Day 1: SLO-Fresno
We finally left SLO for Fresno at the crack of… 11:30 a.m.. The view was barren on the other side of the glass, some hopeful weeds pushed up through the asphalt; music blared from the eco friendly Prius’ stereo as we yelled over it. Dust swirled around the golden hills as we approached the agricultural center of California.
We arrived at Mooma’s (my grandmother) around 2:00, hoping to spend an hour getting lunch, a jump in the pool, and our permit from Clovis or Prather Station. The Clovis Office was closed on Sunday and Prather Station would be closed upon our arrival (great, good thing we left so early this morning). The beginnings of panic began to set in.
We quickly called Prather Station “Hey, so we made a mistake in our plans today and didn’t realize you’re Clovis office was closed today; would it maybe-possibly be able to have you leave a walk-in permit in the box outside?” We had read on their website that this was a practice during the winter months.
A resounding “Nope.” came from the other side of the wire. Damn. Annoyed by our setback we instead set about the remainder of our plans. Baking in Central Valley heat we drove to Trader Joe’s to grab lunch and snacks for the trail, to entertain ourselves we went to Barnes and Noble and as I browsed Michael compared and contrasted a few books he had been recommended. One last stop at REI. Well, maybe not; everything seemed to be closed today. We drove back a little downhearted but determined.
The living room was scattered with gear: a stove, gas canister, bear canister, clothing, trail mix, dehydrated food, tent, pads, water filtration units, medkits, water bottles (you get the idea); we packed everything up attempting to even the odds. In the end Michael’s bag was 32lbs and my own at 36 lbs.
Fresh from the pool we sat out on the patio in the night air gaining wisdom and listening to stories from the matriarch. June bugs knocked about under the fan as we chatted eventually we drifted off to sleep on the shag carpet dreaming of the days ahead, an alarm set for 6:30 a.m..
Day 2: Fresno-Tehipite Valley Ridge
Morning hit like a rock “Mmmph” I groaned, as it rolled over my body. Mooma, like a saint, made us French Toast that morning. One last check for gear later (we hadn’t grabbed TP, a trowel, or bug spray) and we were finally off for Prather.
Smog stirred as we whipped through the foothills, the hour long drive wasn’t so bad with good music. The Rangers at Prather were surprised of our mission to Tehipite.
“No one has been out there this year yet,” an overexcited khaki wearer warned, “but you may run into a friendly bear and some snow out there!”
“Great” I mumbled, and quickly changed the subject asking about the local climbing scene.
Undeterred we continued on with our bright green permit in hand. The time flew now as we passed through meadows, and through a grove of giant redwoods, and over reservoirs. Our car snacks (a tub of “Pub mix”) was reduced by half by the time we reached the Crown Valley Trailhead. We jumped out rubbing our sore butts.
“Finally!” Michael yelled into the forest with a screeching stretch. We tightened our laces and adjusted our packs for the long twenty two mile trek ahead. It was 11:00 a.m..
We were bouncing with energy and the romance of adventure. Miles fell like… a skier on the bunny slope (it seemed fast at least) and we stopped a few hours later to lunch at a waterfall cutting through a granite slab. The rounded slab jutted out over a small vale giving us a view of trees… lots of trees.
Michael pulled out a map to check our progress, “Alright, we started here” pointing at the road “and now we’re…” his face fell as we realized how not far along we really were, only three and a half miles!
Ten minutes later we found ourselves in Statum Meadow, a perfect example of an alpine meadow. We could see small huts with tin roofs shining in the sun and in the distance rounded mountains were dusted with their last snows.
I tried my best at a yodel, but it ended up as more of a squawk; Michael kindly said it was “Like a crow being strangled while eating too much.” Technically the valley was private property, owned by the ranchers who were crazy enough to bring their cattle over the Sierra. A look but don’t touch situation. Instead we climbed up a hidden ridge trail after some searching and we dove into thick forest.
The trail became patchy with snow as we struggled over one creek, two creeks, and then—there wasn’t a trail anymore. Somewhere within the trees and creeks our trail had wandered off without us.
For an hour we stomped up and down the creekside, “Did ya find anything over there?!” I yelled.
A resounding “Naaah” echoed back. Hoping to find some sign of a trail Michael whipped out his map and tried to find our misguided turn.
It basically turned into this “We could be here, (pointing at the map between two creeks) or we could be here. (pointing somewhere else) and the creek we’re on is seasonal and therefore not on the map.”; great, that was informative. Some griping, pulling of matted hair, and more profanity than the virgin ears of the trees could handle later we decided it was best to continue Northeast hoping to re-discover a trail.
Another thirty minutes passed and we spread out across the forest searching for vantage points, mountains, a clearing, anything. Then a long rut in the pine needled ground ahead I ran forward.
“YEEEEEEEEW!” I’d never been so stoked to see a dent in the dirt in my life, we had found the Spanish Lake tail. Well, we were pretty sure at least. If all went well it should connect to the Crown Valley trail if we headed North. Soon we found we weren’t so far off course and twenty minutes later we were back on course for Crown Valley.
The valley unfolded before us and my jaw dropped. Button sized purple and yellow flowers speckled the emerald grass, a half dozen huts rough timbered and weather beaten stood at the edge silently awaiting their tenants. Crown Rock, a not exactly crown shaped peak protruded from the Western ridge looking over the valley. Back on the ground we plopped ourselves on a bench near the brook. It looked comfortable enough and we sat there munching and grinning from our latest victory.
“I can’t believe we made it out of that shitshow.” Michael laughed.
“Seriously, I think I would have cried if we had been trailless for another minute.” Our hopes were high to reach Tehipite Valley before dark, we were almost ten miles in and it was barely three! But damn the sun whose plan overpowers all others.
We turned from Crown Valley and headed Southeast crossing Rodger’s Creek. Five or six more fed into Rodger’s, which eventually would fall into Tehipite as Silver Spray Falls. A panoramic view awaited us at one clear hilltop, Kettle Dome was to our Northeast and on the distant horizon, way waaaaay out there the 14,000 foot peaks scraped the skies. Not long after we entered Kings Canyon National Park and the forest became dense the light creeping away behind us. The creeks vanished and eventually so did our water, but we pressed on with parched throats knowing that the mighty King’s River was ahead.
A light caught my attention as we rounded a hill.
“Michael!” he had fallen a little behind, “I think I see the dome!” I sprinted ahead and the dusty floor dropped 3,500 ft towards the churning Kings River. Tehipite Dome, golden in the last light of day was standing proudly before us, every wrinkle and crevice thrown into relief. Awe is not enough of a word to describe the slightly delusional feeling the view had on me, maybe it was the dehydration; magnificent, spectacular, stunning, drop dead fucking gorgeous? It felt like seeing an old friend after years apart, but one who you were not too sure you wanted to see until you see them.
Our plan to descend into the valley changed, sure we had made it the five miles to the ridge but the one and a bit left were straight down the canyon wall, also, we were dead on our feet. Instead we slogged up to a high crag and found a spot to camp for the night. Exhausted and thirsty we snacked on dried meat, bagels, and cheese and spent the night wondering about the magnificence below our sore and blistered feet. Sixteen miles down, only oneish to go!
Day 3: Tehipite Ridge-Tehipite Valley/Silver Spray Waterfall
Dawn came all too soon. The tent was sweltering after a few minutes in the sun. Forcing down an apple each we packed camp and began the hellish descent to our haven. Our hearty breakfasts spurred us on towards the valley floor.
Our conversations consisted of “Wow, this place is amazing!” when we felt a rush of energy or “This trail is the devil incarnate”, but soon it was reduced to grunts and complaints of thirst.
“I’m so thirstaaay.” a sweaty face yelled from behind me. I couldn’t help but laugh, I’m sure I said the same thing a million times too.
The summer Sun scorched the trail as we slid, shuffled, and struggled down 78 switchbacks no wider than our two boots; the roots and brush lightly pushing us with leafy fingers toward impending doom. I gave up cautiously toeing over the scree about an hour in, and let gravity drag my body down the trail my legs swinging forward like noodles (later I greatly regretted this decision) and without noticing left Michael behind.
Mosquitoes and midges buzzed around my sweaty neck and face; I longed for a creek, a pool, water; I needed water…. A total of two hours and fifteen minutes had gone by since the top. The trail flattened and my knees sighed in relief. The air around me cooled, water must be close! My pack thudded down as I came across a trickle just deep enough to slurp down my first drink in 15 hours; there I waited for Michael.
His “YO!” bounced around the walls.
“Yooooo!” I called in return. A thicket of branches completely covered the last 200 yards of trail and I watched them rustle as Michael pushed through them.
“God damn, water!” and his pack dropped in a similar fashion.
Our entrance to the valley was guarded by Endoresque redwoods stretching limbs towards the light, ferns carpeted the swampy ground which rose into a wide sandy plain peppered with scrub brush, oak, pine, and gargantuan sequoia.
Our choice of campsites was infinite. Two fire pits, presumably from horse campers, were a hundred paces from the leafy and green river bed; naturally, we chose the closest. Soon we were content and full of food and water; camp was set and I was swinging in a hammock under a tree.
“I’m gonna go check out upstream a bit” grunting as he stood, “wanna come?”
I looked up from my hammock “I think my body needs this hammock right now” I looked at him incredulously “you seriously want to keep moving?” He wandered off as I dozed on and off through the heat occasionally shuffling down to refill my bottle from the King’s River, content to sit, sleep, and read East of Eden.
Michael’s hair was seen striding over a sandy crest; “Hey, there’s an awesome waterfall just over there” pointing upriver, “we should go check it out since we won’t be here for two full days like we planned, I heard there was a pool too!”
I got up begrudgingly, my hammock needed me but we were low on time. As we clambered over boulders I noticed how the blisters on Michael’s feet had grown since yesterday, and wondered whether we had pushed ourselves too hard.
The air became moist and boulders glistened.
“It’s pouring over!” I yelled, the torrent was thunderous. The swimming hole at its base had become a war zone – our early arrival in the year combined with an El Niño level snowmelt and the water would have knocked us out if we had tried to swim. We hopped out towards the middle of the river, deciding a better view was to be had, and crossed to a grassy patch. Waves of whitewater gushed over the stony tiers down fifty or more feet and occasionally a gust would kiss our hot faces with its refreshing mist. I could not have enough of it, ferns and lichen grew from the stony wall shimmering with droplets as trees of all sorts covered the riverbed, their polished roots gnarled and twisted.
Michael, unsatisfied with the spectacle promptly continued on to find a place to climb up the loose sand and rock leading to the edge. Despite his appeal to follow (i.e. “don’t be a weenie Robbie”) I stopped below, downclimbing in flip flops is not recommended. While waiting I jumped from boulder to boulder hoping to find a good place to sit in the sun, but a sharp rattle cut through the white noise of the water. I jumped back and stumbled on the uneven ground. In the shadows of a rock sat a rattlesnake invisible apart from the sound of its musical tail. It shouted, “Hey, human! This here is MINE!”, that message was quite clear. I sat down nervously not knowing where the hell it was and waited.
A cracking of branches came from above and soon Michael crawled out of a thick manzanita bush, grinning with pride.
I warned him as calmly as I could. “So… somewhere near me is or was a rattlesnake, just be warned.”
“Lovely, good thing there’s a place called ‘Rattlesnake Canyon’ nearby too.”
We tried to walk wide of its territory (however big that is) and made our way back to the first night in the Valley of Tehipite.
Darkness swept around the scoured grey walls, and by 9:00 o’clock we were in complete darkness. Our wonder spilled out excitedly while we cooked our dinner.
“Holy shit, did you see that waterfall?!” Michael raved, “I can’t believe it, definitely a five star (he had a book that rated waterfalls)… and there’s nobody here?!” He was right we hadn’t even run into people on the trail.
“Considering that hike in they’re a lot smarter than us.” I said with a laugh and turned my eyes upward. Saturn and Mars shone gloriously in the pin pricked sky as the Moon crept out of sight.
“I think I’ll sleep outside tonight.” I proclaimed to them.
As we washed from dinner Michael yelled out. “Duuuuuuude, check this out!” The long day pulled at my eyelids, and I traipsed over to see him looking down at his feet. A 3 foot rattlesnake slithered through the beam of his headlamp. Suddenly sleeping under the stars wasn’t such an idea.
Day 4: Tehipite Valley-Rodgers Creek
Veiled sunlight warmed my closed eyes, it was dawn and silent. I dressed, stretched, walked to where we stashed the bear canister, and gazed up at the dome waiting for water to boil. Low light washed up the valley whispering through the trees, air swirling with morning song. A lone deer tip-toed underneath an oak, her hooves gently crinkling the leaves, ear twitching once… twice…. Tehipite Dome shifted and groaned as her looming presence awakened. I like to think of her as a protector or mother to the valley. Steadfast and silent she gave warmth and a sense of calm to me, but she was never afraid to hand out her reproach when getting too comfortable (as we learned).
A low bubbling broke my trance; coffee and oatmeal were a must. I slowly rolled the day’s plans around my head considering the long trek back out to ‘civilization’.
Michael arose and joined me by the fire. “Hey man, I think we should get over to see Blue Canyon Waterfall today.”
I balked, walking further out of the way and then trek up the valley wall seemed ludicrous.
“Isn’t that five or so miles up the canyon?” My legs were killing me, “I don’t know if we can really afford that much time; we have to hike out today too remember.” Slowly but surely his insistence wore on my stance and I agreed noticing his excitement.
We crossed at the same spot as yesterday, and met up with the path where the normal crossing was. A roughly trod set of switchbacks and sort of cleared grass stuck out further down from the waterfall. I estimated we would take about an hour and a half to find the fall. While winding through the trees, I proceeded to unknowingly step over multiple (three) rattlers.
The only reason I know this is because of the “HOLY CRAP!” and then “God dammit Robbie!” were thrown in my direction. We ducked under boulders the size of school busses and marveled at gnarled oak groves beside the King’s River. An hour and a half passed, but no fall was in sight.
“I think we should turn back.” I said after one more corner resulted in no waterfall.
“Hell no! We’ve come too far to do that. Come on it’s just around this next corner!” But by this point I was no longer having it. I wanted to go back, my ass hurt and dammit I was going back. In the end we separated, a big no no in backpacking but what the hell we had gotten lost once already.
I made it to camp and poured some coffee, sitting in my hammock reading. An hour went by and Michael came over the sandy hill.
“It was worth it!” he exclaimed, with a slight amount of in-your-face-asshole. “Definitely up there with the other one too.”
“I’m sorry, man.” I could be a really stubborn ass sometimes. “I really should have gone on.” We packed up the remainder of our campsite in relative silence.
We said our goodbyes to the valley; I threw a kiss and the finger at Mother Tehipite, and we officially began our journey back.
Zipping mosquitoes slowly drained our precious life force one nanoliter at a time as we clambered out. Twice, Michael pointed out snakes I had stepped over, again unnoticed by me (whoops), and occasionally we stopped to clear a particularly awkward portion of the trail.
“I bet I can hit that burnt tree trunk with this branch.” Michael said. I looked at the hollowed out pine, and the gnarled stick in his hand.
“You’re so on.” I laughed. We spent a good twenty minutes throwing any stick we could find at the stupid tree (hey, we had to keep morale up somehow). I lost that bet.
After three hours and fifteen minutes we passed the ridge where we camped a night before. Michael slumped down on a rock. I stood at the edge panting, getting one last look at Tehipite Valley. The dome was tinted pink, the last dusk’s light crept up the far wall drawing a line on the forested slopes. Silently, I made a promise to return and explore more.
“Only whatever more miles to go!” I grinned, knowing we had no idea how far it was to the Kettle Dome vista.
The navy blue sky was splattered with fuchsia as we neared a meadow creased between two hills. Scrabbling bark broke the silence. Only one animal (that I knew of) could be making that sound—bear. I stopped in my tracks, listening. My experience with bears was few and far between; the last encounter had resulted in the devouring of the family favorite “Tom Cake” from a camping trip 15 years ago. I raised my voice remembering, “be loud, and big” from… somewhere, probably online. It went quiet. I could feel the muscles in my body tightening in expectation. My senses piqued breathing became a hurricane and my heart jackhammered in my chest. A rustle to the South, a breeze clipped the tree tops, Michael shifted his boot behind me. CRASH! and it had bumbled off; the world sprang back into action.
From then on out we did our best to keep conversation loud and continuous but you would be surprised how hard it is to carry on an already three day long conversation. So I did the next best thing and attempted to remember every song I had heard in my lifetime complete with drums and guitar solos. “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Colors of the Wind”, and “In the Air Tonight” rang through the ears of a polite crowd of pines. My songbook faded into the blackness after an hour or so the darkness was now stifling.
“Headlamp time” I turned to see Michael stretching to reach the top pouch on his bag.
“I’ll get it.” I wearily unzipped the pouch.
Soon our beacons of light scanned before us seeing nothing but shrubs, trees, and dust. A glimmer in the distance and some hazy-big-scary-ass-green eyes glared up the path.
My lungs forced out a “WHAAAOHWAOO!”(don’t ask), as my legs lept backwards. The eyes charged toward me and my mind went numb, I accepted my fate. My yell turned into a duet as Michael chimed in. We stood in the dark growling, yelling, and screeching for who knows how long. Grabbing the largest branch around we prowled forward, occasionally letting out a ridiculous roar (just in case).
It was 9:40 p.m. and there were no signs of where our camp was supposed to be. Being the geniuses we are we naturally decided to push on. Surely we would find the vista, it was just over the next hump that was all. On, and on, just around this creek; that tree, it’s just over there. Eventually, we realized our search was folly. The dark pushed in from all sides… all but two eye-shaped pin pricks on the ridge above. Again, we dug in our heels prepared for the worst; pointing our fierce weapons, our war cries tearing at our throats. Gone… again, thankfully?
We were starting to get desperate, tired, grumpy, and really sore. Naturally, I turned into an irrational optimist.
“Come on Michael, it’s just over this next hill!” I said cheerily, but that didn’t last for too long.
Soon our objective changed.
“Is this flat enough here? What about over there?” Michael quelled, pointing to a beautifully tent sized patch of grass next to a boulder.
“Good enough” I grunted. I don’t know what the world record for pitching a tent is, but we surely slaughtered it. Too tired to cook, we munched on the last of our trail mix and stowed the bear canister as far away as we dared walk.
Day 5: Rodgers Creek-Los Osos
A German proverb says “The early morning has gold in its mouth”. I say, bullshit it does… the early morning can go to hell after a night like that.
A cold dewdrop fell onto my eye, ripping me from a trepidacious slumber. Check: we’re alive, boots are outside, damn it’s cold, bear canister is undisturbed—excellent. Coffee. I hardly opened my eyes as water tinkled into the pot. Michael arose as the water began to boil grinning and hoarse from our shouting match last night.
“Well that was a great night’s sleep but I’ve never been more terrified to pee in my entire life.” He rasped, laughing silently. I grabbed the pot from the stove and then it went strangely quiet; shit, we were out of gas. Great, one more thing to check off that catastrophe list.
“Hope you don’t mind cold rehydrated food for lunch today.” As I hunched over my cup of jerk chicken, pad thai, and oatmeal.
A warm glow washed over us and trails of steam whispered about the tent. I surveyed the campsite, we were right off the trail and nearly 200 yards from what looked like a steep drop into a riverbed. Michael looked over the map and realized our walk last night had taken us about four miles too far.
“Hey, at least that’s four miles less today right?” Michael chirped as packs dropped back onto our weary shoulders. We moved out back towards Crown Valley (our next rest stop) and Home.
Familiar sights greeted us now that we could see properly – a fallen tree here, a creek crossing there until we reached the path we had so expertly meandered from. Woe to those who believe that a hard lesson is only learned once.
“Wanna try to find out where we got lost?” Michael quelled, as he kneeled down to refill his water.
“Yeah, actually I think that would be pretty cool to see.” I responded (What could possibly go wrong). We took the low road plodding along our lost trail. We strode through a wide meadow, we guessed it was Cow Meadow, which we had missed before. Back into the trees, we were sure this path must be good to follow. Then nothing but cow tracks and game trails stretched in every which way. We were lost—again (insert lots of profanity, frustration, and bickering here).
“Let’s check the map!” Michael whipped out his trusty paper and I pulled out my ‘find northometer’ i.e. compass. Over the crests and rises we hoped to find Statum Meadow to the Southwest if our course was true, and that was a pretty big IF.
I glanced down the hillside and saw green meadow… were we there already, or was it just the foliage?
“Hey, does that look like a meadow? Or am I tripping?” I said, stomping down in its direction my hopes rising, only to find a find a tiny clearing.
Michael followed “Hey, so uhh we should probably stick to that, you know, plan we made to go Northwest.”
“Yeah…” I looked around distractedly “right.” We moved on. Again, I saw a meadow below; deer stared
blankly from the grass, contemplating whatever deer contemplate. Not the meadow we were looking for; we walked on.
I thumped Michael’s chest “Alright call me crazy but does that look like a meadow?”, (maybe I’m starting to hallucinate) I saw greenery below and ran to greet it and (no surprises) was yet again let down by a meandering creek, yet again my fantastic leadership skills at work.
Wildflowers blue, yellow, and purple surrounded by lovely mosquitoes living by the hundreds. Why must a beautiful place be plagued by such vampiric creatures. We followed the creek down hoping it would lead to some meadow or lake, all water flows downhill after all (physics!). Soon the flat ground dropped off into yet another slightly larger but still small meadow. As I hopped from boulder to boulder down towards it, I looked to my right. The glare of a tin roof in the afternoon sun caught my eye it was a cow shed from Statum Meadow.
“YEEEEEEEEEW!” I screamed, my call echoing across the grass. “Dude! We’re at Statum Meadow!”. I plopped down on a large rock to enjoy a well earned portion of breakfast. My boots were off by the time Michael joined me and I handed him the bag of Pad Thai.
“We are backcountry geniuses.” I proclaimed sarcastically.
“Yeah,” he grunted down, “and idiots.”
We sat on the warm rock airing out our tired feet and tanning in the sun weary from the latest exploits. Truly we were almost back, and soon the meadow sucked on our boots as we squelched across. Our path was now clear for the remaining five miles, one last creek sighed away out of sight and sound. Only the last hill remained, the dust and ash puffed around our boots and I silently reflected on how far we had really come.
Well, it was really more of a ‘what the hell did we just do for four days’, but reflection sounds deeper. Our four days in the backcountry is a quick trip for somewhere that took so much work to get to, but it was an absolute adventure. Charging through the miles, thwacking across unmarked territory, and navigating the forests of California. All to discover a place that was so alone and untouched I still can hardly believe it exists. Tehipite Valley is a rare gem in a world of ever enclosing spaces and I am “glad” it took us twenty two miles of pain, mosquito bites, false trails, frustration, bears, sweat, and near vertical ascents/descents. If these hurdles didn’t exist the pristine creeks, glorious meadows, towering forests, cascading waterfalls, magnificent views would be overwhelmed and the magic of this place lost. There are no distractions when watching the golden walls slowly turning to grey, nothing to stall a climb up a canyon wall to view a waterfall, no sound to break the silence of night delicately balanced on a razor’s edge.
This trip definitely stressed the shit out of me, but I hope I learned to be a better person from my partner Michael. To try to explore the world with irrational abandon, let myself relax (especially on planning), taking it slow once and awhile, and learning to look up and say “wow, that is amazing”. I started writing this stupid thing in my old journal in June and finally have it finished in August (what the hell editing process). It started out as a basic log of what I saw and did, but I’ve really realized that writing this stuff down has really cemented the memories in my head. The fact that I met Michael through my best friend a year ago over dinner and then go on a gnarly trip like this is crazy! We started this as a conversation about waterfalls at a bouldering gym. To have a friend to experience this crazy trip with is so amazing. I cannot thank him enough for putting up with all my bullshit and probably incredulously strange personality, as well as reading over this and making sure I didn’t leave out anything important. For that; thanks Michael Drake I cannot believe you still want to be friends with me and go on more probably insane trips the like of this one I am sure. Until the next one.