Into The Wild
Get in touch with your inner mountain man in the great outdoors
So, you're itching to get outside and away from civilization. With fall quickly approaching and school starting, time is getting short for 2014.
For the following package of stories, News & Review writers from Chico, Sacramento and Reno explored some not-so-distant reaches of California. Included are the Richardson Grove State Park, Mono Hot Springs and Desolation Wilderness.
Don’t be intimidated by these destinations. We provide “pro tips” direct from nonprofessional outdoor enthusiasts. So, get out there and start exploring the wildernesses in your backyard.Don't forget the spatula
We wanted to feel insignificant. And few things dwarf us mere humans like the redwoods.
The towering trees—as tall as a 35-story building—exist all over California. But Humboldt County is known for holding the grandest and oldest. We reserved campgrounds at Richardson Grove State Park, the southernmost option still technically within the county.
Disclaimer: I’m not much of a camper. My parents weren’t very outdoorsy. My friends in college weren’t, either.
My proud Eagle Scout of a camping partner chose the campsite, but I don’t think either of us expected such luxury. Running water, sure. But such impeccably clean bathrooms? With intense diagrams explaining how to flush the not-complicated toilet? And recycling? Showers?
Sure enough, the other campers seemed keen on the luxury. There were enormous, multiroom tents and elaborate stoves everywhere. And children. I overheard one adorable little boy tell his mom, “I think that tree is old.”
We thought we were getting crazy by bringing a large cooler with beer and cheese and stuff. Alas, we forgot a spatula. Our burgers fell into the fire, and our calzones escaped their foil encasings. Luckily, the Eagle Scout was prepared with a backup supply of salami. Four meals later, I have zero interest in eating salami for the foreseeable future.
The mosquitoes devoured me each night. We saw a rattlesnake. As we tried to fall asleep at 9:30 p.m.—don’t judge—we could hear what must have been a rave at a neighboring campsite. I felt old, lame. Another neighbor gave us a half-bottle of port that read “Dumpster Diver 2013.” It was sweet, syrupy and delicious.
Wine aside, hiking through those glorious, 1,000-year-old Sequoia sempervirens easily saved the weekend from failure. The park’s visitor center sits in the middle of a cathedral-like grove of redwoods. Their stark uniformity gave them an air of nobility, with the late afternoon light creating lovely refractions in between.
A 4-mile hike brought us through two more impressive groves and up an ear-popping 1,000 feet. I sweated disgusting amounts, but I don’t exactly hit the gym. I think most physically fit people would call it “moderate.”
What was most astounding about that hike, and subsequent hikes, was the complete silence and emptiness. We came across one other couple on the trails over the course of the entire weekend.
Later, we realized that the hundreds of campers were at the swimming hole on the Eel River. In this drought, it was more like a dipping hole, but still entirely pleasant in the heat. Though without children—or floaties—we quickly felt out of place.
By day three, we were ready for a change of scenery. Since we were already so far north, an extra hour to loop around the coast felt more than worthwhile. Highway 1 wound through forests, rugged cliffs and 200-person towns. Cars frequently stopped to admire the impossibly blue ocean and mysterious North Coast fog.
We ended our detour in Fort Bragg, at the Glass Beach. Legend has it that residents would dump bags of household garbage onto the beach in the early 20th century. After decades of waves crashing onto shore, the trash has broken down into sea glass. Lots of people come and collect the prettiest, brightly colored pieces of glass, to the point that white and brown dominate the current landscape. Still, that mandatory long walk on the beach feels way more epic when said beach is made of glass.
Where: Northern California in Humboldt County, just south of Garberville, about a six-hour drive from Reno.
What’s the cost: Reservations recommended, $35 a day.
Restrooms, or dig a hole: Showers and toilets!
Pro tips: Of the 170 campsites, Oak Flat is the farthest from the highway and Madrone sits in the middle of a redwood grove. Trails and swimming holes abound. And while it's a family-friendly park, it is also bear and rattlesnake country, so take proper precautions.
Added bonus: Nearby coastal escapes on Highway 1. Find out more at www.parks.ca.gov.Six men and a bathtub
There are a lot of great reasons to go camping, but one of the best is male bondage. Not bondage in the sexy sense, but bondage in the sense of a bunch of dudes getting together in the wilderness, drinking too much, stripping down, piling into a dirty wet hole in the ground and talking about their feelings.
I went camping recently with a group of friends who I don’t get to see that often. We eventually settled on renting a cabin at Mono Hot Springs, deep in the Sierra Nevada, almost five hours southeast of Sacramento.
I got a late start, so it was after dark by the time I was driving up California State Route 168. It was kind of an intense drive, so I was relieved when I finally reached the hot-springs area, tucked in a little valley, and found my friends—Ali, Alec, Dave, Mike and Ross—who immediately handed me a much-needed beer.
We hung out around the fire for a bit, imbibing, before trekking out on foot to find some of the natural hot springs. We crossed over a little river and followed a path over rough and wet terrain. After a bit of hunting, we found a pool large enough to accommodate the six of us.
Just before stripping down and climbing in, Mike, a gracious cat if ever there was one, stumbled and fell fully clothed into a nearby stream of very muddy water. He fell in headfirst with the frightened, panicked yelp of a cow about to stampede.
The pool was more like a comfortable bathtub than the sulfurous scald some hot-spring enthusiasts might crave. But it was large enough for all us to stand comfortably with the water up to our necks as we stared up at the stars, undiminished by light pollution.
When it was time to go, Mike ran out and grabbed what he assumed were his muddy clothes, and then he started running back to our cabin, buck naked, carrying a pile of random clothes, including, as it turned out, my pants. So I walked back to the cabin like a proper shirtcocker, balls gently caressed by the summer breeze.
The next morning, I checked out the place a little more, and it’s an actual resort. There were several cabins like ours, as well as tent camping, a small general store and restaurant, and a spa building. There were a lot of people around, including families with younger kids. I was surprised to find so many signs of civilization considering how remote and treacherous the road in had seemed.
The surrounding area was impressive. Between the John Muir and Ansel Adams wilderness areas, it’s the kind of scenic High Sierra beauty that stirs the frontier spirit within even the most hardened urbanite. We checked out more of the dozen or so hot springs in the area. None of them were mind-blowing in temperature or water quality, but they were all decent.
That night, we sat around the campfire. At one point, in the middle of discussion, I noticed somebody at a nearby cabin flashing their flashlight in our general direction, a friendly shut-the-fuck-up gesture. It reminded me that although it felt like we were out in the wild, bonding with our cavemen ancestors and staring down the fire, we were actually surrounded by people, most of whom were trying to sleep.
So, yeah, not necessarily the best place for drunken male bonding. We had a great time, but we might have traumatized some innocent bystanders by walking around with no pants.
Where: Mono Hot Springs is a little over seven hours southeast of Reno, just south of Yosemite.
What’s the cost: Depending on the campsite, $19-$39 a night.
Restrooms, or dig a hole: No drinking water, vault toilets. Campsites have picnic tables, grills and bear lockers.
Is this what a lunar landing feels like? Only wearing a 40-pound camping pack with a pint of whiskey in it instead of an astronaut suit?
I sometimes ask that when I arrive at one of Desolation Wilderness’ many alpine lakes. Such is the case with Lake Aloha, just southwest of South Lake Tahoe—there aren’t any trees near the water, just massive, monochromatic granite expanses, which give off a serious moon vibe.
Aloha is one of Desolation’s bigger lakes, and it’s a perfect entry-level camp spot for a debut foray into the 60,000-plus-acre region, which is located at the base of the Sierra Nevada. From the lake, you can hike for days, hopping through the wild and diving off jumping rocks.
Part of the fun of visiting Desolation each summer is figuring out which water spot is your favorite. Is it the sleek rock jumping at Fontanilis? Or venturing off-trail to the secluded Lower Velma, what with its Lord of the Rings cliff drops?
Unfortunately, this is the outdoors, so there are rules. Desolation is not car camping. You will need to dig a hole to shit. Then, you will wipe your ass with BYO toilet paper and haul it out in a Ziploc bag. Bear canisters and water-purifying pumps are more important than your iPod. And forget about that campfire: It’s a $300-plus fine.
But let’s focus on the positive. Every summer, my crew of friends enters Desolation for a handful of nights. Last year, three of us started near the more touristy Emerald Bay entrance, via the Maggie’s Peak trail. The switchbacks out the gate are enough to send you back to your car’s A/C, but the route is generally less strenuous than the bay’s other entrance at Eagle Lake. If you don’t want to have knee surgery at 50, this is a good thing.
Echo Lake is less busy and, if you’re a baby, you can take a boat cab to cut off 2 miles of the jaunt. Wright’s Lake is a shorter day-trip. And, if you really want to crisscross the entire Desolation expanse, consider entering through north Loon Lake—which is not part of the wilderness area—then head toward Spider Lake to enter the valley. Bonus points for anyone who knocks out that multiday trip; I hope to do it one day.
My favorite memories of Desolation are the alpine lakes. That snowmelt water, those pop-up granite islands—swim out to one, take a nap, get lost in the silence.
Isolation has its place, but I do recommend Desolation in a group, especially for your first time. On a recent visit, we hiked the easy trail along Echo toward Aloha. After a few hours of midday sun face-melt, the trail gives way to cooler forest cover before descending onto Aloha. Jumping into this lake after a killer hike is like diving into one of those freezers at Costco.
But don’t stay at Aloha too long. Keep on the trail for another 45 minutes—it has to be like trekking on the moon!—then tiptoe along the cliffs near Heather Lake and chill in the shade surrounding Susie Lake. If you’re bold, or unemployed or whatever, keep climbing to Gilmore Lake, and Dicks. Then keep going. And forever.
Where: Desolation Wilderness is probably easiest to access from the Aloha Lakes trailhead, about an hour and a half from Reno.
What’s the cost: Permits required and prices vary. Visit http://tinyurl.com/kbdft4e for more information.
Restrooms, or dig a hole: Bring a shovel and bury all human and canine waste at least 6 inches underground.
Pro tips: This is not car camping. Bring all the essentials—a first-aid kit, water-pump, etc.—and go with a veteran camper.