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Social Distancing In 209: Places To Enjoy ‘Real’ Space
Rein Lenhart on one of the bridges crossing Wapama Falls in Hetch Hetchy Valley.

I had driven 14 hours essentially non-stop from Santa Fe to Ventura after spending 10 days bicycling through the Red-River-Taos area in New Mexico.

I was looking forward to visiting longtime friends Jack and Gail Vaughan for a day before heading back up north to home.

Before going to bed that night after talking for hours, in my semi-comatose state I agreed with their suggestion heading to Anaheim and spending the next day at Disneyland was a great idea.

We were standing in line at the Pirates of the Caribbean. It was a long wait as the line slowly snaked back and forth. Although I was literally dead on my feet the company was keeping me going.

And then it happened. I got kicked in the heel. I turned around and there was a little kid, perhaps all of 7 years smiling. I shrugged it off and went back to chatting with Jack and Gail.

Then I got kicked again. I turned around a little bit more perturbed. This went on for about a half dozen times until I made eye contact with the boys’ parents.

I did not say a word but the mother with a pleasant smile said in a voice with a Japanese accent “sorry, no speak English.”

I turned back to talk to Jack and Gail again and got kicked in the heel once again. I ignored it. Then the kid kicked me again. What I did next I was not super proud of doing. By now he was kicking my heel at predictable intervals. I waited until he kicked me three more times and then did a toe stretch timed with his next kick. I came down on his foot while resisting the temptation to apply weight, turned around, looked at his parents and smiled, “sorry, I don’t speak Japanese.”

The kid looked shocked as did the parents. The bottom line the kid stopped kicking me and we boarded the ride 20 minutes later without further incident.

That was the day I realized people were great to be around but there were times you wish they kept their distance.

There is a lot to be said about decorum interacting with people. But there is also a lot to gain from solitude.

Delving into real social distancing is something you might want to give a try once the rules dealing with the pandemic dissipate.

You don’t have to recreate Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond experience to benefit from solitude that brings with it perspective, serenity, and a healthy dose of down time from your daily routine.

With just a few souls shy of 40 million you may not believe such an experience is possible in California. Drive the 120 Bypass or Highway 99 at commute time and you might think there is nothing but madness in the Golden State.

But with 163,696 square miles there are literally vast spaces where you won’t encounter another individual for hours if not days, where you can see for 60 miles plus, can hear birds flap their wings 400 yards away, not come across a fence or a telephone pole for miles, and where there are night skies so dark and littered with pinpoints of light that the heavens look like they have received a light dusting of sparkling snow.

Once the rules of engagement of the pandemic have lapsed, there are a number of places you can venture to for a one-day to a week-long experience where social distancing is even more effective for your soul than it is to help flatten the COVID-19 curve. That includes less beaten trails and cross country treks in various state and national parks as well as wilderness areas that you can find throughout California or here in our own backyard in the 209.

Keep in mind that the rules of engaging the enemy — in this case the coronavirus — require you not to do non-essential travel outside the county for the time being. Keeping your sanity may seem essential but you really need to adhere to Gov. Gavin Newsom on this one. That’s why you should explore options for social distancing the way nature intended so that once the all clear to venture out is given you are ready to go.

Arguably the most optimum experience for most people are relatively easy trails in settings with minimal crowds that are easy to access while being filled with stunning and serene vistas.

Topping the list in the 209 is hiking to Wapama Falls at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park.

While I won’t argue there are not more breath-taking options among the 800 plus miles of established trails in Yosemite, this is a one venture that won’t literally take your breath away to get a recharge from soaking in the scenery and opting to stray off the path for a bid of solitude and reflection.

It also has the added bonus of not requiring you to repeat your experience of trying to get into the entrance of Costco these days as much of the year there are lines that stretch on and on simply for vehicles trying to get past entrance stations to the national park. And given 96 percent of the people head for the valley it could do with six-foot social distance as a permanent feature.

You can reach the day use parking literally on the edge of O’Shaugnessy Dam in 2.5 hours from Manteca. It is a straight shot on Highway 120 with a left turn onto Evergreen Road just before the Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite National Park.

Unlike the rest of Yosemite, vehicle access to Hetch Hetchy Valley is restricted. Once the park reopens the entrance gate to Hetch Hetchy will be open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. until Labor Day and then 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Labor Day through Oct. 31. You will eventually have to pass through an entrance pay station.

Usually I try to hike the 13-mile roundtrip to Rancheria Falls, classic ribbon-style falls with water gently cascading over granite for most of the year.

Most people will be will rewarded with just the five mile round-trip to take in Wapama Falls. I’ve stood alone on more than one occasion just hours after sunrise watching and listening to water cascading down 1,310 feet over glacier carved granite for 15 minutes or more before another soul hiked by.

Yes, Yosemite Falls is much grander as the tallest waterfall in California and the third in the continental United States at 2,428 feet. A crowd, however, at Wapama Falls is a dozen folks compared to hundreds at the base on Yosemite Falls and seemingly as many at the top as well. The trails to Yosemite Falls reminds you more of Market Street in downtown San Francisco at high noon on a weekday before the pandemic. You actually enjoy the Hetch Hetchy trail that never loses sight of the crystal blue reservoir water on the way to Wapama Falls. There are a few areas just beyond a series of bridges  crossing the fall that are idea for a restful nap or to soak in the carved grandeur of the past of the valley that wasn’t inundated to store water for the City of San Francisco.

My preferred go to place for solitude and “social distancing” in the 209 is Sonora Peak.

The summit at 11,459 feet offers a 360-degree view that is worth every step of the short but semi-strenuous 5-mile round trip from the St. Mary’s Trailhead located just west of the 9,623-foot Sonora Pass on Highway 108.

Often times you will have the summit to yourself for well over an hour even during what passes as the “peak” season.

If I’m lucky I will be able to squeeze three hikes up to Sonora Peak in a year’s time. Once in the spring when snow still covers much of the trail, in early summer when there are still patches of snow lingering and the first wildflowers are blooming, and late summer or early fall where you will find a repertoire of wildflowers in bloom that many say is among the most intense in the Sierra one can find around the 10,000 foot level.

Each season gives you a different perspective from the peak.

It is easily within my top five spots in the Sierra to just soak in the scenery or sneak in a short nap mainly because it is fairly easy to conquer whether you are a neophyte, a lollygagger, or want to challenge yourself for a personal best.

What also does it for me is I can leave at 7 a.m., drive the 2.5 hours from Manteca via Highway 108 that is mostly void of traffic once you pass Strawberry, get in the hike with enough gain of elevation — some 2,000 feet — to get a feel good tiredness without being exhausted, soak in the views, spend a lot of time thinking or just letting your mind go its natural course, enjoy a spell at the summit, and be back in Manteca by 5:30 p.m. to tackle weekend errands and be refreshed for the upcoming week.

And when I really need to get away for a while I head for Death Valley that so far I’ve visited 24 times covering 129 days over the course of 34 years.

I chart cross country hikes to remote sand dunes as well as up canyons, and try my best to tackle peaks —some with success and others where I get to the point where I know I’ve reached my limitations for safety — without coming across anyone the entire time.

It is a place where you can hear yourself think while measuring humanity by the yardstick that is the 5,270-square-mile Death Valley National Park where on one day you can be hiking at 280 feet below sea level and the next cresting the narrow 11,049-foot summit of Telescope Peak.

And if you spend a night under the stars away from the two spots in the valley where tourists and campers congregate as well as a handful of remote campgrounds you can get an eyeful of the heavens that you can’t take in in very many other locales given mountain ranges block out light on the horizon.

The ability to distance yourself from your daily routine and the company of others for a while is a surefire way to get perspective and crater your stress levels.

Once social distancing rules are relaxed and I can head east into the Sierra for a day hike I will recharge my immunity to the burdens that can come with daily routines and delve into a half day or so of “extreme” social distancing.

A hiker from Pleasanton takes in the early summer view from atop Sonora Peak.