Scratching the Surface of Sequoia National Park

Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park, located in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains of California, is a park of giants – giant Sequoia trees, giant granite peaks soaring skyward, and giant smiles inspired by breathtaking, stunning scenery all around. Home to Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States at 14,494′ tall, there are several other peaks over 13,000′ within the park. The Great Western Divide runs through here, creating a rainshadow to the East toward the Basin & Range. Perhaps most notable of all are the Giant Sequoia trees, Sequoiadendron giganteum, that reign over the forest like sentinels. Among them stands stoically General Sherman tree, the largest living tree in the world at 275′ tall, about 103′ circumference, and nearly 37′ diameter at its base.

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General Sherman, Sequoiadendron giganteum

There are two entrances into the park; from the North is Highway 180, and the South is Highway 198. Both are winding drives with lots of viewpoints along the way. Coming from Santa Cruz, we took Highway 180. There are several beautiful viewpoints West across the Central Valley.

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Kings Canyon Overlook
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Giant Sequoia Trees

I’ve done three ten-day backpacking trips in Sequoia Kings Canyon when I was a student at UC Santa Cruz with Wilderness Orientation (WO!). We trekked through The Tablelands region and I fell in love with this place. A 24-hour solo fast, replete with marmot squeaks echoing across the canyon, and I felt completely at home here. We rock-climbed, climbed peaks, and pushed our comfort zones in ways we weren’t aware we were capable of. It was inspiring, empowering, and grounding. I returned twice the next year as a volunteer to help new incoming students, and found my niche in the wilderness. Programs like this make such a positive difference in so many people’s lives! I know it solidified my outdoor, active lifestyle that has only grown stronger over the years. It also furthered my passionate interest in Natural History, especially Geology and Ornithology.

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The Tablelands

When it came time to plan our family Summer camping trip this year, I chose to come back to Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park. We camped at Upper Lodgepole Campground for its central location and convenience. My sister, her husband and three kids, my Mom, stepdad, Dad, and my husband Ron made Lodgepole our home for three nights. It’s nice having a general store and showers down the road from your campsite, especially with kids in our crew.

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Upper Lodgepole Loop Sites #106-107

We spent the first day of camping exploring the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River, which was flowing strong and cold. Our campsite was right along the river, so it was awesome to walk down for a refreshing dip. There are several pools perfect for swimming, and cascades that have smoothed over the rocks to a slick. Be careful exploring the river here; people have died from falling and drowning here. Wear close-toed river shoes with good grip, stay low when walking on rocks, and keep others in sight. It’s a lot of fun to play here, but never forget the power of moving water. Warnings aside, this place is pure bliss! We spent hours soaking up the sun, warming our bodies like lizards on rocks before venturing back into the river to cool off again, on repeat. Heaven!

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Swimming Holes

SequoiaNationalPark103General Sherman Tree was the main highlight of our first day camping. This tree will blow your mind! The perspective it gives you is so humbling. I love feeling small like that. It’s a short hike through the forest, and there are many other Giant Sequoias standing tall over a lush understory. You can’t help but wonder how this forest must have looked before nearly all of these magical old-growth trees were felled by humans in the 1900’s. It is a wonder to stand here and experience their sacred beauty.

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275′ Tall

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General Sherman, Ron, & I

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Humbled by the General
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~103′ Circumference

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Footprint of General Sherman’s Trunk

SequoiaNationalPark78On our second day, we explored Crystal Cave, a marble outcropping that’s been eroded by Yucca Creek over millennia into intricate, dazzling speleothems, or calcite deposits. Stalactites grow down from the ceiling, and stalagmites grow up from the ground (remember it like mites crawling up your legs). Crystal Cave is one of dozens of caves within the park, but it’s the only one open to the public for tours. It’s about a forty-five minute drive from Lodgepole Campground, and well worth the hour-long tour. There’s a good half-mile hike downhill to the cave. The rooms inside the cave are large and there aren’t many tight, low-ceiling sections on the tour. This is both a family-friendly and claustrophobia-friendly cave (relatively speaking, of course).

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Crystal Cave Entrance
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Crystal Cave Entrance

Upon entering the cave, the temperature drops to about 50°F, a welcome relief from Summer temperatures outside. The first stop is the Junction Room, where water flows over marble. The tour moves relatively quickly, so take pictures and enjoy it as you go.

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Calcite Stalactites

After the Junction Room, we ascend a staircase and meander toward the Dome Room, a major highlight of the tour. This was a grand, spacious room with a large calcite dome. Erosion of caves is part of karst topography, regions where limestone or marble rock are shaped by water. Marble is metamorphosed limestone, and both are composed of the mineral calcite. They are the calcium-rich shells of ancient oceanic creatures, compressed and lithified over millions of years.

As water from Yucca Creek flows over the marble rock here, carbonic acid within the rainwater chemically weathers the marble; calcite is then deposited and crystallized into speleothems. Cave geology is super interesting! There’s a lot more to it, of course, but that’s the main gist. Try putting a weak acid, like distilled white vinegar or diluted HCl, on a piece of chalk, limestone, or marble for a good demonstration of this weathering process. You will see fizzing, and bubbles of carbon dioxide gas being released. Imagine this on a gargantuan scale over thousands if not millions of years, and complex cave systems are made into masterpieces.

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Crystal Dome

The tour culminates with the Great Room, the largest of the tour. A large slab of fallen marble lies in the middle, a reminder of the active nature of the cave. The fun part was when the tour guide turned off the lights for about a minute. It was ink black and quite enveloping, kind of like Downieville on a New Moon.

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Great Room
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Water Eroding Marble

Here is a video of our cave tour with David:

After the cave tour, the half-mile hike uphill back to the parking lot begins with a beautiful waterfall. There were several wildflowers and vistas along the path as well. The temperature increased over forty degrees by the time we’d made it back to the car! All the more reason to go in the river again.

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Clarkia unguiculata (Elegant Clarkia)
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Yucca Creek Waterfalls

Next, we had some more river time at the campsite. It is so nice to jump in, cool off, and get clean in the process. A red-tailed hawk even graced us with its presence. After swooping down and catching a fish from the river, it ate it in front of us on a nearby log!

In the afternoon, my father and I headed up the Tokopah Falls Trail for a hike up to Tokopah Falls. This is a roughly five mile hike round-trip from the campsite, and takes you up a well-maintained, gradual ascent to the falls. The Kaweah River flows alongside you, so it’s nice to take breaks and enjoy it. Views of the granite Watchtower were phenomenal.

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Log Crossing Over the Kaweah
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The Watchtower Over the Kaweah River
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Tokopah Falls Trail
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Fleischmannia incarnata (Pink Thoroughwort)

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Tokopah Falls
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Eagle Face In Granite
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The Watchtower
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Tokopah Falls
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Valley Oak Over The Watchtower
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Taking a Rest
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Lupinus latifolius (Broadleaf Lupine)

This was a short trip, and definitely just a scratch of the surface! There is so much more to explore here, and I am excited for future trips here to really delve into it; I’d also love to head out into the backcountry again for a trip. My family loved it here, so I’m stoked for another camping trip together! There are so many amazing places in California to explore, providing recreation, renewal, and fun.

More importantly, these places are special in their own inherent right, and deserve both preservation and reverence. We shouldn’t take their presence for granted. Many have fought hard before us to safeguard these hallowed lands – not merely for us to enjoy, but for the multitudes of flora and fauna that depend upon them. The ecosystems that have evolved over thousands of years are far more important than human greed for its precious resources. We ought to tread lightly and leave no trace. Though homes aren’t built out of air, old-growth forests like this aren’t the place to harvest lumber. General Sherman tree, in all its girth and glory, could have been felled if not for the work of people who cared. It’s important to experience these places firsthand to gain a true appreciation of Nature’s miracle. Only then can we know how imperative it is to protect them, and just how much more there is to explore.

Northstar MTB

Northstar California Resort, also known as #gnarstar and #duststar, is a mountain bike park and ski resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. A North Shore resort, it’s about a fifteen minute drive South on Highway 267 to King’s Beach and stunning Lake Tahoe. Known for its first-class amenities and village, its 3,000 acres are known for epic snow in the Winter, and mountain biking in the Summer. You can also hike here, or just take the gondola up for a scenic ride to mid-mountain and the Ritz Carlton Resort, a luxurious hotel complete with day spa. However, the real draw here in the summertime is the mountain biking.

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There is nothing like chair-lift assisted riding. For the amount of downhill you get, you’ll need all that energy you saved not climbing hills. The laws of physics are in your favor here, gravity assisted. The first time I came here, my forearms and wrists just about gave out by the end of the day I was so sore! Most people ride downhill bikes here, but enduro bikes are becoming more popular. I rode my low-travel bike here for a few years before upgrading last year to 150mm of travel, which is still on the scant side for Northstar. I’ve actually never tried a downhill bike, so I only know how these trails feel on my enduro bike. With enduro racing, it’s more helpful to ride these trails on my bike, anyway.

I don’t consider myself the top expert on Northstar, but I’ve ridden here dozens of times over the last several years, basically since I got my first full-suspension mountain bike (with all 110mm of travel!). I love riding up here! I’ve included some videos below of the trails, with the obvious preface that there are riders out there who charge way harder than I do. As a racer, videos are part of my training, and help me improve; they may also help give others an idea of what the trails are about. I know I get a lot out of watching others’ videos, especially when it’s a new trail.

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Summer Trail Map

You can make it as easy or challenging as you want riding Northstar. Having fun is often considered the most important part of mountain biking, and I passionately agree with that, but safety is equally important here. Northstar is known not only for eating tires and rims, but causing some pretty awful injuries. Full-faced helmets and protective gear are prerequisites.

If you’re an experienced mountain biker, you will immediately find your niche here, and know how to gauge each trail. If you’re new to mountain biking, it probably goes unsaid to start off on the blues and work your way up. Always stay in control, be able to stop on a moment’s notice, and know when to call it a day. Fatigue is public enemy #1 in mountain biking, so don’t let it get you sloppy. This is not the terrain to get tired on; you need all your focus, awareness, and commitment to tackle these trails.

The terrain is pretty well-maintained, especially on the Zephyr side of the mountain, while the Vista side has a more wild, all-mountain feel. It’s famous for getting dustier as Summer goes on and the last of Winter’s moisture is sucked from the soil. The rock is granitic with boulders ranging from the size of bowling balls to small cars. The overlying thin topsoil can become quite loose, like ball bearings over boulders, especially as it dries out. Sometimes it can feel like hydroplaning or skidding on ice it’s so loose. The dirt takes on a sort of hydrophobic, repellent quality that you must keep it in mind, to varying degrees, depending upon the trail and time of Summer.

The glorious exception to the #duststar reputation is Livewire, a meticulously designed trail that Northstar is most known for. Livewire is a fast, adrenaline-pumping descent with thoughtfully built, intelligently spaced jumps that you can get just about as high as you want to on. It is supremely dependable thanks to daily watering and regular trailwork, which makes it a wonderful trail to progress on over time; you get better at it each time you ride it, and the trail gets more fun. Its Livewire Classic downhill race is a big draw each year.

This is the first trail I ever rode here, having heard so much hype about it; this started a love affair over the years of learning how to flow with grace down its packed berms and tabletops. It earns every superlative, praise, and contagious zeal that surrounds its name. From rolling to soaring, you can get as sick as you want to get on this trail. If you ride here on a weekend, expect this trail to have a steady stream of riders, and be ready to yield to any faster riders coming down the trail on you. Everyone from six year-olds to pros on the UCI MTB circuit ride here, so be prepared for all types of riders, showing respect – and hopefully a smile! – in the process.

Coaster is a fun intermediate run, a long traverse down the mountain that makes for a good warm-up. It crosses Boondocks, so look out for riders at the merge.

Gypsy trail includes a variety of rock gardens, wooden berms and jumps, and a Red Bull corkscrew section. It’s a little bit of everything rolled into one.

Boondocks is a double-black that is a long descent full of enough sandy corners and rock drops to get you fired up. There are many go-arounds, as there are on most other trails here, but this trail is rocky top to bottom.

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Boondocks Downhill Race 1st Place Cat 2

On the Vista side of the mountain, the chairlift operates Fridays – Sundays; however, you can easily pedal to it via Zephyr when it’s not turning on weekdays. It’s about a ten minute traverse on fireroad from the top of Tahoe Zephyr Express. That’s the trade-off of coming here on weekdays in the Summer: you will almost have the whole mountain to yourself, but if you want to ride Vista, you’ve got to connect the dots. It’s a trade-off I’m willing to make, especially as a teacher with my Summers off! It’s a beautiful thing to be up here on a weekday.

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Sticks and Stones is a solid double-black on the Vista side, whose middle section is famously challenging. There are steep, loose sections of crust on rocks. The upper and lower sections hold their own, but the middle section is the hardest.

Speed Control is a super fun, flow-trail style run that starts below Vista mid-mountain. It’s fun to connect this one to Pho Dogg. Both trails are single blacks, with lots of dynamic flow to them. These are great trails to work on pumping.

Karpiel is a rocky, double-black that starts at the top of Vista. The upper and middle sections aren’t overly gnarly, but the very lower section? Dude what?! This is one of the hardest sections I’ve ever ridden at Northstar, and I certainly haven’t cleared every feature on it yet. If you want full-commitment, keep your speed or crash G-force thrills with high-stakes consequences for crashing or making a seemingly minor error, this is the trail for you! Don’t let the upper part of the trail fool you – the lower section is a bugaboo for many riders I know. You can exit out early before this bottom part, as many riders do, and don’t kick yourself if you do. It’s better to leave in one piece than in no peace.

Dog Bone parallels Karpiel, but starts mid-mountain. It’s also a double-black, whose upper section isn’t terribly death-defying. As you can see in my video below, I am still working on the lower section, which is, like Karpiel, a lot more challenging. Keeping your speed here is essential; I endo’d after stopping from getting my pedal stuck on a rock. Losing momentum makes starting again that much harder since you’ve lost your rolling power.

Both Karpiel and Dog Bone connect to finish at a steep, narrow slide down to the Diving Board, a few feet rock drop, which launches into Daytona Berms at the base of the mountain. The banked berms are a fun finish to the ride, but note that it merges with the bottom of Sticks and Stones; be aware of oncoming riders when you are at this junction.

Cooling off with a dip in the refreshing, second deepest lake in the United States is a wonderful way to finish off a day of physically demanding, and likely dirty, mountain biking at Northstar. The Lake Tahoe region is gorgeous enough to visit in its own right, mountain biking or not. But it’s that much more fun when you bring your two wheels!

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Lake Tahoe
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King’s Beach

Now go get some!

Wilder Ranch MTB: Crest to Coast

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Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz, California, boasts not only some of the region’s best trails, but best views. Known for its undulating series of marine terraces, Wilder Ranch is a result of millions of years of uplift along the California coast, driven by movements of the San Andreas Fault system.

One of my favorite routes in Wilder is the coastal trail formed by Old Cove Landing and Ohlone Bluff Trail. It’s like going to a different country, almost. This is the spot to bring your loved one, or just your love of Nature.

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For this loop, I started at Twin Gates and descended some fun singletrack in Wilder. I stopped at the historic Wilder Ranch, going in the horse stables before exploring the aloe tunnels. Though I’ve been here hundreds of times over the years, you always feel like you’ve stepped back in history when you’re here.

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From Wilder Ranch, the Old Cove Landing trail begins, starting a roughly five-mile traverse along the cliff bluffs until 3-Mile Beach up coast. The first section is more popular, but once you hit Ohlone Bluff Trail after Strawberry Beach, you’ll likely not see anyone until 3-Mile Beach. It’s a flat ride, but don’t underestimate the headwind – if there is a strong one, it makes riding Northward on this loop all that much harder!

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The draw of this ride is visual. With jaw-dropping cliffs right next to you for some of the ride, don’t get too distracted by the beautiful, expansive ocean views. Depending upon the weather, you may be able to see across the Monterey Bay all the way down to Pebble Beach. The best views, however, will be right in front of you the whole way.

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One of the coolest parts is the seal rookery. Dozens of seals can be seen lounging upon a large wave-platform, year after year, blessed may it be. They are wildly entertaining and cute to watch! Many seabirds, whales, and dolphins also make their appearances along this wild section of coastline.

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Seal Rookery

This trail is a lesson on coastal geology. Marine terraces, wave-cut platforms, sea stacks, and sea caves mark the trail, inviting curiosity and exploration. Be careful here; it’s about 200 feet down in the steepest spots. The rock is predominantly sedimentary mudstone, overlain by sandstone, neither of which are stable for climbing on.

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3-Mile beach is pretty much where the trail ends. This is a breathtaking spot to take a rest! The views here are simply incredible. Take the time to soak them up.

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3-Mile Beach
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Wave Platform

After enjoying the gorgeous sights of 3-Mile Beach, I continued up the railroad tracks until the Highway 1 undercrossing. Riding through this tunnel exits you onto Baldwin Trail in Wilder Ranch, which I climbed up to Enchanted Loop and Chinquapin Trail to return to my car. Take a stop at the Eucalyptus Grove for a nice view.

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Eucalyptus Grove Rest Spot

I took a few hours for this loop, stopping often to enjoy the views. There are many variations you can make; sections of this loop are from the Old Cabin Classic annual mountain bike race in Wilder. It’s also a wonderful spot for a hike or run.

Here is a video of the ride, but go check it out yourself!

Berry Creek Falls MTB

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Berry Creek Falls is located within beautiful Big Basin State Park, about thirty minutes North of Santa Cruz, California. Waddell Creek runs through the western portion of the park, meandering down to Waddell Beach. This is an easy, out-and-back loop, best done with a goal of beauty and peace in mind. This is not a place to come for downhill, but a place to appreciate the serenity of this majestic redwood forest.

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Map

Big Basin was formed as a result of plate movements along the San Andreas strike-slip fault system; specifically, the Ben Lomond and Zayante Faults shape the east-west flow of Waddell Creek. Uplift from the Ben Lomond fault has swelled the southern portion of the park, where East Waddell Creek flows. Sometimes plate movements would create dams along the creek, leading to eventual flooding downstream, hence creating the “basins” that give Big Basin its name.

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Equestrian Bridge

Sedimentary rocks such as sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone, mostly from the Tertiary time period about 65-2 million years ago (mya), overlie a granitic basement of older rocks from about 80 mya. The continued uplift along the Ben Lomond Fault, balanced with the incessant process of erosion, create a dynamic landscape showcasing Nature’s awesome sculpting power. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Waddell Creek’s water flow increased, and new springs appeared from the hillsides. This is a super interesting place to visit in terms of its geology! One of the coolest highlights of this ride was seeing evidence of the Ben Lomond Fault along Waddell Creek; check out the angle of those rock layers! This section of the creek also has a few bonafide swimming holes, deep enough for jumping.

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Great Swimming Hole

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Faulting

The flora and fauna go unmatched to its impressive geologic activity, with old-growth Redwoods, banana slugs, and trillium flowers galore in the Spring. Deer, mountain lion, and bobcats are among many mammals who are at home in the steep slopes of these mountains. The further you go from the parking lot, the more remote it feels. Backpacking the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, a trip I enjoyed years ago, is a fantastic three-day adventure that has made Big Basin famous, and for good reason. This part of the Santa Cruz Mountains definitely feels the wildest.

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I’ve hiked, run, and biked along the Berry Creek Falls Trail many times over the 20+ years I’ve lived in Santa Cruz. It is especially breathtaking to visit in Spring, when wildflowers dance merrily in gentle zephyrs across the valley. Going up to Berry Creek Falls is about six miles from the parking lot on Highway 1, and climbs uneventful fireroad made intriguing by the beautiful scenery. Again, this is not a place to go downhill mountain biking, but a peaceful tour through the redwoods. There are a couple of fun sections along the trail that get your wheels turning, though. I recommend coming in the off-hours if you’re going for a bike ride, though. Weekends can be busy with hikers, backpackers, bicyclists, and equestrians. I did this ride in the early evening on a Summer weekday, and only saw a few people, which allowed me to harness some speed from the trails. A weekend midday in the summertime would likely be busier, and it’s always our responsibility as mountain bikers to be ready to stop and yield to others.

For the approximately last mile, no bikes are allowed. Bring a lock if you want to lock it up at the falls trailhead, or hike-a-bike with you. Berry Creek Falls has a nice overlook with benches to sit and take in the flow. While Spring certainly roars more forcefully than late Summer, it’s always nice to see a waterfall any time of year; it flows year-round, as well.

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Berry Creek Falls

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The ride back down from the falls to the beach is a nice, relaxing cross-country ride. Finishing at Waddell Beach is a wonderful reward, with views of kitesurfers taking advantage of this famously windy beach. Waddell Creek drains into the Pacific Ocean here, finishing its descent from the Santa Cruz Mountains above. If you’re up for it, take a cooling dip in the ocean after your ride!

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Kitesurfers at Waddell Beach
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Waddell Creek

This is such a simple yet gratifying ride, especially for the unique beauty it provides. We are lucky to live in a region where we have such places to recreate, whether on two wheels or two feet. Here is a video of the ride, but there’s nothing like seeing it for yourself!

Dreams of Dying That I Wish I Never Had

The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had, writes Roland Orzabal in the song Mad World. While there are several interpretations of this famous lyric, its meaning is generally taken as a mournful clarion call for death.

What about dreams of dying that you wish you never had?

Such is the dilemma I face when I go to sleep every night. I’ve just gotten so used to it that it feels normal. Since I was a child, I have been a pyscho sleeper. Talking incessantly in my sleep; kicking, thrashing around the bed (and kicking unassuming sisters off in the process, on occasion); waking up screaming from a night terror of being eaten by an alligator (details still vivid as day). It was kind of funny; after sleepovers, my friends would tell me about all the crazy things I did in my sleep. No one wanted to share a bed with me, on family vacations, or slumber parties. I don’t blame them.

All I knew was that going to sleep meant going on an adventure. My dreams were incredibly intense and detailed; exciting. I would remember them when I woke up, and think about them; some were recurring (like that alligator). It was kind of fun going to sleep because it was like going into a parallel universe of fantasy. Most of my dreams weren’t scary, just realistic.

I hated waking up, though. Since as long as I can remember, I have never been a morning person. Last out of bed, hair disheveled, it was a rush most of the time to get out of the house. As I got older, I would snooze the alarm clock, and go back into the solace of my dreams until the very last second. The piercing jab of that alarm clock would go off ten minutes later, and I’d feel as though I’d just fallen asleep for the night.

As a teenager, it only got harder to get up early for school. I remember my dad pulling me out of bed a few times, after I’d sleep through my alarms and cues to wake up from movement in the house. On my weekends, I would regularly sleep in until noon, sometimes later. I just loved sleep, and lots of it. Eight hours a night wasn’t enough for me.

As I grew into an adult, the patterns continued. I kept on dreaming, flailing, and basically being a pyscho sleeper, sometimes to the alarm of people sharing a room with me. It’s one thing to have a child writhing around in their slumber, but an adult is a bit more intimidating. ARE YOU OKAY?! I’ve been asked more than once upon wakening from an episode. YOU SCARED THE HELL OUT OF ME!

It was kind of amusing. For a time in college, I got a dream journal and tried reading in to their meanings. I scheduled my classes in the afternoon so I could sleep in most days, but had a job that required some mornings.

I am a pretty energetic, positive-thinking person. But at seven in the morning? I am like a different person altogether – cranky, negative, anti-social. I felt like Jeckyl and Hyde. By the afternoon and evenings, I was at my prime. I don’t consider myself a Night Owl, per se, but I certainly feel more alive in the afternoon and evenings.

As the years passed on, I met my future husband at age twenty-five, and we soon moved in together. At first, he didn’t think much of my episodes in the night; they were random, strange, and a bit humorous. But as time passed on, he saw how much I was struggling in my sleep.

One night, he found me wearing the mini-blinds in my sleep; I had somehow put my body through them, knocked them down from the window, and was caught up in them, freaking out. Other nights, I would just scream bloody-murder for help. Most of the time, he would interrupt me just enough to settle me back to sleep for the night. I never remembered these episodes, but each morning wondered what story I might hear from the night’s before. I didn’t think much of it; I’d always been an active sleeper, and this was a lot like my childhood was. But screaming for Help! repeatedly in my sleep? That was a bit disconcerting.

Then I met someone who told me about night terrors. This person also had sleep apnea, and had done a couple of sleep studies. I listened to him describe his symptoms, mainly that he was always tired in the early morning unless he could sleep in, and that he was an avid sleeptalker, too.

Different from nightmares, night terrors are active episodes of screaming, wildly moving about, and basically experiencing terror in your sleep. Sometimes you remember details from the dreams; sometimes you don’t. Most of the time you just sleep right through these episodes without even knowing they happen.

Curious, I wondered if I might have some kind of sleep disorder. I made an appointment to see my doctor in early 2015. I described my sleeping patterns, dreams, and history of grogginess in the early morning; I told him some of the stories Ron had witnessed.

You are having night terrors, he quickly surmised. An overnight sleep study in their sleep lab was then ordered.

A sleep lab is not a normal place to go to sleep. You show up to a building in the evening, where you are outfitted with a dizzying number of wires, monitors, and devices to track your breathing and movements throughout the night. Just having all of that stuff on me definitely made it hard to fall asleep, let alone knowing I was being monitored by people in another room.

I slept through the night, and went home early the next morning. A few days later, the doctor had his diagnosis. As I sat there in his office, he pulled up a graph from my breathing during the night. There were a lot of lines, dips, and spikes. Then, he proceeded to elucidate what they meant.

You have Sleep Apnea. That first dip there, that was a nine-second apnea. Then here, this was your longest episode, lasting thirty-seconds. That means you weren’t breathing for about half-a-minute, he explained.

There was something in the way he said not breathing for half-a-minute that hit me hard in my gut and knocked the wind out of me. Looking at that dip in the graph was like looking at a picture of me dying. I immediately felt light-headed and recognized what was happening: I was going to faint. I laid down on the examination table, breathed deeply, and told the doctor I felt like I was going to pass out. He and the nurse checked my vital signs and got me a cup of water.

I’m sorry; it’s just when I saw that gap on the graph of not breathing, it really scared me, I explained. I lay there a few minutes on the table, steadying my breath with my eyes closed, gathering myself. Then, the doctor asked if I’d ever fainted before. Just once when I gave blood, I replied. It wasn’t the sight of the blood, but the feeling of it leaving my body that got to me.

You had a vasovagal syncope just now, the doctor continued. That means you almost fainted upon learning of your apnea. It was in that moment I realized how unsettling it was to receive bad news about my health. The doctor noted it on my chart so when I get the next dose of bad news, the delivering doctors will look out for a fainting reaction.

After a couple minutes of recovery, I was ready to learn. Please walk me through the graph again, I asked. Now that the initial shock is gone, I need to learn all I can about it.

This is true for many people in life: we fear that which we do not know. The more information you get, the less scary it becomes. The doctor patiently walked me through the graph. My episodes were all within the first two hours of sleep. I asked him if they could be related to my night terrors. Though further studies would be needed to establish a causal link, and no such behavior was observed during my sleep study, he said it is likely that they are related; he had treated other patients whose night terrors were linked to their apnea.

Either way, learning about my sleep apnea was unsettling. Within a few days of processing it and researching it, it actually felt like a big relief. At last, I had some kind of justification for my dead-in-the-morning feelings; for my sleeping for twelve hours whenever I had the chance; for why I was always so tired in the morning as a child. As the doctor explained, when your body is waking up several times during the night in a stressed, hypoxic state, your body doesn’t get the best rest; your cells don’t get the recovery time they need. That’s why it’s normal to sleep so long – to catch up on the lost sleep. And maybe there was a reason for my night terrors.

I went back for a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) sleep-study about a month later. The goal was to try a device that functions as an oxygen-mask while I slept. Knowing I’m claustrophobic, I already didn’t like the idea of a mask and tube stuck to my face while I slept all night, but knowing it might help, I was open to trying it.

That night was the worst. I couldn’t make it more than a half-hour with that thing on my face. As soon as I’d fall asleep, my jaw would slacken and relax, creating a suction-like effect on my tonsils. I’d wake up sort of gargling and confused.

For the CPAP machine to work properly, you must keep you mouth closed at all times, the sleep technician directed.

Mouth closed at all times?! I mused to myself. Impossible! I have had TMJ issues for years, and while I’m not a mouthbreather, I need to relax my jaw when I sleep, not keep it tightly closed.

We can try a chin-strap, he offered. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with this problem. He proceeded to explain how wearing a chin-strap for awhile can train your mouth to stay closed while you sleep. Hmmm…CPAP machine with mask and tube, and now a strap around my chin to keep it all copasetic? No thank you; I knew the outcome already.

They tried three other CPAP fittings that night, but I couldn’t deal with any of them. After that study, it was recommended I try a mandibular-advancement device, basically like a custom mouth-guard that protrudes your lower jaw forward. CPAP wasn’t going to be a good fit for me. With my TMJ, I was skeptical about the mouth-guard option as well. So I did nothing. I tried to get more sleep when I could, and at least I finally had some understanding.

It took me three more years to pursue getting the oral device. First, I had to first do another at-home sleep study to reconfirm my apnea, which it did. Then, I had to try a temporary version of an oral device for a month at home, and followed by another at-home sleep study to see if it helped.

I immediately noticed how the device opened my airway more. Yes, I felt like a gaping fish with it on, but it seemed to help, though I spat it out in the middle of the night much of the time. I did the at-home sleep study with the device in all night, and it worked! I felt slightly more rested the next morning, and I had no apneas recorded that night. Getting those results was a key step in getting a permanent device. I should be getting my new oral device any day now, and I am hoping it works well.

In the meantime, I reflect upon both my dreams and reality. How have each shaped who I am today? In my case, the anatomy of my throat is what causes my apnea. Like many people with apnea, it happens as the throat muscles relax and close in on the airway. If you already have a small airway, you may be more prone to have apnea. I’ve done a lot of research on it, and have kept a journal of some of my worst episodes.

I’m also curious about other factors, though. One possible link I’ve made is to claustrophobia. I have had a few experiences in my life that I’m pretty sure either contributed to or confirmed my fear.

The first and probably most obvious is almost drowning as a child. I know when people read almost drowning, they may dismiss it as an over-imaginative child’s warping of an old memory. But for me, these memories have stuck with me for years.

The earliest memory was at my grandparent’s swimming pool. I was only about two years old, and had somehow managed, as many small children do, to end up sitting on the bottom of the pool. I’m not sure how I go there exactly, but I specifically remember looking up at the light dancing on the surface of the water, aware I could not breathe. I don’t know how long I sat there, but I clearly remember my older sister Mary heaving me out of the water. I was fine, of course, but I do credit my sister’s quick actions for saving me from who knows what.

As an older child, there were two other times I experienced not being able to breathe while underwater. One was learning to waterski behind my parents’ boat with a training rope that I had no control over; it was tied to my skis, held by an adult on the boat, and I had a training rope to hold onto for practice, simply tied to my skis for show. I had no control to let go of the rope. When I didn’t stand up at first, I was dragged underwater long enough to start panicking. Did they forget about me? Why aren’t they letting go of the rope?! It was a long drag, especially in my childhood memories, and when someone finally let go of the rope, I knew I’d never use that dummy training rope again. I would be in control next time.

And the next time I was in control, kneeboarding behind that same boat with family, just a few years later. With that kneeboard strap velcroed tightly over my thighs, all it took was one rough fall to turn face-down underwater, the strap forced higher and tighter almost around my hips. I was stuck with my head down upside-down, paddling frantically to get my head above water to catch a breath. I remember thinking I was going to drown this way. I couldn’t undo the velcro strap that had shifted so tightly around me; all I was doing was trying to get my head above water to get air.

Then I caught a glimpse of my dad jumping off the boat. Head back down underwater, I knew he was coming for me. Within seconds, he freed me, and I cried with relief. It was pretty terrifying as an eight-year old. No wonder I have no interest in scuba-diving. Though these experiences pale in comparison to some people’s near-drowning stories, it undoubtedly had a huge impact on me as a child.

As I grew older, I knew I didn’t like small spaces, but I didn’t think of myself as a super claustrophobic person until I was traveling in Europe in my early twenties. We went to the Catacombs in Paris, an underground network of tunnels, full of human skeletons. While the remains didn’t bother me, being underground trapped in a rat tunnel most definitely did. I felt like I was being crushed; like I could visualize the city above me pushing down on me, ready to entomb me with all those bones. My heart raced; I panicked. I had to get out. Fortunately, my ex-boyfriend’s mother, who was traveling with us at the time, was so freaked out by the skeletons, that we both hoofed it out of there together, supporting each other along the way. Almost there! Running through the tunnel, hand-in-hand, we raced to the exit, where you ascend a spiral staircase that seems to go up forever. Finally, we saw the light of day, and after setting foot above ground, I knew I didn’t want anything to do with being underground again, especially in such a small space.

Then, we did an overnight train from Paris to Venice, Italy, where we slept in couchettes, which are like tiny bunk-beds on a train. I was on the top bunk; there was only about a foot and a half above me. Looking up at the ceiling immediately made me feel like I was trapped. I asked to switch bunks, but was denied. I managed to fall asleep, but had an awful sleep terror that I was being crushed in a small space. Flailing my arms in my sleep, I hit the ceiling above me, which only added to my dream feeling so real. I woke up to my ex-boyfriend yelling at me to shut up; don’t you know there’s other people sleeping on this train?! he scolded me. Why are you screaming so loud?

As if I were trying to wake everyone else up. He didn’t understand what was going on; I didn’t really, either. All I knew was I could not sleep on that bunk anymore, so I spent the rest of that train ride awake, looking out the window at the stars in the countryside, realizing I might be claustrophobic. I didn’t think about night terrors, though.

There’s been multiple events before and after that – caves, small rental cars I couldn’t sit in the backseat of, tiny spaces I had to avoid. Last year I had to go in for my first MRI for a groin pull. The very thought of being stuck inside a small tube for close to an hour, lying still nonetheless, sent me into a panic. I even looked at one of the machines up close to get a sense of it, and knew it would be a huge challenge for me.

I consider myself to be a pretty tough cookie, and I am not afraid to push my limits. I would like to think of myself as somewhat brave, and I say that with humility, knowing how relative bravery really is. But this was surely going to test my coping abilities. While I’ve learned to cope with certain uncomfortable situations over the years for short durations, we all have our limits. I rarely take medicine, but for this MRI, I took the sedative they suggested, but even with it, I struggled to make it through. It was a complete manifestation of my worst nightmare – being trapped in a confined space.

Most people think of elevators when they think of claustrophobia, and I while I won’t take them if I don’t have to, I’ve learned I can ride them for short periods of time when needed because it’s temporary. I take is at an opportunity to work on getting over my fears in small, achievable doses. Not everyone with claustrophobia is afraid of elevators, and some people can withstand certain situations while others can’t. People should be sensitive to each other’s phobias, irrational as they may be, regardless. We all have fears that present themselves in different ways.

Though I’m focusing on the night terrors here, I must counter it with some positive: I often have amazing, wonderful dreams – of flying, traveling, being in idyllic places. I consider them bonus days because it can feel like another adventure was lived overnight. I love dreaming. But I still have night terrors. They always involve the same dream, one of a trio of recurring dreams I’ve had for years.

Dream #1: Trapped and Buried Alive

This is my most common recurring dream. The methods vary. Sometimes I am being pushed into a morgue-drawer, and that feeling of being slid into the wall, with only a few inched above my face, feels realer than the air I don’t breathe while I’m having sleep apnea. I can feel the lack of space around me; I can feel the permanence of being entombed. I am dying, and I’m keenly aware of it in my dream. This is often when Ron wakes me up as I’m screaming for help.

Sometimes I’m being slid underneath a house or a large building. I’ll be on my back supine, looking up at the floors above me, and then will start sliding underneath that house in a one-foot crawlspace. And then the house will start crushing me. Sometimes it’s something small – a coffin, a box, a tunnel underground, a cave. The common theme is being trapped in a small space, and suffocating. There is an urgent fight for survival. I’ll start screaming and pushing on the walls above me, which presents itself as a night terror. This is where I think my near-drowning experiences as a child may be connected; both involve not being able to breathe.

Ron has gotten so used to my outbursts in the night that he often just lets me sleep through them and shout it out. I don’t usually wake up, though Ron says I’ve cried and even talked to him afterward. Recently, I had the worst episode he’d ever seen. I was crying, screaming, sweating, totally panicked when he woke me up. I even woke up from this one, the threat of the house crushing me still present. I was positive I was dying, and it was terrifying. He comforted me for a few minutes before I went back to sleep.

This might be a stretch, but I think my night terrors may be related to a truly scary, too real event, that happened at our old rental in Santa Cruz. I wrote about it in The Long Journey Home if you want to read the full story, but here’s the short version: my husband was held up by SWAT at gunpoint in his own home because our drugged-out neighbor called 911 and reported he had killed me. Absolute insanity. I wonder sometimes if he heard me screaming in the night from a night terror and it fed into his delusions. He is lucky my husband wasn’t harmed from his lunacy.

Dream #2: Secretly In Someone Else’s House

I love Home. While I’m an active person who loves exploring new places, I truly am a homebody by nature. Home has always been a high priority to me. When I graduated college and people asked what my next big goal was, owning a home was top of that list, before marriage, career, or the like. Something about the stability and security of owning a home settled me. It was only in March 2015 that I bought my first house, achieving this lifelong goal.

My dreams persist, however; I am constantly in someone else’s house. It’s never a scary dream, nor am I in danger or trouble. I feel like I’m at home while I’m there. There are at least four different houses that recur: one is a super nice beachhouse in Santa Cruz, with four stories and an ocean view; another is a rustic mountain cabin, like where I lived in Bonny Doon in college; one is the childhood house I grew up at 3309 Betty Lane in Lafayette, California; and another is the home of my ex-boyfriend’s grandmother (strange, I know, but I did live with her for about six months). Sometimes my old rental in Santa Cruz will set the stage.

In these dreams of being in someone else’s home, they are never home themselves, but I know I’m not supposed to be there. Sometimes I am having fun in these houses – swimming in the pool, helping myself to food in the kitchen, even watching TV on the couch. But I’m always aware this is not my house; that I am indeed trespassing. I’ll even tiptoe around. Occasionally, the homeowners come home, and I am left sneaking out a back window or running out the garage door to avoid being caught, which hasn’t happened yet. I thought things might change when I bought my first house, but no, I still have is dream just as often as before.

Dream #3: The Mountain Lion Lurking Outside

I had my first dream of a mountain lion when I was a young college student at UC Santa Cruz. I’d never seen one at that time, but this is the first time they appeared in my dreams. It was trying to get into my house, but I had all the doors locked and secured. It was kind of exciting to watch it lurk around outside. I knew I was safe, so found it cool to watch it outside. I had this dream several times before the mountain lion ever turned aggressive.

One night, a sliding glass door was left open to the house. The puma nearly got in, and was yowling outside. This was the first time I was scared it was going to kill me. There have been a few times where the puma got close to me; where I was sure I was going to be attacked. Thus far, it hasn’t got me in my dreams.

Over the years, I’ve now seen a mountain lion in real-life on three separate occasions, all within the last six years. One time was trail-running at Wilder Ranch on the Zane Grey trail. Then, I saw one coming down Fenceline trail on my bike, also in Wilder Ranch. It quickly ran off as I skidded to a stop up the trail, just in time for my husband Ron to catch sight of it fleeing. The third time I saw one was at Quail Hollow Ranch near my house in Ben Lomond; it was hunting a deer, who was snorting in defense (read all about that story, with video, in my previous post Wildflowers and Wildlife at Quail Hollow).

I respect mountain lions, and am generally not afraid of them. Obviously, I don’t want to ever get between one and her cubs, but I know they want to avoid us as well. They’re beautiful animals who belong in this landscape. Why they keep appearing in my dreams is a mystery to me.

Full Sleep Ahead

It definitely makes sense that these night terrors could be linked to sleep apnea. I’ve read about others who have had similar experiences themselves. Maybe these dreams will taper off once my apnea is under control. The long-term health effects of sleep apnea are not good, to say the least, and include an increased risk of heart attack. I can (sort of) deal with the night terrors, but I don’t need the toll on my health. I already have an irregular heartbeat as it is (bradychardia, and left bundle branch block).

Getting a full-night’s sleep in eight hours, not ten or more, would be awesome. It sucks feeling like two different people during the day. When I’m alive and kicking in the afternoon hours at my peak, I wish I could feel that way in the morning. When I wake up for work in the morning, sometimes I’m so tired I want to cry. When you feel like you could fall asleep in the shower, it’s hard to get motivated for the day.

Hopefully the mouth guard will help me get a better night’s rest by decreasing my apneas, which may also reduce the frequency of night terrors. I know several people with sleep apnea who swear by their devices, CPAP or dental, and I look forward to that remedy for myself. If my jaw can’t handle the device for the long-term, it may not be a permanent solution, but it’s something to try. I’ve examined many factors to better understand my health. I live a low-stress lifestyle, get plenty of exercise, and eat a healthy diet. I’m a pretty happy camper when I’m well-rested and awake; not a lot preoccupies me on a daily basis.

To be fair to myself, I’ve adapted somewhat successfully over the years, as I’ve managed to wake up many early mornings for work over the years. I would just like to do so with some more energy. There are so many interesting things to do, many of which involve the morning, and I don’t want to miss out on something just because I’m tired.
I love life, and while I love to dream, dreams of dying are not the kind I’d like to have.