Category Archives: California

California Mountains – How Not to Enjoy a Hike


If it weren’t for our friend Myriah, this hike would have been a huge disappointment. As it turned out, it was a shared adventure that made me thankful for my friend and for my husband.

Just thinking about the hike to Feather Falls makes me very tired, and that makes me want to just write a short list of ways Not to Enjoy a Hike. Because I did not enjoy the hike itself — only the companions. Sad to say, the short list turned into a pretty extensive one.

How Not to Enjoy a Hike

1. Pick a trail that has its descent on the way in, so that even during the first few easy miles, when you are at your freshest, you can be thinking, “What trail goes down, must rise again,” making it possible to imagine the misery you will know later when you have to hike steeply uphill the last four or five miles back to your car. Even a vague dread of the near future can ruin the present pretty effectively.

Red Ribbons – Clarkia concinna

2. Do it in July and the weather will be as hot as possible. Don’t bring too much water; you want to get dehydrated.

3. Plan to take your baking-dry and long hike just a couple of days after spending time in high places where you got used to singing rivulets of snowmelt all around you. This will encourage you to compare your lower-elevation hike unfavorably with recent ones, to keep your attitude complainy.

4. Hike on a trail that claims to takes you to a tall waterfall (the 2nd highest in California), so that when you are dripping sweat and collecting dust you can look forward to the cool mist that will revive you.

This way, when you discover that the end of the trail is at an overlook so far from the water you think it’s a mirage, you will have the maximum letdown.

It helps, if while looking at the waterfall with your tongue hanging out, you have to sit down in the dirt to avoid sunburn and the jostling of other hikers.

Tincture Plant – Collinsia Tinctoria

5. If there is a choice of a routes, allow only enough time for a long-legged 20-year-old to hike the shorter of the two. This way, when you get to the trailhead and find that the short route is closed, your heart can sink right away.

6. Be sure to have a dinner engagement to be late for, or some other reason to hurry through your lunch and doggedly hike your legs off, with your heart doing double-time, on that last long ascent.

Now, the things that kept me from being a total ingrate:

1. The loss of two pounds in an afternoon (even if it was 80% water).

2. Flowers to take pictures of, many conveniently in the shade of the trees, and few enough so as not to be overwhelming.

3. My dear and faithful companions, who joked with me and gave me water and snacks, and carried the knapsack.

This outing was a sort of add-on to our Sierra Nevada summer vacation. We came home for a night and then drove north to pick up Myriah before going on to our trailhead in the foothills of the northern Sierras, in the Plumas National Forest.

While trudging up those last few miles back to the car we talked about how we’d like to hike more together in the future, say, in April or October. I know that any hike in the foothills would be more pleasant during those months, but I’ll vote for going anywhere but Feather Falls.

Monkeyflower – Mimulus

California Mountains – Snow in Springtime

Spring was a happening thing in the high Sierra. Last winter extended well into June, and on at least one date that month the snowpack was the highest on record. This means that at the end of July when we were there, quite a bit of snow was still melting.

Leopard Lily

From our trailhead at nearly 10,000 feet, we only ascended another 1,000 feet or so, but the difference in the flora was notable. Higher up, the flowers and shrubs were still in bud; the snow hadn’t been gone long.

Willow buds
Mountain Pennyroyal in bud


The violent weight of snow had deformed this cluster of trees in such a symmetric way as to be artistic.


Spearhead Lake

Rosy Sedum with Buttercups

At the highest elevations, every lovely bloom seems like a miracle, when you consider how much of the year the plants are just roots or seeds under the snow, how quickly they are required to respond to the light and warmth and come into their glory.

In some places they were sprouting out of a puddle where snow had likely been lying a few days previous, like in this low place I had to hop over to reach a spot overlooking Long Lake. You can see Mr. G. in the distance ready to spread out our picnic of cheese and crackers.

Around us and at our feet hot pink penstemon was making for a brilliant contrast with the midnight blue water and the granite rocks.

California Mountains – Getting Over

I posted this photo last summer, too!

My husband and I drove our car back and forth over the Sierra Nevada mountains this month. We had several highway options, but no matter which pass we choose to chug up I am always reminded of the forebears in covered wagons going cross-country, and the more recent grandparents driving cars like this on one-lane roads. That’s my mother in the middle of this photo taken in Yosemite.

On the Monitor Pass south of Lake Tahoe
Giant Blazing Star on Monitor Pass

My little SUV has four cylinders to propel it forward, which sometimes ends up a bit slow on the steep grades, but at least we have no worries about our horses struggling through raging streams, or the possibility of our wagon tipping over or breaking a wheel on the rocks.

That is, if I can stay on the road — it’s so easy to get distracted by the wildflowers and swerve too wildly at the turnout for a photo op.

We passed over the Sierras by way of three different routes and summits this trip, and also drove over another pass that doesn’t cross those mountains.

We came at our first stop, Lake Tahoe, from the northwest, over Donner Pass. Ah, the Donner Party — what an uncomfortable story, one that raises severe ethical questions. My heart breaks for those pioneers who got bogged down and starved in the snow. Patty Reed’s Doll is a book that somehow manages to tell the tale for children. I recently gave it to granddaughter Annie for her birthday.

Leaving Tahoe after camping for two days, we took the Monitor Pass to the eastern side of the Sierras. Its summit is over 8,000 ft. At the top one drives through rolling “hills” as pictured above, with a mixture of meadows, conifers and sagebrush, and wildflowers galore.

Continuing south on Hwy 395 we rose above 8,000 feet again to get over the Conway Summit, a pass that doesn’t take you as the others do in a generally east-west direction, but gets you over a plateau just north of Mono Lake.

One might ask why we would want to go to all the trouble of climbing mountain passes on pavement, just to go on a hike…Why not ascend on the closer, western side? Well, if one likes to visit the highest altitudes, but doesn’t want to get sore feet walking for days, the smartest thing is to let your car do the work of getting part way up, by going over. The eastern approach is quite steep, and the Owens Valley floor itself is already aound 4,000 ft. elevation, so you’ve got a good head start if you come at the peaks from that side.

To get to our trailhead, we only had to steer upward and our four cylinders climbed over 5,000 ft. in less than half an hour. Yes, it does take us most of a day’s drive to get to the eastern side, but it would take me a week — or more likely I’d never go — to get to the same places by way of the more gradual western approach.

After our adventures on either side of the Owens Valley, we drove back up Hwy. 395 to the Sonora Pass to get home.  The sign at the top reads “9,624 feet.” It’s the second-highest pass in the Sierra Nevada, after Tioga Pass which runs through Yosemite National Park and which we won’t be traversing this year.

On the Sonora Pass, July 2011

It was quite beautiful up there. For the first hour or so on the highway we hardly met a car. By lunchtime we’d descended to hot lands again, and felt the mountains slipping behind us.

But I am so far ahead of myself, talking about the end of the trip when I’ve only begun to tell about the beginning. More to come soon, about our summer mountain adventures.

(next in the series: Tahoe, Rivers and a Song, Directions and Points )