First things first - happy birthday Alister.
This one's a good one - big trees, big bears, big(ish) snakes and a huge creepy crawly!
After Santa Barbara we headed back north east across smog filled central California and towards the adjoining National Parks of Kings Canyon and Sequoia.
If you look at the map our route looks stupid but we have sort of followed the weather and our view was that this would be a drive by visit to see great spectacles before heading down to Canyon country via Death Valley. As it was, we opted to stay on for two extra days and were well rewarded for our decision.
Our base for the next few days would be the Charter Inn and Suites at Tulare - a good hotel in a clean but unexceptional town on Highway 99 - about 70 minutes from the Park entrances. The value was good and the car journeys added to the outings to the Parks so I would recommend this hotel as a place to be based when visiting.
The night they drove old Dixie down Grant Grove and Hotel Creek Walk - Friday 30 September 2011
Grant Grove is a starting point for both National Parks and, as its name implies, is home to the Giant Sequoia General Grant. The tree is named after Ulysses S Grant, Union hero during the US Civil War and 18th President of the US. The tree is the widest in the world and about the 5th or 6th largest tree overall. At present the tree is over 40ft in diameter.
After stopping off to view the General Grant, we headed down the 36 miles of winding roads into Cedar Grove in the heart of Kings Canyon. The drive took over an hour due to the turns and to allow for a couple of stops for pictures.
We set out on the Hotel Creek walk, a round trip of 5.2 miles to the Cedar Grove Overlook. The walk was exposed to the heat of the midday sun as tree cover was sparse and conditions almost desert like. It starts just before Cedar Grove Village and makes it way rapidly upwards via a series of switchbacks.
Karen took a good picture of a blue bellied lizard on the way up - it seemed to pose for us as if it knew the camera was ready. I have become excellent at spotting reptiles since our snake encounters in Big Sur and eyed this little poser as we made our way up.
The view from the overlook is superb and in addition to the view over the Grove, you can see down the Canyon and up onto some wide meadows high on the side of neighbouring mountains.
We drove back afterwards for a well-earned rest and dinner at a local restaurant. A good, if unspectacular, start to our visit to the Parks.
Tank General Sherman and the Trail of the Sequoias - Sunday 2 October 2011
This was the best day's walking so far due to the various furry friends that appeared from time to time.
The drive to Sequoia National Park took a different route to the previous day as we headed to the main entrance to the Park just past Three Rivers. Getting to the entrance was quite quick but the road up to the giant trees is very tricky particularly as they were carrying out road works half way up.
About a third of the way up the mountain side we were stopped in our tracks by a white camper van. I was cursing the driver as Karen pointed out a large black bear just 10 feet from the back of the car. It was happily destroying a tree in search for food and we had a front row seat. Unfortunately the bear turned its back on us so Karen could only capture a mass of fur amongst the long grass. We drove on with Karen disappointed that she could not get a good picture.
At the top of Mountain we visited the General Sherman Sequoia. This is named after William Tecumseh Sherman, another successful (eventually) Union general from the US civil war who was famous for the quote "War is Hell" (see this blog is educational). It is not the tallest (redwoods are higher), nor is it the widest (See General Grant) but it is the biggest in mass and is getting bigger every year. Like me it is dead on top and only grows outwards.
The General Sherman is the start of a walk that leads to the Trail of the Sequoias. This trail leaves the paved walkways and masses behind as it takes you through a forest swimming in giant trees (both upright and fallen). On our way we passed the Chief Sequoyah, President, Chimney, and Cleveland trees as well as Tharps log (a log used as a house) and Circle Meadow.
It should have been a circular route but controlled fires (where they deliberately burn the dead wood and foliage away to encourage nutrients and new tree growth) blocked our passage. We had to retrace ours steps and that turned out to be most fortunate.
As we headed up to a rocky point where we had stopped for lunch, Karen said "Bear". I stopped and looked ahead to see a small adult black bear walk across our path and head to our right side. It stopped and looked back for a moment and a small cub appeared. The mother looked at us and apparently not bothered, encouraged her cub forward. As it approached the path, the cub stared at me for a while before catching up with its mother. They were about 70 feet away from us as they stopped to stare at regular intervals. Karen's pictures will be great reminders of this special moment. The day was turning out great but there was more to come.
Wild in the country
I appear to have bear blindness which I put down to my need to survey the ground in front of me so that I avoid tripping over my own feet.
Still excited about seeing the cub we continued to walk back to our car. As we turned a bend and started to walk downhill towards the next bend, Karen stopped and started calling "Stuart" - softly at first and then suddenly more urgently before saying "bear" (it would have been handy to say that first time!). About 25 feet in front of me and just by the turn in the path was a large black bear (brown in colour) digging out huge pine cones for a light snack.
Bear spray at ready I stood my ground while Karen snapped away before the bear turned around and started to walk towards us. According to its ear tag it was number 1 (who was I to argue with such a large impressive beast) and had a radio collar for naturalists to monitor its movements. Obviously we stepped back but remained near the bear for around 10 minutes until it moved off as more people started to come along the path. The pictures of this bear are great - it was definitely the most impressive specimen we have seen.
We were both very happy although Karen felt we had pushed our luck. It did not end there though as after a few close ups of General Sherman we saw another big bear running up the hill beside the Museum as we drove back out of the park.
Incy Wincy Spider
Karen did not spot it but as we were driving in the lower and warmer foothills region of the Park I spotted something large crawl out of the undergrowth and make its way across the road about 50 feet in front of the car to our left. It was a tarantula about the size of my palm, making its way across the roadway with its distinctive walk, almost one leg at a time. I decided that this was a good time to tell Karen about the rattlers, spiders and scorpions to be found here and in the next few locations on our agenda!
Misty Mist Falls walk (Kings Canyon) - Monday 1 October 2011
Back to Kings Canyon this day and a really great walk with reptilian encounters!
Mist Falls are part way up the Paradise Valley Trail. The walk starts with a trip along sandy meadows and amongst widely spaced fir and oak trees that line the side of the Kings River. Large boulders, some as big as small lorries, are spread out along the valley.
As the woods become denser the trail turns left up another valley and begins to climb 700 feet to the falls. At the turning point we encountered a small snake (about 10 inches long) that allowed me to take its photograph. I think it is some kind of garter snake.
Some of the views are comparable with Yosemite but at this time of year there are much less people here in Kings so the walk is more peaceful. The climb upwards is gradual and very pleasant with a great reward at the end. You pass several beautiful cascades before coming across the actual falls. The volume of water meant that this was the most impressive falls we have seen on our travels and the ever changing walk was amongst the best small hikes we have done.
On the way back I suddenly stopped as a snake about 30 inches long was spread out across the entire path. The picture shows the snake which would seem to be a Hammonds Garter snake according to the guide I picked up on the coast. It kept flicking its tongue out as we passed by but otherwise seemed content to stay where it was.
Great walk, fab critters - I was very happy.
For maths freaks and actuaries everywhere, here are some less than rigorous statistics for the trip so far.
On average I believe that we have walked about 7 miles per day. As at the 3rd October that means we have covered 371 miles.
Whilst Karen still has energy to burn most days (which she burns off in the gym whenever possible) I'm knackered. Consequently, my lucky number is 0 as that is the total mileage I shall be driving and walking (if I can get away with it) in Fiji.
As of today we have driven around 4,000 miles in North America with perhaps another 600 miles to go before we drop the latest jalopy off in Vegas. In addition to hiring three cars we have taken one plane, two ferries, one greyhound bus, one Amtrak, several local buses and a few taxis.
We have visited two Canadian provinces and three US States. One more State to go.
We have had a conservative amount of North American wine and a few Bud lights have been consumed (mainly by me). Only a handful of burgers have passed my lips (we are trying to be healthy) and breakfast has generally been of the continental variety. A whole banana tree and an apple orchard have been consumed along with several blueberry plants and a silo of porridge.
Bruce appears to be the most popular name amongst people we have met and we haven't even hit Australia yet.
Look out for the next edition where Karen will inform you of her decision to ease herself into foreign driving in DEATH VALLEY.