Three years ago, on the cusp of starting my first grown-up, full-time, real, corporate adult job, we threw a bunch of friends in a car and camped near Big Bear for two nights. It was billed The End of Freedom Camping Party, and has since become an annual tradition whether the other campers know it or not. This year had the even better occasion of an imminent lay-off, and got to mark The Return to Freedom Party. I booked a mid-sized group campground five hours north of L.A. and invited people who will be beneficial to job hunting.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are on the southern end of the Sierra Nevadas, about an hour south of Yosemite. They were founded 126 years ago in order to protect a bunch of really big trees. Basically, a bunch of loggers and prospectors chopped down some of the oldest and largest sequoias in the world to prove to East Coasters that they were real. This is what it took before Instagram. Everyone thought the enormous trunks were a hoax, so the loggers got back on the Oregon Trail, battled dysentery, chopped down a few more barks and lugged them back across the country. The cycle continued until the government asked people to knock it off with the tree chopping and proving that they were real so that I could celebrate my unemployment.
We booked a group campsite near General Grant Grove, home to the world’s second-largest tree, and hosted varying degrees of first-timers and seasoned campers to spend the weekend. After going through all the options for food, cooking, activities and attractions, Jen and I reasoned the easiest choice would be if we bought and cooked everything and planned the full weekend for the entire group. The other options with a group of eight people were to assign meals, have everyone fend for themselves, or open up the park to hunting. Seeing as deer traps are forbidden in the national park system, we opted to become the camp parents for all our friends.
There is a huge amount of responsibility that comes with being camp parents. It means that the entire weekend falls on your shoulders. The whole three days of rest and relaxation comes with the looming pressure that any mistake is entirely your fault. Burned the corn on the cobb? That’s on you. Three hours of driving for nothing? There’s only Camp Dad to blame. Any crankiness, screw-up and disappointment feels like it’s your burden that needs to be fixed. Like a defender in soccer, you can have a perfect match, but one giant mistake is your responsibility.
On top of being camp parents, we also had to deal with Camp Aunt and Uncle on our trip to apply some pressure as well. While we had to be the killjoys in the name of logistics, they got to load up their car with cornhole, a hammock, gadgets, devices, solar powered phone chargers, a football and booze so that they got to be the fun ones. And then when the other campers got hungry and tired after all the fun games, it was our responsibility again. And Camp Aunt and Uncle got to be like, “Not our problem, we were just kicking back,” while we’re stirring chili with one hand and yanking out splinters with the other while keeping temper tantrums at bay.
Being Camp Parents also means learning and embracing a tremendous amount of patience that doesn’t exist on solo trips. When you’re backpacking alone, you can do exactly what you want at any time of day. But being camp dad means you have to be perfectly fine with being ready to leave and then having someone say, “I have to go to the bathroom.” Then when that person gets back, someone else says, “Y’know what? I have to go to the bathroom too.” And so on, until everyone in the group has individually gone to the bathroom. By this point, you really have to go as well, but you need to hold it in the name of a fictional schedule on which you triangulated coordinates with your Garmin watch.
Day two was a two-mile drive down a dirt road to Redwood Mountain Grove. We made it a mile or so up the Sugar Bowl Trail, which was one of the best finds in the park. The trees in this part of Kings Canyon didn’t have the same reverence as their larger brethren, but the hidden turn-off and dirt road kept the tour buses away. If I’ve learned anything from this aimless goal of seeing every national park it’s that I’ll sacrifice beauty in the name of avoiding crowds. One foot of a giant sequoia is worth ten selfie sticks.
Any fantasies I had of being on the trail by eight to complete the six-mile loop before lunch were altered in the name of being the stupid, happy-go-lucky camp dad. One person has to stop at a tree to take a picture, and then everyone wants the same picture, and then, yeah, I kind of want the picture too. So eight pictures on eight cameras later, it was time to turn around because I wanted to show everyone Kings Canyon.
What I thought was a 30 minute drive to a beautiful and lush meadow stretched into a 90-minute winding slog through the barren and drought-stricken Sierras. With everyone ready for lunch, a more lenient camp dad would’ve stopped at the idyllic Hume Lake. Families were playing in the water, there was a well-stocked store and tables that overlooked the reflecting water on a warm mountain day. Instead I gunned it past the beautiful water because we had a schedule that needed adhering. I watched the temperature climb into the triple-digits as we descended the inferno of Kings Canyon and heard stomachs rumble as it ticked into the afternoon.
And as much as it looked like it was going to be a disaster, the best part about being camp dad is the stuff that doesn’t get planned. The meadow was too far away and the trails were too hot to hike, so we made our way into the river that runs through Kings Canyon and that was the afternoon. That was it. No plans, itinerary, schedule, maps. It was throw everyone in the water, and it was absolutely perfect. Obviously I’ll take all the credit for how well it went even though I never would’ve just sat in a river for two hours if it were a solo trip. And the best part was that it tuckered everyone out so that, being the camp parents, we could get some sleep that night.
We loaded back into cars and climbed three thousand feet of elevation back to the campground. We then tore each other to shreds and undid any feelings of goodwill by playing a round of a game called Avalon. This mafia-type exercise in lying and accusations generates all the nice feelings of a witch hunt, while also allowing you to destroy all your friendships. We declared a truce in a two-mile evening walk to the General Grant tree. A family of deer pranced along our route to pose for a couple of pictures before camp mom knocked some chili out of the park. Everyone passed out because I dragged them up and down some mountains in order to snap some pictures.
Our way out of the park took us along all the touristy sites through Sequoia National Park, which are great for a first visit and should be avoided thereafter. The General Sherman tree (largest in the world), Giant Forest and Moro Rock were swarmed with crowds who were shuttled along the excellent and free bus system the park set up. It’s a little surprising to find that one of the best public transportation systems I’ve ever seen is in Sequoia National Park. Everyone held their lunch together as we drove down the switchbacks from 7,000 feet of elevation down to the 108-degree foothills that are going to go up in flames any minute now. Four hours later, we were back in Los Angeles doing everything we could to remember the idyllic river from the previous day.
As terrified as I am about being an actual camp dad to real-life, tiny human beings at some point in the future, it’s nice to know that all I have to do is constantly worry about an army of people having a good time while dealing with any issue, injury, problem or surprise that’s going to spring up at any second. There is little reward, satisfaction and payoff that comes with the job. And compared to the freedom that comes with grabbing a backpack and heading off on a giant trail on your own schedule, it’s a completely different trip. So enjoy that leisurely bathroom break, refill the water bottle a few more times, sleep in a little late, and snap as many extra pictures as you want. But if I hear one more word of complaint, I am turning this car right around. Thanks for a great trip, everyone, and get off my lawn.
I can’t tell if the Sierra Nevadas are the most beautiful place on Earth or if it just feels that way because you arrive there via Fresno. Either way, there is a decent collection of mountains, lakes, rivers and volcanoes a few hours from L.A. and it never hurts to spend a weekend camping when Southern California is on fire.
Everyone told us Lassen was better than Yosemite, which I refused to believe. If Lassen was better than Yosemite then I would’ve heard of Lassen. There aren’t many poems and works of art about flying into Sacramento. But after this trip I can unconfidently say, yes, Lassen is better than Yosemite. In fact, out of all the national parks on this silly adventure to see them all, Lassen might be the best of the bunch.
That’s not to say it’s the most beautiful or awe-inspiring, it doesn’t come close. Zion and Yellowstone can smite down Lassen like a freshman trying to sit at the senior table. But it has all the beauty, scenery and relaxation of the best parks in the system without the tour buses. Lassen isn’t the most jaw-dropping national park in the country, but in terms of getting out of town and camping in paradise for a weekend, it’s hard to beat. When we crossed the Canadian Rockies, traversed Yosemite and Zion, we were racing motorcades of tour buses and getting elbowed by tourists and poked by selfie sticks. Lassen is a few hours away with a tenth of the visitors (400K to 4 million), even though we make up the deficit by hitting the car alarm button the middle of the night.
We started the trip with what’s becoming my latest national park pastime: dodging suicidal animals with an SUV in the dark. This time the West Texan bunnies were replaced by Northern California deer. The one-hour drive up the mountain at 9pm was spent slamming the brakes as antlers and eyes darted along the side of the road like an 80s arcade game. Sort of like a Grand Theft Auto version of the E.T. Ride.
Day two we lucked out with the Bumpass Hell trail by arriving on the first day it was open for the season due to snow and ice, which, I apologize for this, meant we got to throw snowballs in Hell. It was a three-mile hike to one of the largest thermal vents outside Yellowstone, which belched up steam like a Turkish bath. We took the King’s Falls trail along a creek that cut through some meadows. Then circled Manzanita Lake doing our best to hope that none of our tens of thousands of mosquito bites contained any Zika.
Per usual for any national park adventure, the largest group of visitors were from Germany. I have no idea why this is, but anywhere we go in the world – Vietnam, Australia, the furthest reaches of Texas and the Sierra Nevadas – we always encounter people on vacation from Bavaria. I have a feeling that if we were to spelunk down an ancient cave in Central America and push aside a hidden door to find Mayan ruins leading to an untouched palace, waiting for us would be a guy named Hans telling us about a great schnitzel place in Munich. I’m pretty sure there are no Germans in Germany, but rather roaming the world with a sensible supply of sunscreen and hiking poles.
On day three we took the long way back to the airport, driving north on the Volcanic Legacy trail with Mount Shasta 50 miles in front of us. It was a quarter-mile hike through the pitch black subway cave, which provided some excellent opportunities to scare the hell out of people (“What’s the date? No, the year. The year!!!”). Then one more hike at McArthur-Burney Falls State Park. The falls were around an hour north of Lassen and looked like someone took a small chunk of Brazil’s Iguazu falls, or the setting for a reality show date, and stuck it in Northern California.
But the best part of the morning was definitely admiring the small coalition of Pacific Crest Trail hikers we encountered. As they took down camp, filtered water and lifted 50 pounds on their backs in the midst of their 500-mile hike, I checked the tire pressure in my Avis rental and ensured we hadn’t lost our phone chargers. Pretty much equally badass.
All-in-all it’s way better to be underrated than overrated. You can do whatever you want, you’re never accused of selling out and you avoid the downfalls to fame and celebrity that comes with being overrated. The Grand Canyon is super sexy, but it’s dealing with the drug addiction, STDs and recklessness that accompanies fame. Meanwhile just a few hours away from L.A. and S.F. is a little indie rocker putting on an amazing show and couldn’t care less if you notice or not. Even if the only other people at the show are a group of loyal Germans who you see at every single show.
Telling people about our road trip across West Texas and New Mexico earned the most, “Why are you going there?” responses of all our adventures. This isn’t the kind of place you go by choice. You’re usually stuck traveling through West Texas on your way to someplace better. Or you’re stationed in the military. Or you got on the mob’s bad side. No one really chooses to spend a long weekend in the Chihuahuan Desert. But that just meant we’d have more space to ourselves!
Sure enough, there was really nothing there except for three very dry national parks, a bunch of suicidal rabbits and a Prada (I’ll get to all that later). I also might have insisted we do this trip instead of spending four days at a condo on Lake Tahoe. On top of that, the first day was the kind of disaster that made me rethink this whole see every national park life plan in the first place.
El Paso is closer to the California border than it is to Austin, Texas, but that didn’t stop me from having that be the jumping off point for a romantic vacation that started with a supply run to Walmart. They didn’t have the gas canister our camping stove required, so we found the city’s largest outdoors store, which was also out of stock on the fuel we needed. Our nature adventure took us into an El Paso Target to buy a new camping stove with fuel included before we peeled out into the desert three hours behind schedule where we got pulled over by our first border patrol officer. So far we were off to a roaring start.
The drug-sniffing dog cleared the rear tires of the rental and the officer was satisfied with our answer when he asked, “Are you American citizens?” This didn’t seem the time to discuss Jen’s Canadian heritage, so we continued east into Texas backcountry. A few hours later and with the sun starting to set, we got to our first national park, Guadalupe Mountains, which would be great if you’re assembling a fossil record of West Texas, and a major disappointment if you could’ve been at Tahoe. It’s home to the largest peak in Texas and a post office from the 1800s that is now a pile of rocks. The first-come camp site was full, so we drove another hour to an RV park in Carlsbad, New Mexico, a town that made El Paso look like Vail.
I can’t think of a lot of scenic places with “Bad” in the name. Islamabad isn’t near the top of my list, and Carlsbad was populated with a highway of chain hotels serving the Caverns (to the South) and alien-seeking conspiracy theorists in Roswell (to the North). We expected the worst from the RV park, but it turned out to be a great find and the trip took a turn for the better. Like every camping trip, Jen soon picked up the gossip of every female camper drama from the ladies’ room, and then we downed a pan-fried Walmart steak deep in the heart of a Roswell, New Mexico K.O.A.
Carlsbad Caverns elbowed its way into the top ten places I’ve ever seen. It was a huge relief that the trip was justified the minute we descended the thousand-foot-deep cave (roughly the height of the Empire State Building, or 12,000 Empire State Building souvenirs). The first thing you hear is a soundtrack of a few thousand bats reminding us that the elevator was out of service, along with an additional thousand children shouting, “Stalagmites,” and “Stalactites.” We get it. You know which one is which. Our exhaustion scurrying to the bottom of the cave, taking a tour and hiking out was relieved by judging whether other people would be able to make it out.
There isn’t much to check out between Carlsbad and Big Bend – McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, and a lot more nothing – but we stopped in Marfa, Texas, which is sort of like a Texas Ojai. It’s an artist outpost in the middle of nowhere part of the middle of nowhere where Matthew McConnonaughey and a few other celebs call their second home. It has 20+ art galleries and the kind of stores where you can drop a few hundred bucks on astrologically-embroidered denim jackets while you pregame for Burning Man and get your photo taken at the Marfa Prada (not a real Prada – art is tough to explain). It was a perfectly fine place to eat a falafel for lunch.
We didn’t know what to expect in Big Bend National Park. We knew it’s where the Rio Grande curves to the north and there’s a border crossing where you can take a boat and ride a donkey to a Mexican village. We drove out of the desert up into some mountains where we saw trees for the first time in four days. We dropped into a grove where our campsite was surrounded by a forest and mountains being hit by the sunset. We were also instantly befriended by the camp host, who raised her glass of wine and said things have been great with her since she had gallbladder surgery.
An astronomy professor from U.T. hosted a stargazing session that night with two high-powered telescopes. We got a good look at Jupiter’s moons and the Milky Way ripped across the Texas sky. But the best part was his love for astronomy was only matched by his disdain for astrology. He’d show some green neutron gas around a cluster of young star formations, but when someone asked him to point out Gemini, he shrugged them off with a, “That’s not really my thing,” to which another person asked, “What about Sagittarius?”
The next day we hiked three trails and around nine miles, the best was Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande. It’s a 1,500-foot rock face dropping straight into the water. If anyone descends that cliff from the Mexican border and crosses the river, they deserve to stay. Immigration debate over. Although it was nice to visit a national park that wasn’t overrun by Germans for once. This was the first national park trip that didn’t have a slew of Berliners telling me they haven’t met any Americans in the national parks yet.
Our final morning we woke up at 3am Central Time. All the road kill we saw during the day was explained by hundreds, maybe thousands of jackrabbits lining the highway in the middle of the night. These bastards did everything possible to try and get hit. They darted into the road, jumped back in, darted in front again, and hopped away. If I were Elmer Fudd, I’d drop the gun and just do 80 through Big Bend. I’m proud to say that no rabbits were harmed in the making of this trip, but any time I saw road kill after that, I was like, “They were asking for it.”
Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns were two of the best parks we’ve seen so far. You can skip Guadalupe and just eat rabbit stew instead. As much as we were warned of gun-totin’ Jew haters who want to make America great again, everyone we met couldn’t have been nicer. It seemed like an annual pilgrimage for people from Austin and we could’ve spent a week in the park with ease. Sure, one family’s picnic basket was emblazoned in red, white and blue with, “Faith, family, freedom,” which are three things I’m not big on (too much anxiety with freedom), but they wished us a great day when we saw them later on a hike, and thanked us when part of their picnic blew away (the dishes were gunning for freedom).
My biggest moment of being a total idiot was walking into a donut shop in Van Horn, Texas at 7am after dodging rabbits. Jen and I combined were less than a third shorter and smaller than the next person in there. I was going on zero sleep and video game driving when I asked for four donut holes. “Four?” She yelled at me. “It’s a dozen for a dollar.” My palm-to-forehead morning only continued when I asked if they had soy milk for my coffee. “No,” she stared at me.
And I only share that super-embarrassing story because I hope I could fulfill their stereotype of pompous city boys walking into their Texas donut shop and ordering four donut holes and asking about soy milk. And I hope I made their day because it’s the least I could offer in return after such a great trip to Texas.
Flew into Portland where my friend picked me up. Drove over to the coast, then took the 101 and the 1 back to L.A. It was cloudy.
Northern part of the coast was covered in fog, best parts are the rocky coasts, massive cliffs and lighthouses, if you’re into that kind of thing. Screw lighthouses if you’re not. Newport was a neat town with amazing fish and the Rogue Brewery. Then it started to clear up a little bit before Oregon Dunes National Rec Area, giant sand dunes where they filmed Star Wars (the, uh, sand dune parts). The southern part of the coast was clear and desolate. Giant rocks jutting out of the ocean, and then hippies at the California border. Redwood National Park had some nice trails and big trees. They’re like trees, but taller. This trip is good for you.