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Where Unicorns are Created Part Two: Castle Crags to Crater Lake National Park

After spending the night at Castle Crags State Park, Alex and I drove north towards Oregon. We stopped in the "city" of Mt. Shasta, which sits at the base of the majestic Mt. Shasta. I do feel that majestic is an overplayed word when it comes to nature, but I believe Mt. Shasta deserves that descriptor. In Mt. Shasta, we navigated through a marathon and picked up croissants and coffee at a local coffee shop. Unfortunately we did not have time to explore more around Mt. Shasta and it is my dream someday to climb to the top. Castle Crag State Park

Driving through northern California and southern Oregon is always a trip. I never find myself wanting to stop there until I get to Medford or Klamath because of the area's history. Combining counties from northern rural California and the southern Oregon, is the state of Jefferson. Jefferson is most famously known for a 1941 incident when a group of armed young men stopped traffic on Highway 99 south of Yreka handing out proclamations of independence. In recent years, the movement gained speed and popularity, particularly in the northern California counties.

On this road trip, we took Highway 97 from Weed northward, driving through the very pretty Klamath Falls. It is the county seat of Klamath County, Oregon and has a population of approximately 20,000. While the area is considered high desert, there is plenty of water with lakes and it is a great jumping off point for both Crater Lake National Park (approximately fifty miles north of Klamath) and Lava Beds National Monument (approximately thirty miles south in California).

From this point onward, the landscape is dominated by dense forest and as we gain elevation, the air gets cooler and crisper. Once we enter Crater Lake National Park we are surrounded by green and on right runs a deep river canyon. Oregon is always surprisingly green, more shades of green than your largest Crayola crayon box ever had. Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake National Park is Oregon's only national park and is absolutely deserves the designation of national park. An intensely blue picturesque lake surrounded by the nearly two thousand foot sheer cliffs of an ancient caldera of destroyed volcano Mount Mazama. At 1,943 deep, it is the deepest lake in the United States and the second deepest in North America. The lake is directly filled by precipitation in the form of rain and snow melt. Portions of Rim Drive, the road around the lake, can be blocked for nearly the entire year and summer is the best time to go due to snow.

After seeing how ridiculously crowded Steel Visitor Center was with the Bermuda shorted parents and screaming pig tailed kids, we drove up to the Rim Road and parked. The Rim Road perches you on top of the lip of the caldera and you feel like you are high above in the clouds; imagine Howl's Moving Castle but with a lot of fucking snow. From there you can see the entirety of the lake including the two islands, Wizard Island and Phantom Ship. Boat tours will take you out to the islands, but we wanted to see if we could get around the entirety of the lake before exploring more.

crater lake hayley snowThe Rim Road circles around the lake and I took the opportunity to enjoy the snow. As a native southern Californian, snow is a magical substance that occurs in mythical cold places home to Yetis and snowboarders. Whenever I see snow I become ridiculously excited, jump up and down and scream "SNOOOEWWWW". As you can possibly guess, I have never had to scrape snow off of a windshield or try to walk down a busy city street during a blizzard. Instead, I have endured years of endlessly perfect weather punctuated by extreme drought. I probably made a snow angel because that's what you do.

It was fourth of July and the Rim Road was not opened all the way around the lake. We were stopped by a sign battered by wind and snow, straight out of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. A sign that tells you something ominous, but life changing and exciting is beyond it. Having a campsite deadline, we did not have the opportunity to explore past this sign and enter into Mordor.

Crater Lake is a place I would like to revisit some day. I want to swim in it, brave my seasickness and take a boat out to one of the islands, and hike around the pinnacles. There's a reason places like these were worshiped by Native Americans. They are magical and awe inspiring, far more soul reaching than an invisible hand.

Sequoia/King's Canyon: A Land of Giants

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"This landscape testifies to nature's size, beauty, and diversity - huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and the world's largest trees." National Park Service

Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks are sister parks in the southern Sierra Nevada. On the National Park website, they are lumped in together and I have a hard time remembering which sites are in which park. Home to the world's largest trees and some of the deepest canyons in the world, these parks are often overshadowed by their more famous neighbor Yosemite.

There are also marmots.

Getting There

The National Park Service warns travelers not to rely on GPS as they are not reliable in this area.

Getting to Sequoia/King's Canyon is not a difficult enterprise, especially in the summer. In the winter be prepared to be bring snow chains and know that roads are suspect to closure. There is no through highway connecting the east and west sides of the park.

Highway 180 east from Fresno enters the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park, then continues 30 miles east to the Cedar Grove area. Highway 180 ends 6 miles east of Cedar Grove.

Highway 198 enters Sequoia National Park from the southwest via Three Rivers.

Places of Interest

The park can be divided into five distinct regions: Foothills, Mineral King, Giant Forest/Lodgepole, Grant Grove, and Cedar Grove. Mineral King and Cedar Grove areas are only accessible in the summer, but the other three areas are open year round. I've explored Giant Forest/Lodgepole and Grant Grove areas in both summer and winter. In this post I will be focusing on Giant Forest/Lodgepole in the summer.

Giant Forest/Lodgepole

This region of the park is home to many of the world's largest trees. It makes up the largest area of the park and is an excellent area for hiking of all levels, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. The National Park Service recommends the Giant Forest Museum (summer only), General Sherman Tree, Sentinel Tree, Moro Rock, Tunnel Log, Crescent Meadow, and Crystal Cave. Being the winner I am, I have not been to any of these sights. Crystal Cave and Moro Rock have been on my to do list for a while; I will definitely be checking them out on my next visit.

Alta Peak Hike

A couple of years ago I obsessed over the website summitpost.org and peak bagging. It was on this website that Alta Peak caught my eye. Described as a relatively easy, accessible, but fairly high peak at over 11,000 feet, it seemed like a perfect warm up to something bigger. It still remains the highest mountain that I've climbed.

The sign for Alta Peak Trail.

While Alta Peak can easily be done as a day hike, my climbing partner and I were coming from the San Francisco Bay Area and wanted to take our time with the hike. Our main concern was the elevation difference between our starting point, Santa Cruz, and our destination, so we planned our trip as an overnight backpacking trip. If you are camping in the backcountry you need to stop at Lodgepole Visitor Center and get a $15 backpacking permit. During the quota period (May 22, 2015 through September 26, 2015), rangers limit the number of backpackers per trailhead. From here we drove to the Alta Trail head at Wolverton.

There are plenty of water sources on the way in the guise of streams. Make sure you bring plenty of water and a way to purify water from natural sources. I typically go with iodine tablets which take about thirty minutes to purify, are small and light, and easy to use; they do have a funky taste to some people. The trail is fairly steep on the way up to Panther Gap, which is the first great vista along this trail.

The view from Panther Gap.

From Panther Gap continue up the trail. The trail hugs the side of a mountain and it's a long way down. At one point I lost my balance and tripped, nearly tumbling 6,000 feet down. There are plenty of rock formations, wildflowers, and birds. I kept thinking this would be a great place to go rock climbing, though I'm not sure if I would want to haul all the gear up there.

By the way, this area of the park is not where you will find the giant trees. The sub-alpine meadows, granite rock formations, and distant snowy peaks remind me of Yosemite.

At around five miles in we came to Mehrten Meadow, a beautiful wildflower filled meadow at 9,140 feet. We set up camp close between the trail and a burbling creek. There are few places I can imagine more idyllic for a campsite. We ate a dinner of jerky, a couple of backpacking meals, and hot cocoa. The temperatures drop quickly at this altitude even in the summer so make sure to bring layers.

On the trail to Alta Peak

The last two miles were steep and challenging, crossing over icy snow, rocky terrain, and sneaky marmots; they don't want to be seen, but we spotted a couple. Crossing icy snow was a new experience for me and Ryan walked me through it. On our June trip, the last part of the trail was covered by snow and we carefully made our way up to the top.

After trudging up the snow, we were rewarded with a panoramic vista of the Kaweah Range and Pear Lake. They are absolutely stunning and absolutely worth it.

View from the top of the peak.

We snapped a couple of photos at the top, got bothered by bees and attempted to spot a marmot or two. My favorite part of the hike was the controlled butt slide I took back down the trail from the top. So much fun!

Alta Peak Hike 3

 

Between the giant trees, grand vistas, and jagged peaks, Sequoia/King's Canyon is a must see for a peak bagger, day tripper, or car tourist. I can't wait until I can go back for Moro Rock. And marmots.