By DENNIS WYATT
Living in the 209 is a hiker’s dream.
It’s not just because you can walk out your front door and hit the proverbial trail. Instead you are within a three-hour drive of some of the most diverse hiking opportunities in the world from day hikes on the Pacific Crest trail on Sonora Pass, 13,000-plus peaks above the tree line, Yosemite, the Sierra, Big Sur, Pinnacles, bird refuges near Merced, Bay Area hills, Mt. Diablo and isolated Coastal Range valleys, redwoods, rugged ocean trails, and much more.
Every feasible category of hiking save the desert is within a three-hour drive.
And if you add another hour or two for a weekend excursion of a vacation, it takes in the Eastern Sierra and Great Basin where hikers from Colorado and Europe claim is the best concentration of hiking opportunities on established paths in the world. Go up to six hours and you can toss Death Valley into the mix.
I’m what you call a day hiker. Other hikers — as well as some backpackers — when they see my preferred choice of hikes that have to last six plus hours, involve at least 1,000 net feet of gain (I prefer 3,000 feet) plus encompass 7 to 12 miles refer to me as an aggressive day hiker.
Even when I spend six days in either Eastern Sierra or Death Valley I use a motel as a base and drive to various trail heads. This allows me to plan varied trips as I am this year to conclude two hikes up 13,000-foot peaks, reaching the toe of the southernmost glacier in the Sierra, alpine lakes at 9,000 feet, and cresting the highest mountain in Nevada. It is six days of haven — hike, eat, and sleep.
Most of the time I solo although occasionally a nephew will join me or — when I ratchet it down a bit — one of my grandkids will tag along.
There are a lot of things you should carry with you and precautions you should take as well as basic equipment. You can read plenty of sources for that.
The one thing you won’t find out there is somebody telling you the best way to prepare yourself for places you’ve never been before is to buy a book.
That’s right, a book. I’ve only found one Internet site that is a reliable standard.
Every hiker’s idea of difficulty is different as are their pace. Although I carry headlamps and extra provisions and clothes in case I get caught in darkness coming back, changeable weather, or get into trouble it is tough to gage a trail you have never been on.
I own about 15 hiking books covering Northern California and Death Valley. Several of them are well worn. They run the gamut covering “50 Classic Day Hikes of the Eastern Sierra” by Devon Fredericksen and Reed Harvey that has many well-worn pages to “101 Hikes in Northern California Exploring Mountains, Valleys, and Seashores” by Matt Heid.
The books give elevation gains, direction to trail heads, miles, a description of what it is like and visual highlights, estimated hiking times, a head up on potentially treacherous issues and try to rate the hikes from easy to very strenuous.
Once you’ve done one hike in a book by a particular author it becomes easy to gage the other hikes they write about.
While I research everything I can on the Internet for those hikes that are pushing the limit for a day hike such as the one I have planned to reach Palisades Glacier above Big Pine this year, on other hikes I’ll just rely on the books as well as Tom Harrison Maps depicting trails and topography that I pack with me.
But relying on the Internet is a crap shoot given there usually is no history to judge comments and observations those authoring the items post. Reading them do, however, get you to thinking about options.
An example of how misleading Internet postings that are random unlike a book listing a series of hikes by the same author is a posting about Hetch Hetchy I came across after I hiked it.
I had avoided Hetch Hetchy for years because the elevation gain — more precisely the lack of it even to Rancheria Falls — didn’t appeal to me. I absolutely fell in love with Hetch Hetchy after my first hike and have done it three times since — once when a snow storm forced me from a planned hike out of Yosemite Valley in mid-winter and twice when I took a grandkid. It is a great hike for waterfalls while walking along a pristine lake below granite walls that rival Yosemite Valley with a mere fraction of the crowd.
It is also one of the safest hikes I’ve been on as long as water is flowing over the bridge below Wampa Falls.
That said after I did it the first time I came across a posting by a gentleman who was telling of the beauty of the hike. But then he sternly warned for much of the way you were a mere foot or so from sliding down granite into the lake that was problematic at best to get out of because of steep slopes and cold water. He advised against those wary of such pitfalls as well as it being wise not to take youngsters with you.
There isn’t one place in the 12.7-mile round trip from the O’Shaugnessey Dam to Rancheria Falls that I would even consider remotely dangerous. And about the only way you could get into the water was to stray off the trail and then descend down slippery granite rising from the reservoir.
As I scrolled down I discovered the author was an amateur photography and Hetch Hetchy was the longest and hardest hike he’d ever done. He also noted that he was 83 years old. Age, I want to make it clear, has nothing to do with how tough of a hike you can tackle. I met an 87-year-old man heading up to Wildrose Peak in Death Valley just a greater of a mile after I started my ascent from the 9,064-foot summit. But judging what somebody writes about a hike without knowing their experience and fitness level can be misleading.
That said, there is one Internet contributor that I rely on extensively to make hiking decisions in Death Valley. The site is dubbed “Steve Hall’s Death Valley.”
Given there are few trails in Death Valley and my desire to be far away from everyone else I have used his assessments — especially after I did one or two of his hikes — as a standard. He doesn’t give you a lot of details that you might get in a book such as estimated time, net gain, and such but I have found his narrative is a good way to navigate tricky turnoffs in canyons and to get an idea of what to expect.
And the absolutely best place in the 209 to get hiking books and maps is REI in Stockton in the Stonecreek Village Center at 5757 Pacific Ave. north of the Delta College campus.
Yes, you could look for them on Amazon.com but here’s the rub: You can actually browse through the entire book to make sure the hikes they talk about are numerous enough to appeal you and that they don’t duplicate too much with other books you have. You are also likely to come across books on other areas to hike and such that you may not have given any thought to.
Besides, by going to REI you can get everything you need to take advantage of living in the 209 to explore the great outdoors as well as give your heart and soul a workout.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email firstname.lastname@example.org