Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sierras and Central Coast Range: Still Awesome

If you get a kick out of these little trip reports, here's one from the San Juans in Colorado, August 2012.

From time to time, I get this anxiety that various American mountain ranges might suddenly become not awesome. So from time to time, I go there to make sure they still are. Good news! They still are!

The trip was from San Diego, up 395, to the John Muir/Ansel Adams Wilderness near Mammoth, side trip to Mono Lake, through Yosemite, then the barest skimming of The Bay Area(tm) on the way to Big Sur, and finally to Santa Barbara and home. What a terrible, no good state we live in, with no natural beauty, and nothing to do or see. Awful!

First we headed up 395 and watched the Sierras grow to our left, stopping in Lone Pine for a steak and a beer in the shadow of Mt. Whitney as it blocked the setting sun behind it. Sorry to subject you to the inside joke in this picture, but the next day was Mother's Day, so I had to order MGD, her favorite beer. She is if nothing else a classy broad.

Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney, from Tripadvisor. No I didn't take this awesome picture, I was too busy drinking beer dummy!

Manzanar internment camp is still nearby, maintained by the National Park Service just north of Lone Pine, and the grave sites for the people who died in the camp are a bit lonely at night:

It's good that they preserve this but for my money, a visit to the ruins of the Tule Lake facility up at the Oregon border is somehow more sobering, because there's no intervening veneer of restoration as a resort. It's just you standing in front of jumbled concrete blocks and barbed wire and iron frames that once held Americans prisoner for years.

That night we camped at the edge of John Muir wilderness, then hit Mono Pass the next morning. It was a pretty light snow year so on a normal year, we wouldn't have gone very far on this hike at this date, and as it was there was solid snow from about 11,500' up. Since it was warm enough to be up there in T-shirt and shorts I got a nice ankle and calf sunburn from all the UV coming back up at me from every direction. Certain other non-north-European-descended members of this expedition did not have the same problems.

Above: I'm too lazy to figure out the html to put this in some kind of panaroma sliding frame, so just click on it will ya. If it's relatively easy and this annoys you enough, don't hesitate to leave a comment.

Arriving at Mono Pass.

Looking west through the pass to the divide. Note to self - future trip from here to Tuolumne Meadows.

Back down at the lake.

Next day I went back to the ranger in Mammoth to close the loop about snow conditions up at Mono Pass, then it was a hike from Convict Lake up to Dorothy Lake. Or so we thought. The start was much lower than the day before, I think around 6,500', so we didn't expect to run into snow. But high enough up (where the old bridge is out) the trail either ended or disappeared under snow and rockfall, and the creek was a little steep and fast and spooky, so we just had lunch and then turned around. Still a pretty good day.

Above: here it turned into a scramble, the creek was kind of spooky (in places, slips would have consequences) and the snow wasn't all melted out, so this is about as high as we got that day. Crossing below:

Above: you can see the White Mountains on the other side of the valley. That's where some 4,000 year old trees are. And a UCSD altitude research station.

Above: relaxing in canvas chairs with our feet in the lake, we watched a bald eagle, and ate salted seaweed. Fermi problem: a bit of salt fell off the seaweed into the lake. How much did we change the sodium concentration of the water? We estimated by about 2.75 picomolar. Before you get too excited: that's about the same as a deer peeing.

After that we went out to the hot springs dotting the high desert between the Sierras and White Mountains, which had stood guard to the east the whole time. You know that whole thing is a big caldera right? (Look at it.)

View Larger Map

And it moves, that is, is swelling up year after year. No wonder there are hot springs there.

Above: There are multiple springs out there in the caldera, with pipes running between them that the locals have set up to make sure none of them are intolerably hot. As you can see it wasn't crowded that day. You can also see a dead spot in the grasses where the roots are probably cooking underneath.

After that we hit Mono Lake, which is gradually refilling, but still nowhere near the levels it was at before the poisonous writhing evil serpent water-stealing octopus that is Los Angeles, shrieking with darkness, tried to suck it dry, after having already turned Owens Lake into America's own Aral Sea. (Note: I don't like Los Angeles.) But Mono Lake is cool.

Same applies as above for this panorama, just click, or tell me how to fix it. :)

The rock formations are kind of like...reverse stalactites? They're created by mineral deposits as gas bubbles up through the bizarre alkaline water of this endorrheic lake. (This was where the supposed arsenic life was from. It turned out to be a false alarm but if it would be anywhere on Earth, it would be here.) When the lake recedes as the water is taken, the formations collapse. That is, you should never see them out on dry land like that - the top is where the lake level used to be. And even if you don't care about rocks, the lake is also a massively important migration stop for California seagulls and other birds. And finally, help me convince myself I'm not seeing things and tell me that Mono Lake isn't the place Max Ernst was always trying to paint (below). (Still don't believe me? Please view Napoleon in the Wilderness and Forest and Dove.(I admit an unhealthy obsession with Ernst. But some parts of the world really do look like they were designed by certain artists.)

I just totally went off on a tangent hard dude.

Then when you're seeing crystal clear lakes and granite monoliths, you can only be in...Yosemite! That night we stayed in Tuolumne Meadows. The road had just opened a few days ago and I expected the road through Tioga pass to be a deep snow-canyon but there were occasional piles of snow 2-3 feet high along side the road. At sunset the meadows were beautiful and the bugs not so bad. Pitching a tent I heard a snap and turned the headlamp to see two eyes in the forest, which blinked - twice - and then it turned and I saw it was a deer. The bears were up early this year, in some places a couple months ahead of their normal schedule.

In the morning we went to the sequoia grove (as you can see above) and then despite ourselves down into Yosemite Valley. Still not overrun with tourists. From there it was out the park by an unfamiliar (to me) southern route on Route 41, and through Merced. We were curious about the UC there. There is a hospital quite nearby. Future medical school? One wonders. From there it was a blast across the Central Valley with the requisite stop for fresh fruit (cherries) until the central valley farms gave way to the ranch and scrub forest of coastal hills. We stopped in the beautiful and little-known San Juan Bautista.

An old rural plaza mayor, a couple little beer saloons on the main street, and a neat little trail along the actual San Andreas fault. The plaque you see above with vineyards behind it is on the old Mission grounds and it explains this, with the plaza mayor at your back as you're reading it. Our picture-taking was compromised at this point due to the aforementioned saloons. Already in the time I've lived in California I've seen this town go from a forgotten backwater (in the best sense) to somewhere inside the boundaries of tourist maps, not to mention the plans of Silicon Valley developers. I actually thought about whether I wanted to further advertise this place on my super high readership blog but I think the cat's out of the bag with or without me.

That night we stayed in Gilroy but went up to Cupertino for some Korean buffet at Palace. It wasn't until after I was driving back on 101 that I thought: here I was in the actual Bay Area, and all I did was have dinner and leave. What's happening to me!?!? Ih. Next morning we headed up to the inexplicably little-known Mt. Madonna, and then on over past Elkhorn Slough to Monterey and finally Big Sur. At the beach where the Big Sur River meets the Pacific, my travel buddy commented that I was touching the grass the same way the Gladiator did in the movie as he was dying. I think after the third year of medical school I was surprised to find that I was a) still alive and b) still capable of contentment in nature. The cold Pacific breeze in Big Sur is not far off from the one in San Francisco so I don't know if it was that, or the green, or the ocean. But it was something. The second picture is standing on the beach, looking back up the river. The video shows you how windy it was, but it was a good wind.

Since we were in Big Sur, a visit to the Maiden Public House was in order, as well as the Henry Miller Library. By this point in the trip I was already taking profound greenery as a given. The next day we headed up the Pine Ridge Trail in Ventana Wilderness, one of my favorite in the world, but didn't get all the way to the hot springs. Until next time...but the drive down the central coast afterward is always sublime. See if you can find the waterfall in the second picture - it's not that hard.

That night we stayed in San Luis Obispo but not before stopping at Taco Temple in Morro Bay. Please do be advised of their mesozoic portion sizes. They tried to warn us, but we were enthusiastic to make up for having missed them Christmas 2011 our last time up the Central Coast because they were closed for some reason. Then heading south again the next day, we took a detour on Route 166 (it looks like New Mexico back there on the way to the Carrizo Plain) then stopped for a short hike in the San Rafael Wilderness, the flora of which kind of reminded me of some of the drier East and South Bay preserves, like Henry Coe.

Yeah. That's right Stillman, I've been reading your blog, and now I'm in your hood! What are you gonna do about it? Actually to go on one of the hikes you describe I would've had to start at 4am and go 20 miles off-trail so maybe you're safe for now...

And what visit is complete without stopping for dinner at noted anthropologist and space cadet Michael Gurven's house in Santa Barbara. His lovely lady Lisa recently made the mistake of bearing his issue. Oddly she seems glowingly happy as if she hasn't realized this. And I'll tell you something surprising, the child looked normal. Like, really a healthy normal human baby. It's a medical mystery that can only be explained by the mother's robust genetic constitution.

And after that, straight home to ol' SD. And you know what? I was happy to get back. (Don't tell anyone.)

Possible future plans for further 'sploring:

- Tuolumne Meadows and a nice hike up to Vogelsang Peak
- Or maybe all the way up to and over Mono Pass from Yosemite to Tuolumne Meadows
- White Mountains and the Bristlecones (too much snow up there two weeks ago)
- Heading back for a Saturday night stay at the hot springs in Ventana Wilderness
- I had been obsessed with central Los Padres above Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, since areas of this were only recently (last few decades) properly mapped
- Finally getting out to the Channel Islands

NOTE: people could not do these kinds of trips without the time and efforts of a number of volunteer groups who, out of the goodness of their hearts, pick up where government agencies don't have money or interest to provide information for free online. Two in particular who I couldn't have done this trip without are Ventana Wilderness Alliance and the Southern Los Padres Writers Association blog, both outstanding resources for the massive Los Padres National Forest that stretches from Monterey to Los Angeles and which contains multiple wilderness areas. Their maps and trail descriptions are in many cases the only way I know of to get reliable recent information to plan hikes; not only that, they do a lot to ensure the conservation of the natural and cultural resources in the Wildernesses.

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