The Bearded Runner: Sierra Nevada
In May this year we travelled to Joshua Tree. The wildlife, array of plant and fauna, geological significance and spirituality of the desert was inspiring. When we had the opportunity to return to California and enough time to venture further from Los Angeles, the natural inclination was to travel north. The Sierra Nevada had long intrigued. An adventure, climbing and hiking enthusiast, Yosemite had for a long time been on bucket list. As my partner Kit would need to be in Ojai and Big Pine during our trip to the US, a quick online mapping exercise showed that Yosemite, King’s Canyon and Sequoia might also be doable during our short stay. Time to see what else California had to offer…
Pasadena to Ojai via Sequoia
It’d been a busy Summer with work and family commitments, and we were soon meandering between coffee spots in a no-place-to-be kind of way. We had one night in Highland Park before we set out on our adventure and were making the most of civilization whilst it was on our doorstep. Whilst we could have stayed on in the comfort of this leafy LA suburb, the lure of wild was calling. It was time to hit the road.
First up was a stay in Ojai at the foot of the Los Padres National Forest. Not quite the wilderness we were in search of but beautiful all the same, the setting a valley in the Topatopa Mountains. I needed to find my legs as consecutive days of running and hiking were looming large, so headed for the Sulphur Mountain Road with its sweeping views over Santa Paula and the Santa Clara River Valley, with hot sun and hot spring abundant.
Tip - if you are travelling North from LA and your destination is the Western Sierras, travel on Route 33 through the Los Padres. It’s a stunning drive even if you soon arrive in the baron wasteland of Maricopa and Bakersfield oil fields in the San Joaquin Valley. We decided to drive as much of this as we could and overnighted in Visalia on route to Sequoia.
Up real early the next morning keen to secure a pitch amongst the giant trees, we were soon barreling through Three Rivers and into the park, Moro Rock looming over us. Despite being larger than neighbouring Yosemite, Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks are less frequented, with half the visitor numbers annually.
Lodgepole Campground was still bustling despite being end-of-season, but we got a pitch overlooking the Kaweah River, with Wolverton Creek high behind us. We were soon off exploring, ambling around the Big Trees Trail and visiting General Sherman. Our day was cut short as the wind picked up, and we made it back in time to camp before a storm rolled over, lightening flashing through the dark clouds as they rolled over us and on into the night.
The next day, we were woken by a family of deer coming down through the forest to drink from the river. We spied on them through a gap in the tent, keen not to emerge too early into the cold elevation air, but we kitted up and followed them to the Kaweah, and then along the river bed to the Topokah Falls, before heading back to pack up and drive North into King’s Canyon.
King’s Canyon and Yosemite
King’s Canyon was closing down for Fall, but we were able to secure a spot at Azalea by Grant Grove. We spent the night wide awake listening to fellow campers shouting away bears and when they quietened down, were spooked by the howl of coyotes up the canyon.
We awoke and cooked up a pot of coffee before heading out of the park north to Yosemite stopping quickly in a Fresno for supplies. Only a day earlier, Route 41 had opened up again following fires, so we were able to enter Yosemite from the South via Wawona. Arriving at Tunnel View, the gateway to Yosemite stretched out before us. My first encounter with Half Dome, El Capitan and the Valley I will never forget.
Upon arriving at Camp Curry, we settled in and took in our surroundings before being greeted by another storm. It seemed to be a common theme, nature’s reminder that despite the civilization around us at camp, we were entering another wild domain. When we emerged from our cabin, a rainbow arched high over Half Dome and soon Glacier Point was lit up in yellow and orange. It was dawning on me how the Ahwahneechee people must have felt when they settled here amongst the mountains thousands of years earlier. This was a special place.
Taking our time hiking in and around the Valley was a treat. The First People had been replaced by some gnarly outdoors enthusiasts. Beatnik climbers in their element, some climbing walls for the first time, some travelling in on a monthly pilgrimage. Wet and weary hikers would come down from or set off on the John Muir Trail, showing up at all times of the night to drink beer and refuel, shedding mud and muck around the ski-lodge eateries and forking out $5 for a long-awaited shower.
Mirror Lake, Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls then back to Happy Isles was a stunning day. A moment of calm looking up at Liberty Cap, Broderick and over the forest floor and it dawns on you why nature is as important for human evolution now as it has ever been. It physically and psychologically rejuvenates in a way that nothing else does. The sprit soars in Yosemite, technology becomes irrelevant, your first instinct is to breathe adventure and seek more from life.
We left the Valley to head for Mammoth Lakes, following the Tioga Road to Tuolomne Meadows, stopping at Tenaya Lake and toying with the idea of a dip. The wilderness here was different again. We were too late for Summer wildflowers, but the Meadows were still in bloom, Lembert Dome watching over the flatlands and naturally bubbling springs. Near enough inhabitable in the Winter, we felt fortunate to be able to sit in the sun surrounded by pine forest not yet a wall of white.
Mammoth and Owen’s Valley
And so on to Mammoth Lakes and Ansell Adams wilderness, having left the forests behind the mountains start to become more strung out, but higher in the Eastern Sierra and no less spectacular. Mammoth Mountain dominates the skyline when you exit the 395, but once you pass the main resort, some of the most amazing back country makes itself available. I spent the day running out alongside the San Joaquin River for as long as I dared. Following the Ridge Trail the canyon flanking me, topped by Mount Ritter, Banner and the Minarets. Arriving at Thousand Island Lake and navigating back to Agnew Meadows was simply stunning. Blue glacial water, white tipped peaks and grassland in its last flourish before the snows arrived.
You could stay a lifetime in Mammoth exploring the mountain and neighbouring John Muir and Sierra National Forest. I tried to venture as far as a full stomach would take me, Devil’s Postpile, Rainbow Falls, Red’s Meadow, Twin Lakes and Crystal Crag… Just when I thought my desire for backcountry was fulfilled, and before heading back down to the warmer climes of Bishop and Big Pine venturing South through Inyo County, I remembered the words of some travellers stocking up on supplies in Mammoth. That no trip in these parts would be complete without exploring the back and beyond of Wheeler Ridge.
I found myself on a whim pulling off at Tom’s Place and heading for Rock Creek. There were countless trailheads, but I ended up at the end of the road at Mosquito Flat and the Little Lakes Valley Trail. It was a 10 mile out and back walk I’ll never forget. Towering 13,000ft peaks on either side, streams gurgling from one sparkling lake to the next. Not until the end of the trail at Morgan Pass did I start wondering how far I’d hiked and whether I should turn back.
It’s funny when you’ve limited water supply and rations how quickly those granite monoliths turn from something you want to climb into something indomitable, an ominous reminder that this isn’t typical human habitat. That’s what I started feeling, and unfamiliar to the territory I headed back. Walking back through that hidden paradise wasn’t a bad alternative.
A time for reflection
Regretfully my stay in the mountains was coming to an end, dropping 5000ft from Mammoth down into Owens Valley through Independence and Lone Pine, with the highest peak in the US, Whitney not far away but an expedition too far. I had a four-hour drive back to Santa Monica to reflect upon my Sierra Nevada experience. Soaring mountains, crashing waterfalls, deep unrelenting forest, dusty trails. Our travels had created a portfolio of memories in words and pictures.
But this trip also left its indelible mark on the spirit. A feeling that can be called upon always, when the wind blows, the sun glares, river roars, lightning strikes. For all the tourism, commercial venture and change in and around the Sierras, like Joshua Tree, it remains a spiritual place. One I shan’t forget and look forward to returning to.