“Along its eastern margin rises the mighty Sierra, miles in height, reposing like a smooth, cumulous cloud in the sunny sky, and so gloriously colored, and so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city. Along the top, and extending a good way down, you see a pale, pearl-gray belt of snow; and below it a belt of blue and dark purple, marking the extension of the forests; and along the base of the range a broad belt of rose-purple and yellow, where lie the minor’s gold-fields and the foot-hill gardens. All these colored belts blending smoothly make a wall of light ineffably fine, and as beautiful as a rainbow, yet firm as adamant…it seemed to me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light.”
– John Muir, Mountains of California
I have a problem when it comes to the Sierras. I just can’t say no to them. I can’t break away from them. They truly call me and beckon me – especially when their silhouette can be seen at on the distant horizon through my windshield.
I thought I would be able to sleep in after the exhausting days hiking the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne (GCT) – but I should know better, the trail always screws up my internal clock and has me waking up at some ungodly hour before sunrise for many days even when I’m back in civilization. I was wide awake at 5:45am.
The local news was touting that today would bring record-breaking heat to the area. When I checked out of the hotel and got in my car at 9am, the temperature was 109 degrees. No joke. Gross. I was heading back to Santa Barbara that day where I would stay for the rest of the week with my family, and then head back home to Colorado on Friday.
Then my problem set in. The drive back to Santa Barbara from the western slope of the Sierras is usually on 99 South – I love this drive because the highway parallels the Sierras from a distance for most of the way south, so I can watch them slowly fade. At some point you can see the Sierras small on the horizon on your left and the coastal mountains on your right. I love that there is a place where you can see both ranges. But driving on 99 is so tough for me, because I can still see the mountains and every unreasonable bone in my body usually wants to turn the car around and race back to them – it’s like leaving a lover on the train platform, and jumping from the moving train and running back into their arms and embracing them. The Sierras are my train-platform lover.
My particular weakness is those trees. You know which trees I’m talking about. The only trees. The Great Dane of trees. John Muir called them the “the king of all the conifers in the world”, the “noblest of a noble race”, and “the Big Tree”. The trees that have witnessed more time than we can fathom. The trees that beg to be hugged, and sat under, and admired. The trees that silence you and make you feel small (like we should feel – because we are). Sequoia gigantea. The Giant Sequoias. I can’t drive by these mountains and not visit these trees. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are my favorite of all national parks and one of my favorite places on the planet. Approaching the exit for 198 East to head toward Three Rivers, California and the gateway to Sequoia National Park, I could not resist the call. I had to turn back to the Sierras. Also, being a day of record-setting disgusting heat in the central valley, heading back up to 9,000 ft seemed like the smartest idea anyone could have had. I exited and drove the 50 miles back to the mountains, winding my way up and up to the Giant Forest, where the temperature was 82 degrees, and my coniferous friends were waiting.
I didn’t have much time to spend in the park, so I decided to head over to Crescent Meadows and hike through the shade of a sequoia grove and find a good lookout to admire the Great Western Divide.
I decided to hike on the High Sierra Trail out of Crescent Meadows. I slathered myself in sunscreen, and threw on my daypack (which always feels so obsurdly light after backpacking). I wasn’t even 500ft down the trail when I stumbled up just about the most frightening thing you can hope to never see when hiking….a beautiful sleeping momma black bear with 2 cubs – all curled up in the sweetest of slumbers together about 20 feet away from me under a tree. I stopped dead in my tracks.
Of course, 2 things primarily go through my head – “back away slowly then RUN” and the remarkably stupider, “TAKE A PHOTO”. Of course, being a human in the 21st century, the stupid part of my brain with zero survival instincts prevailed as I grabbed my camera and quickly got a shot. As I’m pulling the camera away from my face I see the lip of the momma bear curl up to expose her teeth in what seemed to be a snarl, and an immediate panic sets in… until her legs then start twitching in an invisible run, and I realize she’s so deep in sleep she’s having a “puppy dream”! She kicked so hard in her dream she woke one of her cubs who lifted his head and looked at me and yawned, and then put his head down and went back to sleep. I decided to keep walking up ahead and then climbed up a steep hill and pulled out my telephoto lens and got some shots of them safely while hiding behind a tree.
I continued on the High Sierra Trail (HST) through the forest of firs, sugar pines, and giant sequoias until I came out from under the forest cover to the open slope of Eagles View, which opens to sweeping views of the Great Western Divide and the Kaweahs. Just on the other side of those mountains is where I would soon be exploring as I walked the John Muir Trail in September.
I turned around and headed back to my car, as unfortunately had to make my way back to civilization and responsibility. Nearing the trailhead, there was no sign of the bears – they had moved on. I had decided to go find a ranger and tell them about the bears, though. That momma was way too close to the trailhead – and it wasn’t safe for anyone. Fortunately, on the drive back down, there happened to be a Bear Management Team truck on the side of the road and I pulled over and talked to the two rangers about the bears. Turned out they were actually keeping an eye on her as she had been coming too close into the park, so they were very glad I stopped and they hopped right in their truck to look for her.
I made my way back to 99 South and I-5. The Sierras faded in my rearview mirror. My time in the mountains was up, and I had to head back to sea level for a bit to spend time with friends and family before I finally made my way back home to Colorado.