Going Big

Hi, Sierra! An 11-year-old flatlander is introduced to California's rugged trails.

Apr 24, 2001
Outside Magazine

It didnt' start well. A mile from the trailhead, Jevin stopped. As in wouldn't move an inch. At age 11 he'd hiked plenty of times—only the year before we'd done a 40-mile loop on Michigan's North Manitou Island—but having grown up in the Midwest he had little experience with mountains or thin air. And they were kicking his butt.

Taking a tween into the backcountry has required my wife, Cindy, and I to seriously adjust our pre-kid get-there-or-else attitudes. Tweens don't pace themselves; they're either full-steam or no steam. They don't like to talk through emotional distress. Instead they clam up. They can be as goal-oriented as any adult, but sometimes the goal gets wonderfully lost in the moment.

"So is this it?" I asked my son.

"What? Is this what?"

"The end of the hike. We can head back to the campground and watch videos all week. Like the camping-trailer crowd." I paused.

"We don't have a VCR, and we don't have a camper," he said.

"What about car camping? We can just car camp."

He finally shouldered his pack with determination.

"We don't have a car. Grandma dropped us off," he said. "And I'm not a car camper."

Our route was a 46-mile loop in the Sierra Nevada from Cedar Grove at about 5,000 feet through Paradise Valley to Woods Creek (which we'd follow to the John Muir Trail) and up to Rae Lakes. Then we'd head over nearly 12,000-foot Glen Pass and back down Bubbs Creek to our starting point. That was the plan, at least, but we were overloaded, especially after stuffing two mandatory bearproof food canisters into our packs at the trailhead.

Our first night was supposed to be spent at Paradise Valley's northernmost camping area. We didn't make it. We barely made six miles when we'd hoped to hike ten. The 1,500 feet took their toll, and Jevin was way past my cheap pop-psychology tricks. The amazing thing was that after an early dinner and a little wood-gathering, he got a sudden energy burst and wanted to climb some of the nearby glacial boulders. High above our campsite we watched the sunlight crawl down the eastern side of the valley.

The next morning we made a pact. No more killing ourselves. Each day we'd hike until we were tired. That morning we hiked five miles and stopped for lunch, then decided to stay put for the night. Now 12 miles behind "schedule," I kept the shame of our pokey pace to myself. The kid was finally having fun.

That evening we were rudely introduced to the subject of a long-time controversy in the Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks: pack mules. Earlier a mule train had deposited what looked like a moving van's worth of mammoth tents and lawn chairs in the campsite next to ours. As we filled our Sierra Stove with pinecones and twigs to cook our dinner, the other group fired up both bonfire and radio and commenced partying.

We ditched the mule crowd early the next morning. Cindy and I took it easy and let Jevin lead. Whenever I could see he needed a kick in the pants, I offered to take over as "group leader." But he'd have none of that and kept moving.

John Muir described Kings Canyon as "a rival to Yosemite," and we could see why. We passed towering cliffs and waterfalls, and as we climbed higher, giant sequoias and lodgepole pines turned to western junipers and mountain hemlock. We looked for black bears, but all we saw was scat.

On the third night, still some ten miles off our itinerary, we took a vote. We could finish the loop, which meant pushing harder for the next two days, climbing the pass, and then doing two ten-mile days to catch our ride. Or we could simply hike to the lower Rae Lakes area and head back the way we came. The loop lost.

But the next morning Jevin changed his mind. "It's all about bragging rights, Dad," he said, and picked up the pace.

So we spent the next two days hiking hard, swimming in clear high-country lakes, and getting mentally ready for Glen Pass. On the morning of our sixth day we were there—a moonscape of rock, patches of lingering August snow, and lifeless emerald pools of near-freezing water. It felt like we were going straight up.

Jevin didn't make a peep until the top, and then he was all whoops and smiles. A hiker coming up the other side told him he had never seen someone so young at that elevation. Jevin just nodded and moved off to a rock by himself, breaking out his last berry-flavored PowerBar in celebration.

Heading off the pass, we passed a team of pack mules going in the other direction.

"How about hiring them next year?" I said.

"Yeah, if you want to cheat," Jevin said.

By noon we were drained and hiked in silence. Stumbling into Junction Meadow after dark, we ate quickly and collapsed in our tents. The next morning my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. We were 11 miles from the trailhead and our ride was picking us up at 3 p.m.

We hiked hard and it hurt. Jevin was miserable and let us know it—until we caught sight of the ranger station. Pride suddenly suffused his face and he broke into a run, not stopping until he reached the porch where two rangers were sitting. He barreled up the steps, lost his footing, fell face first, and then stood up laughing.

"It's a good thing you didn't do that yesterday, or we'd be scraping you off the side of a rock," I said when I caught up.

"Wouldn't have happened," he replied. "I was paying attention back then."

And I believed him.


Reservations and Permits The Rae Lakes Loop is one of the most popular hikes in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, so you're strongly encouraged to make reservations. Backcountry permits are required and can be picked up for no charge at the Roads End Contact Station, 5.5 miles beyond Cedar Grove. Reservations can be made for $10 up to three weeks prior, for trips between May 21 and September 21 (fax or mail only: 559-565-4239; Wilderness Permit Reservations, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks, HCR89, Box 60, Three Rivers, CA 93271).

When to Go August is the prime month. Stream crossings can be a problem in May and early June, and snow may make Glen Pass impassable until late July.

Bear Precautions The National Park Service now requires the use of approved bearproof containers, available at the trailhead (roughly $3 a day to rent or $75 to buy). Kevlar models are not approved.

Nearby Lodging Cedar Grove Lodge (559-335-5500; www.sequoia-kingscanyon.com) is open May through late October and has 21 rooms ($92 a night), a camp store, laundry facilities, a snack bar, and $3 showers.

For more information Call the parks' Wilderness Office at 559-565-3766 or visit www.nps.gov/seki.

Filed To: California

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