Friday morning came bright and early and after tying up some loose ends, we started our journey south to meet family in New Mexico around the beginning of October. We are hoping to get some great pictures, particularly from the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival, and to gather some great stories while visiting some incredible new places. It’ll be a quick trip however, so we are trying to make every second count!
*It is starting to dawn on us that no matter how hard you try, except in rare circumstances, you never leave on schedule. This time it was electrical issues, with a bad ground and some blown fuses that delayed us by a day*
Shasta was just a stop over before the big push through the heartland of California. We have a particular affinity for the mountain, and decided to camp at the free Castle Lake Campground. We were met by the camp host, a stooped older gentleman standing in the middle of the road, in his possession a clipboard and a stern look. He asked many questions, peering up over his glasses. He was rather peculiar and not overly friendly. We gave each other the look that said we should take a pass and on this one. Instead we moved down the road a few hundred yards to another pullout/campsite that had a nice view of the mountain. We had a great sunset, followed by an even better sunrise before buttoning up traytray for the LONG trip to Sequoia National Monument.
After eight mind numbing hours of I-5 asphalt through grasslands, orchards, cities, and tiny little towns, we were finally going to make it to Kings Canyon and Sequioa! This destination was supposed to have been part of our California Swing last March, but there had been too much snow.
With the shadows getting long and having nursed our aging rig up a fairly steep grade for what seemed eternity, we rolled up to the park entrance and were informed it was our Lucky Day!!! Apparently we arrived on “public lands day” and did not have to pay! We excitedly went to find a boondocking spot in the national forest before dark. Cate had established a lead on a whole mess of dispersed camping spots on the way to Horse Camp and Big Meadows on national forest land, smack dab between the two parks. The sites varied in the view, but were all very nice. We grabbed one on a hillside with a great view of a distant mountain. There was no one else in sight. The full moon came up over the mountain and lit up the whole area thanks in part to the rocky, nearly white soil. There were cows grazing in the forest, and at night the coyotes howls and cows mooing echoed through the whole valley.
Exhausted but excited we ‘unscrambled the egg’ that is the camper after bumpy California roads and hit the hay.
Sunday we opted to go to Kings Canyon first. We were not entirely sure what to expect, but can now safely say that it is the most underrated National Park we have visited since Capitol Reef. We headed down the mountain to Hume lake from the campsite before caching Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. As we neared the Byway intersection and were coming around a curve, one of the most stunning vistas either of us had ever seen unfolded in front of us. Even Frankie Rae could not look away. The junction of the East and West forks of the Kings River, thousands of feet down inside of their vast canyons spread out over the whole horizon. Above it all loomed the jagged peaks of the high Sierra, grey and imposing. As we started our descent into the canyon we found an old gated, overgrown forest service road. A trail bisected a series of three mostly bald knolls perhaps a mile long, ending with a view that was better than anything we had seen from the road. We returned to the car and continued down into the canyon. It reminded us a bit of the Going to the Sun road at Glacier NP. A narrow 2 lane road cut into the side of sheer rock walls. We stopped many times taking in waterfalls and creeks, taking pictures and admiring the view. Having literally come to “the End of the Road”, we headed back up to the mountaintop to hunt down the Boole Tree.
The Boole Tree is the largest Sequoia that exists outside of the National Park. It was spared during the large Sequoia harvests of the late 19th century. Getting to it, was a bit treacherous, driving through the enormous old stumps, avoiding giant ruts and massive potholes. We we hiked the 2.6 mile trail, wondered in awe at this 3000 year old living thing in front of us. Frankie nibbled lightly at its thick bark and did some light weeding, stopping occasionally to peer upwards at the branched that themselves were as big as a normal tree.
We took in a sunset at an overlook before going back to camp for dinner, a few dice games, and a fire. It was a cold night and we had ice chips in our water the next morning. Coffee was consumed, animals loaded and away we went. Sequoia was the business of the day. The day was great, we drove through the Giant Forest on General’s Highway, saw the Sherman Tree, the Auto tree, and Drove through Tunnel Tree. You know, the basics. The National Parks are pet kickers (wink wink, we totally understand why) but it limits our activities in the actual park, so we went back up the hill to find the Chicago Stump. A 15 foot tall stump of a tree as big as the Boole Tree that was felled, cut up, shipped to and reassembled at the Chicago Worlds Fair, where it was widely viewed as a hoax.
The next gem we found was the the relatively obscure but spectacular fire lookout at Buck Rock. Built in 1923, it is a small square lookout house perched at 8500 feet on the huge dome that is Buck Rock. To get to the lookout one must travel 2.5 miles from our campsite down rutted, rocky, sandy, and steep roads, hike a short bit, and finally climb a series of staircases that hang off the edge of the granite dome (occasionally spanning large gaps between the rock). I have always had an aversion to heights, and so opted to stay on terra-firma (in other words, I Chickened Out). Cate bravely scaled the staircase and was rewarded with incredible 360 views of the Sierras and met the woman who lives there.
Afterwards we caught the sunset from Buck Rock proper before our last campfire and dinner in Kings Canyon NF.
As the sun reared it’s head above the mountains, we did the customary cross-check, Cate backed up the truck, animals laid down in the back seat and we were on our way to Lake Isabella. The route was down CA180 before turning onto CA245. This route would take us to Portersville and on then to Bakersfield and finally Lake Isabella. We made a quick gas stop in Portersville and both Google maps, and Apple maps decided to give us a shortcut. We were to gain a half hour and save many miles in gas by driving up and over the Sierras. Hundreds of hairpin turns, grades of between 12 and 14%, several foul words, and many white knuckles later we arrived at Lake Isabella. We met our camping buddy Annie, and her son Dylan at the Kern River Recreation Area and cruised around a bit before settling on a camping spot. We found a great spot on the south side of the bridge and had a spirited night of music and conversation before turning in for the night.
Tuesday morning we parted company with Annie and Dylan They were on the way to Trona Pinnacles and Maggie, Frankie, Cate, and I to Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas, but not without a quick stop at Remington hot springs. Remington hot springs has been in a state of continual folksy improvement for years. It lies along the kern river and is reinforced with a bit of concrete and inset with tile, glass, and stones.
While we were there we met with the official/unofficial caretakers who visit twice a week and clean the place up, provide feet washing jugs, and look out for the place!. The east side of Lake Isabella and the joshua trees were gorgeous but we soon found ourselves on the road to Las Vegas, a dusty, occasionally steep-grade highway 15 with temps of 103F, a brief stop at Rt.66’s Peggy Sue’s diner…
… and then Cate found the art!