Hey! …can I tell you something? It’s kind of my dirty little secret… I think I like Sequoia better than Yosemite. I know! I KNOW. Every sunny Californian is supposed to marvel at the wonders of El Capitan and Half Dome and crawl up out of the valley floor year after year on their own epic pilgrimage to find the most breathtaking view imaginable before snapping a few photos and driving back to the city. I feel even more sacrilegious being a rock climber – Yosemite is like church for the climbers! But, hear me out. In the last year, Sequoia has really grown on me, and spending a recent weekend there with a girlfriend who had never been backpacking really solidified my infatuation.
First of all, Yosemite is far more crowded than Sequoia/Kings Canyon, and they don’t do same day wilderness permits. Well, they sort of do, but you’re only free to grab “next-day” permits that haven’t yet been taken from the previous day, which means no chance at all of anything out of the valley or anything super popular with expansive views throughout your journey. Sequoia has this awesome system where 25% of all permits for any trailhead are saved for same-day use, which means if you show up and are first in line that morning, you get your pick of the litter for any of her most famous backpacking spots. Pro-tip: If you’re driving in after work on a Friday night, get real, real fancy and sleep in your car in the parking lot of the permit station so you can wake up, grab a snack, and skip on over to the front of the line. I’ve done this for all three of Sequoia’s most popular trails and had incredible success, so, you’re welcome! 😉
Now, on to last weekend. As some of you know, I’m knee-deep in break-up land at the moment, but managing my way through the muck with my machete brandished, and I wanted to take a friend going through a complicated divorce on her first backpacking trip (#girlpower!). Kings Canyon has a pretty well known loop (Rae Lakes) out of Road’s End that eventually catches up with the infamous 12,000 foot passes on the JMT/PCT. The trailheads are Woods Creek/Bubbs Creek (depending on which direction you traverse it). I figured that with options to camp at 6.5 miles, 8 miles, and 10 miles in and plenty of water along the way, the Woods Creek route would be a great starter backpack.
Until I realized that it was October 1st. Off-season. No rangers at the permit stand, no bear cans for rent, do not pass go, do not collect $200. The plus side to this situation was that permits were self-serve, so I scooped a helping of one backpacking permit onto my plate, and it was totally delicious. The bad side is that I did not bring my own bear can. In October. In an active bear area with loads of tourists. So, like good little adventurers, we had a laugh and a Clif bar, piled into the car, and vaguely remembered from the hazy delirium that is Friday night forest driving that there was a lodge with services a couple of miles back on the main road (Cedar Grove Lodge). A ranger with pink (yes, PINK) hair a la Cyndi Lauper helped us confirm that there are food storage lockers at Lower, Middle and Upper Paradise Valley Campgrounds. With that knowledge, we were off!
The trail starts off meandering near King’s River and through fragrant pine trees. To be totally honest, the beginning is really flat and covered in deep sand, so I hiked on the edges of the trail like a total hardcore champion because sand is not my friend. J Once you get out of the sand, though, the trail begins a steady climb, and the views of The Sphinx and surrounding glacial peaks are stunning. At 4.5 miles in, you get a great snack break opportunity at Mist Falls, which is where most day hikers turn around, but we were bound for Upper Paradise Valley, and we were not to be deterred by pretty waterfalls on this particular afternoon!
After Mist Falls, the trail does hit a pretty substantial climb of steep rock stairs cut into the switchbacks. From what I remember, we gained something like 1,400 feet in under a mile, but the views are pretty stellar the whole way up, and there are lots of good places to stop for a rest and a photo opp. Once you descend slightly into Paradise Valley, it’s amazing how quickly the vegetation changes! The trail opens up to ferns, meadows, and clusters of Aspen trees that were color changing for fall, rattling their yellowed, circular leaves like a fiery tambourine when gusts of wind blew past. You continue to follow the river through Paradise Valley, and we were amazed at how crystal clear it was! We passed a hiker who said that there’s great fly-fishing in the area, and we could literally see tons of fish through the ice-blue water the entire hike.
Before we knew it, we were ascending one last, tiny push into Upper Paradise Valley, and, since we made excellent time, we had our pick of the campsites. We picked a large, flat space near the river with a small campfire ring. Sequoia/King’s Canyon doesn’t allow campfires above 10,000 feet (and Yosemite often doesn’t allow them anywhere undesignated in the backcountry), so at 6,800 feet on a night that got down into the 30s, it was a welcome addition to my usual backpacking routine of run the fuck into my sleeping bag, snuggle myself hard, and try to read a book as distraction from my little toes freezing off.
Let’s get real for a minute, though, since this was primarily a trip about two single gals redefining their strength in the middle of the wilderness. I learned a lot about how people heal this weekend. I thought that the trip would be ripe with the internal conflict of two girls going through rough breakups, slugging it out in nature on the slow path to redemption, but honestly, I was amazed at nature’s ability to inspire unforced resilience. The trip was much more a lesson in “fuck yeah” female-focused empowerment than it was a rehashing of old ideas amidst an idyllic backdrop. My friend and I laughed, sang, muttered incomprehensible things while sleepy, and ultimately felt even more ourselves than we had in the city just a day before. I wonder if there’s something about the timelessness of the natural wild that lights up the soul so that we don’t sweat the small stuff or the inevitable. Things grow, things break, and if we can learn to enjoy being broken for a bit, the real magic begins. We reveled in the deep unraveling that we were both experiencing under a new moon as the Milky Way slid across the sky before turning in for the night.
Even after sleeping in ‘til 8:30 and being the last to leave the campground, we still made killer time on the way out, without rushing. We saw a huge doe right off trail early in the day, then bounced our way back down the mountain and stopped for lunch at Mist Falls, paparazzied by a flock of very insistent bees who, apparently, are big fans of goat cheese. We made it back to the car by 2pm and began the drive back to Los Angeles through some tectonically intense-looking mountains on the way out of Road’s End!
I feel so spoiled and grateful to live right in the middle of not one but several world-class National Parks (Yosemite, I still love you!). The wild is a place of infinite light and darkness, and I’m honored to have connected with both this past weekend.