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!