This was one of those kind of trips where no matter how hard we planned and prepared everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But boy, was it quite the adventure! It reminds me of the story of the speckled cow and if you read below you’ll understand why.
The entire gallery can be found here.
General Grant Tree
When we arrived on Friday the air was quite warm given our altitude of about 6000 feet. After locating our campsite at Crystal Springs campground we began to establish our campsite: quickly setting up our tents, removing equipment from the truck, and moving our food to the bear boxes. Completing this we proceeded to visit the Grant Tree; assuredly a short hike away.
Following the signs pointing us toward the General Grant Tree we wound our way down the road towards our destination. As we diligently pressed forward we began to discover what would become a common trend on this trip. Namely that the distances that we were expecting to walk were much further than what was indicated on the map. However jaded we were it no longer mattered as we eventually made it to our destination and beheld the giant Sequoia’s that this forest is known for.
Buena Vista Peak
After getting a fairly good night’s rest where I only woke up 3 times (once per hour starting at 5) before finally getting up it I took a wonderful coin operated shower. Slated to last for 3 minutes, my 4 quarters brought me at least a good 5 minutes of beautiful warmth. Alas such luxuries cannot possibly last forever so it was time to get breakfast and pack lunch. Munching away on our muffins and packing our sandwiches for lunch our group prepared itself for the day. Our first target of the day was the General Sherman Tree, which is the largest tree by volume. We began our trip from camp in our cars winding up and down the mountain where we were distracted by Buena Vista Peak and the amazing view of the trees spread all over the mountainside.
General Sherman Tree
After Buena Vista Peak we made our way to the General Sherman Tree. Hiking down an easy path to the tree we spent a few minutes admiring the tree before decided to press on to our next destination and got back in our cars.
Continuing on down the road towards our third goal, Mineral King Ranger Station, we began to realize that the distance and time required to get there was prohibitive since we also scheduled a tour of Crystal Cave in the afternoon. However before the time crunch there was something more important to behold. We were getting low on gas. The decision was made to head towards Three Rivers in order to attempt a refueling. Pressing onward we finally made it to Three Rivers and stopped at the first gas station we could locate, a Chevron’s. As we pulled into the pumps we noticed something peculiar on the octane selectors. Sticky notes? What was going on? Closer inspection revealed three words replicated throughout the station on octane 87 and 89. “Out of Order”. Crap. Fortunately the attendant provided us with a helpful tip. The Shell a block down had gas. Making a mad scramble for the next station we began our fill up.
Oh, but our troubles had only begun. While the truck was filling we noticed that it was filling up rather slowly, almost to the point of a dribble. We moved the other car to a different pump and got a normal flow rate and we began to eat lunch while we waited for the truck to fill. The driver of the truck, who I will call “B” began to look for a bathroom while he was waiting for the truck to fill up. Everywhere he looked however, provided him with an obstacle. Either the bathroom was out of order or it was not for public use. Three Rivers was quickly becoming a place we never wanted to see again.
With the cars filled up and lunch mostly in our bellies we decided to head to Crystal Cave even though it would put us there a couple hours before our tour. Further driving to Mineral King Ranger Station would just take too long. And so, we began the long windy journey back up the mountain, gaining back the ~3000 feet of altitude that we had lost on the way down. Finally at the entrance to the fork of the road we began the last leg towards the Crystal Cave. We winded through more mountainous terrain with sharp turns and narrow passes. Soon I came to the realization that the 45 minute ETA the ranger had mentioned was not an exaggeration. We were going up and down and round and round until we finally made it to the parking lot of the cave.Would we be able to move up to a different time slot? The question burned in our mind as we got restless. Alas, the wait list for the earlier time slots was slammed. There would be no way to get in earlier so we chilled together for the next couple hours. Finally our turn arrived. After we got the quick safety talk and disinfected our shoes from the white nose disease rampaging the Eastern half of the US we began the 15 minute walk down to the cave. The sky had been growing steadily more cloudy and rain had already started misting down, but we weren’t too concerned. However as we progressed further towards the entrance of the cave we began to hear distant thunder. Once at the cave entrance our guide told us: Rain okay. Thunder okay. Lightning not okay. As long as the strikes were distant we were safe. We waited a few more minutes for the stragglers to make it down to the entrance when the guide called out that they had spotted a close-by lightning strike. Turns out that the lightning tends to strike the rocks and cause major rock slides so staying around was a no go. We pressed on up the mountain back to the parking lot and as we did so it began to rain. Now, there are a certain group of people in Southern California who find a slight misting to be a frightening experience and would dare call that experience a rain storm. Well, this was not a misting. This was a complete downpour and as we made our way back up we quickly found ourselves soaked to the bone as thunder roared around us and lightning lit up the sky in bright flashes.
Back in the car our only choice was to drive back to camp and so we did, only slightly disappointed. Once at camp we were able to enjoy hot chocolate but my shoes which were left by the tent were completely soaked. No problem, I have my hiking boots as backup!
With our spirits high and my hiking boots dry we began our journey South to Topokah Falls. Despite the thunderstorm the day before, the trail was fairly dry, and the air, though slightly chilly, gave way to the warmth of the sun. Mostly shaded by trees, the trail was gently sloping and meandered its way around the trees with the river bubbling close by. After we had made it past the forested area the trail gave way to a rocky path. Here we encountered a couple tourists on their way back who informed us that we had previously passed by a mother brown bear and her two cubs scrounging in the forest. Remarking that we had not seen said bear, and hoping to spot it on the return trip we continued forward.
The falls themselves seemed to be multi-level, casually spilling down to a rock shelf only to continue on down to another shelf and so on and so forth a couple times. Relieved to finally be at our destination we rest for a couple minutes and took a couple pictures.
B then mentioned that he wanted to climb up the waterfall and cross over to the opposite side of the river where there was a sheer cliff face overlooking the river.
I agreed and so began the extra leg of this journey. One of the girls, O, decided to join us while the others remained below. As we began our ascent it quickly became apparent that there would be a slight challenge to the climb.
Scrambling up rocks, forging on through heavy brush, and sliding down rock inclines, we made our way upwards to the first rock shelf containing the falls. After we had worked our way to that level we began the lateral movement across the river, jumping over dry rocks and making it to the other side safe and dry.The cliff we wanted to get to was another level up so we needed to climb up a short section of rock to get to it. This level looked like a little meadow so much that we were all thinking “The Hills are alive!”. Dodging slippery rocks and runoff from the night before we navigated using the plants for traction to the edge of the cliff where we could see all the others down below. What a beautiful sight.By this time, however, we could see fog/clouds spilling over the edges of the high canyon walls and we knew it was time to return home.
Snapping the obligatory selfie with my camera I began the descent back down with the others.The others were understandably antsy after waiting for us an hour, so it was time to head back. We began the march back when B stopped us. He claimed to have spotted something in the forest ahead but wasn’t sure. We paused. After nothing appeared we continued on, voices a little hushed. Around a few bends and then we encountered a couple other hikers who were keeping some distance from an area in the forest. Curious I peered ahead and then we all realized. Bears! Specifically a mother bear and her two cubs, scrounging around, and pawing at the fallen trees for grubs. I was surprised at how small the mother bear seemed, and the two cubs were to die for. Not wanting to actually die we kept our distance instead. Some foolish hikers got really close to one of the cubs that had ventured closer to the path to get a stupidly silly selfie. Thankfully the mother bear paid no heed and continued on foraging. After a couple minutes of watching them we moved on.
After lunch we decided to try out Big Baldy for our afternoon hike. It looked to be one of the higher elevation hikes we had done so it should be interesting. From the little bit of weather data we could pull down from our phones the day before we knew that there would be a thunderstorm around 5pm this day. Little did we know that this hike would be testing us to extreme limits.
The sign at the trail-head indicated that the trail would be gently sloping which gave the impression that this hike would be a leisurely one despite the 630 foot elevation gain. The sky was overcast, but there was nothing that indicated rain would be falling soon. Encouraged we pushed onward.
About a quarter way up we encountered what we dubbed as Justin Beaver. We spent a couple minutes debating what kind of animal he was (when I got home I found that he may indeed have been a marmot) and settled on just referring to him with the after-mentioned name. Justin Beaver himself didn’t seem to impressed with us, lazily staring at us from his rock only to turn away when the threat level seemed to be non-existent. The clouds at this point started to seem a little darker, and there was a little drizzle as we carried on up the mountain, but it wasn’t anything to write home about (Then why am I writing this?). Thunder rumbled quietly in the distance, but was infrequent enough that I considered pressing onward towards the end of the trail a doable goal.
We hit a high point on the ridge where it seemed like the trail ended and then we realized that we still had a bit more to go. The rain started gently coming down at this point and I ordered everyone to put on their jackets. No sooner had we done so then the hail started to drop. Pea-sized they wouldn’t do much but as they dropped the intensity began to increase heavily. We decided at that point that it was time to turn around immediately. Things could become dangerous now. The thunder that was off in the distance now sounded overhead, but so far no flashes of lightning to indicate anything striking nearby. I didn’t want to wait to find out if we would get some strikes, especially since I had a big metal tripod strapped to the outside of my backup. We urged everyone to pick up the pace and start our way back down the mountain. The hail dropped hard and combined with the rain to instantly soak any part of us that wasn’t waterproof. As we trudged on the cleared path began to turn into a raging river, floading the trail up to our ankles. Banks of hail gathered in large mounds, disguising the deep puddles underneath. My boots were completely soaked now. There was nothing we could do but push on. As the rain and hail pelted us I could see the water beginning to erode the path and the sides of the mountain above us, forming rivers of raging brown water that splashed down the mountainside and making walking near the edge a clear and present danger. One of the girls, C, was having trouble getting down due to the slickness of the mud, hail, and rain so I began to guide her as we pushed further and further down the mountain. Nearby I heard a loud crack, but I didn’t bring up the close lightning strike, instead encouraging everyone down the mountain.We slid, crawled, and tumbled our way further and further down the mountain, no longer trying to avoid the deep puddles and stinging hail, our only goal to get down the mountain to safety. After what was 45 minutes in the storm we finally made it back to the trailhead. Everyone cheered when we realized we had made it back to the cars. Now only to drive back 30 minutes while completely soaked.
That night we made sure everyone was changed into dry clothes and we heated up water for hot chocolate and cup of noodles. I had a headache from the altitude and only after laying down did I realize I was exhausted. After resting a little I was joined by everyone else in the tent as we settled down out of the rain to play 2 long games of monopoly deal.
Suffice to say that may be a story they don’t want me to repeat as that last game didn’t end until midnight, and even then it wasn’t a true ending…
Monday morning we cleaned up the camp and with heavy hearts left the forest to return to civilization.