By Jonny Hubris | Contributed
A few weeks ago, I was chewing on the idea of heading out once again for the east side of Yosemite to search for another canyon off the beaten track, one with few visitors and many waterfalls – plus a hint of solitude and breathing room for a long weekend.
Certain that the High Sierras hold many a slice of paradise, there was no doubt about success and no matter what eventuated, deliverance from the valley heat would always be a check on the plus side.
Three hours later I found myself rolling down the highway through Coarsegold and Oakhurst, heading into Yosemite with hopes of cruising through the park and outside its eastern boundary by noon. However, the long and winding road passes through that sublime splendor of Yosemite Valley where traffic slows and excitement crescendos in the face of such awesome views. At some point we had morphed into Big Oak Flat Road and eventually intersected with Hwy 120, to head east past miles of Tuolumne Meadow, another perennial favorite. Soon enough, a sighting of the tollbooth at Tioga Pass indicates swift passage out of the Park, fresh adventure beyond.
The awesome curves of a final steep downhill stretch of Hwy 120 fall outside park boundaries, offering a few thrilling minutes when foot is removed from brake pedal and high whining second gear is engaged, before common sense becomes the compelling force to slow down before intersecting Highway 39. From here head north and keep it slow entering the small recycled town of Lee Vining, home of the very special, all purpose, Mono Lake Committee Information Center, a small shop worth investigating. Just past the north end of this short but friendly town will be found the U. S. Forest Service Visitors Center off to the right, overlooking the local salty dog of the deep blue: Mono Lake.
The rangers there are friendly veterans of crowd control and the experts at the correction of misinformation. They had all the right answers to my untutored questions and directed this wayward visitor to his self-promised land. With a chorus of advice from the three rangers, I was directed to my heretofore unnamed and unknown Shangri-La: Lundy Canyon, which – huge bonus – also included the quarter-mile-long Lundy Lake.
I drove five or six miles on 395, north from the visitor center, then west (left) at the sign for Hwy 167, and cruised five more miles of paved road, gently uphill all the way. I found Lundy Lake stocked with trout and other scaled edibles, hosting a dozen anglers who scattered themselves around the shore, and soon joined by one interloper (me) swimming in the brisk 65-degree waters.
Past the lake, the boat ramp, and the little store, the roaring cascade of a stream hidden in the trees 50 yards to the south can be heard along the first stretch of dirt/gravel road that winds through the forest for another mile. This is the entrance to Lundy Canyon, a magical mix of streams, marshes and ponds, with happy trees and grasses and high elevation plants that altogether cover the valley floor under God’s Blue Sky.
Botanicals and wildlife are rendered miniatures in all directions by the thousand-foot peaks and their dance partners, the near-vertical waterfalls of equal height. There is a sign at the trailhead promising an abundance of flowering plants at this time of year, an understatement. Name some colors you would like to see… any colors. The answer is yes… yes… and yes.
Deeper into the lush canyon, well trod trail is beginning to dry out, but for those stretches that still hold water, logs have been set in place as needed, for dry boots to stay dry. The main hiking trail, several miles in length, meanders deep into this timeless box canyon, a visual and physical feast for the whole family. The youngsters, however, may need to be helped across several log bridges, the only way a to cross a handful of strong running streams. Eventually the main trail and the few side trails halt themselves against the back wall, an unbroken curve of the canyon, of this chain of peaks joined at the shoulders that can be climbed by the willing and committed, as there are hints of trails here and there up the slopes.
The rangers had told me of the one popular trail up to the top of a far peak next to the biggest waterfall in the canyon, which leads to a set of small lakes on a large plateau of several square miles. The lakes can only be seen once atop the peak. The plateau is not visible from any vantage point lower in Lundy Canyon.
The rangers warned of the dangers of climbing this trail, little more than loose rock in a large chute, a name given to the vertical side of a mountain shaped like a concave water slide. This very sketchy trail up the chute was full of loose smaller rock called scree and big, unstable boulders called talus.
The rangers did concur that the route has seen its share of climbers every year. A grandmother my age whom I met on the trail that day said she had done it twice, at the ages of 18 and again at 35 with her daughter and opted not to go back up again this time. The principle is simple: Step carefully. Any given rock can be loosened by one wrong step, and once a slide begins, friends, Devil take the Hindmost.
One of the rangers, many years younger than I, shared the fear that overtook him halfway up and prevented his own successful ascent, and implied I looked too old to be risking my life that way. Needless to say, standing at the bottom of the chute that day I was daunted and also knew I had to go for it… straight up.
Scared, exhilarated, foolish, lucky. Beyond lucky, I was blessed that day. A few close calls: when rocks started to slide, I placed my fingers in cracks in a large rock wall and set my feet; had a couple of slips and falls on the snow banks near the summit, where the snow was still frozen solid, mid-day at 10,000 feet. On top of that (no pun intended) I was way too near the edge of that slippery slope. I did make it to the top and saw a lake I had visited last year from the other side, Déjà vu…another story for another time. Going back down was trickier than the ascent. Again I say, “Blessings are at hand.” Once will probably be enough for this lifetime.
On the return trip down the luxury of the canyon’s earthen trail, a healthy buck with five points on each antler stepped out from the trees, looked at me and snorted. I could only hold his attention for seven seconds as I began to whistle a simple tune. Sometimes it can be mesmerizing. This time no one was impressed. His elegant exit, a vanishing act, was pure poetry.
Also met two young German men farther down the path who were in their final week of touring America but did not whistle them a lullaby. They wanted to know about San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury, their final destination. I said I used to hang out in that part of the city back in the sixties. They asked if I was an old hippy. I replied, “Yes, I did it all. Do not tell my mother.”
At day’s end, approaching the marsh and pond of my starting point, I heard a splash and looked south to see a weasel swimming away with a small round white object in his mouth as two red wing blackbirds whirled around his head calling out their shrill complaints. He was not daunted.
It was a good day. It was a great day.
John wrote for an art column for a weekly paper in Charlotte, North Carolina. He then began writing feature pieces for the paper and had the opportunity to impart stories of first case accounts of people who lived in Tiananmen Square, China in 1989.