On the Trail with Hall is a weekly column by Juniper Ridge Founder and Chief Wilderness Freak, Hall Newbegin. Hall is most often found in the backcountry with his nose in the dirt or hiking along the forgotten corners the West. You can follow his hiking and foraging adventures on Instagram, @crawlonwetdirt.
“Hall, I’ve been on a lot of crazy trips with you, but this…”
Colin McCarthy has been my longtime photographer, videographer, and pal. He and I trekked out on one of my backpack/wilderness perfume exploratory hikes to route out a longer #bigsurtobadwater trail. It was a totally crazy damn trip. When we got off the trail, he continued,
“…this was the most crazy, fun trip of them all.”
This is one of the big projects of my life. I’ve been working at it for a few years: a trail that starts touching the Pacific in Big Sur, ascends up and over the crest of the first coastal ridge, back down to the Salinas Valley, up and over the inner coastal Diablo Range, across the Central Valley, all before the magic kicks in–the tippy top of the highest point in North America, Mt. Whitney. Then we’ll descend 10,000 ft. to the Owens Valley, up and over a few of those tall desert ranges (elevation changes of 10,000 ft. over and over; it’s a workout), and finally down-down-down to Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at -282 ft.
The extremes aren’t all that impressive to me; what spins my top are the amazing ecological transitions. Going from soft coastal sage scrub to thick chaparral, to the remnant vernal pool wildflowers in the Central Valley, then up-up-up to the alpine zone and down-down-down into the driest deserts in the world, and ending in Badwater, officially the hottest place on Earth. Epic.
Anyway, the Sierra Foothills. This trip’s purpose was to scout out a route from the Central Valley up to the High Sierra country. This was May, and the High Sierra is still buried in snow for about 10,000 ft well into July. So, we kept to the lower elevations, but man, there was a lot of snow. We started off in the low country at about 2,500 ft. This year’s rains have made it gorgeous, the creeks and rivers were just gushing. Up-up-up, we hiked into amazing backcountry sequoia groves.
Sequoias are amazing trees. Coastal redwoods grow everywhere in the heart of their habitat, but sequoias in the Sierra are so picky about their habitat. They only grow here and there. Even here, in the heart of their range, the groves tend to be pretty far apart and plenty of other species thrive in between the giants. You can walk for five minutes and not see one, then bam!, giants all around you. The Garfield Grove is rightly regarded as one of the premier backcountry groves – you can only reach it by a difficult six mile hike–all uphill–so very few people come up here. When we were there, we had the whole place to ourselves; didn’t see another soul. But those trees… wow. It was so wonderful to be alone with them in their deep quietness, just soaking up the vibe of the place. These are the largest trees on Earth by weight and volume. It’s astonishing to be with them, to comprehend there are living things this big, to feel what they feel like, to sleep beneath their boughs and go into deep dream time with them at night. It was one of the most magical parts of the trip to me.
The sequoias stop at about 7,000 feet. Above 7,000 feet, we started getting into some serious snow. Like fall-through-the-crest-up-to-your-waist snow. Man, the hiking got difficult. The trail disappeared completely underneath the snow, so we had to rely on compass and map orienteering to follow the route. By noon every day, the crust would weaken and walking through those drifts became utter drudgery. Real hard work: sopping wet boots and clothes, breaking through the crust and having your boots and calves instantly soaking with freezing cold spring-melt water. Even though the air was a balmy 75 degrees, we got cold out there.
Morale started to dip and we reached our low point when we couldn’t seem to find the open meadow area we were looking for. We sat down in a cold, wet tree well, exhausted. I dropped my pack and scouted ahead with my map and compass. I reached a glorious open meadow within a quarter mile–no snow because it’s open to the sunlight, a gorgeous, flowing creek and a fire pit (yessss). We were all shaking from the cold, but we got the fire going, dried our clothes, warmed our bones, passed the whiskey flask, got the ukelele out, and everything was all better.
The rest of the last day was spent descending down, out of the snow and back into the giant sequoias. On the way down, we came across massive morel mushroom blooms. We filled our packs with the delicious, meaty-tasting, wild delicacy. We popped out on the road, which was still closed for winter. We lucked out of a looong ten miles of road walking, catching a lift from a nice couple who were scouting places to get married.
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