Ah, Wilderness!

With the world on fire, my husband Jonathan and I were looking forward to a week’s hiking in the Sierra. Then California literally was on fire (again), this time with the Ferguson fire affecting Yosemite Valley and the surrounding southern areas. We had planned to stay in the high country of northern Yosemite for the last two days of our vacation, but it had become logistically too complicated, so luckily for us, we’d changed our plans before flames and smoke filled the park. We decided to stay the entire time near Sequoia National Park, first in a little-visited corner of it, Mineral King, then a couple days near the main entrance to the park.

The Horse Creek Fire began to burn in Mineral King just days before our departure. We nervously followed the updates (and the ever-rising temperatures everywhere on our weather apps). But firefighters jumped on the blaze really aggressively, and our vacation could proceed, with the warning that we’d encounter staging area equipment on the long, winding road up to where we were staying. Several mentions of this road as hair-raising even in the best of circumstances had already made us nervous, but we forged on.

We saw plumes of smoke on our drive up. We also encountered one truck and a couple of firefighters on a pull out (plus a black bear ambling across the road on our drive down four days later). The road was smooth and plenty wide, even if we had encountered another car, which we didn’t. Jonathan remarked, “The roads are much worse back home.” Our spirits lifted as we gained elevation, particularly as the temperatures fell and the sky’s blueness escaped the haze and smoke of the Central Valley.

We loved our cabin at Silver City Mountain Resort, a place close to the end of the road with spotty wi-fi, terrifically friendly and knowledgeable staff, delicious food, a range of rustic to more luxe cabins, and a communal women’s bathroom whose sinks might have sprung from the fevered imagination of glass artist Dale Chihuly if he specialized in glamping:

Best of all, we were close to the trail heads for five days of hiking. Here are some of the highlights:

And on the day we left Mineral King, our favorite hike to Monarch Lakes, which we almost didn’t do:

The Mineral King trail heads were at a higher elevation, dropping the climate-change-induced high temperatures several degrees. As you can see, we had some beautiful hikes, despite heat-stressed flowers that in bygone years would have been in their full glory:

Speaking of stress, there was one other source: marmots. Mineral King is apparently the only place in the Sierra where visitors are routinely surprised by the cute but uninvited critters taking up residence under the car hood for a feast of insulation, radiator hoses, and wires. We’d read about this before we left: The National Park Service advised hikers at high-elevation trail heads to check under their hoods and, if they visited before mid-July, to consider wrapping a tarp around the entire underbelly of their cars. Chicken wire, NPS assured us, was no longer recommended (not because it was no longer necessary, but because marmots apparently consider chicken wire an appetite-whetting starter course). Before we left home, we looked at our tarp, designed for a one-person backpacking tent, and concluded it would be the vehicular equivalent of thong underwear when only a chastity belt would do. We looked at the calendar, and concluded that July 23-27 was way past mid-July. I did, however, toss a bunch of bungee cords into the trunk as an afterthought.

Despite the many cars in the parking lot totally swaddled in tarps, we persuaded ourselves that these belonged to fastidious backpackers gone for a week or more. Surely we wouldn’t need such drastic measures for just a few hours! And indeed we were fine, enjoying marmots where they belonged, on rocks in meadows. This one even seemed trained for the cameras:

On our third hike, a terrific 12-mile hike up Farewell Canyon to Franklin Lake (with an elevation gain of 3000 feet),

we got caught in a hail and rain burst that turned the trail into a river for the last bit of our descent. Despite rivulets streaming off my hat and into my face, I popped the hood as Jonathan shivered, expecting to find nothing. There was a marmot, who quickly high-tailed it out the bottom of the engine compartment, leaving behind a sizable oval of exposed engine block where the insulation had been chewed away.

The wires seemed okay, and the car started. Chastened, we stopped at the ranger station, which fortunately kept a supply of jumbo tarps for people to borrow. Those bungee cords came in handy the next couple of days.

Not a bad wrapping job, huh? Still, if you are the kind of person who might surprise a special someone with a new car, we suggest placing the key in a small box and knocking yourself out with fancy paper and ribbons. At any rate, there are no new cars in our future, as our radiator did not blow up, nor did our brakes or anything else fail for the rest of our trip.

Sufficient wildlife adventures for a lifetime, one might think. But there was more to come. Not only did we see an aforementioned bear on our way down to our final destination, but on a terrific hike in Sequoia National Park proper on our last day,

we chanced upon a mother bear and three cubs not 20 feet from the trail. Mama hissed at Jonathan before ambling slowly away, her curious little ones stopping frequently to look at us during their leisurely retreat.

We had a wonderful time, refreshed for our return once again to a world on fire, literally and figuratively. To mark our re-entry, I’ve switched from wilderness to “The Wilderness,” Pod Save America host Jon Favreaux’s terrific podcast about the once and future Democratic Party. I recommend both–a sojourn in nature and a good listen–for replenishing the soul.

5 thoughts on “Ah, Wilderness!

  1. Amazing photos. So glad you were able to get your hiking done considering the fire situation. We finally had a break in our hot weather last night – temps dropped by about 10 degrees. Actually feel like I might get some things done today.

  2. Loved your article “Ah Wilderness” . You and Jonathan are indeed intrepid wilderness adventurers—most impressive a 12 mile hike climbing up 3000 feet complete with rain and hail on the way down. Glad you were staying in comfortable lodgings. Thank you for sharing such beautiful photos. Reminds me of the mountains and marmots of the Colorado Rockies I enjoyed as an adolescent.

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