Tall Trees, Volcanoes, and Yosemite!

Tall trees. Can you look up at a tall tree from its base or nearby and judge its height? I think I can make a reasonably good estimate up to about 100 feet. But what about trees that are 150-250 feet tall? Or those over 350 feet – taller than a football field is long? Coast redwoods, still found along the United States’ Pacific coast in Oregon and California are the tallest living things in the world, and some are 2,000 years old. The tallest, at 379 feet was a tree named Hyperion, and seen from above it towered over its neighbors. Its location is a well-kept secret (go ahead, Google it!). We heard from a ranger at Redwoods National and State Parks in California that Hyperion lost its top in a storm a few years ago and is no longer the tallest in the world. But when you are walking in a grove of tall trees as we did recently, each one 250-350 feet tall, it really doesn’t matter which one takes the prize.

We learned that until about 150 years ago loggers left the largest coast redwoods standing because their equipment couldn’t handle the large trunks. In 1850 there were still over two million acres of old growth coastal forest. With the advance of technology for harvesting timber, however, and a spike in demand for timber as our cities grew, less than 10 percent of those forests remained by the time Redwood National Park was established in 1968. Today, the national park and three previously established California redwood state parks (Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Coast, and Prairie Creek) are managed together as a single complex called Redwoods National and State Parks protecting nearly half of the remaining old growth redwood forests.

Walking among these behemoths is an other-worldly experience. Indeed, the forest scenes of the Star Wars movies were filmed here. The trees tower overhead, and the forest floor teems with large ferns in many places, so it’s easy to imagine them as home to enormous insects too or weird visitors from outer space. Closer to home, a special treat for us was meeting traditional blues revivalist musicians Valerie and Ben Turner (www.piedmontbluz.com) in Stout Grove of Jedediah Smith State Park. We did several great hikes and were fortunate to be among the 50 people each day to get a permit to visit Tall Tree Grove on the banks of Redwood Creek. Our necks ached from looking up by the time we escaped back to our truck and out of the park!

Now you may ask, “Which is more impressive, a tall tree or a really fat one?” That is a question we hope to be able to answer for ourselves soon, when we visit Sequoia National Park, home to the Giant Sequoias, another redwood species. They are not as tall as the coast redwoods, but they are stouter. So stay tuned…

Volcanoes. Did you know there are four types of volcanoes and only one place in the world boasts examples of each one? It’s called Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. Lassen Peak, the highest point in the park, is a plug volcano—the largest of its kind in the world—and the southernmost of the Cascade range of volcanoes that extends south from northern Washington state. It last erupted in 1915. A short 2 ½ mile hike climbs 3,000 feet to the top, so who could resist the opportunity to peer into its crater? The day we did it was cold and very windy. We were prepared for the cold and bundled ourselves in several layers of clothes, gloves, and a warm hat. But the wind was another matter. It was so windy that we had to brace ourselves at each switchback against strong gusts trying to hurl us back down the hill. We made it to the top, though, and ate lunch huddled behind a rock outcropping as a shield against the wind. The view from the top was marvelous but sadly scarred by a thick brown blanket of haze in the distance, product of the tragic fires these last few weeks in north central California.

Cinder cone is a second type of volcano. Lassen’s eponymous Cinder Cone volcano traces a perfect parabola against the sky. We climbed to the top of that one too, and it was much easier. The hike starts with a short walk through some woods next to a 30-foot wall of black lava boulders. Then we climbed for about a quarter of a mile on coarse black cinders to ascend 700 feet to reach the top – like ascending a 65 story building by walking up a sand ramp at a 45 degree angle. The view at the top was sublime! From the rim of the volcano, we could see that the wall of lava boulders (called “Fantastic Lava Beds”) went on for acres and acres, and was surrounded by the rolling, colorful landscape of “The Painted Dunes.”  We took pictures of each other across the impossibly deep crater to show scale. Check out the photos on the pictures page of our website or on Instagram (@boblorrie). I also took a short video of Lorrie running down the cinders to complement the other two I previously posted of her running down a sand dune and a snow field.

Sadly, we did not stay at Lassen long enough to explore the other two types of volcano – shield and composite. That’s in part because the weather has gotten much colder, and the days are growing short. Our water jug froze overnight at Lassen, and the park campgrounds are nearly deserted and ready to close for the winter at the first snowstorm. We need to head south. We are also increasingly aware that we are now much closer to the end than the beginning of our eight-month trip through the western national parks, and we are going to have to make some hard choices. There is still so much to do that we won’t be able to do it all. But we are keeping a list of places to which we will return. Lassen Volcanic National Park is on that list.

By the way, we made a short visit to Crater Lake National Park before camping among the coast redwoods. It was beautiful and cool to hike down to the lake itself, but we didn’t linger.

Yosemite! When people think of the United States’ national parks, it’s probably visions of Yosemite that most often come to mind. While not technically our country’s first national park, Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias were the first tracts of federal land set aside specifically for conservation. Abraham Lincoln signed the act into law in 1864 during the Civil War. It was initially turned over to the state of California to manage, and then returned to the federal government thirty years later when the local government proved unable to carry out the task. John Muir was instrumental in the decision to expand the park’s boundaries to include more of the Sierras that are connected geologically and ecologically to Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. Its 1,200 square miles is roughly the size of Rhode Island.

Yosemite Valley is the best known and most popular area of the park and is just as breathtaking as the famous and spectacular photos that Ansel Adams took of the valley in all seasons over many years. We rode our bikes around a loop on the valley floor enjoying the golden colors of fall and looking up at the famous towering granite cliffs and waterfalls. We climbed 3,200 feet to Upper Yosemite Falls, reportedly the highest falls in North America, and were rewarded with great views of the valley, Half Dome, and Glacier Point. By this point in our trip, we have become connoisseurs of national park movies; Yosemite’s two short films are in a class of their own. One was directed by Ken Burns! The films talk about how important figures in the park’s history conceived of Yosemite as a necessary component of American democracy, natural beauty accessible to all and preserved for future generations. Frederick Law Olmsted, who contributed the designs for development of the valley, envisioned a time when millions of people would visit the park.

That time is now, so the valley is not a place to go for solitude. Many thousands of people sleep in the valley every night at one of its “villages” or campgrounds. We didn’t because we don’t make reservations and stood no chance of getting to the valley early enough to score one of the few unreserved campsites…even in October when fewer people come to the park each day than the peak summer months. With so many people, it seems to me that the park’s infrastructure is straining, and I kept wondering how the park service is able to assure proper sanitation in such a relatively small space. Now that’s an exhibit I’d like to see!

A few words about bears. We heard that 30 years ago black bears were frequent visitors to Yosemite’s campgrounds, scavenging high caloric human food from campers and even breaking into cars. In order to protect the bears, the park service has carried out an intensive campaign to educate the public about proper storage of food to keep bears from getting it. A large metal bear-proof box is now installed at each campsite, and several have been placed at each trailhead. Visitors must use the bear boxes to store all scented items and may be fined if they leave such items in their vehicle instead. As a result, it is now relatively rare to see a bear in camp. Speeding cars still pose a grave danger to Yosemite’s bears, and 36 died last year after being struck by a car. That’s about 10 percent of the park’s estimated population of 300-500 bears.

We loved Yosemite Valley and are glad we saw it despite the crowds. We might even come back, as it would be glorious to see in winter white or spring bloom. But other parts of the park are also spectacular and more our style – 94 percent of the park is designated as wilderness, and we are intrigued by other Sierra wilderness areas in national forests adjacent to the park. We did a lovely hike to Ten Lake Basin and got a taste of backcountry Yosemite where just a few hearty souls were prepared to camp overnight in the cold above 9,000 feet. We’ll come back in a different season, but for now we’re heading south in search of slightly warmer weather.

You may be wondering about whether the terrible California fires that have been so much in the news have affected us these last couple of weeks. Fortunately, we have not been close to the tragic fires burning in Napa and Santa Rosa. We saw the brown haze last week from far away Lassen Peak, and our noses and eyes burned from breathing the smoky air in Yosemite Valley this weekend, so we can imagine how terrible it must be for those who are closer. As easterners, we rarely experience large devastating fires that are so common in the west, and we feel very sad for so many people who have lost their homes or businesses to fire this year.

2 thoughts on “Tall Trees, Volcanoes, and Yosemite!”

  1. What an amazing learning experience for you and for those of us who live them vicariously through you. Thank you for such clear and detailed description- one can almost visualize all those gorgeous places!

  2. WOW! What an ineresting blog. I read every word a few times to digest it all. What a beautiful and amazing contry we live in and you guys explored a good part of it. Love you guys………

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