4 National Parks in northern California

We left San Francisco and headed south to one of our county’s newest National Parks, Pinnacles. Pinnacles is small in terms of acreage but offers some great hiking trails and rock climbing.

It’s also home to endangered condors and bats, among other wildlife, and the trails offer views over the canyons that send warm air currents upward for gliding condors to hover above; their nests are along the tree branches lining the steep walls.

There are a couple caves, too, but they were closed during our July visit to protect baby bats from possible white nose syndrome (which our children already knew, either from school or “Wild Kratts,” I assume).

After a few hours of hiking and completing the “junior ranger” program, we drove east to the Gateway Lodge in Three Rivers, CA — just outside the entrance to Sequoia National Park. The last room available when we booked it (about 60 days out) was a 2 bedroom house next to a waterfall on the Kaweah River that apparently Brad Pitt + Jennifer Anniston used to stay at from time to time to get away from L.A. After the children went to sleep, we walked to the lodge restaurant to enjoy some of the 60 whiskey choices it offered and spent a couple hours talking to the bartender and a local truck driver who delivered Teslas all over the country when not at home, which was walking distance from our bar stools. Then we walked to our little house and sat on the patio a few feet from the rushing waterfall, which was uplit at night and was so peaceful and pretty that I didn’t want to go to bed, even though the alarm was set for early enough to get breakfast and drive into the park at its opening the next morning, but who gets plenty of sleep on vacation? Not this guy. Not ever.

After breakfast by the rushing Kaweah, we entered Sequioa National Park. It’s just south of–and co-located with–Kings Canyon National Park, similar to the way the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest are in Arizona.

We stopped at the visitors center for “junior ranger” workbooks and started exploring the giant sequoia trees, including the General Sherman tree, the largest living organism in the world, and other named giants inside the forest.

We toured (after booking the ranger-led experience months in advance) the Crystal Cave at the end of a trail that followed a creek and small waterfall I felt no compulsion to chase.

After exploring King’s Canyon mainly by car, we stayed the night at an isolated house rented via AirBnB in Midpines, CA; the last half mile of the drive included a dirt road and following herds of hopping rabbits on either side of our car that guided us to the middle of nowhere. The next morning after the kids fought over how to play tether-ball or who’d jump in the above-ground pool, we began the portion of the trip we were most looking forward to — Yosemite National Park.

We’d watched “Free Solo” at the IMAX a couple months before this vacation, so we could not wait to see the famous “El Cap” and “Half Dome” peaks we’d seen Alex Honnold climb or reference in the film. A short drive into the park, and they were visible outside our windshield. The children could hardly contain their excitement. Neither could this couple I accidentally captured while trying to photograph the park’s majesty, as the majesty reflected off the backs of their bent down heads:

We drove up to Yosemite Mountaineering School in Half Dome Village and walked inside the shop to get outfitted with ropes, shoes, harnesses, helmets, and belaying devices. It was 8:45am. We followed our guide (who’d gone to Clemson and climbed at several locations not far from our home in Atlanta) to a rock face, walked around it to a path not so steep that ropes were required to ascend, and he taught us how to rappel back down.

Apparently, learning to come down is more important than learning to go up when attached to ropes. My son volunteered to go first, though his steps toward the edge of the cliff grew smaller and slower as the distance between him and a potential plunge downward lessened. Once he finally took his first backwards step that required tension in the rope, he was on his way down.

I volunteered to go next, followed by our oldest, then my bride, and finally the youngest stood poised at the precipice, but her poise shrank as the precipice neared. The guide roped himself in and helped encourage her, and she slowly descended.

Then, we put on our climbing shoes and began going up and down the rocks, taking turns belaying one another and trying more and more difficult routes, until 6 hours later, we were exhausted and ready to find dinner, which was pizza and beer not far from where we’d climbed, and then it was time to go to our campsite at Housekeeping Camp, which is described as “perfect for those who love camping outdoors but don’t want the hassle of setting up a tent.” It’s also perfect for those who’ve flown from Atlanta without checking a bag and then drove in a rented SUV from San Francisco. We used the shower house, returned to our site, and built a fire in the our pit and made s’mores under the stars.

The next morning, my son and I walked to the edge of Merced River and watched the park come alive around Yosemite Falls and Half Dome before packing up the car, parking in the village, and setting off to try and replicate the strenuous hike I did with my younger brother in 1999, right before he got married and I started law school: the Vernal Falls hike. It was time to go chasing waterfalls.

After a paved hiking trail to a footbridge (which is where my dad stopped going in 1999) on which we stopped to see a black bear cub eating lunch, the hike becomes a trek up many, many stone steps next to the falls until you finally get to its summit; you get really wet, and it’s hard.

Getting to the top gives the exhilaration of accomplishment, and given that we’d read a sign saying we needed about 3x the amount of water we’d each brought, and given that it was a hot day in July, and given that continuing the trail to the top of Nevada Falls would mean hiking on a less-established path with no shade for another 1.5 miles each way to its top, we really should have turned around and gone back down to the footbridge at the base of the climb to Vernal Falls, but we discussed it while standing on a wooden bridge that sort of joined the end of the Vernal Falls trail at its top to the beginning of the Nevada Falls trail at its base, and all but my son wanted to keep going, as one can see from this photo (the falls are off in the distance, so at least we could see our destination):

We continued our hike. My youngest stopped us before we stepped on a rattlesnake in our path, and the higher we climbed in the afternoon sun, the more lightheaded I got, as visions of one of us passing out and falling to our deaths filled my head, but onward we hiked toward the top.

We made it. I wanted so badly to drink from the rushing water but years of Oregon Trail at Indian Lake Elementary school taught me that people die of dysentery, and I really didn’t want to slide the 3 miles back down on a torrent of loose stool.

Instead, we caught our breaths for a bit, marveled at the fool doing yoga poses on the wrong side of the warning fence at the edge of the falls, and began our descent back down, and upon reaching the footbridge at the base of Vernal Falls, where there was a water refill station, I filled my quart-sized bottle, downed all of it, refilled it, and started downing it as I walked the rest of the way with stomach pains. Clear vision resumed.

That night, we stayed in the most expensive hotel room we’ve ever stayed in, The Ahwahnee. It was everything the campground wasn’t (except for amazing views).

It was built in the 1920s and is beautiful; the only room available during our trip (since we only planned this vacation about 2-3 months before we left) was a corner suite with fireplaces in the room and a breathtaking view out the window; apparently, Queen Elizabeth stayed in our room in the ’80s, and it was awesome (but, again, expensive). Before we went to our fancy sleeping digs, we ate at its enormous and majestic dining room, at the recommendation of Phil Rosenthal when we had lunch with him 2 months earlier.

The food was very good; the ambiance was even better. We returned to our luxury suite and slept extraordinarily well.

The next morning, we had a relaxed breakfast in the dining room with 34-foot-high ceilings, and then we drove back to the San Francisco airport to fly home.

I love that we took this trip. It was as close to spontaneous as two self-employed persons with 3 children can pull off: we saw “Free Solo,” and a few days later, one of the travel newsletters I get indicated fares to San Francisco had dropped, so I got 5 plane tickets, and my bride began planning our route and activities as I began searching for suitable lodging (and talking to folks–like Lizz–who live in the area about activities for children). I love that we pushed ourselves physically–even more than I did when there with my family as a 24-year-old–and allowed the children to push through discomfort and fear, much like we did at Mesa Verde. With every passing Summer, I know we have one fewer July to take a family trip into nature, which makes me appreciate each experience even more.

This year, we’ve planned a bit further in advance, and we’ll explore the 5 National Parks in Utah in July 2020! I can hardly wait.

4 Comments

  1. I feel about waterfalls the way you do about caves: anywhere, anytime, they’re my magnet. Yosemite was hypnotic, one of those places that fully measures up to the hype, and was worth the work to climb to the top. I think about this trip a lot, with serious gratitude, and I love when the kids bring it up spontaneously–these are the kinds of trips people talk about to their grandchildren fifty years later.

  2. Yvonne Condes

    Beautiful pictures! My boys are teenagers now and I treasure all of their junior ranger badges.

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