Friday, November 26, 2010

Kings Canyon, Day 4

Day 4: Arrowhead Lake to Upper Paradise Campground, or The Coolest Bridge Ever (14 miles)

From our campsite at Arrowhead Lake, we figured that we still had about 22 miles of hiking, which seemed to call into question our hope for a lay day. We had been averaging a little over seven miles per day, which was just fine with us. The existential questions had been clearly answered, and we had reached a point where we were not feeling any angst about not wanting to hike 18 miles. But we did want a lay day. Oliver and I discussed our options. All of them required getting up early and getting an early start. With that in mind, we were on the trail by 9:00 a.m. Books are written about this kind of extra effort.

The trail from Arrowhead Lake to Junction Meadow, which we figured was about 7 miles and where we thought we would spend the night, turned out to be an easy, pleasant hike. The weather was fine, the streams were full, the meadows were full of wildflowers, and Dan was feeling none of the ill effects of his bout with altitude sickness. Moreover, we were once again reminded of our good fortune in being routed backwards along the loop, as we had the trail to ourselves. The hike went very quickly, and we arrived at Junction Meadow by 11:30 a.m.

The last couple of miles of the trail from Rae Lakes to Junction Meadows passes through one of the most curious and wonderful forests I have ever seen. The cedars, firs, and pines are big and gnarled, and spread out in the most oddly open way, like sculptures in a garden. The ground underfoot is soft and in many places sandy, making for comfortable, easy hiking. And at the end of the forest, where the trail meets Woods Creek, is the most fabulous suspension bridge. The bridge sways in the wind or as one walks across it, undulating in time with each step. Everyone starts across the bridge confidently, but by the eighth or tenth step everyone is holding onto the wire at hip level. (Everyone except Dan, that is, who has the uncanny ability to undulate in time just so.) 

 The most fabulous suspension bridge.

We stopped to have lunch at Junction Meadows, but there was no way we were going to stay there. The place is used up. The ground is denuded of all forest duff, and every flat spot appeared to have been camped on virtually every night all summer long. Traces of the passing hordes were everywhere in evidence, from the small pieces of garbage on the ground to the trampled vegetation along the stream and the trail. Were it not for the suspension bridge, it would have been the most miserable spot we encountered the entire week.

Nonetheless, it was a fine spot for lunch. Several large slices of logs had been thoughtfully distributed about the site, providing a perfect seating arrangement for groups up to 50. The capacious site prompted a flurry of activity from Dan, who was instantly whisked back to his days as a caterer. While Oliver carved a dozen skewers, Dan set about making tuna salad on tortillas. I was in charge of the serving dishes, which, truth be told, comprised two Frisbees that were carefully wiped out with a dirty t-shirt. The finished tuna wraps were skewered and set out in a beautiful floral pattern. The artistry of the presentation had to be assumed more than truly observed, because the petals disappeared just as fast as they were placed on the platter.

Dan was sorely tempted to nap after his exhausting catering gig, but the schedule did not allow it. We had arrived at Junction Meadow early enough to now entertain thoughts of reaching Paradise Valley and the South Fork of the Kings River, which would allow us to have a lay day before hiking out. However, the South Fork was still seven miles further on, so all we had time for before setting out on the afternoon hike was a brief dip in the creek, a quick game of Mountain Frisbee, and three holes of disc golf.

By 1:00 p.m. it was time to go, or would have been except for the suspension bridge. Only one person is allowed on the bridge at a time, so we had to take turns crossing. But the crossing turned out to be so much fun that we all elected for cross back, then cross again. But even this wasn’t enough, because, after all, a moment this delirious had to be recorded with photographs. By 1:45 p.m., having taken advantage of every conceivable bridge crossing opportunity, we were on the trail.

Good times on the coolest bridge ever.

Our campsite on the fourth and fifth nights was at the Upper Paradise Valley Campground, at the confluence of Woods Creek and the South Fork of the Kings River. And a campground it was. Hikers are required to camp in designated sites and to store their food in bear boxes. Fortunately, the campground was not full, and on our second night there, the only other folks in the campground were the work crew building a bridge over the river.

If we had known how quickly we would make the hike from Arrowhead Lake to the Kings River, we would chosen to have spend an extra day at Arrowhead Lake. However, Upper Paradise wasn’t bad. And it was a good thing we chose to stop there. No camping is allowed except in designated campgrounds between Woods Creek and the Road’s End trailhead, and Upper Paradise is a whole lot nicer than Lower and Middle Paradise. The Lower and Middle Paradise campgrounds feature both designated sites and pit toilets, and you’re required to use them. It is car camping without the car, the hygiene afforded by running water, cold beer and barbecued steaks.

By the time we reached Upper Paradise, we were tired, and some of us were in decidedly ill humor. We had hiked about 14 miles, and though most of the miles were easy, there were still 14 of them. None of the campsites looked good. They were not private, there were two other groups in the campground, the sun was nice but shade would be nicer, the campsites were too close to the trail, our feet hurt, and at least one of us smelled really bad. The litany of complaints was endless. I was very fond of site number 2, because it was private, Oliver preferred site number 4 because it was shaded and closer to the stream, and Dan just wanted us both to shut up and pick one. After much horse-trading, I agreed to site number 4, but I got to pick my sleeping spot first and the first three dark chocolate pieces were mine.

Our mood improved significantly once camp was set up and we had a few snacks in us. We were once again below 10,000 feet, so we were able to light a fire, and Oliver was happily experimenting with a series of pesto and cheese toastettes on a single skewer. With the right technique and a long enough skewer, it was possible to perfectly brown three toastettes at a time. Dinner was a simple spaghetti, which lacked the culinary excellence of the jambalaya, but avoided the gastric horror of the lentils. All in all it was a fine meal, and we all went to bed fat and happy.

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