I enjoyed our trip last year with Kaya Yuki to Yosemite so much that I thought we should try it again this year. Again the plan was to go the weekend before Memorial Day weekend to beat the crowds. Kaya was finished with school by then, but unfortunately I wasn't and I needed to proctor and grade an exam on Monday so that limited our choices to the weekend or earlier. And unfortunately everything was booked up in Yosemite by the time I tried to make reservations. I thought I'd keep checking in case there were cancellations, but otherwise we'd need to have a backup plan. Kaya was willing to go anywhere, and Kyoko was actually tired of Yosemite and wanted to try something new. One thought was Whitney Portal, and the campground was just starting to accept reservations the weekend before Memorial Day weekend. I was worried it would be very cold though and also there would be too much snow to really hike anywhere. Another possibility was Sequoia and Kings Canyon on the west side. I'd never been to either before, and perhaps I could finally beat the Kings Canyon Curse! Everyone seemed to like this option so I thought we'd go for it.
Kaya's school finished Thursday May 15 and she actually left her last final early to catch the train to Los Angeles. I left for Union Station just after my office hours and made it there shortly after she arrived. Everyone spent the night at our apartment and we got up around 5am, left around 5:30am, and headed out.
The plan was to camp at Lodgepole, the biggest campground on the west side. Unfortunately most of the campground is closed until Memorial Day weekend with just a few walkin spots available (and it was completely reserved for Memorial Day weekend). I called a couple days before and the ranger said the spots were already all occupied and he didn't know if anything would be free. There were a couple campgrounds lower down that might have more openings, but they were a long drive from where we wanted to visit so I was hoping we wouldn't have to stay at them. Also they were at low elevations and might be hot. I had been worrying about cold before, but there was a heatwave this weekend and now heat was more of a concern! It actually worked out perfectly because while it was extremely hot down in LA, it was just about perfect in the mountains. It did get hot during the day, and still was cold especially the first night, but overall it was very pleasant.
The drive to the park went smoothly save there was a fair wait at the entrance station. I was worried about getting a campsite but fortunately most other cars stopped at various tourist spots whereas I headed right for the campground. It was mostly full but luckily there were a couple sites open and we picked number 25, a nice one. There was another group of sites open near the river that I didn't notice until the last day and it would have been nicer to stay there, but our location was good. All the restrooms were closed due to the off-season which was something of a pain, but it wasn't too long a walk to the visitor center.
The plan was do some short hikes and otherwise take it easy the first day. Then Kaya and I would do a longer hike the second day while Kyoko and Kyle played around. The third day we'd drive up to Kings Canyon to Roads End, which I was told was a spectacular drive. Finally I'd enter Kings Canyon and defeat the curse! We'd just be driving so what could go wrong? Well I should have had more respect for the curse. The drive up to Lodgepole was on the usual narrow and steep and twisty mountain road, and Kaya having taken motion sickness medicine was okay although certainly not enjoying it. However Kyle was miserable, and I knew right away that there was no point going to Roads End if everyone was just going to be unhappy. So yet another chance denied.
We set up our tents at the campsite. I'd just purchased (using a 20% off REI coupon) a new Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 to use as a roomy one-person tent replacing my Sierra Designs Light Year. Technology had improved enough that this small 2 person tent was about the same weight as the much more cramped 1 person tent. I had Kaya use the Light Year the first night and offered to switch the second night--of course I wanted to use my new tent first. But she didn't want to bother switching the second night despite feeling her tent was very cramped indeed. This was her first time ever camping and it wasn't completely ideal but she still seemed to enjoy it. Kyoko and Kyle used the Sierra Designs Meteor Light tent, which is a full-sized 2 person tent but Kyle is big enough now that we can't really squeeze all three of us in. We'll have to get a bigger family tent sometime. You were supposed to pitch at most two tents per site but ours were so small I didn't think anyone would mind, and indeed no one complained.
We visited the Lodgepole store for a quick lunch and to purchase some snacks, and then headed to our easily family hike for the day, the Congress Trail through the giant sequoia grove. We first visited the General Sherman tree, the largest living thing on earth, and here's a picture of Kyle and me in front of it.
We then walked along most of the rest of the loop, except that we cut off the bottom part by taking the Alta Trail. It was a little confusing as there were many trails and our maps as well as the signage were not detailed enough. A very pleasant short hike, but a bit boring for Kyle.
We still had a lot of time, but Kyoko and Kyle were tired and content to just rest at our campsite. So Kaya and I went off to do a pair of nearby short hikes that were close to each other. The first was the short climb up Moro Rock, which I recalled my friend Haiying doing years ago. She also hiked to the top of Alta Peak, which I would have loved to do this trip, but the trail was still covered with snow and ice and seemed too dangerous to attempt this early in the season. Lower down around Lodgepole there was little snow, so Kyle was disappointed and I was as well--I was planning to show them some snow travel techniques and had even brought my mountaineering boots, crampons and ice ax, but we never had a chance to use them.
The 300 foot climb up stairs carved in the stone to the top of Moro Rock was short and fun, and the 360 degree views were spectacular--easily the best of the whole trip. I felt guilty that we had to put in so little effort for so much reward! Here is Kaya at the top of Moro Rock with Castle Rocks in the background.
Here is video of the 360 degree view. I used to put video up on this site, but have decided to put it up on YouTube from now on instead to save space and bandwidth on my own site. The problem of course is that the quality is much lower than the original video, but take a look anyway.
We then took the 2.3 mile Crescent Meadow/Log Meadow loop that passed such sights as the Chimney Tree and Tharp's Log. Below is a picture of Crescent Meadow itself.
Both hikes were terrific and it seemed Kyle and Kyoko would really enjoy them as well, so I thought we'd try doing them all together the next day. We went back and all had dinner together, eating our freeze-dried dinners. We normally eat the Mountain House brand, which we really like, but this time I tried bringing some Backpacker's Pantry meals for variety especially since they had some quasi-asian food that Kyoko and Kaya might like. But after sampling a few of both brands over the two days we all agreed that Mountain House was great but every Backpacker's Pantry meal we tried was lousy. So we'll stick with what we like in the future.
After dinner (I think it was after--or maybe before if it was late) Kaya and Kyoko took showers at the pay showers, which cost 13 quarters for 8 minutes. They would take showers again the next day while Kyle and I roughed it and stayed dirty the whole trip. Kaya was especially fascinated by the showers and the second day went with Kyoko to time her shower. Sure enough it lasted exactly 8 minutes.
We went to bed fairly early--a little after it got dark which was maybe 8:30 or 9 I think. It got very cold that first night but I slept pretty well despite having the lightest sleeping bag (30 degrees). The reason was that I wore my medium-weight long underwear (I brought the lightweight ones too for flexibility) and together with the bag I was actually too warm except for my head. I didn't need to get once the whole night which is rare for me. Kaya also had a 30 degree bag I think but wasn't using it properly (she didn't have her head in the right place) and wasn't wearing warm enough clothes, so she was cold. And apparently Kyoko was cold despite having a 15 degree bag. I think Kyle was okay with his 20 degree bag--he just buried himself in it.
The second day we got up early, had breakfast, and then Kaya and I headed to the Wolverton trailhead. Our plan was to hike to Heather Lake, and if possible beyond to Emerald Lake and Pear Lake. I knew there would be snow, so I figured we'd just go as far as we could and then turn back. The hikes should be short and fairly easy--only about 8 miles roundtrip to Heather Lake and 12 miles roundtrip to Pear Lake. This was supposed to be a spectacular hike, so I was really looking forward to it. I forget just when we started; it was probably 9am or earlier. I do recall telling Kyoko we should easily be back by 2pm if we went to Heather Lake, and 4 or 5pm if we went as far as Pear Lake. But I should have known from past experience that things always take longer than I plan....
I'd looked online for trail conditions and had read that the Watchtower trail (apparently the more beautiful of the two routes) was closed due to dangerous conditions. The alternate trail going over a hill called the Hump was supposed to be "free of snow to the Hump" or something like that, which I interpreted as the whole Hump being snow free (which would mean we'd have no trouble getting to Heather Lake) but it must have meant the base of the Hump, and indeed there was a lot more snow than I expected. Below is a map of our rough route including roughly how far we got.
We brought fairly light hiking gear as it seemed it would be a warm and nice day. Normally I would have worn my mountaineering boots knowing there was snow, but Kaya didn't have any boots for snow so I decided we should be even and just wore my trail running shoes, and she her normal running shoes. The one thing I did bring along were my pair of hiking poles, figuring we could each use one, and that turned out to be a great idea. Early on we ran into a guy coming back who said there was a lot of snow starting not far from where we were, which was a surprise. I thought of asking him how far he'd gotten, but didn't since I wanted it to be a surprise for us how far we could get ourselves.
Indeed we did start hitting snow quite early on in the trail, but it wasn't too bad at first. There would be patches covering parts of the trail, but you could see where the trail continued beyond that. What was quite confusing was that at one point there was a sign pointing left that said the trail to Pear Lake went that way. However all we could see was a steep hill to our left with no trail whatsoever up it. Furthermore it didn't seem we were nearly at the junction point at which the trail to the lakes should split off. So I figured we should just go straight for the time being, and turn around later if it seemed we'd made the wrong choice. In any case it would be interesting to see where this trail led. I noticed some metal plates on trails that had the silhouette of a cat-like animal on them, and the trail we didn't want headed to Panther Gap, so I feared we were indeed on the wrong trail.
After a while however we came the actual trail junction, and found out we were on the right trail after all. So I wondered what that strange sign had meant. A short while later we came to the junction of the Watchtower and Lakes trails, and indeed there was a sign saying the Watchtower trail was closed. We of course took the Lakes trail.
The snow increased more and more and the trail became harder to follow. Here's a picture I took at one point which shows a little bit of what it was like, although it's not completely representative. I wanted Kaya to pretend like she was hiking normally but she opted to pose instead.
As you can see the snow wasn't very deep for the most part, so it wasn't bad to just hike in our normal shoes. However the hard part was figuring out just where to go! After a while more we ran into another couple who were also having trouble following the trail. We found out later their names were Ron and Sara (or something like that, but let's just call them Ron and Sara), Ron being from Israel and Sara from Pennsylvania I think; they talked to each other in what sounded like Hebrew at times. They seemed to know what they were doing more than we did, but although they had on more sturdy hiking shoes they didn't have any poles and would slip and fall at times. We all searched around to try to figure out where to go, but couldn't figure it out. So I decided to cheat--I'd brought along a Garmin GPS and turned that on to see if it would help. It turns out I'd loaded the topo maps for this region into it a while ago, and although they aren't the most accurate they did show roughly where the trail was supposed to be! So we headed for that and actually managed to find it. That was very cool.
Kaya and I started following the trail, and Ron and Sara stayed a little behind I think, or else were going more slowly. Anyway we continued on for a while but again kept losing the trail, and even with the help of the GPS it seemed it was going to be impossible to make it to Heather Lake. We reluctantly decided to turn back, and used the GPS to help guide us back.
Who should we run into again but Ron and Sara! And it turns out while we were blindly following the GPS, they were actually looking around and noticed metal signs posted on some trees that seemed to indicate which way the trail went. The strange thing was though that it didn't seem to really be the trail, or in any case it didn't seem to indicate well just where the trail was supposed to be. So we decided to join them and try again, this time following the signs and also seeing if we could piece together the trail from them.
It was hard to find the next sign many times, but between us we managed to do it, and kept going. At one point there was a somewhat tricky creek crossing in that most of the creek was under snow and it was hard to tell just how firm the snow was and where it was safe to cross. Sara misjudged the snow when she tried to cross and ended up plunging one foot into the creek. Kaya and I managed to get across with the help of our poles.
After what seemed like a long time for a such a short hike we finally made it to the top of the Hump around 1pm, and were rewarded with spectacular views. As usual pictures don't do them justice but here are a couple anyway.
Here's video of the scene.
We somehow got quite a bit ahead of Ron and Sara and sat on some rocks, ate lunch, and enjoyed the view. They eventually joined us and stopped themselves. One view we didn't get was Heather Lake, and it was also unclear just how to get down to it. I thought we should head left, whereas Kaya thought she'd seen markers leading right. Either way looked a bit dangerous, and I was also worried as it was already quite late. Ron said he saw signs heading left, but when we tried to find them none of us could! I thought that might just be the connecting Watchtower trail in any case, and could find no safe way to head down. So we went right instead but Kaya also couldn't find her signs again, and again there seemed to be no safe way down, so we reluctantly gave up and headed back, following again the signs in the other direction.
Ron and Sara stayed around and we never saw them again. I don't know if they made it to the lake or not, and hopefully they made it back fine. It seems we must have been really close to the lake and it was sad we didn't make it there, but since we didn't really know what we were doing I'm glad we didn't risk it. I'd be very curious to go back and find out what we should have done, however.
The trip back was mostly uneventful, and we found a good snow bridge to cross the creek on so that went fine. However at some point we couldn't figure out where the next sign on the tree went. I'm sure if we tried harder we could have figured it out, but by that time I was tired of following the signs and turned on the GPS instead. So we followed that cross country and eventually hit the trail, which was nice. However after a little bit we realized we were going to the wrong way on the trail! We'd actually hit it quite a bit lower than expected. This was also puzzling. But as we walked back I pieced together all the information and thought I understood what was going on. I'd at first thought of the signs as extra info to help keeping people on the main trail, or perhaps emergency info for people lost to find their way back. Now it seemed more likely that there was actually a separate winter trail that had little to do with the regular trail, and the signs on the trees were for that. That would explain the sign that seemed to point to nowhere, and it seemed if we'd followed the tree plaques all the way down we could have run right into that sign.
A quick stop in the visitor center and a talk to the ranger confirmed my hypothesis. Indeed if I'd done better research I would have learned there is a whole network of signed winter trails as well as guided winter ski/snowshoe trips to a ranger's hut near Pear Lake. That sounds like a lot of fun! The problem with our hike was, as the ranger noted, that we were doing it during a transition period between winter and summer. So really both trails were in bad shape. We should come back and it it properly in one season or another. Still it was a lot of fun. I'd wanted to get more experience hiking in the snow and this was just right--I got a much better feel for snow and did it in safe conditions. Kaya seemed to enjoy her first snow hike as well.
I had the bright idea later to download the track data from the GPS onto a topo map, so I could find out just where we went. The middle of the three tracks shows us wandering around just after the first time we met Ron and Sara, trying to find the summer trail (the backtracking part might be when we gave up). I then turned off the unit when we followed the winter trail, but turned it on again at the furthest point we got on the hump. It's right about where I thought we were. As you can see we got quite close to Heather Lake, and Kaya's idea to head toward the right was correct, at least if we were to descend near the summer trail. Perhaps the other signs led to the Watchtower trail (this doesn't make sense though as I believe it is closed every winter). In any case it's clear from the map (and was from the terrain itself) that the descent to the lake would have been quite steep, and I'm not sure we were prepared to do it with the equipment we had. It's probably for the best that we turned back. The leftmost trail is the final descent simply following the GPS. It seems like we were paralleling the summer trail so I wonder if the Garmin trail markings on their maps were simply so far off that we thought we were following it. I don't recall just what my plan was, but I think I was trying to hit the trail to the right of where we were going rather than the trail at the bottom that we eventually hit, and thus the confusion when we got to it.
When we got back to camp we put our shoes and socks, which had gotten wet and muddy, out to dry, and it was interesting that they attracted a huge number of flies, especially my shoes and socks. I'm not sure just why. Kaya ended up throwing her shoes, which were old anyway, out. She just hiked the next day in her sandals, but that turned out to be a mistake as she got blisters from that.
We got back around 4 or 5pm I think, which was earlier than Kyoko expected. Kyoko and Kyle had just played in the river a bit and otherwise relaxed. We had some time and were thinking of taking Kyoko and Kyle to Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow, but they weren't in the mood and we decided to do it the next morning on our way out. We had a fairly early dinner and went to bed early as well. The second night was a lot warmer for some reason and I found I had to wear nothing in my sleeping bag to not be too hot. I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn't fall back asleep so lacking anything better to do I took a walk to the visitor center. The moon was so bright I couldn't see many stars unfortunately. I was able to sleep again when I got back. Everyone else seemed to sleep better the second night.
Sunday morning we got up, ate breakfast and broke camp. Kaya managed to get whacked in the lower lip with one of the poles of the tent she was using, which drew blood, and I'm sure left her with an unpleasant last memory.
We drove to Moro Rock and climbed up, which everyone enjoyed. Kaya and I tried to figure out just how far we'd gotten the previous day. The picture below shows Alta Peak (with snow covering the trail leading to the top) and we thought the mound to its left might be the Hump, but looking more closely at maps it seems this is probably unnamed peak 10,561 and the hump is further left and back, out of the frame of this picture and either blocked by a ridge or further left of the ridge in the video from the previous trip to Moro Rock.
Along with the sights we enjoyed seeing some lizards doing pushups on Moro Rock, the first time we'd seen such a thing. Kyoko managed to capture one on video.
After Moro Rock we did a loop near Crescent Meadow that was slightly shorter than the loop Kaya and I had done two days before. We returned along the west edge of Log Meadow instead of the right edge. The highlights of Cresent Meadow, the Chiney Tree and Tharp's Log were still all part of the trip. Here is Kyle inside the Chimney Tree.
Both Kyle and Kyoko liked Tharp's Log the best of this hike.
Here's a short video of the interior.
We stopped by the museum briefly, and then headed home. The return trip was uneventful save for a traffic jam around Santa Clarita caused by an accident. We got gas just before leaving the Central Valley and ate our now traditional lunch at the McDonalds in Gorman. A wonderful trip and I hope we can somehow do something similar next May!