Gold Country, Lake Tahoe, Loneliest Road, Great Basin

BLOG #25, SERIES #4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #15
GOLD COUNTRY, LAKE TAHOE, LONELIEST ROAD, GREAT BASIN
June 26, 2013

As we reluctantly left the park, slowly, we realized again why Yosemite is, for untold thousands, on their Bucket Lists to see before they die. As for the Ahwahnee, mortgage your house rather than not experience it at least once. Disengage from your parasitic electronic tentacles, and get out there with your families and travel. Over a billion people are doing that each year.

After leaving Yosemite, we descended to the Gold Rush towns on California Route 49, passing through Angels Camp, made famous by Mark Twain’s “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” story, Jackson, and then up into the Sierra Nevadas [very “Nevada” (snowy) then], via Route 88 to Silver Lake, almost 9,000 feet in elevation. Then down to a lake that ought to also be on everyone’s Bucket List–Lake Tahoe. Fond memories came back to Connie and me, for we honeymooned there.

Lake Tahoe holds enough water to cover the entire state of California to a depth of fourteen inches. It is said that the water in Tahoe is 97% pure, nearly the same as distilled water. The lake is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, about one-third lying in Nevada. Its average depth is 989 feet, and deepest point is 1,645 feet, making Lake Tahoe the third deepest lake in North America. The water is mighty cold: the first twelve feet below the surface can warm to a toasty ☺ 68 degrees F in summer, while depths below 700 feet remain a constant 39F year-round.

The “lake in the sky” (elevation 6,229 feet) is ensconced in a valley between the often snowcapped Sierra Nevadas and the Carson Range. The Sierras tower more than 4,000 feet above the lake, contributing no little to its magic.

Immigrants and early miners did their utmost to destroy the lake’s environs; fortunately, just in time, the decline of the Comstock Lode caused the miners to turn their attention elsewhere.

In winter, snow covers the lakeshore to an average of 125 inches, but snow depth in the mountains can reach 300-500 inches, making the region a mecca for skiers (think Alpine Meadows, Diamond Peak, Squaw Valley, and Heavenly Valley).

We’ve never seen the lake when it wasn’t beautiful, but to see it on a clear winter day, offset by snowy mountains the incredibly deep blue waters of the lake can take your breath away.

We had dillydallied so long in Yosemite, it was evening before we descended from Silver Lake to Tahoe. We drove along the west side of the lake to the north end, considerably quieter than the casino-generated hubub in the south end; there we stayed at Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort.  Connie - SW Nat Parks 531

Next day, after breakfasting at the Old Post Office, so popular with locals, we crossed over the pass, then down to Truckee, Reno, and Fallon, before abandoning boring Interstate 80 for Highway 50, famously known as “The Loneliest Road in America” (gained a cult-following through commercials featuring pretty vagabonding girls in convertibles). For trivia-buffs, “Where in America is concentrated the largest number of north/south mountain ranges?” Answer: Here in Nevada – one after another: the Stillwater Range, Clan Alpine Mountains, Desatoya Mountains, New Pass Range, Shoshone Mountains, Toyabe Range, Simpson Park Range, Toquina Range, Monitor Range, Sulphur Springs Range, Diamond Mountains, White Pine Range, Butte Mountains, Egan Range, Schell Creek Range, and Snake Range – one after another like oncoming waves (most snow-capped) we cruised through them. Very few automobiles and even fewer trucks – hence its name.

We stopped in Austin: Bob desperately needed an ice cream fix. Also in the old mining town of Eureka, with its serpentine roads. Arrived in Ely late afternoon, and checked in at Prospectors Hotel. Lodging pickings are lean at best on the Loneliest Road in America. Especially when you’ve just been spoiled rotten at the Ahwahnee!

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Next morning, again those long long straight stretches of road, on into infinity. So quiet you could hear each other breathe. Soon we turned south into Great Basin National Park.

According to Michael L. Nicklas, “Although only a small part of this immense, wild land, Great Basin National Park is undoubtedly the best example of the entire Great Basin region. Its geologic diversity–from windswept playas to mysterious caverns and icy summits–defines the hydrologic boundaries. . . . Great Basin’s only remaining glacier lies sheltered within the national park in the cool shadow of 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, which also supports bristlecone pines, the oldest living trees on earth. . . . Precious water draining from the mountain ranges does not flow into the oceans. Rather, this priceless substance either percolates underground, accumulates in bodies to form lakes, or evaporates back into the atmosphere.

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“Typically long winters grip the land above 10,000 feet from November through June. Bristlecone pines stubbornly cling to lofty slopes and windy ridges between 9,000 and 11,500 feet, living for 5,000 years or more. In 1964, a living tree was discovered in the Wheeler Peak grove which contained 4,844 annual growth rings.”

Lehman caves were first protected on January 24, 1922, when President Warren G. Harding established by presidential proclamation Lehman Caves National Monument. It took 43 more years to achieve national park status: Finally, on October 27, 1965, President Ronald Reagan signed the Great Basin National Park Act.

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Not surprisingly, given the sparse traffic on Highway 50, Great Basin is one of the least visited of all our national parks, attracting only about 90,000 visitors a year. Which isn’t at all a bad thing, for when we walked into the visitor center, we were treated like long-lost relatives; quite a change from the ho-hum oh, Lord, not another one attitude of some weary attendants in parks that are swamped by travelers. Connie, of course, made sure to get them to stamp her national park passport. The quiet winding road up to the base of Wheeler Peak (second highest peak in Nevada) was narrow, but scenic, passing through many varieties of trees as we ascended. Other than the beauty of the land and snowcapped peaks, the main roadside photo-op proved to be a rusty old car, complete with a skeleton.

 

 

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Then it was back down to The Loneliest Road – sometimes 30 miles without a curve – into Utah. Spectacular scenery along Interstate 70.Then we pulled into our favorite oasis stop in Green River, River Terrace Inn, shaded by verdant trees on the river side, and situated next to the very popular Tamarisk Restaurant, also on the river. But the real reason we always stay at River Terrace Inn is the comp to-die-for full breakfast prepared on the site by chefs who are either owners, relatives, or close friends of the owners. Each guest orders a la carte – scrumptious omelets, decadent cinnamon rolls, and on and on. You either eat inside or outside by the partly shaded pool. Needless to say, the Inn is usually booked up – so get your reservation early!!

Next day – our last day –, after pigging out at breakfast, we headed east through the Colorado Rockies, alongside swollen rivers, until late afternoon, we reached home; at 9,700 feet elevation, blessedly cool.

After two years, we’d finally reached the end of the Great Circle!

SOURCES USED

Northern California & Nevada Tour Book (Heathrow, Florida: AAA Publishing, 2010). [Source for Lake Tahoe information].

Nicklas, Michael L., Great Basin: the Story Behind the Scenery (Las Vegas: K.C. Publications, 2008).

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART THREE

BLOG #24, SERIES #4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #15
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART THREE
June 19, 2013

THE AHWAHNEE HOTEL

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Without question, the Queen of our national park lodges is the Ahwahnee. [The Niwok Indians called the valley “Ahwahnee” – place of the gaping mouth]. Of it, Keith S. Walklet declares, “It has been called the finest hotel in the national park system. Surrounded by three-thousand-foot granite cliffs and forests of immense pines in the heart of California’s Yosemite Valley. The Ahwahnee was built to attract visitors of wealth and means at a time when American society was developing a love affair with the automobile. This monumental hotel of stone, timber, concrete, and steel remains a remarkable achievement, a rare convergence of art and vision, combining the talents of public servants, architects, engineers, designers, and craftsmen.” (Walklet, front-flap of dustjacket).

* * *

Yosemite National Park was, for Stephen T. Mather, Founder of the National Park System, unquestionably, his favorite park. But it needed a hotel that could match the grandeur of the park. After all, automobile ownership had exploded across the nation: In 1915 alone, nearly a million new cars crowded roads meant for stagecoaches and wagons. As for Yosemite, the first all-weather highway (140) was opened in 1925. And car-loads of people poured in!

Both Mather and his able assistant, Horace Albright, envisioned a grand hotel for Yosemite on the scale of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn, the Glacier National Park lodges, and Grand Canyon’s El Tovar. For architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who had already proved his worth at Bryce and Zion, was chosen. But the consensus among the many project principals (architects, bureaucrats, businessmen, visionaries) was that while they desired the proposed hotel to be rustic, they envisioned an elegant country estate that would blend flawlessly with its breathtaking setting. Eventually, two organizations (Curry Camp Company and Yosemite Camp Company) merged, ending decades of wrangling. Mather now had a stellar team of Albright, Underwood, landscape engineer Daniel Hull, and San Francisco contractor James L. McLaughlin, individuals who bickered plenty, but saw through the massive building project that eventually cost $1,250,000 (a vast sum back then).

Originally, it was the plan to build it in the center of the valley, but wiser heads prevailed; it was concluded that it ought to be moved to a more secluded spot, backed up to the massive mountain walls of Royal Arches. A core block six stories high anchored it, and two wings set at angles enabled guests to feast their eyes on Half Dome, Glacier Point, Yosemite Falls, and Royal Arches. One year late, the grand hotel opened on July 14, 1927.

It has wowed the world ever since. Indeed, numbered among its guests are VIPs such as Presidents Hoover, FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan; foreign leaders such as Winston Churchill, King Badouin of Belgium, the exiled Shah of Iran, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (who had the hotel all to themselves), and Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie; Hollywood greats such as Kim Novak, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Red Skelton, Mel Gibson, Robert Redford, Bing Crosby, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Charleton Heston, Boris Karloff, William Shatner, Shirley Temple Black, Helen Hayes, Jack Benny, Leonard Nimoy; and Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball stayed here when filming The Long Long Trailer in the park – the list could go on and on.

ENTER THE WHEELERS AND EARPS

Although a fifth-generation Californian on both sides of my family, and a frequent visitor to the park down through the years, never before had I or my bride stayed at the Ahwahnee. Best I could do on a limited budget was to visit the hotel. Christmas in My Heart readers may remember that the Ahwahnee is part of the worldwide setting of my Christmas story, “Christmas Sabbatical.” It is also slated to play a key role romance-wise in my upcoming novelette-length Christmas story, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in Christmas in My Heart 22 (due out fall of 2013). But now, since staying in the hotel had been on my Bucket List for so long, I saved my shekels long enough to treat Connie to a two-night stay. Earps too, had long wanted to stay in this legendary Shangri-La of a lodge.

That last week of May 2011 represented a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for the tremendous snowfall of the winter of 2010-2011 was now paying huge dividends: the falls of Yosemite were at a 50-year-high in terms of the volume of water—and not coincidentally: sound! Crowds were already swarming in to see and hear the falls. Before the season was over, 5,000,000 people crowded the valley wall-to-wall.

As our car emerged from the Wawona Tunnel, there spread out before us was one of the grandest views on the planet. Bridalveil Fall was at full strength, but even before we arrived at the Ahwahnee we could hear the thunder of that wonder of the world, Yosemite Falls, hurtling over the canyon wall almost 2600 feet above the valley floor.

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Once checked in, we moved into our room on the second floor; after sprucing up, we gazed out the window at a sight that never ever could grow old. Once downstairs, we began to explore the hotel a bit. Then it was time for another treat: dinner in the largest room in the hotel, the world-famous Dining Room (6,630 square feet; 130 feet long, 51 feet wide, 34 feet high, with vaulted peeled log trusses, 24-foot-high windows, through which we could see and hear Yosemite Falls). The food and service five-star quality, and after a while a concert pianist playing Chopin on the grand piano. Not often, in this journey we call life, have I experienced a sensory overload–but this was one of those times. Mere words came hard, for no one wished to shatter the mood.

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Then, tired from the long day, we had little trouble falling asleep to the thunder of the falls.

Next morning, we all shutterbugged in the verdant grounds of the hotel. Then, an unforgettable breakfast in the great Dining Room, now transformed by the glory of morning light. Then to the Visitor Center to see the splendid film, “Spirit of Yosemite.” Afterwards, we donned coats or rain gear for our walk to the base of Lower Falls. The closer we got to it, the wetter we got; it became almost impossible to hear each other speak. We never were able to get to the base of the falls. And the people kept coming, young and old from all over the world. It is unlikely, in my lifetime, that I’ll ever experience the like again. Later, we took the shuttle to the Mist Trail, and trekked all the way up to the base or Vernal Falls, also boiling over at floodstage. Later in the afternoon, we were privileged to be given a personal VIP tour of the hotel by its genial General Manager; he took us through the lobby, gift store, beautiful Mural Room, the Great Hall (second-largest room in the hotel, flanked by two great fireplaces), kitchen (where we got to talk with the chef and his pastry gurus), even the outside foundation stone. We felt deeply honored by his willingness to spend all this time with us. After eating in the Bar Café, exhausted from the hikes, we quickly fell asleep.

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When the sun, birds, and falls woke us up next morning, it was to an almost unworldly radiance. Not one of us but longed to remain there. For a time, we relaxed and drank in the ambiance of the Great Hall, cups of steaming coffee in hand, and imagined all the events held in that room over three-quarters of a century; all the world-famous celebrities who had walked through those doors.

Then one last breakfast in the Dining Room. When we finally pried ourselves out of our chairs, walked toward the hallway, and turned back for one last look, we felt physical pain at the parting. How could any place else we ever saw or experienced build on such perfection?

Then it was time to leave.  Connie - SW Nat Parks 511

Next week, we complete the Great Circle.

SOURCES USED

Christine Barnes’ Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc., 2002).

Keith S. Walklet’s historical tour de force, The Ahwahnee: Yosemite’s Grand Hotel (Yosemite: DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite, 2004).

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART TWO

BLOG #23, SERIES #4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #14
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART TWO
June 12, 2013

I abjectly apologize for the long delay in completing The Great Circle. Just to recapitulate, Bob and Lucy Earp, and Connie and I were so impressed by Ken Burns’ magnificent PBS National Park Series films that we decided to personally explore our western national parks for ourselves. Since we’d also been impressed with Christine Barnes’ Great Lodges of the National Parks (aired just after the Burns and Duncan series by PBS) as well as the two books that preceded the film series, we decided to stay in those wonderful old lodges whenever possible.

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It took us two years to complete both the Northwest and Southwest portions of The Great Circle. However, the blogs that detailed our peregrinations came to a temporary halt on June 20, 2012; “temporary,” because I fully intended to return to the series in a couple of weeks, but so many timely, provocative, and interesting subjects intruded that almost a year has passed since then! This time, I promise we’ll complete the loop before I stray away again.

* * * * *

REENTER JOHN MUIR AND YOSEMITE

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It is impossible to read Duncan and Burns’ national parks blockbuster without being mesmerized by the role one man played in awakening the nation to a belated conviction that America’s endangered scenic wonders must be saved before it was too late.

John Muir (1838-1914) was born in Dunbar, Scotland, but moved when only nine to America. In 1867, while attending the University of Wisconsin, Madison, an industrial accident nearly cost him an eye. That near disaster changed the course of his life, for he abandoned his technical studies and devoted himself to nature. He walked from the Middle West to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1868, he trekked into then little known Yosemite Valley, which over time became his life’s lodestar. From this focal point he took many trips into Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.

As early as 1876, Muir urged the federal government to adopt a forest conservation policy. The Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks were established in 1890. Early in 1899, President Grover Cleveland designated 13 national forests to be preserved from commercial exploitation; but powerful business groups persuaded the President to back off. But Muir penned two eloquent magazine articles that reversed the tide and swung public and Congressional opinion in favor of national forest reservations. Muir also influenced the large-scale conservation program of President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1903, during his first term in office, accompanied Muir on a camping trip to the Yosemite region.

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The rest of Muir’s life was spent in almost continual battle with commercial interests determined to wrest control of America’s scenic wonderlands away from those who sought to preserve them for posterity. Though Muir won many such battles, one of his defeats all but broke his heart and hastened his death: the damming of Little Yosemite Valley and turning it into the Hetch Hetchy water reservoir for California’s Bay Area cities.

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Quite simply, Yosemite National Park is iconic in its being one of the world’s most famous wild spaces. Even in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln found time in 1864 to sign a Congressional bill granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias to the State of California as an inalienable public trust.

Today, in Mel White’s words, “Yosemite National Park, declared a World Heritage site in 1984 for its natural features, attracts more than 3.5 million visitors annually, most of whom see only the valley at its heart, a mile-wide, seven-mile-long area where the Merced River winds among waterfalls and granite monoliths.”

Among the wonders drawing tourists from around the world are the 620-feet-high Bridalveil Falls, the 3,000-feet-high El Capitan (the largest monolith of granite in the world), 8,842-feet-high Half Dome (Yosemite’s most recognized feature), 3,214-feet-high Glacier Point, three Redwood groves (the largest being the Mariposa Grove), 317-feet-high Vernal Falls, 500-feet-high Cascades, 370-feet-high Illilouette Fall, 600-feet-high Pywiak Cascade, 2,000-feet-high Sentinal Falls, 2,000-feet-high Snow Creek Falls, 1,612-feet-high Ribbon Fall, 1,250-feet-high Royal Arch Cascade, 700-feet-high Wildcat Fall, and the granddaddy of them all: 2,565-feet-high Yosemite Falls (including 1,430-feet-high Upper Fall, 320-feet-high Lower Fall, and the Cascades), besides the Park’s too many to count ephemeral falls [seasonal]. Mike Osborne says of the spectacular totality, “Many would argue that Yosemite National Park has the grandest assemblage of waterfalls in the world.” And there are many more in Yosemite’s high country (which few tourists ever reach). The spectacular Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, with its Horseshoe Falls, can only be reached by foot.

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Our visit will continue next week.

SOURCES USED

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Northern California and Nevada Tour Book (Heathrow, Florida: AAA Publishing, 2009).

Osborne, Mike, Granite, Water, and Light: The Waterfalls of Yosemite Valley (Berkeley, California: Yosemite Association, 2009).

Walklet, Keith S., Yosemite: An Enduring Treasure (Berkeley, California: Yosemite Association, 2001).

BLOG #24, SERIE…

BLOG #24, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #13

KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK

June 20, 2012

 

 

 

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We left the Southwest National Park series on April 25, with Sequoia National Park.  You may remember that Sequoia and Kings Canyon are administered as one entity, albeit with two separate management teams.  Without question, Kings Canyon is the lesser known of the two, perhaps because of its relatively late entry into the park system.  When you look at the map, things get confusing, what with the Sequoia National Forest (southern and northern branches), Giant Sequoia National Monument (southern and northern branches), and Sequoia National Park.

 

In 1891, the massive (sixteen feet in diameter) Mark Twain tree was cut down, then cut up into a dozen pieces (since it weighed nine tons), then shipped to the New York Museum of Natural History.  Two years later, the equally massive General Noble tree was cut down at the government’s orders, and shipped to Chicago for its Columbian World Fair exhibition; there it was turned into a two-story structure, then moved to the Smithsonian where it stood until the 1930s.

 

Image 

Stephen Mather, John Muir, the Sierra Club, and others all stepped in to save sections of this Sierra Nevada corridor before it was too late, but commercial interests kept the Kings Canyon section from national park status until 1940.  It was a close call since Los Angeles coveted the Kings River watershed and came within the proverbial inch of damming it up.  Had they done so, the Kings Canyon’s wilderness would have been lost forever.  In 1978 Congress added the Mineral King area to the park.  Altogether, today, over 450,000 acres of Kings Canyon wilderness (mostly roadless) is preserved for those who wish to escape roads and backpack in—some 80,000 a year do just that.  Altogether 1,500,000 people a year love Kings Canyon/Sequoia to death with their traffic—all on only 120 miles of roads.

 

Providentially a great rampart of high mountains (the backbone of the Sierra Nevadas) barred east/west roadways from being constructed long enough to preserve this area in perpetuity for the American people.

 

Image

 

OUR VISIT TO THE PARK

 

Bob and Lucy Earp, Connie and I, after a delicious breakfast at Wuksachi Lodge, headed out into the cold grey skies that gradually dissipated as we moved out of Sequoia National Park into Kings Canyon.  We stopped at both the Sequoia and Kings Canyon visitor centers, making a point to see both films.  We have found that travelers who don’t do so severely shortchange their visits.  We can all be grateful to the park rangers who serve us so well in facilities across the nation.

 

By the time we reached the rim of Kings Canyon—I hadn’t seen it in over forty years—the sun had come out.  It turned out to be one of those all too rare absolutely perfect blue sky days.  Way down below was the still undammed Kings River (Spanish explorers named it El Rio de los Santos Reyes), which translates to River of the Holy Kings (the Magi).  The river grew ever larger and louder as we zigzagged our way down the canyon wall.  Just as had been true with the snowmelt-swollen Kern River, the Kings River was torrential!  With a half-century high snowpack to stoke it, what a time to have picked in which to re-experience the canyon!  Since tourist season hadn’t yet begun, the day proved to be a serene one.  Everywhere we looked tributary streams and waterfalls fed into the gorge.  At the east end, where the road ends in the Zumwalt Meadows, we took advantage of the opportunity to explore the area.  We discovered that the park not only includes one of the greatest stands of Sequoias in the world, it also includes magnificent stands of sugar pine, ponderosa pine, white fir, red fir, and incense cedar.

 

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Afterwards, regretting we couldn’t remain longer in the park, we drove back down the canyon, up over the canyon wall, back into Sequoia, down into the San Joaquin Valley, and then up through California’s legendary gold-mining towns such as Angels Camp (made famous by Mark Twain’s “The Jumping Frog of Calavaras County”), back into the cooler temperatures of the Sierras, a quick stop at one of our oldest national park lodges, Wawona, then on to that  famous tunnel that opens onto one of the grandest vistas our world has to offer: “Yosemite National Park, with its iconic peaks, waterfalls, and river.  Tourists seeing the vista for the first time are awe-struck.

 Image

 Even those native Californians like Connie and me are moved almost to tears by being privileged to set eyes on it once again in this all too brief journey we call “life.”

 

 

SOURCES USED

 

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopfk, 2009).

 

Palmer, John J., Sequoia and Kings Canyon (Wickenburg, Arizona: K. C. Publications, 2009).

 

BLOG #24, SERIE…

BLOG #24, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #13

KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK

June 13, 2012

 

Image

We left the Southwest National Park series on April 25, with Sequoia National Park.  You may remember that Sequoia and Kings Canyon are administered as one entity, albeit with two separate management teams.  Without question, Kings Canyon is the lesser known of the two, perhaps because of its relatively late entry into the park system.  When you look at the map, things get confusing, what with the Sequoia National Forest (southern and northern branches), Giant Sequoia National Monument (southern and northern branches), and Sequoia National Park.

In 1891, the massive (sixteen feet in diameter) Mark Twain tree was cut down, then cut up into a dozen pieces (since it weighed nine tons), then shipped to the New York Museum of Natural History.  Two years later, the equally massive General Noble tree was cut down at the government’s orders, and shipped to Chicago for its Columbian World Fair exhibition; there it was turned into a two-story structure, then moved to the Smithsonian where it stood until the 1930s.

Image

Stephen Mather, John Muir, the Sierra Club, and others all stepped in to save sections of this Sierra Nevada corridor before it was too late, but commercial interests kept the Kings Canyon section from national park status until 1940.  It was a close call since Los Angeles coveted the Kings River watershed and came within the proverbial inch of damming it up.  Had they done so, the Kings Canyon’s wilderness would have been lost forever.  In 1978 Congress added the Mineral King area to the park.  Altogether, today, over 450,000 acres of Kings Canyon wilderness (mostly roadless) is preserved for those who wish to escape roads and backpack in—some 80,000 a year do just that.  Altogether 1,500,000 people a year love Kings Canyon/Sequoia to death with their traffic—all on only 120 miles of roads.

Providentially a great rampart of high mountains (the backbone of the Sierra Nevadas) barred east/west roadways from being constructed long enough to preserve this area in perpetuity for the American people.

Image

OUR VISIT TO THE PARK

Bob and Lucy Earp, Connie and I, after a delicious breakfast at Wuksachi Lodge, headed out into the cold grey skies that gradually dissipated as we moved out of Sequoia National Park into Kings Canyon.  We stopped at both the Sequoia and Kings Canyon visitor centers, making a point to see both films.  We have found that travelers who don’t do so severely shortchange their visits.  We can all be grateful to the park rangers who serve us so well in facilities across the nation.

By the time we reached the rim of Kings Canyon—I hadn’t seen it in over forty years—the sun had come out.  It turned out to be one of those all too rare absolutely perfect blue sky days.  Way down below was the still undammed Kings River (Spanish explorers named it El Rio de los Santos Reyes), which translates to River of the Holy Kings (the Magi).  The river grew ever larger and louder as we zigzagged our way down the canyon wall.  Just as had been true with the snowmelt-swollen Kern River, the Kings River was torrential!  With a half-century high snowpack to stoke it, what a time to have picked in which to re-experience the canyon!  Since tourist season hadn’t yet begun, the day proved to be a serene one.  Everywhere we looked tributary streams and waterfalls fed into the gorge.  At the east end, where the road ends in the Zumwalt Meadows, we took advantage of the opportunity to explore the area.  We discovered that the park not only includes one of the greatest stands of Sequoias in the world, it also includes magnificent stands of sugar pine, ponderosa pine, white fir, red fir, and incense cedar.

Image

Afterwards, regretting we couldn’t remain longer in the park, we drove back down the canyon, up over the canyon wall, back into Sequoia, down into the San Joaquin Valley, and then up through California’s legendary gold-mining towns such as Angels Camp (made famous by Mark Twain’s “The Jumping Frog of Calavaras County”), back into the cooler temperatures of the Sierras, a quick stop at one of our oldest national park lodges, Wawona, then on to that  famous tunnel that opens onto one of the grandest vistas our world has to offer: “Yosemite National Park, with its iconic peaks, waterfalls, and river.  Tourists seeing the vista for the first time are awe-struck.

Image

Even those native Californians like Connie and me are moved almost to tears by being privileged to set eyes on it once again in this all too brief journey we call “life.”

SOURCES USED

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopfk, 2009).

Palmer, John J., Sequoia and Kings Canyon (Wickenburg, Arizona: K. C. Publications, 2009).

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART ONE

BLOG #25, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #14

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART ONE

June 20, 2012

 

 

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Yosemite is the penultimate stop in our Great Circle of National Parks grand tour that we began on August 4, 2010.  It is fitting that our closing fireworks takes place where the National Park story begins.  And for that story we can thank Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, for their book has been our sourcebook.

 

Yosemite’s story really begins with Dr. Lafayette Bunnell in one of the earliest expeditions (1851) into this then all but unknown valley.  He was so overwhelmed by what he saw that he named the valley.  Wrongly, it turns out.  In his ignorance of the Native American Indians who lived here, he mistakenly named it Yosemite Valley.  Turns out that Yosemite translates as “Killers” . . . “People who should be feared.”  It should have been called “Ahwahnee Valley,” so named by the  Ahwahnee Indians who referred to themselves as the “Ahwahneechies.”  Translated, “Ahwahnee” means “The Place of the Gaping Mouth” (Duncan and Burns, p. 2).

 

Word spread, and photographers (the profession then in its infancy) and artists such as that great romantic landscapist, Albert Bierstadt (who came here and painted such magnificent canvasses in 1862 that he was paid a then unheard of $25,000 for one of his Yosemite paintings) packed into the valley to see if it was all legend attributed to it.

 

In 1864, John Conners (junior senator from the very young state of California) did an almost unbelievable thing: In the midst of the bloodiest war in American history (with more casualties than in all the rest of America’s wars combined) Conners stood up on May 17, 1864 in the Senate Chamber and introduced a bill to preserve this little-known valley.  A proposal that was unprecedented in human history: to “set aside a large tract (some 60 square miles) of natural scenery for the future enjoyment of everyone.”  The bill included both Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees (Sequoia).  The concept for the bill had originated with Captain Israel Ward Raymond.  Such a proposal seemingly made little sense in light of Americans’ well-known propensity to trash all itsnatural wonders.  They’d already all but ruined Niagara Falls with cheap commercialism.  Almost unbelievably—no small thanks to Conners’ assurance that the land was completely worthless and wouldn’t cost the country a dime—, the bill sailed through; and on June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln “signed a law to preserve forever a beautiful valley and a grove of trees that he had never seen thousands of miles away.” (This section, Duncan and Burns, 8-13).

 

Unwisely, it turns out, the bill mandated turning the park over to the State of California to administer, which resulted in half a century of fierce and unrelenting warfare between the forces of those who sought to preserve the park in its pristine state and those who sought to commercialize it, log it, mine it, and do all they could to destroy it.  It proved to be one of the bitterest wars the West has ever known (matched only by the battle to preserve the Grand Canyon of the Colorado).

 

The unenviable job of actually protecting the park fell on the shoulders of 52-year-old Galen Clark, who’d proved himself to be a failure at most everything else he’d ever tried to do.  California appointed him the first guardian of Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove for the munificent figure of $500 a year.   Out of that, he was to pay all his living expenses, maintain all roads and bridges, supervise all those who set up businesses, hotels, etc., and, not incidentally, prevent the tourists from destroying the park!  An almost impossible challenge.  Even at that, the State of California withheld his wages for four years!  Just as bad, there was the self-appointed ruler of the park, James Mason Hutchins (a man who’d done much to publicize the park).  Hutchins had no intention of surrendering authority over the park to Clark or the State.  In fact, Hutchins decided to construct a sawmill in the park and wasn’t about to be stopped by anyone!  But he needed a reliable man to construct the sawmill and run it.

 

Enter a wandering sheepherder from Scotland.  Born in Dunbar, Scotland, and growing up in Wisconsin, he was raised by a harsh tyrannical father, an itinerant Presbyterian minister, who forced his son to memorize the Bible—and beat him repeatedly to keep him at it.  After escaping from his father, uncertain as to his future, he walked a thousand miles to the Gulf of Mexico, then came west. Seeking the wildest place he could find, he was steered into sheepherding in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  And so it came to pass that, in the fall of 1869, this 31-year-old walked into the Yosemite Valley to apply for the job of sawmill builder and manager.

 

His name was John Muir (Duncan and Burns, 15-17).

 

SOURCES USED

 

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #12 SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK – PART TWO

BLOG # 17, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #12

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK – PART TWO

APRIL 25, 2012

 

 

Because Sequoia National Park and King’s Canyon National Park are administered as a unit, we will move to Kings Canyon next week.  Together, they encompass 865,257 acres.  Elevation-wise they range from a low of 1,300 feet to a high of 14,494 (Mt. Whitney), the highest point in the lower 48 states.  Nearly 808,000 (or 93.4%) acres are officially designated as wilderness, which means that no roads mar its pristine beauty beyond the few paved roads tourists know.  All the rest are known only to backpackers (80,000 a year), which strains the capacity of the park rangers to oversee.

 

OUR MEMORIES

 

Early in the morning, around 5 a.m., Bob and Lucy Earp and Connie and I arose, quickly packed the car, and nosed the car out of Furnace Creek Ranch onto road #190.  Here we made a fateful—and, it turned out, “stupid” mistake, in not paying over $5 a gallon for gas and filling up the tank.  Surely we’d find cheaper gas once we got out of the park!  Instead, we twisted up and up and up serpentine roads where we finally crested the Argus and Panamint Mountains; meanwhile, as the gas needle continued to drop, all four of us grew tenser by the mile.  Then the crest.  We breathed a sigh of relief; surely we’d find gas once we left the park. We did not, and even though Bob kept his speed down, and the needle slowed, neither town nor gas station did we find.  Our last hope turned out to be the town of Olanche on Highway 395; if we failed to find a gas  station there, with the needle solidly on empty, we’d be stuck.  By that time, we’d have been willing to pay $20 a gallon!  Mercifully, we found one, and the price, though still high, was still considerably less than Death Valley’s.  And not just the car was empty—so were we!  Here we stumbled on Ranch House Café, a place where, we were told, the locals frequented.  Turned out to be straight out of the Old West, the customers mainly ranchers and cowboys.  We were served by a pretty waitress who’d been transplanted from Tyler, in Texas rose country, to here where she’d fallen in love with a cowboy.  She “darlinged” us through a wonderful Southwest breakfast—and we were ready to face whatever the rest of the day brought us.

 

Though our destination was west, we couldn’t cross over at Olanche, but had to head south.  Reason being the massive wall of Sequoia/Kings Canyon/Yosemite that barred access to Sequoia.  As we drove south we could look up at the towering rampart crowned by two snowcapped fourteeners, Mt. Whitney and Mt. Langley.  Several hours later, once again, we headed west on #178 via Lake Isabella followed by an unforgettable ride down Kern  River Canyon.  Because of the massive snowfalls the Kern thundered rather than merely flowing.  After which we headed north again, through oil wells and orange groves, strange bedfellows.  Even though I knew the great San Joaquin Valley was the breadbasket of the nation, I’d never known  before that its orange groves rivaled Florida’s.

 

Finally, it was mid-afternoon; by then, we turned east and began to climb into the Sierras.  At the Foothills Visitor Center, we were greeted by potentially bad news; because of recent snowstorms, the roads into the heart of the park had been closed.  However, there was the possibility we could now make it up into the Big Trees.  After Death Valley’s heat, the mere thought that we might be back into snow by nightfall seemed preposterous to us.  Yet as we climbed, the temperature gauge dropped from the 80s to the 70s to the 60s, to the 50s, to the 40s—and eventually colder yet.  For a while, all traffic came to a complete halt.  Just behind us was a long caravan of motorcyclists from Brazil (the same ones we’d seen in Death Valley earlier).   Since I spoke Spanish, I was able to chat with them about their American tour—they loved it! (Portuguese, being also a Latin language akin to Spanish, it wasn’t too difficult to communicate with them.) Finally, we were all permitted to move again, and we moved into the snowy foggy high country.  As we reached the Sequoia groves we could only see part of them, for their trunks disappeared into the mist.

 

 

It was early evening before we reached Wuksachi Village, where we’d stay for the next two nights.  Sadly, there are no venerable national park hotels gracing Sequoia and Kings Canyon, so Wuksachi is the only game in town.  It is one of the resorts run by DELAWARE NORTH COMPANIES.  At the front desk we were welcomed with the gladsome news that the water main had broken in the extreme cold, so all the water was contaminated—not potable.  But not to worry, we could still eat in the dining room, and a truckload of bottled water from Bakersfield arrived by early evening so guests could at least have drinking water.  After dinner, we retired to our rustic sleeping quarters, exhausted.  It had been a long day, where we’d moved from one world to another, so we collapsed early.

 

 

Awoke early next morning to a clear sky that didn’t stay that way.  After a great buffet breakfast, we returned to our rooms, where our ablutions were possible thanks to bottled water.  Then it was time to visit the great sequoias.  Cold clammy misty fog now closed in on us, but we took the several-mile-long walk through the sequoias anyway, though the snow, and shivering.  It got progressively difficult to see, but eventually the mist cleared enough so we could see the world’s largest living thing, the General Sherman Tree, as well as other giants.  In a meadow we encountered a mother bear and cub.  Keeping a “safe” distance, we shutterbugged—which was dumb, because a bear can run 30-40 mph, and if the Mama Bear had taken issue with us we’d never have been able to get to safety in time.

 

 

Back in the lodge, we had a good dinner, after which we played Phase Ten—Lucy beat us.  Then in the quietness of our room we turned on the TV and almost wished we hadn’t: a tornado in Joplin, MO had killed 120, wiping out a quarter of the city.   One catastrophe after another in months before: the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami; over 300 killed in a string of tornados; terrible oil spill in the Gulf—and earlier that day, a volcanic eruption in Iceland, closing down European air traffic.  Then, unable to sleep, Connie and I watched John Wayne in Rio Bravo and The Sons of Katie Elder.  Then—finally—sleep came.

 

 

Will have to give a lot of credit to the Wuksachi folk: in spite of the terrible odds against it, given the broken water main, they did their utmost to give us a good stay.  The only other negative: unfitted bottom sheets that strayed off the mattresses during the night.

 

SOURCES USED

 

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Kinopf, 2009).

 

Palmer, John J., Sequoia and Kings Canyon (Wickenburg, AZ: K. C. Publications, 2009).

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #11 SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK – PART ONE

BLOG # 16, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #11

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK – PART ONE

APRIL 18, 2010

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Sequoias—the largest living things on earth—ought to be on everyone’s bucket list: something to see before you die.  They are also among the oldest living things on earth (enduring over 3,000 years).  Take the General Sherman sequoia, for instance.  It is more than 270 feet tall, 102 feet in circumference, and is estimated to be 2,100 years old (it was already a century old when Christ was born in a manger), and it should still be growing a thousand years from now.  A thirteen-story building would not even reach as high as its lowest branches.  It has enough lumber in it right now (it increases its girth 50 cubic feet a year) to stretch one by twelve boards, end-to-end 119 miles!  Heighth-wise, like all sequoias, it would have reached its maximum at around eight-hundred years.

Because of the value of its lumber, in all likelihood the sequoias would long since have been all cut down were it not that they are so massive and so heavy that when they do fall, they splinter into sections, shaking the earth like an earthquake.  Even so, it is a miracle that the species survives at all.

When the Pilgrims came to America, fully half of it was forested.  Indeed it was so vast and so dense that as late as the early nineteenth century, it was the common belief that much of the continent would still be unexplored a thousand years from then.  But then came the Industrial Revolution and Manifest Destiny; together, there was cranked up a juggernaut of such destructive power that entire forests were mowed down like so many matchsticks.  The sequoias would have been among them had not California’s Senator John Conness introduced a bill in 1864 to save the species from extinction.  Amazingly, even in the midst of the bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War, during which over 600,000 men died, there were enough senators who cared about preservation to push aside war matters long enough to pass the bill. It was said then that “These trees were alive when David danced before the Ark” and “The Mariposa Big Tree Grove is really the wonder of the world.”  When America’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, signed the bill on June 30, 1864, he had no way of knowing that he had just done something unprecedented in human history by setting aside in perpetuity sixty some square miles of wilderness land.  That moment represents the dividing line between destroying everything that blocks your way and the realization that preservation of beauty is essential for our well-being, both as a person and as a nation.

Galen Clark was chosen as the first guardian of these trees, ably supported by the U.S. Cavalry.  But from that day to this, fierce battles have continued to be fought by those seeking to preserve these sacred places and commercial interests determined to exploit them for personal gain.  It is being waged to this day: when “Drill Baby, Drill” is so infectious a siren call that those who counter with, “Wait, let’s first see what natural wonders might thereby be destroyed for all time,” are somehow viewed as little more than pesky obstructionists or ridiculed as “tree-huggers.”

Thus it was that the bill Lincoln signed was but the beginning of a ceaseless battle.  Enter John Muir, whose voice was so clear and his message so urgent, that he spawned a movement that continues to our time.  Duncan and Burns, in their monumental book, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, tell the fascinating story of a nation-changing meeting that almost wasn’t.  In the spring of 1903, Muir was so deeply disheartened by the obstructionists who were determined to prevent the Federal Government from putting teeth behind its preservation legislation that he was just about to abandon his futile efforts and escape on a trip to Europe and Asia when suddenly something totally unexpected happened: the new president, Teddy Roosevelt wanted to come out to California and make a trip into the endangered Sierras with him.  Muir canceled his foreign trip in hopes that somehow, sitting around a campfire, he might be able to do his cause some good.  What follows is so significant in the history of our nation that I’ll let Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns tell the riveting story in their own words:

On May 15, they set off from the town of Raymond for the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees in a caravan of wagons.  Muir was seated in the president’s coach—along with the governor of California, the secretary of the navy, the surgeon general, two college presidents, and Roosevelt’s personal secretary.  The other wagons carried more staff and dignitaries; a detachment of thirty African American troopers from the 9th Cavalry rode along as escorts.

It was hardly the trip he had been promised, but Muir tried his best to squeeze in words to the president and governor about the issue of making all of Yosemite a national park.  As they approached the grove of mighty sequoias, the president’s group paused, as all tourists did, for a photograph at the famous Wawona Tunnel Tree.  Later they posed for an official photograph lined up along the base of the Grizzly Giant, the oldest and most famous sequoia in Yosemite; estimated to be 2,700 years old.  It boasted a single branch that was six and a half feet in diameter.

Then the troops, the phalanx of reporters and photographers, and virtually all of the official party, headed back to the Wawona Hotel, where a series of receptions and a grand dinner were scheduled in the president’s honor that evening.  None of them knew that Roosevelt had no intention of attending.  Instead he remained behind with only Muir and a few park employees, who started preparing a camp at the base of one of the sequoias.  They built a fire and sat around it, eating a simple supper, talking as twilight enveloped them, getting to know one another in the glow of the blaze.

“The night was clear,” Roosevelt wrote, and “in the darkening aisles of the great sequoia grove . . . the majestic trunks, beautiful in color and symmetry, rose round us like the pillars of a mightier cathedral than ever was conceived even by the fervor of the Middle Ages.  Hermit thrushes sang beautifully in the evening.”  Roosevelt would later remark that “Muir cared little for birds or bird songs” —a failing the ornithologist-president found noteworthy.  Muir, in turn, could not help commenting on the President’s well-earned reputation for hunting.  “Mr. Roosevelt,” he asked, “when are you going to get beyond the boyishness of killing things?”

But it quickly became clear that under the darkening canopy of ancient trees, a deep friendship was being born.  “I had a perfectly glorious time,” Muir wrote his wife.

I never before had a more interesting, hearty, and manly companion.  I stuffed him pretty well regarding the timber thieves, the destructive work of the lumbermen, and other spoilers of the forest.

Long after sundown, with no tent and only a pile of army blankets for comfort and warmth, the two men finally went to sleep.  The next morning at 6:30 they saddled up for the long ride to Yosemite Valley, with the guide under strict orders from the president to avoid at all costs the Wawona Hotel and the delegation of officials he had jilted the night before.

In the high country near Glacier Point, with its spectacular panorama of the valley and its waterfalls arrayed at their feet, they stopped and once more made camp.  Then, their guide, Charlie Leidig, reported, they resumed their exchange of opinions and ideas.

Around the campfire Roosevelt and Muir talked far into the night regarding Muir’s glacial theory of the formation of Yosemite Valley.  They also talked a great deal about the protection of forests in general and Yosemite in particular. I heard them discussing the setting aside of other areas in the United States for park purposes.

“There was some difficulty in their campfire conversation,” Leidig added, “because both men wanted to do the talking.”

They awoke the next morning covered by a light snow that had fallen in the high country during the night.  Rather than feeling inconvenienced, Roosevelt couldn’t have been more thrilled., “We slept in a snowstorm last night!” he exclaimed to the crowds that [had] been patiently waiting for him on the valley floor.  “This has been the grandest day of my life.”

Hundreds of tourists had crowded into the valley’s hotels or established campsites in the meadows, all in hopes of seeing the president.  The board of commissioners in charge of the Yosemite Grant, already jealous of the way Muir had seemingly monopolized Roosevelt’s visit so far, planned to make up for lost time.  They had prepared a lavish banquet catered by a French chef borrowed from a swank San Francisco club, to be followed by $400 worth of fireworks, and then a grand illumination of Yosemite Falls by special calcium searchlights.  A comfortable bed with a cozy feather mattress was waiting in an artist’s studio that had been specially fitted out for the president’s private lodging.

Roosevelt would have none of it.  He paused long enough to shake some hands and talk for a few minutes with his disappointed hosts, and then mounted up and rode farther down the valley to camp one last night with Muir—this time in the meadows between Bridalveil Falls and the massive granite face of El Capitan.  Early the next morning, the wagon train of dignitaries, with its military escort, rushed the president back to the Raymond train station for the resumption of his cross-country tour, while Muir returned home to his writing.

“Camping with the President was a remarkable experience,” Muir told a friend.  “I fairly fell in love with him.”  Roosevelt, too, was changed by the experience.  “When he reached the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees [last] Friday evening the President was a tired, worried man,” the San Francisco Call reported.  “This evening he is bright, alert—the Roosevelt of old.”

And when the president spoke at the state capitol in Sacramento a day later, Roosevelt’s words sounded as if they could have come from the lips of John Muir.

Lying out at night under those Sequoias was lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build, and I hope for the preservation of the groves of giant trees simply because it would be a shame to our civilization to let them disappear.

 

They are monuments in themselves. . . .  I want them preserved.

 

I am impressed by the immensely greater greatness that lies in the future, and I ask that your marvelous natural resources be handed on unimpaired to your posterity.

 

We are not building this country of ours for a day.  It is to last through the ages.

Within three years, the California legislature and United States Congress approved the transfer of the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove back to the federal government.  Yosemite National Park now encompassed almost everything Muir had been fighting for.  “Sound the timbrel,” he wrote a friend, “and let every Yosemite tree and stream rejoice!”

I am now an experienced lobbyist; my political education is complete.  Have attended Legislature, made speeches, explained, exhorted, persuaded every mother’s son of the legislature, newspaper reporters, and everybody else who would listen to me.

 

 

And now that the fight is finished and my education as a politician and lobbyist is finished. I am almost finished myself.

(Duncan and Burns, 95-8).

We will continue the Sequoia story in next week’s blog (Wednesdays with Dr. Joe, April 25).

SOURCES USED

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Kinopf, 2009).

Palmer, John J., Sequoia and Kings Canyon (Wickenburg, AZ: K. C. Publications, 2009).

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – NORTH RIM

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #7

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – NORTH RIM

 

February 8, 2012

“How long does it take to see the Grand Canyon?’

“From a moment to a lifetime.”

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado.  277 miles long, 10 miles wide, one mile deep.  It has been known for well over a century as the greatest scenic wonder in the world.  One of its earliest visitors, John Muir, was so awe-struck by it that he wrote of it,

Wildness so godful, cosmic, primeval, bestows a new sense of earth’s beauty and size.

John Wesley Powell, in 1869, pronounced it

The most sublime spectacle on earth.

Yet, even though it was generally acknowledged as such a global treasure, those who tried to save it for posterity faced fierce opposition from local ranchers, miners, settlers, and others who were determined to keep the federal government from imposing restrictions on what they could or couldn’t do with it.  It should have been the nation’s second national park; indeed bills were introduced to that effect in 1882, 1883, and 1886—all failed.  In 1893 President Harrison did what he could, inadequate though it was: he used his administrative power to designate it as the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve.  Twenty-six long years later, Teddy Roosevelt, in 1908, used his newly passed Antiquities Act to elevate it to national monument status.  Not until 1919 was it finally made a national park.  But even then, full federal protection was anything but a given: grazing was still permitted; as a result cattle herds roamed freely on both rims, the park was honeycombed with still active mining claims, and newly elected Arizona senator, Ralph Henry Cameron continued to act as though he—not the American people—owned the canyon.

Today, however, the Grand Canyon is loved to death by almost 5,000,000 tourists a year, over 4,000,000 of them congesting the South Rim, helping to make it one of the most photographed places on earth.

The Grand Canyon is really three distinctly different parks: The overcrowded South Rim, the forested North Rim’s Kaibab Plateau; and the Colorado River and its Phantom Ranch.

THE NORTH RIM’S GRAND CANYON LODGE

           

The Grand Canyon Lodge (the only lodging facility on the North Rim, is open only five months a year (mid-May to mid-October), and not always then, for snow can keep it closed later in the spring, and close it earlier in the fall.  Only one-tenth (400,000 plus) of the millions that mob the South Rim make it here, for though it is only a ten-mile glide across to the South Rim, it’s 215 miles by nearest road.  So it is actually closer to Zion National Park than to its own park headquarters.  To hike across is a daunting 23 miles.  Given that the North Rim is a thousand feet higher than the South Rim, hikers descend almost 6,000 feet on the famed Bright Angel Trail  from the North Rim and ascend almost 5,000 feet to the South Rim.  Climate-wise, hikers experience the equivalent of going from Canada’s Hudson Bay to Mexico and back up.  In Bruce Aiken’s words: “The Canyon is a nude of the earth.  It shows the layers, the bones beneath the skin—what’s beneath the vegetation that covers the rest of the world” (Jaffe, 116).

Matthew Jaffe, in his splendid paean to the North Canyon, maintains that you don’t really know the Grand Canyon until you explore the uncrowded North Rim.  It is truly a different world.  Serene.  Quiet.  The travelers who make it here are the connoisseurs of the world travel, and are almost afraid to speak out, or write about its glories, for fear the rest of the world will discover it and wreck their Shangri-la..

As for the lodge itself, as always, Christine Barnes is the ultimate authority for its story.  The Utah Parks Company (UPC) and National Park Service (NPS) were so pleased with architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood’s Bryce and Zion lodges that they contracted with him to create a great lodge on the North Rim, as soon as he completed the Ahwahnee in Yosemite.  The result, according to Barnes, is that “Grand Canyon Lodge is architecturally and geographically linked to Bryce and Zion Park lodges, but its elegance and panache seem to have sprung from the same inspiration that created the hotel in Yosemite.  While the Ahwahnee’s success had been the elegant incorporation of the hotel with the towering walls of granite, on the North Rim the architect would look down for his inspiration” (Barnes, 137).

Underwood magically created a lodge that prevented visitors arriving from the north from any view of the Canyon until they’d first encountered a huge front of stone that was crowned by a watchtower.  As guests walked into the lodge, they’d initially see only timber and stone-work, but then they’d see the light which would draw them to the stairway, into the sunroom and into the lobby—then “BOOM! There’s the Grand Canyon” (Barnes, 137).  Outdoor terraces and stairways cascaded down from the lodge.

Flanking the lodge on both sides were one hundred Standard Cabins and twenty Deluxe Cabins; in 1931, less expensive Housekeeping Cabins were constructed near the campground away from the rim.  Since the site didn’t have water, they had to pipe it up from Roaring Springs, 3,400 feet below the rim.  On June 1, 1928, the lodge and cabins opened with accommodations for 250 guests.  Tourists were bussed in from the railroad terminal in Cedar City, Utah.

But then, on September 1, 1932, disaster!  Fire broke out in the lodge in the middle of the night.  Employees and workers battled the blaze for but a short time when the water pressure gave out, dooming the lodge and two Deluxe Cabins.  All that remained were stone walls, foundations, terraces, stairways, and fireplaces.  Horace Albright, NPS director, was devastated at the loss.  Two years later, the UPC began rebuilding the lodge on the same footprint, but Underwood was not involved.  The first floor plan remained as before, and the lodge we know today is still a wonderful place, but Christine Barnes laments, “But the marvelous sense of the building in perfect harmony with the rim was partially lost.  From the canyon wall the original lodge still rises, but the asymmetrical stairstep quality of the walls and rooflines with their rich texture are mostly gone.  Instead, the design was simplified and capped with a traditional green gable roof” (Barnes, 141).  The eighteen surviving Deluxe Cabins and the reconstructed lodge reopened on June 1, 1937.  They’re still there.

OUR OWN JOURNEY

We awoke at 6:30, and ate breakfast at Zion Lodge at 8:00; then drove out of Zion National Park via Carmel Junction, and headed south across the Arizona border onto the Kaibab Plateau.  I’ve always felt the Kaibab ought to have been part of Utah rather than Arizona, for it seems a world away from the rest of Arizona.  Alas, the Warm Fire of 2006 burned over 58,000 acres of the once lush forest.  But how grateful we were to discover that the fire had spared the rim area and the lodge.  Also grateful that we’d reserved our Deluxe Cabin over a year before.  And imagine how we felt when we discovered that the lodge had only been open one day!  Whenever we were tempted to complain about anything, we asked ourselves if we’d been able to do any better when everything had been snowed in for seven long months!  Actually, there were very few glitches, even so.  Just as was true with Bryce, the North Rim concessions were run by FOREVER Resorts.  And true to their word, they’d saved us Deluxe Cabins to die for, right on the rim next to the lodge; and sitting in rockers on our porch, we could look down, down, and down the almost 6,000 foot-drop to the Colorado River.

But before our rooms were cleaned, we first had to experience once again Underwood’s staggering surprise.  I submit that in all of America’s wondrous national park lodges, there are only two that literally take your breath away: walking up the stairs of Jackson lake Lodge, and suddenly, on the other side of the wall of glass are Mount Moran and the Grand Tetons soaring above Jackson Lake; and, second, stepping down into the Sun Room or into the Dining Room of Grand Canyon Lodge and suddenly, one of the most stunning views the world has to offer: the depths of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado!  Guests are too awestruck to say much: they just stand there by the great windows–transfixed as time seems to stand still.

At 4:00 p.m., we brought our luggage in from the car and unpacked for two whole days.  Glory be!  In the evening, as the sun began to die in the West, we gazed out from our table near a window, and were too overwhelmed to say much.  Not until the shadows closed in.  Afterwards, we returned to that eighty-three-year-old cabin, mercifully spared from burning down with the lodge, even though it was the closest self-standing structure on that side.  Eighty-three years of blizzards, rainstorms, and fierce winds.  We lit the fire in the fireplace, crawled in bed, and listened to the wind and cabin walls complain!

          

Next morning, outside our window—that view!  A view so stupendous it will remain limned in memory as long as we live. Same next door in Bob and Lucy Earp’s cabin.  Bob had been up with camera since before sunrise.  The day passed all too quickly, beginning with breakfast in that iconic dining room; sharing the experience were tourists from all over the world, as cosmopolitan a group as you’d ever get into one room.  Europeans confessed that they’d never seen anything to compare with it! Later, Connie and Lucy washed and dried our laundry in the campground washateria.  Then Bob and I went shutterbugging down the rim to Point Imperial and Point Roosevelt, managing to get thirty miles lost in the process.  Afterwards, thanked Sonya Michaels, the lodge manager, for all she and her staff had done to make our stay so special—everyone so eager to please.  In midafternoon, we listened to a riveting lecture on condors.

After dinner, we played Phase Ten, and I, for once, beat Robert.  That night the wind really blew!  But snuggled together in the Cabin of our Dreams, we felt it would be hard to conceptualize a greater experience than this.  We fell asleep wondering if it would really snow the next day as some had predicted.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, OR: W. W. West, Inc., 2002).

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred Knopf/Random House, 2009).

Jaffe, Matthew, “The Secret Canyon” (Sunset Magazine, May 2007).

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society, 2009).