Walk completed August 28, 2011

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Yosemite's Four Mile Trail

With my valve job scheduled for the end of August, my thoughts naturally turned to the Yosemite trails. Yosemite National Park’s 1200 square miles are crisscrossed by 800 miles of maintained park trails. I have hiked about 600 miles of those trails, so I searched my mental inventory for a scenic trail which my heart could handle. I settled on the Four Mile Trail, which, in my opinion, mile for mile, step for step, is the best trail in the park.

Built in 1878 by James McCauley as a toll trail, the Four Mile Trail ascends 3200 feet from the Yosemite Valley floor to Glacier Point by 59 switchbacks, varying in length from 12 feet (No. 18, counting from the gate at the bottom of the trail) to about a mile (No. 7). The trail was riginally 4 miles long, but in 1923 the National Park Service realigned tt to lessen the grade, resulting in a present length of 4.6 miles. The former name remains nonetheless.

Some parts of the old Four Mile Trail can still be found, although now overgrown by nearly 100 years of vegetation. 130-year old dryrock walls, reminiscent of the dryrock walls in Britain, still line the trail’s former switchbacks. For scenery, nature and history the Four Mile Trail can’t be beat. It is my favorite trail in the park, as my car’s license plate attests.
The trail not only offers jaw-dropping views (a trait common to most Yosemite trails), but with its diverse vegetation changing both by season and elevation, the trail presents a new experience on every hike. The lower part of the trail passes though old, stately oaks interspersed with dogwood, whose lovely white flowers harbinger the coming spring, and alders, whose golden leaves in autumn glow when backlit by afternoon sunshine. A little higher, the manzanita’s delicate pink flowers in springtime upstage its polished, brick-red branches so coveted by decorators. In late summer, the manzanita’s flowers mature into bright red berries on which bears feast by the bushel. At the trail’s highest elevations, pine and cedar provide both shade and fragrance on a hot summer day. Stellar’s jays, finches, grouse, woodpeckers, squirrels, chipmunks and lizards are commonly seen along the trail. Less often, deer, bear and bobcat show themselves.

At Glacier Point, the Four Mile Trail connects to the Panorama Trail, which in turn connects to the John Muir Trail, providing a 16-mile loop with 4500 feet of elevation gain and loss—completing a perfect training day for Britain’s End to End Trail.

I typically hike the Four Mile Trail a dozen or more times each year, and until May, the trail always provided new and different joys. In late May, hiking the trail became less fun as I struggled to reach a point about 2/3 of the way up (2,000 feet of elevation gain), beyond which the trail was closed due to snow. In early June, I could ascend only about 500 feet before my heart stopped me in my tracks; in late June, I could barely ascend 100 feet. The Four Mile Trail had become something more to me than a joyous walk through the forest—like a miner’s canary, it provided an early warning of my failing heart valve.

Alas, I am presently unable to ascend from the valley, but my heart is strong enough to do the reverse. So, today, Janet dropped me off at Glacier Point. While she took the hour’s drive to Yosemite Valley, I visited with my good friend Ranger Dick, one of the few Yosemite rangers fortunate to reside at Glacier Point. At 9:30, I started the descent, and at the same time, Janet began ascending from the valley. As expected, we met halfway—descending the steep trail requires sure footing, and always takes as long as ascending.

As always, the Four Mile Trail was in shade, but typical California sunshine bathed the rest of the park. Temperatures in the Yosemite Valley were in the mid-80s. Yosemite’s famous waterfalls, which run full force in May and June, have faded to a trickle. By September, many of them will be dry.

While not my typical Yosemite hike, getting back on the trail allowed me to clear my lungs and revitalize my spirit; or, as John Parsons might say in his Lejog Plod: yes, it was another good day.

© 2010 Ken Klug

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pt. Lobos, California

With temperatures in Yosemite Valley approaching the high-90s (35 C), and my heart not wanting to climb to the cooler elevations, I decided that hiking on the California coast would be a reasonable substitute. California is a lot like Britain, with ample coastline and mountainous interior. Except that the California mountains are higher, the sun always shines, and drivers keep to the right (i.e., correct) side of the road. Sometimes.

Pt. Lobos is a State Reserve on California’s central coast south of Monterey, not far from where the Pacific tectonic plate dives under the North American tectonic plate. As far back as I can remember, the colliding plates have been uplifting granite which was formed deep under the earth’s surface 80 million years ago, juxtaposing it with younger and shallower sedimentary formations. All the while, relentless ocean waves erode and shape the rocks into various forms, leaving numerous secluded coves, cliffs, and beaches. These conditions are unique on Earth, except for all the other places with rugged coastlines, such as the British Isles. Britain also has pubs and castles along its coast. California never needed castles, because it has no pubs worth defending.

Just a mile north of Pt. Lobos, the ocean depth reaches 1,000 feet. It is scientifically possible to measure the depth in meters, but you need a long yard stick to do so. The Monterey Canyon, lying just 6 miles offshore, reaches a depth of 7,000 feet. (I think that’s something like a million fathoms, but I’m not exactly sure what a fathom is.) The upwelling of nutrient rich waters from such great depth creates a food chain which supports a diversity of marine life visible from the trails: harbor seals, sea lions, elephant seals, sea otters, gray whales, cormorants, pelicans, gulls, and fish of all colors and sizes. You can also view the marine life by scuba diving, but be sure to bring along a can of great white shark spray so you don’t become part of that food chain. Hint: If you are diving at Pt. Lobos and there isn’t any marine life visible, you aren’t exactly alone.

There are eight miles of trails in the reserve, winding through thin forests of Monterey Pine and Monterey Cypress which thrive in the coastal fog, but which would wither and die in the sunny, hot savanna a mere mile or two inland. Also thriving in the fog are lizards, rabbits and deer, along with the occasional mountain lion and rattlesnake whose main job is to keep the lizards, rabbits and deer alert. I’m told that mountain lions prey only on the old and the weak, a fact which presently causes me some concern. For the first time in my hiking life, I’ve become part of the balance of nature.

Off trail excitement is provided by the most plentiful shrub in all of the reserve: the ubiquitous poison oak. It also thrives in the fog, but like most Californians, it really wants to be in the sunshine. So although the shrub is rooted in the off trail underbrush, it has an uncanny ability to extend its long, sweeping branches into the one sunny spot not overgrown by competing vegetation: the trail. Generally, its branches reach out at waist level, ready to fondle the bare arm of a passing hiker. But to keep things interesting, an exceptionally low branch occasionally strikes out at the hiker wearing shorts, or a strategically placed high branch assists in wiping the sweat from your brow.

The effects of coming into contact with poison oak are not felt immediately. Usually, an itchy red rash develops in a few hours, turning to an oozing, blistery mess that spreads over the skin in a day or two. But that’s not all bad, because focusing on the rash will invariably lead you to discover the ticks you picked up while on the trail. Poison oak is nature’s way of protecting you from Lyme disease.

After a day communing with nature at Pt. Lobos, I’m ready to face anything.  My anything will be meeting with the cardiac surgeon in a few days to schedule the valve job.

© 2010 Ken Klug