Exploring the Northern California Redwood Forests

The wilds of California stir, but they also soothe.

There is something infinitely calming and, well, infinitely infinite about California's coastal redwoods. They can also make your hair stand on end.

Providing inspiration, pure awe (how else to explain why small children so often hug the trees?) and, in certain unseemly instances, unabashed scaredy-cat fear, California's coastal redwood forests are magnificent theater: an ecosystem with ten times the biomass of the Amazonian rainforest, elk-peppered meadows and ancient sentinels that stand as tall at football fields (including both end zones). The coastal redwoods are no ordinary tree. They are neck-cricking skyscrapers whose longevity (the oldest redwoods live some 2,000 years), height (current tallest redwood, 379 feet) and mass (500 tons, easy) showcase man's need to tally everything, and nature's oblivious scale. Their ancestors shaded the dinosaurs. This alone is enough to set the imagination running.

Beginning roughly in Big Sur, 40-plus redwood preserves and parks string their way up Highway 101 (also known, not uncoincidentally, as the Redwood Highway). California's redwood offerings thicken as one heads past San Francisco, ending in a biomass to end all biomasses just south of the Oregon border.

Already, you can feel their magnetic pull.

Who should resist? Precisely why I drove north from my Southern California home, passing through San Francisco and on up into a world which is, well, wildly different from much of California. As you drive north, a strange and wonderful thing happens. The ware-house size Wal-Marts and the factory outlets dissolve. Along the roadside rusted mailboxes and small towns tick past, the towns' volunteer fire stations hung with banners alerting residents to Rotary Club breakfasts and fundraising rummage sales. The sky opens up, sometimes fog-shrouded, but often wide and blue.

It feels really good.

There are charming towns up here along the North Coast, and when you come you should visit them -- Arcata, where you can listen to live music at Jambalaya and the Arcata Theatre Lounge, and Eureka, where you can stroll the old town boardwalk and order steamed clams at the Lost Coast Brewery & Café -- but if you love the wilds as I do, you will quickly move on, drawn by the redwoods' black hole pull.


Exploration works best when you trudge off in directions unplanned. I planned on a week of exploration. Outside of that, I made no other plans, which is how I found myself alone in a small parking lot in a drumming rain at the edge of the Van Duzen River. Seventeen miles east of Highway 101, Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park is often less crowded than its Park cousins immediately adjacent to Highway 101. On this day, Grizzly Creek was empty. Crossing the Van Duzen River, I wandered through the redwood groves. Several hundred feet above my head the rain was coming down hard, but on the floor of the forest it was nearly dry, the distant drum on the treetop canopy arriving as the comforting sound of a crackling fire. If you're a "Star Wars" fan, you already know portions of "Return of the Jedi" were filmed here. If you are a fan of solitude and silence, you are glad George Lucas has left.

Though it doesn't seem possible, the further north I drove, the more beauty I encountered. Granted, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this beholder has seen few places lovelier than the triumvirate (running south to north) of Prairie Creek, Del Norte Coast and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Parks.

Joshua Tree's Barker Dam Graffiti Gets Cleaned Up

Barker Dam -- located in the central part of Joshua Tree National Park -- was originally constructed in 1902. The dam was essential to ranchers and homesteaders settling the area. Seeing as the desert is without natural springs, the dam's water levels were a matter of life and death for these people. Barker Dam's historic significance landed it on the National Register of Historic Places since.

The modest 1.5-mile loop to the dam made it one of the more popular hiking destinations in Joshua Tree. However, in February of 2013, the trail was closed to visitors. Why? Graffiti artists spoiled the fun.

Lowering water levels from California's drought exposed parts of the dam walls, and graffiti soon covered nearly 50% of the walls. It was not only tough on the eyes, but also caused physical damage to the concrete holding the dam together. Luckily, some conservationists perfected a method to remove the graffiti and restore the dam to its former glory. I'll let them go into more detail:

[University of New Mexico] conservators employed a method known as "in-painting" to blend the scratched areas into the surrounding naturally weathered surface. After testing a variety of different methods ranging from dry and wet brushing, to low-pressure power-washing, and various types of paints, the conservators settled on silicate based paints for their durability and the ability to re-treat these areas in the future without having to remove the current treatment. "In-painting" is a time consuming and labor intensive process that involves adding pigments to the scratched areas with a method similar to the painting style of pointillism. Instead of merely painting over the graffiti entirely, the paint is applied in a way that matches the surrounding colors, textures, and patterns.

Visitors can once again visit the dam. And if you make the hike and notice someone scrawling their name on the dam, you have my permission to give them what-for.

Manzanar National Historic Site Opens New Exhibits

While most state and federal lands are recognized in a celebratory way -- either for historical or natural significance -- Manzanar National Historic Site exists to remind us of a time when our country did the wrong thing.

Located about six miles south of Independence, California, Manzanar was the site of one of ten camps throughout the U.S. where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Manzanar interned 10,000 Japanese Americans who were forced from their homes and into crowded barracks from 1942 until the war's end in 1945. Over 90% of those interned at Manzanar came from Los Angeles.

Starting today, the site has new permanent exhibits in two of the reconstructed barracks. They will "feature extensive photos, documents, and quotes illustrating the challenges and changes people faced at Manzanar." In addition, there are six audio stations and one video station with 42 oral history clips. Some more information:

Exhibits in barracks 1 focus on the early days of Manzanar, when thousands of people arrived to an unfinished camp. Barracks 1 also includes a Block Manager's office, featuring the papers of Block Manager Chokichi Nakano. Barracks 8 features an "improved" apartment with linoleum and wall board. A second room explores the Loyalty Questionnaire and its profound long-lasting impacts.

Admission is free. For more information, visit their website.

Study Recommends Protection of Rim of the Valley

While it may seem like L.A. is a concrete jungle, there's a lot of land in the greater metropolitan area that's undeveloped. According to a recent study of the 650,000-acre area known as the Rim of the Valley Corridor -- a stretch of mountainous land that encompasses the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, 180,000 acres of National Forest property, and a whole lot of buildings -- nearly 84% of the region remains undeveloped. And there are quite a few reasons that land needs to be protected:

The [...] area encompasses a mosaic of natural communities that span coastal and montane ecosystems and support high levels of biodiversity. More than 10,000 years of human habitation are represented in the cultural resources found with the study area.

The quote comes courtesy of a National Park System study assessing who and what would best serve the area. After concluding that creating a new National Park wouldn't be the best option, the group considered four possibilities:

- Alternative A: Essentially keeping things status quo;
- Alternative B: Developing a "cooperative conservation partnership" with landowners and private groups;
- Alternative D: Adding 313,000 acres to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

But it was ultimately Alternative C that the group decided to recommend, which includes handing over 173,000 acres to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

This is the beginning of the end of a long process of figuring out how to protect the land, which started with a Congressional mandate way back in 2008. There are another five public meetings scheduled (as well as one virtual online meeting) over the next two months that will ideally bring this issue to a close. Head over to the website to get more information about it.

National Park Fees to Be Raised This Year

After a six-year moratorium, a few National Parks are moderately raising their entrance fees this year. So far, eight park have raised the entrance fee -- in California, Yosemite's the only park to have an increase -- but others are expected to increase their prices throughout the year. (The 200-plus parks and properties that are free to enter will continue to be so.)

Generally, we're looking at about a 25% bump, with Yosemite's annual pass raised from $40 to $60 a pop. But what happens to the rest of the potential price hikes will depend on each park:

Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa, whose Northern California district includes Lassen Volcanic National Park, said the cost of "just driving through the park" is possibly jumping from $10 to $25 per vehicle, while hikers and bikers would see fees go up from $5 to $12 a person, and motorcyclists could see an increase from $5 to $20.

All that said: The price for an America the Beautiful annual pass will remain the same at $80 a year as it has in the past. That cost includes one car-load of people, so, buying one of those passes this year will be an even better deal than before. Senior citizens will still get to take advantage of that sweet, sweet $10 lifetime pass.

Inyo National Forest Opening Early

So, the ongoing historic drought in California is bad for all of us who need food and water to survive. That's true. No sugarcoating that. But if we're trying to make some lemonade out of lemons, there are a few positives to come out of this. First, Yosemite re-opened one of their roads early. Then, Big Bear Lake announced the opening of their public launch ramps ahead of schedule. And now, there's word that Inyo National Forest in the Eastern Sierra is opening up their recreation and fishing facilities early this year.

Inyo is a sprawling, nearly 3,000-mile forest, encompassing nine different wilderness areas. It includes Mount Whitney (the highest point in the contiguous U.S.), Boundary Peak (the highest point in Nevada), and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest (which includes some of the world's oldest living organisms). It also has plenty of fishing and campgrounds. Here's the vital information about the early openings for you:

For Fishing Opener -- Most lakes below 9000 feet are currently free of ice. Weather dependent, roads in the Mammoth Lakes Basin will be open prior to the 2015 Fishing Opener, with a tentative opening date of Saturday, April 18th. Convict Lake, Sherwin Creek, Mammoth RV Park, Oh Ridge, June Lake, Gull Lake, Silver Lake, Big Springs, and Lower Lee Vining campgrounds will be open by April 24th.

Also of note, the road into Reds Meadow Valley is targeted to open on Saturday, May 16th, with a large number of campgrounds opening throughout the month of May. All target dates are schedule to change due to weather conditions. Head on over to the official website for more information.

Artist 'Mr. Andre' Pays Fine For Vandalizing Joshua Tree National Park

The vandalized rockThe Swedish-Portuguese street artist Andre Saraiva, known professionally as "Mr. Andre," has paid a fine to the U.S. District Court for vandalizing a boulder in Joshua Tree National Park. On February 27th, 2015, park officials were notified by members of the public that Saraiva had posted Instagram photos of his work on one and possibly a second rock formation thought to be in the park. After investigation, only one location proved to be within park borders. He was subsequently fined an undisclosed amount which was paid on April 1st after he had returned to his home in France. Saraiva was cooperative with park rangers.

Park officials are conducting on-going investigations into other incidents of defacing and vandalism of park resources. So far three local juveniles were charged and convicted of vandalism at Barker Dam and the investigation is targeting others of interest. Another person was recently convicted for paint vandalism at Indian Cove Campground.

JTNP Chief Ranger Jeff Ohlfs said, "We will use any and all available resources to bring those who engage in this behavior to justice". Ohlfs calls on the public to keep up the "good work" reporting incidents that they see to the nearest park ranger or call park dispatch at (909) 383-5651.

H/t to Modern Hiker, who first broke the Mr. Andre story.

Road Trip Challenge: The National Park-to-Park Touring Route

Know those old cast metal bells with the words "El Camino Real" that line the 101? While they are rumored to follow the original "Royal Road" the Spanish missionaries used to travel from mission to mission back in the late 1700s, it's really nothing more than a driving route from the 1910s meant to boost tourism.

This wasn't a rare idea. As this wonderful piece in The Coloradan points out, there was another driving route established in 1920 as a way to promote tourism to the western National Parks. It's motto was "See America First," and it went like this:

Beginning in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), reachable through Boulder and Lyons, the highway wound through the park to Fort Collins and went northwest to Yellowstone National Park, passing through Glacier National Park in Montana. Then it crossed to Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state, down the coast to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and on to Lassen Volcanic National Park, Yosemite National Park, General Grant National Park and Sequoia National Park in California.
Heading south then east, it went through Los Angeles to Grand Canyon National Park, with a side trip to Zion National Park, over to Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado and finally back to Denver.

The route took drivers to 12 different national parks, four of which are in California. It can also be round-tripped from Los Angeles. So, just for fun, I decided to map it. Here are the results:

Kind of looks like a heart, doesn't it?

In all, the trip would take you 5113.36 miles, need 93 hours and 50 minutes of driving time to complete, and cost a whole lot of entrance fees, unless you got yourself an annual pass right off the bat. All of which is to say, better get started soon.

A Desert Epiphany in Joshua Tree

The desert wreaks strangeness, epiphany, and apocalypse on many. Witness the tale of rocker Gram Parsons, who loved Joshua Tree's Cap Rock so much that, when he died of a drug overdose in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn in 1973, his friend Phil Kaufman stole the body from authorities and -- purportedly per Parsons' wishes -- attempted to cremate Parsons at Cap Rock. He didn't pull it off -- one can only imagine the difficulties -- but the story serves to adequately illustrate the desert's powerful draw.

Spend time in Joshua Tree and surrounding environs, where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meld, and you will come to understand what bewitched Parsons, and what continues to render present day seekers spellbound. The specifics are impossible to pinpoint -- they are specific to the bewitched -- but the underlying premise is simple. Here is a place to find yourself, and lose yourself.

As Jima Reed, straddling his mountain bike in the moonlight, explains, "There are two reasons people come out here. To find themselves, and to recreate and have a good time."

We are riding in the desert at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, an area known to locals (and lucky mountain bike riders) as "Sector 6." We are lucky to be here because Jima, who owns Joshua Tree Bicycle Shop, knows Joshua Tree intimately. His Joshua family tree goes back four generations.

Jima pauses. The rest of us are silent. It is well past sunset. The world has already purpled and lost its sharp edges. The moon, swollen and full, is rising. The darkening desert is settling into itself, the surrounding rocks, pronging up like giant thumbs, reflect the moon's first silver brushstrokes.

The wind whispers something through the rocks and Jima grins.

"Yea," he says. "Soul-searching recreationalists," and with that he wheels off down the lovely, looping singletrack with his friends.

Watching them go, I make my decision.

An hour later we regroup, the lot of us sprawling across silver-strewn boulders and staring up at a universe of stars. There are times in your life when you know there is nowhere else you'd rather be.

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