King’s Canyon National Park, California.
It’s a far cry from Yosemite National Park in the north and even Sequoia National Park to the south. If you want to experience it, you have to work for it. Traveling to national parks like these are nearly always worth the long and arduous trip.
The road into King’s Canyon is closed through the winter, and it’s easy to understand why. The narrow, winding road balances precariously on the steep banks of the Kings River as it snakes its way back into the far reaches of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
From our campsite in the General Grant’s Grove area, it took us nearly an hour to reach Road’s End. We passed a few lonely businesses—a cave, a gas station, something posing as a sorry little lodge—and only a few cars. Road’s End consists of a large parking lot of few cars, a lone ranger station, a number of backcountry hikers getting ready for long-term adventures and a handful of hard-core day hikers.
We opted to tackle the day hike to Mist Falls, a 9.2-mile round-trip jaunt. The trail is flat, wide, and covered with the divots of horse hooves and hiking boots. The river offers teasing peeks through tree trunks and meadow grasses all the way up the trail, but turning the final arc around the bend to catch Mist Falls is one of those moments that make the long hike worth it. Few people make this hike. The one man we met loitering around the falls has been here more than a hundred times; he is in search of the perfect day to take the perfect picture of Mist Falls. Over the course of twenty years, he has yet to capture the crashing water accurately on film. He attempted to find the right sunlight as we stood there, but a cloud rushed in and threw a blanket over the sun. Another thwarted attempt.
As we turned back down the trail, he warned us about the rattlesnakes. My senses immediately went on high alert. I’m not such a big fan of snakes in general, and running into a rattlesnake certainly wasn’t high on my to-do list.
The clouds covered the sky. Mosquitoes began to join us on the trail. In the nearly five miles on our way back to the trail, we came upon no fewer than four snakes, two of which wore the rattler badge on their tails. Once confronted with the snakes, I marveled at the true creepiness of this moving muscle gliding over the ground. Something is seriously weird with the anatomy of a snake, and I’m glad I witnessed them on my own terms from the safety of my own space on the trail.
In the meadow clearing about a mile from our car, we stopped one last time, tipped our heads back and gawked at the shear rocks walls and towering pinnacles that surrounded us. These peaks see so few people, but those who make the journey are rewarded with a story of unforgiving winter weather, isolation and raw natural forces. And with some effort on the trail, those same people walk away with memories of a national park that so few people will ever take the time to experience.