Day 29: Joshua Tree National Park, CA by Wookie Kim

Today was heart-pumping; I crossed paths with a rattlesnake and almost got stranded in the dark on top of a pile of rocks.

I'd enjoyed my day in the mountains, but I was ready to make it into the deserts of California. I'd find that at Joshua Tree National Park, just a couple hours east of Idyllwild.

I started the day slowly. I took advantage of the free Astrocamp breakfast (which made me miss the good old days of unlimited meal plans in college), and wrote a couple blog posts since I had wifi. Then I said goodbye to Kyle and made my way out of the San Jacinto Wilderness and down into the Coachella Valley. It was refreshing to start the day with a scenic drive down the east side of the San Jacintos.

Once down in the valley, I noticed something quite disturbing while cruising. The temperature.

Stepping outside for a lunch pitstop in Banning confirmed just how hot it was. Given that Rim-to-Rim was so close, I didn't want to bake in the sun. I was almost glad I'd be arriving at Joshua Tree late in the afternoon.

At 2:30 p.m., I arrived at the visitor center. I loaded up as many water receptacles as I could (there's no water inside the park), and headed in to find a campsite at the Jumbo Rocks campground, which is known to be one of the most unique and beautiful around. I managed to snag a nifty spot, right up against the base of a pile of jumbo rocks. I pitched my tent up against the rock, so that it would be in the shade. And then I was off!

My first stop was Barker Dam. Ranchers built this dam to provide water to cattle. It was a short loop, which, in this heat, was a good thing. As soon as I turned the corner, I noticed that someone was modeling on the rocks. I could see why. The backdrop was perfect.

I continued around the loop, and observed the varied plants and rocks. The clouds were pretty, too.

I finally made it to the dam. I was surprised by how much water was in the reservoir. If I were living here, I'd live right here, I thought to myself. (Life is always better near water.)

The loop ended quickly because it was just over a mile. But my little jaunt didn't end without a pleasant (and scary) surprise. Ahead of me, I noticed a couple stopped on the trail. Turns out a rattlesnake was rattling at them.

It also turned out that the rattlesnake simply wanted to cross the road. We stepped well back, and let it cross.

Ahead of us, there was another pair of hikers approaching. We warned them from afar that there was a rattlesnake on the trail. We all waited. Eventually, the rattlesnake made it to the other side. It then disappeared into a crack in the rocks (now I understood why the signs always say to never put your hand in a crack in the rocks!).

That was certainly an exhilarating way to end the Barker Dam loop. But I couldn't end the day with just 1.5 miles of trails! I was off to the Hidden Valley trailhead. The scenery was immediately different. It was far more rocky here.

I kept a chill pace, but wasted little time completing the loop. It was still really hot, even though it was past 5:30. I observed the cacti up close, and I also noticed that some hiker had left behind an unopened can of beer. I was tempted by it, but chose to leave it be.

My final stop for the afternoon was the Keys View. This was a high point facing the southwest and looking down into the Coachella Valley. On a clear day, you could apparently see the San Andreas Fault and even Mexico. Today was not a clear day. The smog hung thick in the valley. I later learned that Joshua Tree had the lowest air quality of all our national parks. This is because the pollution from major California cities (e.g., Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco) flowed with the easterly winds into the valley. It is the areas of land that are slightly inland that pay for the pollution created by coastal cities.

And then I was done for the evening. I headed back for Jumbo Rocks. I was ready to cook a quick meal, and then catch the evening ranger talk. Seeing the park as sunset was approaching was interesting because the land held a different hue. It was basically tinted orange.

I came back to Jumbo Rocks as the sun was setting. I climbed up a small pile of jumbo rocks and observed the campground. All around me, people were up on the rocks, taking selfies and just taking it all in. The purple-to-blue spectrum was a familiar one. It was still mesmerizing.

The ranger talk (my third) was on climate change. Ranger Christian went through a concise but compelling presentation on the way humans have contributed to the warming of our climate. He tied the global problem to the park itself--climate scientists predicted that, with the rising global temperatures, the Joshua tree would be close to extinct by 2100.

By the time I got back to my campsite, it was almost 10 p.m. I knew I needed to go to bed, since I wanted to catch the sunrise from atop the rocks. At the same time, the pile of rocks I wanted to view the sunrise from seemed challenging to climb. I decided I'd get on top of them now to preview their difficulty, and also try my hand at some night-time photography.

The pile of rocks I wanted to climb looked like a trail cairn, except, instead of little pebbles and stones, the cairn was made up of gigantic rocks. I'd seen it earlier, just after the sun had set. Now I would climb this pile.

I got 90% of the way to the top without any issues. I'd started (indoor) rock climbing with a coworker back in January, so I had at least some minimal rock climbing skills to put to use here. I'd mainly avoided the bouldering walls, but here I was, bouldering on actual boulders--and doing quite alright!

But the last rock was massive and steep and made me pause before climbing it. It was only a tad smaller than the rock right below it, which meant that any kind of "ledge" was very small; if I fell off, I'd fall a good 20-30 feet to the ground. It was also quite dark, which made it hard to see the rock's crevices (I did have a headlamp). In spite of this, I (foolishly?) ascended. I patted my hands around the sides of the rock, feeling for a crack or groove that my hand could securely grip. I then found a new foothold, stepped up, and repeated the process, step by step, as carefully as I'd ever done. I was almost to the top when I really started struggling. I needed just one more step with my right foot and then I'd be able to pull my body up the flat part of the rock. But I couldn't reach a good handhold. I paused briefly, took a deep breath, and reached up again. Finally, I'd found what I needed. I scrambled up to the top. I was now on top!

It was an amazing feeling. I'd not really planned to use my rock climbing skills on this trip. And here I was using them to my advantage, to get a great viewpoint. From the ground, the pile of rocks hadn't seemed that tall. But looking down, my tent seemed very small. I realized I was now quite high above the campground. Like towering high. And I'd just climbed up here spontaneously.

A view of my tent from the top of the pile of rocks. (This photo was actually taken the following morning, at sunrise.)

A view of my tent from the top of the pile of rocks. (This photo was actually taken the following morning, at sunrise.)

I was now ready to test some manual exposures. I wanted to see if I could capture the campground at night. Even though it was past 10 p.m. (and quiet hour time), I could hear and see lots of activity. Maybe I could capture it visually? The almost-full moon provided good ambient lighting, so I knew that I could get pretty clear views with a medium-length exposure. I finally settled on 8 seconds as a good exposure time. It was really cool to see the campground light up.

The camera, I was learning, was an incredibly versatile tool. It could capture light in a way that the human eye couldn't. I was impressed by what I had done without a tripod--I'd just balanced the camera on the rock, angled it, and hoped I could hold the camera steady with my hand. I now felt ready to capture the sunrise, and was doubly ready for bed. I put my camera away.

And then I panicked. I realized that I hadn't thought about how I would get down the pile of rocks. Generally, climbing down rocks in this situation is harder. Given how challenging the ascent had been, I wasn't sure how I'd manage getting down. I began by telling myself a lie: it would actually be easy to get back down. I tried. As expected, I soon reached a point where I felt like my feet were dangling, but I was still too far away from the boulder below me. I twisted my head and saw that the distance to the rock below was actually not that great. But--and this was an important but--because the rock below was almost the same width as the rock I was on, I had absolutely no wiggle room. That is, if I dropped down and rolled even a few feet, I'd go flying off the side.

This was a pretty scary moment for me, and definitely one that I hadn't intended to be in. In fact, this was the first time during this trip where I felt like I'd made a true mistake. I was frozen on the side of the rock. Thankfully,  while clung frozen, I was in a very secure position on the rock. But my mind was far from secure. It whirred, and calculated options: (A) try to reach one more foothold below, (B) drop down but risk tumbling off the ledge, and (C) scramble back up to the top and call to other campers for help.

I couldn't decide. I spent a minute or two, still frozen to the side of the rock, debating my options. Pretty soon, though, my palms were getting sweaty (and I obviously didn't have a chalk bag!)--I needed to act soon or I'd slip off anyways. Instead of hastily making a decision, I decided I'd go back up to the top and regain composure.

I'm glad I returned to the top. After taking 5 minutes to catch my breath and dry my palm sweat, I'd come up with a new option: (D) find another way down. I wasn't thrilled with this option, because on the first ascent, I'd seen no way up but the one I'd taken. But I figured it was at least worth a shot. It was certainly possible that there were some routes that were easy to do on a descent but hard to do on an ascent, and vice versa.

Turns out (D) was the right choice. I found a side of the rock with a shallow decline. I butt-scooted to the edge and saw a fairly wide mini-boulder below. I could climb down partially and drop down onto that boulder without the risk of falling off. And that's exactly what I did. Once I was on that mini-boulder, I easily descended back to my campsite.

I still couldn't believe what had just happened. I'd actually been contemplating yelling out to my campground neighbors, who I'd spoken to earlier, for help. I don't even know what help they could've provided, but that's kind of how desperate I was at the time. But I'm glad I took some time to make a calm, calculated decision, because that's what led me to climb back up to the top and brainstorm new possibilities. Sure, I could've tried option (B) while clinging to the rocks. In fact, I have a feeling that I could've dropped down and maintained my balance enough so that I wouldn't roll or fall over. But I thought about the outcome if I couldn't stay in one spot. And that was enough to make me reject that option.

This was a heart-pumping way to end the day. And what a day it was! As my adrenaline faded away, I became very sleepy. I crawled into my tent, closed my eyes, and sighed a deep sigh. And then I fell asleep.

Day 23: Redwood National Park, CA + Mendocino, CA by Wookie Kim

My first stop today, after leaving Ed and Elsie's place just north of Crescent City, was Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (the previous night, I'd run in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, a different state park unit co-managed by the NPS). Prairie Creek was 90 minutes further south along the coast. I was running in another redwood forest because I wanted to see how they differed, if at all, in different locations. I also wanted to give running in the forests in daylight a shot.

But I had plenty to marvel at even before I got to Prairie Creek. From Crescent City, I took US 101, which in this part of the state is called the Redwood Highway. Very quickly, it took me out to the coast and to my first view of the Pacific Ocean on this trip. I immediately decided to stop.

As I continued driving, I made additional stops to take in the views of the coast. I also got to sea level and beneath the fog/clouds.

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After about 90 minutes of driving, I'd made it to Prairie Creek. I spoke to a park ranger about possible easy trails. I'd been feeling a little tired from my double-run day yesterday (summitting Mount Scott in Crater Lake and running the Boy Scout Tree Trail in Jedediah Smith), and wanted something relatively easy. The ranger suggested the eponymous Prairie Creek Trail, with the Western Ridge Trail as a higher-altitude add-on. I wasn't about to disagree.

Running in redwood forests is a soothing experience. You just feel very secure amidst these tall, wise, and powerful trees. Prairie Creek was unique because it had some of the tallest redwoods around. Redwoods are all up and down the coast, but the ones in this grove were particularly massive. This is the first extra large redwood I saw.

I made easy progress through the forest. The trail was soft and wide--perfect for an easy recovery day. I loved running between the big trees.

Just to show a sense of the scale, here I am standing in front of one of the massive trees I came across. My arm span doesn't even get close to the width of the tree.

The forest was surprisingly cool on a surprisingly hot day. But it was incredibly humid inside. I began sweating much sooner than I'd expected. As I was running, I kept looking up and cramping my neck a bit. There was just so much to see, and most of it was above eye-level. Heck, the exposed root system of a fallen tree was nearly double my height!

I particularly enjoyed seeing areas of the forest where sunlight shone in to create contrasts of light and dark.

I also continued playing while running between the trees. Here, I'm jumping off a little ledge between two trees.

I made it to the first intersection and proceeded up Zig Zag 1 to the West Ridge. It was a relatively steep ascent off of the forest floor. And I could finally now see the redwoods more at "eye level".

Running the ridgeline was a treat. I was a couple hundred feet above the creek, and it really felt cool to run high up and see redwoods in all directions. Again, the forest was just so impressive to see.

I made it off the trail at 2 p.m. I was starving. Back at the visitor center, I asked a ranger if there was food nearby. She mentioned that the first town I'd come across on the way south had a roadside burger shack that was delicious. I stopped for lunch at the Snack Shack, sat by the roadside, and ate a burger, just like she'd suggested.

I was still 4+ hours away from where I wanted to camp that night. I was basically still half a day behind, and hadn't made up the time. It didn't help that I drove slowly along the coast, stopping every now and then to take in the coast line.

As I continued driving south towards Fort Bragg and Mendocino, the sun finally set. It looked a bit like an atomic bomb blowing up on the horizon.

Given that it was a Saturday night on a weekend with nice weather, I should've planned ahead with lodging. I didn't. I ended up reaching the state park (Van Damme State Park) in which I'd planned to camp only to find out that all the sites had been taken. I frantically scrambled around the area, looking not only for other state park campsites, but also simply any inn, motel, or hotel that had availability. There were no rooms. Finally, at the entrance to one state park, a ranger gave me a sheet with a list of all the private campgrounds in the area. It was already dark, and I still didn't know where I was sleeping (was I about to sleep in my car for the first time?), so I dialed up each place with gusto. I eventually found an RV park that had tent sites available. I was the only tent in the entire campground. Let's just say I felt a bit out of place as a result.

I set up my tent, and then decided I'd head into Fort Bragg for dinner. I'd passed North Coast Brewing on the way down, and figured beers would cool me off after another great day on the trails. It was a delicious meal, and a delicious flight of beers. I returned to my tent, and nodded off almost immediately. 

It was another great day on the California coast.

Day 22: Redwood National Park, CA by Wookie Kim

The park police was waiting for me when I finished my run in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (a park that is co-managed by the NPS). I'd squeezed this run into my already very long day, and I guess the officer wasn't happy about it. It was past 8 p.m., and it was pitch black deep in the redwood forest.

I'd spent the first half of the day making the rounds in Crater Lake. It had taken far longer than I'd expected to make it to California.

I didn't arrive at my Airbnb (this is my 3rd time using it this trip) until almost 6 p.m. Although the day was basically over, I wasn't about to let it end without a run in the woods. Redwood National Park is scattered and huge. But I wanted to see a little bit of each unit, so it made sense to run in one of the units tonight. Ed, my host, had mentioned that the Boy Scout Tree Trail was nearby. My national parks guidebook had also mentioned this trail as a must-do. I set out to run it.

I arrived at the trailhead right as two groups were getting off the trail. One group had turned around early because the sun was beginning to set, and they were worried it was getting dark. The other group had just finished. I asked them what the trail conditions were like. They said it was fine, but that the trail felt very long, and that it would get dark soon. I nodded. I realized that there were only two cars at the trailhead. They were the last of the day's hikers. I would be the only person on the trail.

I feared that I might be starting too late, that the forest would become dark while I was still running in it. This was a place with absolutely no cell service--deep in an old-growth forest. If I got lost in the dark, it would be a long, cold night of wandering.

I decided to chance it. I figured I could cover the 5.6-mile trail in about an hour so that I'd be back at my car at roughly 8 p.m. Knowing that sunset was around 7:30, I assumed that I'd have ample light until the last couple miles. I wasted no time. I was off chasing Fern Falls, the end of the trail.

I moved quickly, with fast leg turnover on the cushy dirt trail. I was determined to minimize the amount of time I spent running in the dark. It was a race against time. This also meant my photos were blurry.

I tried to make the most of my brief forest foray by looking around as I scrambled across the forest floor. These trees were incredibly beautiful--and huge!

I made it to Fern Falls in just under 30 minutes. I'd moved at a solid pace, given the undulating hills, and the root-laden trail I'd followed. I saw a massive fallen redwood that seemed like a continuation of the trail. I decided to see where it led. While tiptoeing across it, I looked down to the side and realized that, if I fell, I'd be stuck in a little ravine. The tree was so big that it was not resting directly on the forest floor. It was at this moment that I decided to turn around.

I booked it back to the car. But not before it got dark. It was already past official sunset, and I could sense it. There were portions of the trail where the trees were less dense. Between strides, I could look up and see the dark blue sky--it was not yet completely dark. But, pretty soon, I was in a part of the forest that was so dense that I looked up and saw nothing but black. I'd underestimated the thickness of the forest cover, and how that would prevent the already dwindling ambient light from hitting the forest floor.

Thankfully, I had my headlamp on me for the very purpose of providing lighting when the natural light went out. I used it to scan 10-15 yards ahead for obstacles, mainly roots, but sometimes also stumps. It continued to get darker. And the return leg seemed without end. As things became ever so slightly less well-lit, I started to make ever so slightly more errors. I began stubbing my toes on roots, and occasionally caught myself from twisting my ankle. I had quite the adrenaline rush come over me as I zigzagged back to the trailhead.

For the last mile, I ran in almost complete darkness. My headlamp lit the forest floor before me. It was so dark that I decided to also hold my iPhone and use the flashlight function to light the trail right in front of me. Despite the darkness, I moved at an even brisker pace. I was determined to get out.

I finally made it out. It had taken just over 27 minutes. Waiting by my car, however, was a park police officer. He had hiis heavy maglite out, and was walking around my car. When I arrived back at the trailhead, sweating buckets, and breathing somewhat hard, he asked me what I'd been doing. I told him I'd been running on the Boy Scout Tree Trail. He told me that people couldn't be on the trails after dark. I told him I was sorry, and that I was done for the evening. He said I was lucky--he was just about to give me a ticket when I'd arrived back at the trailhead. And then he left.

I changed out of my sopping wet running clothes, and took a moment to listen to the forest. It was extremely quiet, and I had the entire forest to myself. I hopped back into my car and drove slowly back to the highway.

Despite the literal and figurative stumbling blocks, tonight's was a good run. I'd tested my limits by running in near darkness. And I had no regrets.