The first time Brian and I attempted to go to Sequoia, it was an absolute disaster, but in the best of ways. Suffice it to say that we didn’t actually end up camping at all, and didn’t recover from our hangovers until early Sunday morning when we finally managed to coax Brian’s old Camry up the mountain to catch our last chance for hiking. But more on that some other day.
To prepare for our Sequoia trip, I had looked up the weather a week ahead of schedule, to prepare ourselves for the possibility of inclement weather. Alarmed by reports that it would be about 40 degrees at night, with a high of 60 during the day, we rushed to REI and stocked up on cold weather gear. Don’t judge us – we’re socal babies who don’t really understand the concept of ‘lower than 50 degrees’.
We had originally planned to set out from LA around 1pm, but since we dilly dallied on packing until Friday morning, at 1pm Brian was barely starting to pull hiking snacks out of the pantry while I was still frantically responding to last minute chats from my coworkers. At 4pm, we finally piled all of our stuff into my car, picked up our customary road-trip bobas from Tea Brick, grabbed a to-go order from Pepe’s Mexican Food, and headed for the road.
4 fairly quick hours later, we pulled into the ranger station manning the entrance to Potwisha Campsite, hoping and praying that a ranger would still be around. (Well after both our cellphones lost signal, we realized that we had forgotten to look up which campsite we booked.) There was no ranger to be seen. We were convinced we’d have to squat in a vacant campsite, until we drove in and realized with great relief that a small sheet of paper with the last names of the person who reserved the site was posted at the entrance to each campsite. Exhausted from the drive and still stuffed from the burrito and tacos we had inhaled before our departure, we threw the tent up, set up our sleeping bags and mattress pads, and promptly went to sleep.
Day 2 – The Heather, Aster, Emerald, and Pear Lakes Trail
We rose bright and early at 7am the next morning, as we wanted to buy tickets for the Crystal Cave tour as soon as the Foothills Visitor Center opened. Brian built a small fire, and we cooked up the bacon and eggs that we had packed. Bringing bacon to a car camping trip is basically the best idea ever because a) it’s bacon, and b) there’s no need to bring additional cooking oil, because everything is delicious when fried in bacon fat.
While we were eating, I realized that the dates on the reservation card for our campsite specified 5/16 – 5/17: only one night. We had no idea where we had booked the second night of our trip. A quick walk past the ranger station provided no answers, as the reservations were not posted visibly, and the ranger had not yet arrived for the morning. We had to hedge our bets on the Visitor Center having some system to look up our reservation.
Cooking and cleaning up took a surprisingly long time, so we didn’t end up getting to the visitor center until about 9:15am. Fortunately, the Crystal Cave tickets were at no risk of selling out, and we were able to buy tickets for the tour we wanted with no issues whatsoever. Unfortunately, the extremely helpful ranger manning the desk couldn’t find any way of figuring out our campsite reservation, which meant that our only choice was to tear down camp, and pack everything back into the car before leaving to hike.
By some sheer stroke of dumb luck (which seems to always happen to us), the ranger who was responsible for our campground just happened to be driving out of Potwisha as we arrived. Whats better, he even had the list of reservations with him in the car, and was able to look up our campsite right then and there. As our foresight would have it, we had booked the campsite next door. This would have worked out terribly had the adjacent campsite not vacated their spot first thing in the morning, before Brian and I even finished eating. We were able to just unstake our tent and walk it over to the new site.
I had mistakenly staked the tent on a slope our first night, and we spent the entire night slowly sliding into a corner of the tent. I woke up every hour or so, readjusted my pads and sleeping bag, and attempted to shift back into a somewhat normal orientation. This time, I tried to find a slightly more horizontal patch of land, but to no avail – every single part of the campsite was sloped in some manner.
With our relocation done, we were finally able to set off on our hike for the day. Originally, we had thought to explore Marble Falls, as the trailhead was right in Potwisha. However, our campsite neighbors warned that there was nothing impressive to see so low in the mountains, so we decided to tackle the Lakes Trail instead – a grueling 11.5mile hike that had just opened for the season but was still snowed over at this time of year.
The Lakes Trail’s trailhead is located in Wolverton, a 45minute drive up the mountain from Potwisha. Being about 5000ft higher than our campsite, Wolverton was chilly and windy despite the sun shining brightly through the thicket of trees. I donned my windbreaker, grabbed my pack, heavy with water and snacks for the day, and we were on our way.
We saw the first patch of snow about 1.5 miles into the hike, nestled innocently in a shady corner of the trail. Brian examined it excitedly, and then lobbed a snowball at me. We thought that would be the extent of the snow, but the further we climbed, the more we saw – patches of powder packed along the banks of defrosting streams, slicking the mountainside with a mottled coat of white.
The guidebook did not lie about the trail being steep. Whether it was due to the thinness of the air or the rigorousness of the climb, I don’t know, but we had to stop every few hundred feet to catch our breath. Finally, after more than two hours of ascension, we finally broke out into a clearing which exposed the most magnificent of views. You can’t really tell from the picture, unfortunately.
From our vantage point we could see the entirety of the mountainside, with its alternating patterns of snow and stone. Redwoods dotted the ridges, staunch in their exultation of spring. I couldn’t stop gaping.
After a short picnic on the rocks that overlooked the cliff, we wandered off again in search of the trail. At this point, the trail was completely covered by snow drifts up to 18 inches deep, and we had to follow the sunken footsteps of recent hikers to find our way. It was fun at first: testing which parts of the snow would hold our weight and which parts had melted underneath to give way under our steps, and slipping on the slick patches of ice that covered the recently unmelted paths. However, the novelty quickly wore off when we followed a sparse set of footprints to an area that was clearly too steep to be the marked path, and had to retrace our steps until we found a fork that led to a more believable way.
After about 3 or 4 hours (and a steep descent down to the lakebed) later, we finally reached Heather lake, the first of the 4 lakes on this trail. Surprisingly, there were 3 or 4 other groups of hikers there, some sunbathing on the rocks overlooking the lake shore, others meandering around while their buddies took pictures. The lake itself was mostly iced over, glittering with the reflection of the mountain that towered over it.
At this point, we were already pretty exhausted from the hike up, and I was looking forward to taking off my boots and drenched pant bottoms. But we had only seen one of the 4 promised lakes, so we decided to press on further and see at least one more lake before heading back.
We finally gave up when we saw Emerald lake glittering beneath us, a short descent away that wasn’t worth the climb that we would have to make to get back. More tired than we were satisfied, we turned around to face the steep climb back towards camp.
There were still quite a few groups of hikers heading up the path in the early afternoon, presumably backpackers who were planning to spend the night at the campsites surrounding Pear lake. I’d love to follow in their footsteps someday, when we have more experience with backpacking and the snow has given way to summer flowers.
While driving down from Lodgepole, we passed by a mama bear lolling in the grassy hills bordering the mountain path whilst her three clubs climbed down a tall, thin tree with unexpected agility. There was a bit of a traffic jam since people stopped in the middle of the road to take pictures, but even though I was impatient to get back to camp, I couldn’t resist stopping to take a few pictures of my own.
It was still pretty early when we got back to camp, and we decided to check out the Potwisha trail with our remaining few minutes of sunlight. We found the ancient Native American drawings that the Potwisha trail is renowned for, but I didn’t find them particularly impressive. A bit further along the trail, we came upon an awesome old creaky wooden bridge, and spent a good amount of time admiring its construction ( I have a weak spot for distressed wood and metal).
After exploring just beyond the bridge and concluding that the trail ended there, we headed back to camp and started preparing dinner.
It is incredibly hard to cook a steak to medium rare over an extremely hot campfire, since you can’t control the temperature except by raising or lowering the distance between the pan and the flames. I tried my best, and I have to say, one of two turned out pretty well. Brian and I sipped beers and people watched while enjoying our dinner of marinated steak with a side salad of romaine, raisins, sunflower seeds, and balsamic vinegar.
We meant to read when we climbed into our tent for the night (around 8pm), but exhaustion from the day’s hike quickly took over, and we sank into a fitful sleep.
Day 2 – Tokopah Falls
Over coffee at the Lodgepole Market the next morning, we pored over our book of Sequoia hikes and debated which trail to take. Unfortunately, my careful evaluation of our campsite’s elevation differences had made little impact, and we once again spent the whole night struggling to stay asleep while pooling into a corner of the tent. Worse – our constantly shifting weight had somehow managed to rip a smattering of small holes in the footprint. Oh well, we mused, better the footprint than the tent.
We finally discarded the notion of trying to rush through both Little Baldy and Tokopah Falls, in favor of taking our time to enjoy the stroll on the allegedly much more scenic Tokopah Falls. I did not regret this decision at all.
Tokopah Falls was by far the prettier of the two hikes we took this trip, as it wound alongside the Marble Fork Kawaeh River. We stopped a few times to marvel at the rushing rapids of the newly melted snowfall and to inpsect the Pondskater insects that danced across the river’s offshoots.
At the end of the trail, we came to a magnificently roaring waterfall, which cascaded into a lush valley abundant with redwoods. This was evidently a popular trail, as scores of tourists dotted the rocks around the falls, picnicking, chatting, and simply enjoying the resplendent view.
We sat on the rocks and people watched for a bit, and I noticed that the older tourists are very casual about disregarding rules – When a curious marmot ventured out on the rocks, two older gentlemen immediately began putting out treats in order to snag a picture with the little guy, despite the obviously posted signs requesting that visitors ‘Please Do Not Feed Wildlife’. I guess when you’re that old and took the effort to make it this far out into the world, you could care less about what other people tell you to do?
It was all too soon when we realized that we had to start heading back to the car if we were to make it to Crystal Cave on time. The ranger who sold us our tickets had warned us to leave at least an hour for transportation, and luckily we made it back to the parking lot with just enough time to spare.
Day 2.5 – Crystal Cave
Crystal Cave is absolutely amazing. If nothing else, I firmly think that every Sequoia visitor that hikes Sequoia’s peaks should also make a trip into Sequoia’s underworld. The stark contrast is stunning.
It’s incredible to think that water could forge so many intricate formations, and that it’s possible to interpret the water’s course through history simply by observing the patterns carved in the stone.
Our tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable, and described how each of the formations – stalagmites and stalactites, the fairy ponds and the cave bacon – were formed through eons of slowly dripping water. The culmination of the tour was the 30 seconds we spent sitting in the absolute silence and darkness of the cave, experiencing the life of the subterranean cave dwellers. The silence was so loud that my ears rang with its echoes, perhaps imaginary, perhaps not, dancing along the walls.
Finally, we made the trip that we had set out on almost a year prior, fulfilling our goal of actually camping in Sequoia. With one more destination off the bucket list, we packed our bags and headed on home.