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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Camping in Kings Canyon National Park and next to the "Sheep Fire"

We went camping in Kings Canyon National Park for Labor Day week-end. We left Sunnyvale Saturday morning around 6:30am to be sure to arrive early enough at the park to find a spot. The campgrounds we were interested in in Kings Canyon are all on a first come-first serve basis. It takes 4 hours to reach the park, so we thought 6:30am was a good time.

We were very optimistic!
It turns out that all the campgrounds at Grant Grove (the most accessible part of Kings Canyon National Park and the highest - 6500 feet) were full. Only one explanation: people arrived Friday night! We decided to go to down to Cedar Grove (4600 feet), almost 30 miles further - an hour of driving. When the road crossed the top of the mountain we started noticing a strong smell of burning wood and then, as the road was going down toward the canyon, the smoke was everywhere. We could not see much of the landscape when we went through the Sequoia National Forest (Giant Sequoia National Monument).

The road leading to Cedar Grove, where 4 campgrounds are installed in the forest, next to the Kings river, is a dead end. We found some nice spots in the last campground, Moraine, a couple of miles away from Zumwalt Meadow. On the side of the roads, sections of the forest were freshly burned.

No one around seemed to be worried by the smoke so we decided to install our tent. We put all the food and the toiletry products in the large locked "bear box" on our campsite. And we headed to the ranger station.

There, there was plenty of explanations about what was going on.
The "Sheep Fire" was going on for more than a month, it started with a lightning. The ranger explained that the fire was a slow one, the fire fighters were watching it. It was not a threat for the people so far and if the things changed, it could be extinguished. It was under control. Except that the smoke was coming down in the canyon (at dusk) and going up (in the morning), everything was normal.

The Parks have this new policy now: if they can be controlled, the fires can run their courses. They clean up the lower part of the forest, opening up space for new trees to grow. It is much better to have rather "small" size fires than to avoid fires at all costs and suddenly to get an uncontrollable one because the forest became too thick next to the ground.
Despite all the explanations, I could not help thinking: "here we are, basically camping in a cul-de-sac with a fire burning between us and the way out" - but a little bit higher on the slope of the canyon.
The sky was clearing up as the day passed.

We did the short and beautiful trail around the Zumwalt Meadow, and we enjoyed watching the river while the kids were excited to build a (quite inefficient) small dam in the cold water.

On the Zumwalt Meadow trail

Some patches in the forest were burned.

At dusk, when we were leaving, Milo spotted our first black bear (they look brown and black), which was slowly walking on the river bank. What a treat!

Back to the campground,
Kyle cooked the best chili ever and of course we roasted some marshmallows - yes, we had a campfire (I know it may seem weird with the fire not so far from us).

The Sunday morning we went to the ranger station, Milo wanted to report that he spotted a bear.

The smoke was pretty heavy in the canyon and the light was a creamy orange.

We spent the day in the canyon, we hike a little - we took it easy: the quality of the air was not that great to breathe. We went through portions of ghostly landscapes which made me think about the chilling book "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, where all the trees have burned and are ready to fall.
But in the forest we were in they were not dead.

Muir Rock, where the road ends in the canyon

In the afternoon we went to Muir Rock, then went hiking the beginning of the Paradise Valley trail and we came back to Muir Rock for sunset. That's all the boys wanted to do: stay at the river, even if the water was freezing!

The Sheep Fire, from the road, on our way back to Grant Grove

Monday around noon, we drove back up to Cedar Grove. On our way we crossed the fire on our left, on the other side of the river. It was very close. And it was quite a sight to see nature at work that way.

The fire has just passed, continuing its path in the lowest part of the forest

In General Grant Grove

We stopped at the very touristic and gorgeous "General Grant Grove", where hundred years old sequoias stand. I find it very moving to be there, within those rare trees. They only live in a very small place on earth, which happens to be here in California, so I feel very fortunate to be able to enjoy seeing them often.

General Grant Tree

The biggest one is "General Grant tree" and it is astonishing. A monster!
Second largest tree in the world and 1650 years old.

Heading back to the bay area, we stopped at one of the numerous roadside fruit and vegetable stands to buy peaches, plums and nectarines locally grown.

At home when we unloaded the car, everything was smelling like smoke.
The fire is still burning in Kings Canyon, may be for a few more weeks. In a few months, new sequoia seeds will grow from below the ashes.


Lori said...

I am jealous. With enough advanced notice I could join in on a camping trip.

Michele Guieu said...

Lori, we could definitely do that - although in general we are pretty bad at making plans in advance!
We are thinking doing some easy backpacking trip next time.
Let's try to organize something!
We never went to Anza Borrego together and I regret it.