Sunday, November 3, 2013

Fall hiking in the Western Sierra

Story and photos by Elliott Almond

ARNOLD, Calif.--As October ceded the stage to November we returned to one of our newly discovered haunts: Calavaras Big Trees State Park along CA 4 toward Ebbetts Pass. I had visited two weeks earlier, luckily catching the fall foliage color changes in peak season. We were a week late the first weekend of November but it proved to be another perfect outing. This time a Bay Area friend joined the party, equipped with his professional lenses and eye for taking exquisite photographs. I had my usual point-and-shoot but now I also had a human subject to help give the arbol beasts some perspective. 

John somehow hiked eight miles with his camera always pointed upward.

Standing in the hallowed out portion of the tree call the Palace Hotel

John is dwarfed by the base of the Agassiz Tree, the largest in the park.
We think this redwood is part of the Moody Group, a handful of trees lying east of the maintained trail's end at Agassiz.
Some of the big ones along the trial just popped out.

The old trail continues to the eastern border of the grove but it is all but impassable without a serious bushwhack and a full day. John and I ventured into the thicket to explore a bit. The trail disappears quickly even though some trail map guides say you can continue for 1 mile. Despite the setback we were able to find a handful of Sequoias most don't see because, well, who in their right mind gets that far into the forest? We also then tried to wend our way up Big Tree Creek beyond the Agassiz Tree. Again, we quickly were turned back by an impossibly tangled forest understory. We were able to bushwhack a ways, however, to come into the Moody Group -- at least we think we reached the edge of the group based on a detailed map we have. 

We enjoyed the last vestiges of autumn colors. A storm is expected by the end of the week. The South Grove will be all but inaccessible once the first snow blankets the spongy turf. 

                                                          The Kansas Group of three Sequoias are the South Grove's final burst of magnificent redwood.

                                                        THE NORTH GROVE
The Discovery Stump

This is the place most visitors stop because it is a 1.6-mile stroll through a thinned-out forest next to the visitor's center. For anyone wanting a close-up look at some big trees this is the place to go. John equated it to a tree zoo, which is an apt description. The more adventurous should take the scenic overlook to get a more interesting perspective of the trees by looking across at them instead of peering up all the time.

Viewing Old Bachelor from the scenic overlook trail gave us a chance to inspect the canopy.

The state park service maintains the grove to make it accessible to visitors. Unlike the South Grove, the Sequoias stand out without the obstruction of a mixed forest that includes incense ceders, sugar pines and Ponderosa pines.

John hangs out at the Pioneer Cabin Tree.

A word on tree heights. It's almost impossible to know the truth when it comes to the world's tallest Sequoias. For example, according to a 310-foot tree has been reported in Calavaras Big Trees in the South Grove. It seems possible considering there are about 1,000 Sequoias in the grove. The loop trail takes visitors past no more than 10 percent of those trees.  The website, run by Welkers Nursery in Auberry, Calif., states that another tree in Redwood Mountain Grove in Kings Canyon National Park also is 310 feet, and that these are the world's tallest Sequoias. A biologist at the Calaveras visitors center questioned the veracity of a 310-foot tree her the park. I can't find any reliable information that one exists.Also, Humboldt State professor and redwood authority Steve Sillett has reported measuring a 314-foot Sequoia along Sherman Creek in Giant Forest just outside Sequoia National Park. Sillett and his crew have perfected the measurement of trees, starting with coast redwoods.Here is a list of  three tallest Sequoias:314 -- Unnamed, Sequoia National Forest (reported by Sillett)311.4 --Unnamed, Redwood Mountain Grove, Kings Canyon NP (climbed and measured by Sillett)311.0 --Unnamed Headwaters of Upper Redwood Creek basin at junction of Cabin Creek (discovered by Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor, famous for identifying many of the world's biggest coast redwoods)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Giant Sequoias, Sierra's fall foliage

The Chimney Tree.

Story and photos by Elliott Almond
ARNOLD, Calif. --  When it comes to mammoth redwoods some of the biggest specimens often remain a big secret. Such is the case at surprising Calaveras Big Trees State Park in the western rampart of the Sierra Nevada.
About 1,0000 of Calaveras’ towering giants are found in the spectacular South Grove among the park’s greatest collection of sequoias. State park officials offer a road map to the Agassiz Tree at the back end of the grove, one of the finest areas for giant sequoias north of Yosemite’s Mariposa forest. It’s one of the few trees they identify in the extensive grove; perhaps as a way to keep visitors from disturbing root systems, or worse, defacing sequoias like they have done with the Agassiz Tree. Dissuading people from searching for super big trees isn’t unusual these days. Rangers and scientists take extensive measures to hide and protect some of best of the coast redwoods in Prairie Creek and Jed Smith state parks along the Northern California coast.
But next time I visit Calaveras -- and there will be a next time -- I’ll examine the grove to see if I spot ones taller than Agassiz. Such determination feeds an intellectual curiosity, nothing more.
Although the giant sequoias commanded the spotlight nothing was more elemental than tramping alone through the quiet woods on a brilliant autumn day. Nature’s Impressionists had painted the big-leaf maples, Pacific dogwood and hazelnuts in a blaze of golds, yellows and crimson as if waving magic brushes across a wide swath of forest. It is peak coloring-book season from now through early November along this stretch of the North Fork of the Stanislaus River.
Any Californian yearning for a taste of New England’s famous fall foliage will enjoy the fluttering Monets along the narrow roads and trails. The conifer forest is a mix of evergreens and deciduous shrubbery that perform nature’s annual denouement to mark a final, illuminating breath before hibernation.
The remote South Grove is accessed from a well-maintained trail that offers hikes from 3 ½ to 7 ½ miles and beyond. But for tree lovers, a 5 ½-mile loop will lead past many of the big ones.

Here is a photo essay of my 7 ½-mile hike into the grove:

At an elevation between 3,000 feet and 4,500 feet the western Sierra Nevada is alive with colors, particularly in Gold Rush Country that extends from Sonora in the south to Nevada City. The colors are more prominent in the higher elevations of the region.

According to state park officials, an ideal time to visit Calaveras Big Tree is just after a strong rain because storms often shake the colorful leaves from their branches and carpet the moist ground in an illuminating landscape. But I had no such luck on a cloudless, blue-sky day. Ah, shucks.

The head-turning colors almost made me forget that I had come to stand beneath the giant sequoias of Calaveras. The northernmost grove of sequoias lies east of Auburn in Forestville on the the western slope of Donner Pass. According to descriptions, the Forestville grove isn't as extensive as the sequoias of Calaveras.

Big Tree Creek cuts through the South Grove. This scene is near the end of a 2.5-mile loop trail into the Bradley Grove, which is not worth the trouble except for adding some mileage to the day's hike.

THE SOUTH Grove straddles a ridge trial that eventually descends into the grove after 1 mile. A signpost alerts hikers when they are entering the natural preserve. About 100 sequoias are located along the trail. The groves in Sequoia and Kings Canyon and Yosemite are exceptional compared to Calaveras'. But these ancient trees are worthy in their own right. The park is easily accessible to the Bay Area -- just a three-hour drive past Stockton along Highway 4 that eventually crosses 8,730-foot Ebbetts Pass well above Calaveras Big Trees.

                                   THE AGASSIZ TREE

 The Agassiz Tree at the end of the South Grove trial is considered the crown jewel of the Calaveras park. It is 25 feet in diameter and 275 feet high. Considering an unnamed tree in the same grove is 310 feet tall Agassiz loses some of its oomph for tree geeks. The backside of Agassiz is hollowed out because of lightning strikes that set the beast ablaze. Visitors have carved their initials into the blackened bark, underscoring why it is important to not advertise where all the truly big specimens are located.
 Although the trial ends at Agassiz Tree, it is possible to extend the route for another mile along Big Tree Creek. It will afford the intrepid traveler a chance to see more giants that are a bit off the beaten path.

 Some of the unidentified sequoias away from the trail seemed enormous but without any kind of instrumentation, I could not judge their heights. Not that it mattered. The contrast between blazing fall foliage and the redwoods provided a spectacular day in the woods.

The so-called Kansas Group is a closely bunched stand of redwoods. Unlike coast redwoods the sequoias usually need wide berths to grow above the forest canopy. But these peas in a pod seem to keep each other company.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Desolation Wilderness: Sierra Nevada's hiking paradise above Lake Tahoe

By Elliott Almond

THE NAME Desolation Wilderness conjures images of an unreachable, hellish corner of Death Valley. Instead, the massive granite basin is one of the most popular backpacking locales in the northern Sierra Nevada. Rising above Lake Tahoe from the southwest and buttressed by the Crystal Range to the west, the jagged rocky terrain is a hiker’s playground.

I had wanted to visit the region for more than a decade, and finally got the chance recently when a friend invited me to join him on one of his, shall I say, “concoctions.” For the record: Tom despises well-maintained, regularly traveled footpaths. He has been known to pour over computerized topography maps trying to design routes that take him far from the sounds of humans. In the past three decades he has spent enough time in the Desolation Wilderness to talk fluently about the various peaks, valleys and glacial lakes.

For our daylong trip on this early autumn day Tom devised a point-to-point hike that kept us on trail for almost the whole time. The plan was to start at the Eagle Lake trailhead off Highway 89 above Emerald Bay and finish at Glen Alpine Falls at Fallen Leaf Lake. Adding to the logistics, we had to arrange a pick up at the end to shuttle us to our car at the starting point.

Tom had a playbook of topo maps and a GPS set to waypoints to mark every step. Remarkably, it all worked as we tramped about 13 miles through the wilderness over Dicks Pass on a brilliant, cool day.

Below represents a photo essay of our adventure in the Des Wil.

Our route took us straight up the Eagle Lake trail. It was no warmer than 30 degrees when we started but clear and calm. While we passed a handful of beautiful alpine watering holes we stayed along the ridge above almost all of them. Tom ingeniously planned the hike in a direction to ensure we were not exposed to a brutal sun while trekking up to a 9,200-foot passageway.

After the long ascent above Eagle Lake we reached a ridge that took us to the Velma Lakes to the west. Otherwise, the trail loops back down to the Bayview Campground. We caught a breather along the ridge while getting deep in the wilderness area. Instead of following the trail to the Velmas we turned south toward 9,874-foot Dicks Peak, whose north face already had the first blush of a wintry blanket of snow.

After the respite in the high granite valley we started the long, arduous ascent to Dicks Pass. The final photo looks back above two of the Velmas.

Even as we gained elevation it didn't seem possible that we could reach Dicks Peak by our designated time.

Dicks Lake

Then with some more huffing and puffing we suddenly were looking down upon Dicks Lake after crossing the turnoff to Fontanillis Lake. At this point, we were on the famous Pacific Crest Trail that intersects with the Tahoe Rim Trail. I hiked along another segment of the PCT in July at Mount Rainier National Park. (see Rainier blog entry).

Mt. Tallac

Dicks Peak

Pyramid Peak, at 9,983 feet is highest point in Desolation Wilderness

Echo Peak with Angora Peak on the same ridge to the left pops out in distance
The highlight of our day was an easy cross-country hoof to the so-called "Janine Peak", the unnamed 9,579-foot summit above Kalmia Lake. Tom's research discovered the side trip that proved to be our perfect lunch spot with 360-degree views of the wilderness, including the Maggies Peaks, Mt. Tallac, Pyramid Peak, more crystalline lakes as well as Lake Tahoe and perhaps all the way to the White Mountains.

More views from "Janine," with Jacks Peak in the foreground and Pyramid in the distance in the first photo. A closer view of Mt. Tallac, a favorite half-day hike among Tahoe locals. The short ascent to our summit seemed to be my undoing as I started feeling mild symptoms of altitude sickness despite drinking plenty of water and eating. It was nothing to spoil the adventure but I suffered from an annoying headache the rest of the trek.

Tom took an extra moment atop "Janine" to soak in the splendor.

We popped down "Janine" and rejoined the PCT at Dicks Pass. There, we had up-close views of Dicks and Fontanillis lakes. The lakes are favorite destinations for overnight backpackers though there are few designated camping sites.

We came to the cutoff for Dicks Peak but were at the halfway point of our journey at best. The scramble up the backside of the peak didn't look too extreme but we weren't going to deviate from our allotted time for the hike. We didn't want to navigate the scree in the dark as we descended to Fallen Leaf Lake. Tom and I agreed that the backside of the hike eventually was reduced to a slog. Perhaps our feelings were skewed by fatigue. But after we passed Gilmore Lake we descended into a never-ending canyon. The trailhead at Glen Alpine Falls finally appears but the parking lot does not. We had to continue picking our way through rough terrain for what seemed to be almost two more miles before we arrived at the terminus.

Here is one of the topo maps Tom created for our journey: