A Visit to Carrizo Plain National Monument

I was originally set to camp at Carrizo Plain National Monument this past weekend with friends, but due to the rainy weather on Friday, coupled with a series of other events, the plan fell through. After hearing all the talk of Carrizo and seeing the breathtaking pictures, I knew I needed to get up there and soon. The wildflowers won’t be there forever.

I thought about maybe driving up there for a day trip on Sunday or Monday and decided I’d sleep on it Saturday night. When I woke up Sunday morning, I knew I was supposed to go, so I checked out the BLM website to see the recommended route on getting there and what to see, saved it, got in my car and hit the road.

The route that I followed took me to the north entrance of the monument and BLM recommended driving down Soda Lake Rd. to explore the length of the plain and exit on Highway 166 at the south end. It sounded like a great plan to me since I wanted to see as much as possible in the time that I had.

Somehow, I ended up taking a left turn too soon and thought I was on Soda Lake Rd., but it turned out to be Elkhorn Rd. There was a sign pointing to Soda Lake, so I thought I was going the right way. It wasn’t necessarily the wrong way, just not what BLM specified in their directions.

I was looking for an attraction called “Overlook Hill” and the Soda Lake Boardwalk. Well, I saw a big hill on the left with tons of people ascending, so I thought that was the overlook. The trail took me to some stunning views and I got to see lots of pretty flowers, mostly of the yellow variety. However, the trail just went on and on and kept ascending further into the mountains. No one seemed to know where it ended, so I stopped about two miles in and turned back. I didn’t want to spend too much time in one place. Plus, the trail was very steep in spots and I didn’t want to burn myself out too soon.

I followed the road further down and ended up on a dirt road which I later discovered was 7-Mile Rd. It brought me close to the shores of Soda Lake and I was expecting to see the boardwalk soon, but I never saw it. There were plenty of opportunities to pull off to the side of the road and take pictures of the flowers and I later walked down to the shore of Soda Lake for an up close and personal view.

The next stop was the visitor center where I was surprised to find a line waiting to get in. It was such a small building that they could only allow so many people in at a time, which turned out to be a good thing. Once inside, I asked the rangers where the boardwalk was. They took out a map and showed me and that’s when I realized why I hadn’t seen it. I turned off too soon and missed it. But it wasn’t a big deal. The overlook and the boardwalk were only about two miles the other way on Soda Lake Rd. so I went there to check it out. I didn’t want to miss anything.

After visiting the Soda Lake Overlook and Boardwalk, I headed back south down Soda Lake Rd. as the ranger suggested and encountered a long stretch of dirt road that did eventually take me to Hwy 166 to go home, but it was a bumpy ride. At times, I was afraid and thought that I should turn back and leave the way that I came in, but I stuck with it and was treated to some more amazing views, pronghorn sightings and a beautiful sunset.

Is It A Mirage?

Ansel Adams WildernessIt all started that morning at the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center as our group waited to board the bus that would take us to the trailhead. I saw a nice ranger standing by and asked her to verify some information on the hike I wanted to do, which was slightly different from the group’s goals. I told the lady that I was going to Thousand Island Lake and inquired about the River Trail, which was the route recommended in my guidebook, “50 Classic Day Hikes of the Eastern Sierra,” by Devon Fredericksen and Reed Harvey. I wasn’t quite prepared for her response.

Oh, you’re going to Thousand Lake? That’s a tough one. You shouldn’t take the River Trail, that’s steep. You need to take the High Trail. It will be more gradual.

I was perplexed.

But the guidebook I have suggests taking the River Trail. It’s supposed to be 14 miles round trip and can be done as a day hike.

She remained adamant.

I don’t know what guidebook you’re reading. That’s going to be really tough.

She then took out a map and showed me the trail from Agnew Meadows, which was the starting point, all the while trying to encourage me to take the High Trail, which was about two miles longer, but supposedly more scenic. I didn’t have my own map of the area and the store where I could have purchased one wasn’t open yet, so I stuck with my original intent to follow the advice of the guidebook and take the River Trail. I admit, after the ranger’s reaction, I felt some apprehension.

The sign at the trailhead.

The sign at the trailhead.

About a mile or so into the hike, I was off and on my way to Thousand Island Lake. Since the guidebook stated that this was a popular trail and that the lake had been nicknamed “Thousand People Lake,” I figured I wouldn’t be alone. Yet, for the most part, I was. It didn’t bother me much, though. I often prefer solitude when trekking in the backcountry, although it is nice to have a partner sometimes.

The trail gradually ascended, never straying far front the San Joaquin River tumbling down below. At one point, the trail got really close to the river and I took a slight detour to check out a cascading waterfall.

San Joaquin River waterfall

San Joaquin River waterfall cascade.

Shortly after I returned to the trail, I met a group of backpackers coming toward me, each carrying packs that appeared to weigh at least 50 pounds apiece. We greeted each other and, of course, they asked where I was headed.

I’m going to Thousand Island Lake.

I braced for the reaction.

Oh, wow. That’s quite a slog. You’ve got a ways to go and it’s a trudge from here.

I tried my best to appear unfazed.

Well, I’m used to long day hikes. I’ve hiked twenty-two miles in a day before.

Their eyes widened.

Wow, you must be a serious mountain woman!

I bid the backpackers a good day and they sent me off with well-wishes as I was on my way again. Shortly after that, the same thing happened. Backpackers coming down the trail were once again astounded that I was going to Thousand Island Lake as a day hike, as if they didn’t believe it could be done. I assumed that they were on their way back from the lake.

Is that where you guys are coming from?

The backpackers looked amazed.

No, we were at Garnet Lake. That’s a little bit closer.

As we parted ways, I began to question the path I was on and thought that maybe I should change my goal to Garnet Lake, which, as the backpackers said, was closer. I reasoned that a lake is a lake and they all probably look the same anyway. Maybe I didn’t fully understand the description in the guidebook, although I studied it at least 100 times before setting out. Maybe the book was wrong.

I set a time and decided that no matter where I was at when that time came upon me, I would turn around. This was an unfamiliar trail to me and I didn’t want to get so far in that I couldn’t make it out at a reasonable hour. I also didn’t want to miss the group who were hiking the same mileage on a different trail, but at a faster pace than me. I wanted to make it back to the Adventure Center around the same time because we were to have dinner that evening in town.

No end in sight.

No end in sight.

The trail continued to climb and I found myself in a forest. Not too long before that, I had emerged from a short section of forest and reached a clearing that I thought would finally provide clear views of my goal. But it just led me to another forest. While I was grateful for the shade, the trail became a constant uphill slog and I realized that what one of the backpackers said was right. I took a break to snap a few shots of flowers just off the trail. It was hard to silence the doubts as they consumed me like a giant wave.

Anderson's Thistle

Anderson’s Thistle

I began to think in my heart that I had failed and was going to have to go back as my turnaround time closed in on me. I thought to myself that if I could just see where I was going, I would have hope and be motivated to stay the course. But the arduous climb continued and the scenery around me wasn’t changing. All I saw were trees. I never saw a lake, not even Garnet Lake, which was supposed to be closer. The climb seemed no longer worth it, so I just wanted to stop and go back the way I had come, back to what was familiar.

After this clearing the path became dim.

Beyond this clearing the path grew dim.

A little less than an hour before my turnaround time, I saw what appeared to be two day hikers coming down the trail toward me. They weren’t carrying big heavy packs. At this point, I just wanted confirmation that I should turn back because I had already prepared myself for the disappointment. I greeted the couple and asked if I was getting close to Thousand Island Lake. They gave me the most encouraging news I had heard all day. I was about a couple of miles away from a pass and once I reached the pass, the lake would be right there, just on the other side of it. I thanked the couple and pressed on.

Even with the affirmation, I still had doubts as I trekked through the somewhat dense forest. I contemplated turning around for fear that it was getting too late. For some reason, the altitude really affected me on this hike and I was troubled that I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the pass. I couldn’t see beyond the trees.

Twenty minutes before my turnaround time, I was about to throw in the towel. Then, I realized that I owed it to myself to at least continue until 1pm, which was the time I had set. Certainly, I could hang in there for twenty more minutes, despite the seemingly endless slog.

The first views of Mt. Banner.

The first views of Mt. Banner.

Exactly twenty minutes later, I was blessed with one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. Mt. Banner came into view just beyond a small pass, and shortly after that, the most beautiful, sparkling lake glistened before me. It wasn’t a mirage. It was real. I could finally see it, touch it, taste it. All of the doubts that tried to kill my dream, my vision of this wonder, were at once silenced for good. My goal had been validated by what my faith and action produced.

What sort of tale did I find myself in?

Just because the circumstances conflict with your inner vision, what you know to be true, it doesn’t mean that you’re on the wrong path. You may have naysayers telling you what can’t be done, but you have to realize that people often speak from what they know based on their own experiences and background.

Those backpackers who provided their input, the ones who almost discouraged me from going on–they were carrying 50-pound packs and they may not have been regular hikers, so of course they were going to see my goal as a slog and an impossible feat. I hike consistently and am used to long day hikes, so I’m well-acquainted with my strengths and abilities. I’m also aware of my limitations. However, I knew in my heart that I could do this.

Thousand Island Lake.

Thousand Island Lake

Had I given up, I would have missed out on one of the most beautiful treasures of the Sierra. I would have done all of that work for nothing. It was a nice hike and there were some really cool sights along the way, but the money shot was the lake, and also the return route as I decided to take the scenic High Trail on the way back.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times where it’s in your best interest to turn around, such as when you’re in imminent danger as I was on a previous hike to Cloudripper Peak. Sometimes in life there is danger on the path and you have to turn around, not to give up, but to reconfigure the approach to your goal and try again.

Even if that is the case, the theme remains the same: Never Give Up. Never let anyone or anything talk you out of your goal. Never let yourself or your own doubts talk you out of your goal. You can either be your own worst enemy or your biggest cheerleader.

Maybe you’ve been praying for something over the years and nothing is changing, as if you’re in that forest I was in where I couldn’t see where my path was leading me to. Perhaps everything around you contradicts the very thing you’ve been praying, hoping, wishing endlessly for. Don’t stop because even though it may not feel like it, you are ever closer to your dream come true.

Never give up then, for that is just the place and time when the tide will turn.

~Harriet Beecher Stowe

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

A young woman set out for the Sierra on a camping and hiking adventure. This was a solo trip as she just wanted to get out, be away from the chaos of the city and enjoy some moments of solitude. She had been wanting to explore some of the aqua-colored lakes of the Big Pine area, so she set up camp at a nearby campground and hiked a 14-mile loop around the lakes and back. Afterwards, she drove to a campground further up the highway so that she could explore another trail.

Her last night at the second campground started out pretty uneventful.  That is, until something very strange happened.  She had purchased some wood while in town so that she could enjoy one more campfire before heading home after her hike the next day.  She had a really nice campfire going at the other campground, so she looked forward to the same experience this time.  Things didn’t go quite as planned.

First, the wood didn’t want to burn, as if it needed some “priming.”  She tried numerous times to light a fire and eventually there was success, but the fire immediately burned out.  She didn’t have this much of an issue at the previous campground and the fire pits were pretty much the same. The wood was also the same, so she was baffled that the fire wouldn’t remain lit.  The sun disappeared behind the mountains and the breeze picked up and turned chilly.  She shuddered and tried once again to start the fire.  This time she was more hopeful.  The fire started, burned for a few seconds, but then diminished.  Her hope was short-lived.

After the same thing happened about 10 or more times, she was done.  It wasn’t even 7 o’clock yet, but she was ready for bed.  Surrounded by empty campsites, she felt isolated and cold.  The fire pit was also cold.  Frustrated, she doused the pit with water to ensure there was no chance of a fire igniting when she turned in for the evening.  She decided to leave the unused portion of the wood for the next camper or give it to the camp host upon leaving the next day.  Maybe they would get better use out of it.

She went to her tent and tucked herself away from the cool air and away from the disappointing heap of nothing that she left just yards away from where she was to lay her head.  But instead of lying down, she sat and cried from the depths of her heart.  These tears weren’t falling because of the failed campfire.  These tears were the result of a deeper longing burning within the crevasses of her heart and soul.  She hoped against hope that her cries made it to the heavens and that the God of the universe was actually listening, but she wasn’t sure.  The only thing she was sure of was the deep pain and longing in her heart that she kept tucked away like a precious piece of jewelry in a delicate box.

These were the same cries uttered from her quivering lips since she was a little girl, bright-eyed, and filled with a multitude of hopes and dreams. She wasn’t supposed to be alone at this time in her life.  She was supposed to have a family of her own, a husband and children to love and look after.  This should have been a family trip and not some solo adventure to be experienced by someone who couldn’t even start a campfire.  How could the One who heals the brokenhearted look upon her sorrow and do nothing?  She was provoked endlessly by her brothers and sisters who had what she wanted so badly.  The tears just kept pouring from the windows to her soul.  But no one was watching and no one was listening, or so she thought.  She laid her head down on the soft, fluffy pillow and closed her eyes, still feeling the sting of tears.

She lay there listening to the breeze stir the branches of the pine trees above her.  The rainfly of the tent flapped constantly and she was grateful to have staked it down.  She was getting colder, but she didn’t want to put her bed clothes on too soon as she wanted to make one last trip to the restroom before darkness completely blanketed the campground.  Suddenly, she smelled something.  It was faint at first, so she thought it may have been her imagination.  But then the smell grew stronger.  She thought smoke must have wafted up from one of the nearby campsites and tried to ignore it, but the aroma grew even stronger.  Finally, she decided it was time to take a peek outside.

She unzipped the door to the tent, stepped outside, and what she saw stopped her in her tracks.  Inside the fire ring where she had doused the stubborn wood with water, a perfect campfire steadily burned.  She walked over for a closer look to see if her teary eyes deceived her, but there was most certainly a campfire burning in that pit.  She looked up to the sky, exhaled, and knew immediately that the cries of her heart had been heard.  She dragged her chair back to the fire pit, grabbed her book and iPod, sat down and enjoyed the beautiful evening and the warm, comforting, reassuring glow of the fire.  Even as she writes this, she shudders at the recollection of the events that transpired that brisk evening in the wilderness.

Burning One

On her iPod, a song by artist Steffany Frizell played:

You have been
And you will be
You have seen
And you will see

You know when I rise and when I fall
When I come or go, you see it all
You hung the stars and you move the sea
And still you know me