hand and pull us free."
Or let us know a bear's around the corner.
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I like going to lonely places, but not necessarily alone.
My friend Jordan Kramer and I found ourselves almost alone on a long weekend's road trip to John Muir country last fall, taking in not one, but three of America's flagship national parks: Kings Canyon, Sequoia and Yosemite.
We drove from San Francisco, Jordan's current and my former home, happy for company on what must be one of the world's least interesting drives. Once out of the Bay Area, the route kept getting flatter and less interesting, culminating in Highway 99, which we agreed was in contention for the title of America's dreariest highway, congested and awash with billboards and nondescript Valley towns.
Jogging east on Highway 180 in Fresno, we were near desperate for a little topographic variety. Mercifully, the entrance to Kings Canyon and Sequoia was less than 50 miles away. Sometimes, getting there isn't half the fun.
Those arriving from the Bay Area use the Big Stump entrance to the Parks area, which covers both Kings Canyon and Sequoia, plus the Giant Sequoia National Monument and Sequoia National Forest. Sounds like a crazy quilt, but the park roads make it feel seamless.
COURTESY JAMES DANNENBERG
The author was alerted to the presence of a black bear near Zumwalt Meadow in Kings Canyon National Park.
One of the few places open in late October was the John Muir Lodge, a comfortable and relatively new (built in 2000) accommodation centrally located in Grant Grove Visitor Center and Village. We had booked in advance but noted that it wasn't full when we arrived around noon. No exceptions to the 4 p.m. check-in time, however, and by the time we did check in, there wasn't a room to be had.
Jordan and I decided to explore the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, a winding 37-mile extension of Highway 180 closed in winter and mostly paralleling the south fork of the King's River. The lodge might have been full, but we had the byway mostly to ourselves on a crisp, spectacularly sunny Saturday afternoon.
Grant Grove marks the western end of the byway. Big, big trees. Hardly a surprise in this area, but seeing some of these giants up close causes me to recalibrate my sense of scale.
While there are more big trees just south in Sequoia National Park, there are some whoppers up here, too. The General Grant tree is advertised as the world's third-largest living thing, and at more than 267 feet tall and 107 feet around it doesn't disappoint. It has a lot of brothers, sisters and cousins nearby as well.
The altitude at the Grove is almost 6,600 feet, but the byway switches back into the valley pretty quickly, losing about 3,500 feet by the time it reaches Boyden Cave, halfway to Roads End. At the higher elevations, sequoia forest predominates, and there are lots of trail heads for hikers.
The landscape quickly and dramatically changes, with forest giving way at times to a dry manzanita and yucca desert environment along the canyon embankments. The boreal forest never completely disappears, however, and along the route sequoias compete with aspen, lodgepole pine, black oak and dogwood.
One reason there wasn't much traffic was that many of the attractions, including the King's Canyon Lodge and the Cedar Grove Visitor Center, were closed for the season, and that made the drive all the more attractive. We stopped often, each turnout seeming to provide a more spectacular view of the canyon than the last. Toward the end we stopped at Roaring River Falls and again at Zumwalt Meadow, situated between 8,717-foot North Dome and 8,518-foot Grand Sentinel Peak to the south, which put us in mind of Yosemite Valley. It was here that we met our bear.
COURTESY JAMES DANNENBERG
Jordan Kramer captured the sunset on Mono Lake on the far side of the Sierras.
Not far down the road is the aptly named Roads End, with a large parking lot, empty this day save for one other car, and a permit station -- closed for the season -- providing access to a cluster of trail heads for back-country hikers. Jordan and I took a short 3- or 4-mile walk along the Babb Creek trail, keeping an eye out for mountain lions and more bears, but saw neither beast nor man along the way.
But this was a short road trip, and the other hikes would have to wait. Besides, we needed to find places to watch the sunset and have our traditional road trip 5 o'clock scotch on the rocks.
Jordan and I devote an inordinate amount of time trying to find the optimum sunrise and sunset venues. While we did find a couple of outstanding places, the high canyon walls limited our opportunities. The two best places, in our opinion, were Panoramic Point, not far from the John Muir Lodge, and Buck Rock, on the road between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park.
We did our best to get back to Panoramic Point in time for the first day's sunset, but we were just a few minutes too late, mainly because we didn't figure on the 300-yard sprint from the parking area. All we caught was an orange/violet glow in the darkening western sky. Chastened, we got up early enough the next morning to shiver for an hour before sunrise.
The Point faces east and affords a "panoramic" view of most of King's Canyon Park. While the sunrise was worth an early rising, it was partially obscured by smoke from ongoing forest fires and the mountain ridges to the east which obscured the sun as it rose above the distant horizon.
During the day we decided to explore the General's Highway, which runs south through Sequoia and past the Foothills Visitor Center toward Visalia. This is a lovely, steep and winding road, dropping almost a mile by the time it leaves the park.
If the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway was almost deserted, the same could not be said for the General's Highway, mainly because of the high volume of traffic visiting the Sequoias at the Giant Forest.
COURTESY JAMES DANNENBERG
General Sherman Sequoia is known as the third-largest living thing, at more than 267 feet tall with a 107-foot circumference.
ONE CANNOT SAY enough about the giant sequoias. They are so immense as to be almost un-photographable; nothing does justice to the scale. There are several trails winding among the largest trees, some paved and some accessible to the disabled. All seem to converge at the General Sherman tree, reputed to be the largest living organism on earth, and certainly among the oldest at about 2,200 years.
On a tip, we decided to try 8,500-foot Buck Rock for sunset. The rock allows for expansive east and west views, perfect for sunrise and sunset.
There's a tall Forest Service Observation tower that, according to the posted sign, allows public access until 6 p.m. through Oct. 28. Unfortunately, we arrived on Oct. 29, and the gate was locked at 4 p.m.
We did bump into the resident ranger returning from walking her dog and chatted a bit before she directed us to nearby viewing spots. The sunset was worth the drive.
Though we had planned another day in Kings Canyon, Jordan and I decided to take advantage of the spectacular weather and see the far side of the Sierras and Mono Lake. Neither Kings Canyon nor Sequoia affords a crossing, so we headed north for Yosemite and the Tioga Pass.
Even a brief transit through Yosemite Valley is a pleasure, and last October provided a spectacular fall tableau, so enticing we had to restrain ourselves from taking advantage of all the photographic opportunities available. We did take a short detour up to Glacier Point, however, which provides an easily accessible view of the valley glistening in the autumn sunlight.
The Tioga Pass closes after the year's first major snowfall, but it was clear for us and almost free of traffic late in the fall. Eager to see Mono Lake at sunset, we flew by the backside of Half Dome, Tenaya Lake, and Tuolumne Meadows before starting the long grade to the far side of the Sierras.
COURTESY JAMES DANNENBERG
Buck Rock Lookout on the road between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park is a great place to catch a spectacular sunrise or sunset.
Lee Vining is an isolated town next to Mono Lake, and by this time of year it was a quiet place, with many tourist accommodations closed for the season. We found a motel on the main street and asked the proprietor about the best spot to photograph the lake.
"South Tufa," she quickly replied, pointing it out on a local area map. We had to drive almost 10 miles around the lake to get there, and as sunset was fast closing, we immediately hopped into the car. By the time we got to the parking lot, part of a federal fee area, the sky was turning into one of the most spectacular color displays I had ever seen. We still had a quarter-mile walk to the lake shore, turning often to catch the show behind us.
The sunset was worth the trip. We agreed to come back for sunrise before heading home. Back in town, we savored our scotch and headed to the lone open restaurant for dinner.
It struck me that evening how much I enjoyed sharing these sights and experiences with a good friend and that I might never have even tried on my own. When I do travel alone, I have to force myself to do things I wouldn't hesitate to try with a companion. No doubt the shrinks have a name for such isolationist tendencies, but it seems to me this says more about our need to share experiences than about seeing tourist attractions.
This last sunrise was spectacular but chilling -- at 21 degrees -- and we had South Tufa to ourselves. The sun brought color if not warmth to the lake and mountains, and even the ever-growing thatch of jet contrails, reminding us that we weren't all that far from civilization, couldn't diminish our pleasure.
A fitting coda.
And I was pleased to share it.
James Dannenberg is a retired District Court judge who lives in Kailua. His tales from the road have appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.