Current Location: Tulare, CA, sunny and 96 degrees F
Settled down for the evening in hot, dry, sunny Tulare, California. We began our day in Lee Vining, on the east side of the Sierras, and treated ourselves to an early dawn crossing of Tioga Pass, through Yosemite and down the mountain to the Great Central Valley.
A family event called Mo to this area and Abby and I are comfortable in the MoHo at Sun and Fun RV Park, with our Passport America discount, air conditioner going full blast. Ahh…yes…time to process photos and write. Trying to come up with something to do in Tulare, California isn’t very high on the agenda, at least not on my agenda. I am looking forward to our journey back north tomorrow morning.
Visit Lehman Caves
From what I have read, it seems that the Lehman Caves are the major draw to this area for people who are not avid hikers. There are two cave tours, a 45 minute tour and the full Grand Palace Tour that lasts approximately 90 minutes. With our senior passes we only paid $5.00 each for the grand tour.
Did I mention that there is no park entry fee at GBNP? We had our passes ready, but never used them except for the cave tour and to gain half price discounts for our campsite. With the pass, we only paid $6.00 per night for our site.
Lehman Caves are actually only one cave, known for centuries by local tribes but “discovered” by Absolom Lehman in 1885. There are interesting old photographs of the original ladder entrance, and large groups of people in dresses and shirts and ties lounging around on the formations. Needless to say, there is not of that today. Visitors are screened for any possibility of carrying disease fatal to the bats, and are told to not touch anything.
I visited Carlsbad Caverns a few years ago, and was awed by the formations, but felt very uncomfortable in that cave. It felt like a place below the earth that was not for human visitation. I felt no such esoteric weirdness at Lehman Caves, enjoying especially the narrow walkways, and the subdued natural lighting in some areas.
The cave has some rare formations called “shields” that occur rarely in other caverns. Our guide was from Tennessee, and it was obvious that she loved the cave. The groups are limited to 20 people and on this day there were sixteen attending the tour. The constant 50 degree temperature inside the caves made our light jackets feel good. The caves are open year round, so I can imagine it would be a delight to visit on a cold winter day.
Explore the night sky
As mentioned in a previous post, we secured our passes for the Full Moon Hike previously. Many years ago I read an interesting book that suggested walking in the dark of night, or by the light of the moon. It has been at least a couple of decades since I tried it consciously. I looked forward to this walk, thankful that we would be in the presence of a ranger and some other folks as well.
Mo wasn’t as enamored of the night hiking as I was. I enjoyed every single moment. We left from the Summit Trailhead at twilight as the moon was rising over Wheeler Peak, but as we hiked toward Stella Lake, the moon was again obscured by the mountain. I decided to skip carrying the heavy camera, in favor of keeping my balance on the trail in the dark and not having to fiddle with settings and such.
Later, as we sat at Stella Lake waiting for the moon to again appear over the crest of the peak, I was sorry I hadn’t taken the good camera. I have only these fuzzy iPhone photos to remind me of that magical moment.
The hike was an easy 2.2 miles through aspen groves and open meadows. The trail was a bit rocky, with roots here and there, but in the moonlight, it was easy to navigate. I was still quite happy to have two walking sticks, one to share with Mo for the trip. I kept thinking how happy I was that there were no bears in this park as we walked through the night forest!
Take a back country drive up Snake Creek
Mo and I both decided that this remote section of the park was our favorite. Snake Creek flows from the high peaks down to the tiny ranching community of Gunnison and beyond. The road is graveled for several miles and then turns to rocky dirt, but is never extremely difficult.
We did drop the Tracker into 4-wheel drive, but could have managed without it. High clearance was needed, however, for some stretches, especially toward the Johnson Peak trailhead at the end of the road.
Part of the route traverses the boundary between BLM land and National Park land, following Snake Creek up the canyon. There are several campsites located along the road, several of them are on BLM land, and an additional 4 camps are in the park before the road ends at the trailhead.
We thought about hiking the Johnson Peak trail, knowing full well that 7.5 miles round trip and the extreme elevation gain of that particular trail was more than we wanted to tackle that afternoon. Instead, we decided to attempt to reach Dead Lake, another obscure trail just south of the main Johnson Peak trail.
We enjoyed ourselves, in spite of the fact that we were hiking without benefit of GPS, telephone, or even a paper map in our possession. I was navigating from the memory of the sign at the Johnson Peak trailhead. Pretty dumb, but geez, there are no bears here so what did we have to fear?!
The trail we chose went up and up and up, without benefit of ridge or landing to break the climb. There was a bit of a view back down the canyon, and then looking at a particularly steep section ahead of us we looked at each other, and said, “Why?”. It was a great point to turn around.
Back to the Tracker, we followed Snake Creek to an incredible campsite along some natural swimming holes where Abby jumped in to cool herself and we enjoyed lunch at the picnic table. For once, we actually remembered to pack a lunch before we took off exploring and the tuna sandwiches and corn chips tasted wonderful.
Johnson Lake is the location of an old mining camp, and we did find an old dredge down along the creek. The other fascinating thing about the creek is that it disappears completely underground for a considerable distance. I was watching the dry creek bed as Mo drove, and then suddenly heard a roaring sound. The water emerges from this pipe at least a mile east of where it disappears underground. Would love to know the story behind this.
I did find out that Snake Creek Cave is a “wild cave”, undeveloped, that is in the vicinity of where we had lunch. With an entrance high on the slope above us, my theory of an underground cave sucking up the water, doesn’t hold water.
Hike to a Bristlecone grove
Can you believe we didn’t manage this one? Our hike up at the end of Snake Creek Canyon wore us out. We had planned to drive the long steep road to the trailhead in late afternoon, hoping to leave Abby in the rig while we hiked. I wrote a bit while Mo napped, and the winds started rising once again as time for our departure came close. Looking at each other once again, we said, “Nope”. The bristlecone grove will have to wait for another visit.
Hike the many trails
There are more than a dozen hikes listed in the park brochure, with difficulty, distance and other information. I would have loved to hike the alpine lakes loop, a moderate 3 mile hike. Not so much the summit hike to Wheeler Peak, with rock scrambles at the top over 13,000 feet elevation. The brochure insists this should be an early morning start to miss the winds and thunderstorms that often rise in late afternoon.
The trail to Lexington Arch, a magnificent limestone arch that was probably at one time a cave room that has been uplifted, is the only dog friendly trail in the park. We weren’t able to hike this trail due to a recent fire and the resultant road closure. We won’t tell anyone that we took Abby on our unmarked Dead Lake trail. It was actually an old road where they say dogs are allowed, and as I mentioned before, there wasn’t a soul around to know or care. Abby did well, without huffing and puffing any more than we did.
Camp and relax in a beautiful spot with gorgeous views, fresh air, no crowds and dark night skies