Temple of Giants

IMG_4651.JPGYosemite Valley is full of superlatives – the world’s largest exposed granite monolith, some of its highest cliffs, the continent’s tallest series of waterfalls – but these remarkable things are only there because of what isn’t. Billions (if not trillions) of tons of the valley’s granite were ground away more than 1 million years ago. A river started the job before glaciers took over, scouring off Half Dome’s other half, carving El Capitan’s 3,000-foot heights and leaving cliffs tall enough to scrape the clouds. Granite’s a tough rock, and this specific granite is as ancient as the dinosaurs. But sculpting it into some of the biggest and most recognizable formations on the planet took the strength of water.

Yosemite National Park now is defined more by rivers of liquid water rather than frozen, with spring snowmelt tumbling down falls that fill every valley with mist and sound. Some are huge and iconic – Bridalveil Fall accents the image of Yosemite Valley every visitor sees, and Yosemite Falls drops almost half a mile altogether. Countless smaller falls are tucked away in hidden corners of the valley, glistening threads running down distant ravines or vanishing into vapor high above the valley floor.

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IMG_4593.JPGOur first taste of Yosemite Valley’s scale was the football-field-size cliff that breaks through the forest across the valley near its entrance, streaked black from lichen and water. Tiny cars drove along the road at its base. On our side of the valley, another smooth granite outcropping sloped toward the floor at a gentle angle. Still, standing on it, seeing the earth drop away and looking out over a valley thousands of feet across was enough to get my heart pumping. The feeling didn’t go away during my four-day stay in one of our first national parks.  “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” famed naturalist John Muir wrote a century ago. “Every rock in its wall seems to glow with life.”

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IMG_4638.JPGBefore seeing what Muir meant, we had to actually get there, with a stop in Arizona to pick up my mom. That meant a whole lot of driving, passing through Roswell (and stopping at the International UFO Museum, obviously), across the Rockies and a dust-blown desert in bloom, and between stands of wind turbines that often stretched to the horizon. In California’s Central Valley the turbine groves were replaced with miles upon miles of tree orchards and vineyards. Occasionally a semi drove past hauling trailers filled to the brim with garlic or oranges.

Then it was back up the mountains to Yosemite’s Wawona Campground.

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IMG_4929.JPGMore than 4 million people pile into Yosemite every year, and nearly all of them head to Yosemite Valley, which stretches across a paltry 1 percent of the park’s 1,200 square miles. I couldn’t blame them. I also couldn’t wait to see parts of the park many of them don’t visit. Wawona, which sits 30 winding miles south of the valley and was home base for four days, was the first of three non-valley stops.

We were mostly alone when we hiked partway up the nearby Chilnualna Falls trail one morning. The steep and rugged path wove between house-sized boulders and precarious trees up into some of the park’s official wilderness. The air was sweet from ponderosa pines and cinnamon-colored incense cedars that towered more than 100 feet overhead – even the trees are oversized in Yosemite. Chilnualna Creek’s rapids were never out of earshot. On the way back down, a group of a couple dozen seniors passed us looking as if they did this every day.

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IMG_4736.JPGNext we swung back around to Yosemite Valley; though the valley visitor area is packed with thousands of people during the warmer months, a nearby, little-used trail runs 5 or 6 miles past Mirror Lake into the valley’s quieter upper end. Almost no hikers went further than the crowded lake shore. Half Dome soared almost a mile overhead, the occasional cloud hiding its peak. The sun was bright and the breeze was soft. An hour or so passed, the stream flowing quietly nearby. The path seemed to keep turning away from the rest of the valley as it passed stands of aspen and pine. We started to wonder if the trail was still actually going anywhere. Eventually we joined a family of four wondering the same thing. We kept going.

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IMG_4778.JPGNear where the valley transitions into the smaller and steeper Tenaya Canyon, a sturdy bridge over gushing rapids came into view. Egg-sized granite stones formed little islands in the stream where more pines and cedars grew. Mosquitoes wouldn’t let us enjoy the scene for long. As we finally turned back toward the rest of the valley, we came across a few more hikers. Each asked us if the trail was actually going anywhere.

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IMG_4867.JPGLast came the giant sequoias, relatives of the coastal redwoods. Of the two, redwoods are the giants in terms of height, soaring to almost 380 stunning feet in some cases and holding the record as the tallest trees in the world. Giant sequoias are their heftier cousins, slightly shorter than coastal redwoods but making up for it with their colossal trunks. They’re one of the largest known single organisms and can weigh in at more than 1,000 tons – that’s 10 blue whales to you. They can also be prodigiously old, living up to around 3,000 years. They’re so well adapted to forest fires that they actually need them to reproduce. In the meantime, they can get so big that their own tremendous girth is often what brings them down.

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IMG_4877.JPGIt’s difficult to describe the feeling of being among a group of sequoias, even one as relatively small as Yosemite’s Tuolumne Grove. I could only crane my neck all the way back and try to take in how immense these living towers are. Even the young, “small” ones stand out from the surrounding full-grown pines, imposing and powerful. Yet their bark is spongy and soft, well suited to keeping out flames and the bugs that have decimated conifers throughout the Rockies (thanks partly to climate change, some researchers have found). Strength through softness, my mom said. Like the water that shapes the valley.

We took one last drive through Yosemite Valley before leaving. Long before Muir and others like me walked here, indigenous Miwok people and other tribes lived within the valley’s walls for some eight millennia. Settlers violently took it from them, with the last village removed around when my parents were born. Those people’s descendants are still around. I hope I at least honor their home well.

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IMG_4806.JPGOn the way home from this crazy road trip, New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument was the final major stop. Dust rose from the dune field like steam in the wind on the way to Yosemite. It seemed fitting, in a way, to venture into the field on the way home, almost a sequel to last year’s trek to the Great Sand Dunes. The two places shared the same odd, muffled quietness, though White Sands’ dunes are much smaller. The missile range where the first nuclear weapon was detonated is next door, and an occasional jet broke the silence. The wind-sculpted gypsum sand, pure white and soft as sugar, radiated heat in the sun but stayed cool to the touch. Shadows of puffy clouds sailed across sand waves.

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IMG_4998.JPGA brief stop there, then it was back in the car. All in all, it was a trip full of beauty and bigness and way too much driving.

Thanks for looking.

Dan

Mist and Steam

IMG_0573Even the fountains along the streets are hot enough to steam in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The clear, 140-degree water rippling up through dozens of cracks in Hot Springs Mountain first landed here as rain around 4,000 years ago – around when Judaism was being founded and the first stones of Stonehenge were placed. The rain ever so slowly percolated downward, soaking up the natural heat within the earth before being pushed back out millennia later to be collected and funneled to baths and fountains. A bit anticlimactic, really.

This town was built on that water, with millions of visitors coming to stew in its warmth and fix their health problems from the early 1800s on. I don’t think the springs cured their arthritis and skin diseases, but I imagine days of baths and massages felt pretty good anyway.

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IMG_0606The bathhouses and mountains around them became the tiniest national park in the 1920s. It’s an oddity of a park – the only national park in a city, and the only one marked so extensively by what humans have built. The downtown buildings have either the blocky Art Deco look of the Empire State Building or the majorly retro look of the ’70s. It’s a gorgeous place even with those things, and given that it’s the only national park within 600 miles of northwest Arkansas, I really should’ve gone there sooner than this past weekend.

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Once I left the historic district, I drove up the highway a ways to Gulpha Gorge, where the park has a campground and trail head for a cluster of winding gravel trails up the mountain. It was a perfectly autumn day: cool, windy and with some rain drops falling every now and then. Hot Springs sits on the eastern end of the Ouachita (pronounced washitah) Mountains, which reached as high as many of the Rockies when they first buckled upward millions of years before the first dinosaurs appeared. Now they’re worn down to manageable heights, covered by forest and color and filled with quartz crystals.

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IMG_0654I don’t know exactly what it is, but there’s just something special about being in a national park. Walking in its woods and along its creeks feels different from other forests somehow, older, more primal, even with a town right next to it and a highway literally around the corner. It might all be in my head. But I hope to keep getting more of that feeling.

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IMG_0684Not a bad way to spend a weekend, even a rainy and misty one. Thanks for looking!

Dan

The Dunes: Day 2

There are no trails in the Great Sand Dunes; a hiker can only choose a direction and try to find the simplest path in a maze with infinite solutions.

I thought about that as we headed to High Dune again Sunday morning. High Dune is K2 in these sand Himalayas, second place. Star Dune is Everest. It stands about 50 feet taller and twice as far into the dune field. Star Dune’s name also refers to any dune that shares its starfish-like shape, carved by equally strong winds from several directions. You can see it on Google Maps, a conspicuously large mound a little more than a mile west of High Dune.

Long-legged kangaroo rats, the dune field’s only native mammal, had been busy the night before. They had a much easier time climbing than humans.

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IMG_1664Lunch was on High Dune after two hours of hiking. From there we could see Star Dune right between two shorter peaks. Behind us people’s footsteps had left hundreds of trails. Only a couple of trails went further in.

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IMG_1692The sand screwed with my depth perception; dunes were always farther than they looked, until they were the opposite. The brownish-gray walls swallowed more and more of the horizon as we made our way, High Dune dipping in and out of sight. We were probably the only people for miles. The utter quiet and stillness of the dune field pushed on my ears. I vaguely considered how someone could lose his mind in here.

The valley directly under Star Dune was full of grasses and light tracks: a kangaroo rat city come nightfall.

More than three hours in.

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IMG_1713We zigzagged with me in the lead up a 45-degree slope to the final main ridge, and I noticed my raised heart rate wasn’t just from the climb. I was anxious. Straight forward was a featureless swell of sand. Above that was a line between sand and sky that could’ve been 20 feet away or a mile. I stood on unstable ground that surely could collapse beneath my feet, sending me falling, falling all the way down with no foothold to stop me.

I halted after each diagonal, recharging my legs for a few seconds and orienting myself to Ryan, the mountains, the clouds.

A few times I accepted that we might not make it. We might have to turn around. Our progress was slow. Each zigzag moved us up 10 feet or so.

We eventually reached the ridge and, surprise, found the trail of an earlier human visitor, a comfort after the emptiness. Our goal was waiting to the north. It was a relatively easy stroll along the level ridge until the very last obstacle, a 30- or 40-foot wall of sand.

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IMG_1717The loose sand was so steep each step fell back nearly as much as it gained. I leaned forward to use my hands, moving a few seconds at a time before my palms got too hot in the burning sand. My legs were sore, and my heart was pounding. Damn it.  Finish this, I thought with my jaw clenched. I scrambled the last 10 feet as fast as I could.

At last, after almost five hours of hiking, we had made it. I could hardly stand with the tiredness and height, but we were there. I think my eyes got a little damp. We stayed for a few minutes and snapped some photos. We made it.

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IMG_1720The highest point in the Great Sand Dunes, facing northwest. The next photo is facing about 150 degrees to the right.

IMG_1725Going down was easy, our feet gliding through the sand as it gave way beneath us. The valley gave us a clear shot out of the dune field and to grass and easier hills, but we had to trudge a couple more miles to get back to our starting point.

The valley walls had a sparse beauty, and the shadows were perfect as we walked by. We weren’t terribly sweaty or out of breath – the weather this weekend was beautiful, 60-some degrees – but our legs were nearing complete fatigue. Most of the gallon of water we had carried with us was gone.

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IMG_1740It was a maybe an hour before we reached the creek, and with the water at our feet, some of our energy returned. The moving water was unsettling to look at after such relentless stillness. People appeared on the horizon, the first we’d seen in hours, with a little black dog. These people aren’t exhausted for some reason, I thought dimly. We were back. We’d seen more of the park than most. I was proud.

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IMG_1756We went back to the hotel, got some pizza and watched TV, a fine end, as far as I’m concerned, to the most challenging hike of my life. The drive back the next day was all that was left.

Thanks for looking.

 

The Dunes: Day 1

IMG_1442The sand of the Great Sand Dunes was once part of mountains that rise almost 70 miles to the west. It eroded and washed down into a massive lake that researchers think dried up more than 400,000 years ago. With no water holding it down, the sand blew eastward until it reached the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. There the sand – about two cubic miles of it by my rough math — dropped and piled hundreds of feet high, though we’re not sure when exactly this happened.

The dunes were so big we could see them 16 miles away on Saturday, a smudge on the horizon tinged blue by distance and the early morning. The backdrop of mountains made them look even bigger. When we stopped outside the park to take a look, a pack of coyotes began yapping excitedly from a mountain to the right, a high-pitched chorus that continued for about a minute before quieting.

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IMG_1457Sunlight had yet to break over the mountains when we got to the parking lot. We were the only ones there, probably because it was freezing. Medano Creek, a shallow stream of snowmelt that girdles the dune field’s east side like a moat, was frozen into delicate shards of ice like I’d never seen before.

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IMG_1465Time to climb. Our goal was High Dune, which stands around 700 feet from base to peak. It’s the second-highest dune in the field and stands within eye-shot of the entrance, making it a popular destination. Might as well, right? We made our way up as the mountains’ shadow moved down the dunes.

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IMG_1544A raven squawked at us from High Dune as we approached, a black dot on the distant mound. It was gone when we got there. Around us was silence, quiet so absolute it seemed to press on my ears. I don’t know if I’d ever been anywhere so quiet. Mountains lined the north and east horizons; behind us stretched the flat valley.

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IMG_1550Other people began arriving as steam was drifting from the warming slopes; first a lone figure striding confidently under High Dune (in the lower left of this next photo), then a group of four speaking Chinese, who waved and called out to us happily. The crowd kept growing after that.

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IMG_1653That was it for hiking, at least during the day. The night sky was clear when we came back to see the stars. I could count on both hands the number of times I’ve seen the sky so dark. It’s almost gritty, thanks to the sheer amount of tiny points of light — the longer you look at one patch of sky, the more stars you see. They were like sand, I thought. The next photo has the Little Dipper on the left, a line from a satellite and part of the Big Dipper (sideways) on the right. The photo after that is facing westward toward the dunes.

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Saturday was for the second-highest dune. Sunday would be for the highest.

Thanks for tagging along!