Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review: Chilkoot Campground, Sierra National Forest (Yosemite National Park)

Location: 4 hrs from San Francisco
Website: USDA Forest Service
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Car Camping
Grade: B- (Chilkoot)
Stargazing: Heavy canopy, so not great
Summary: Limited services, friendly staff, painful drive into Yosemite
The crowds in the valley
can get dense
Thoughts: If you want to camp in Yosemite National Park during peak season, book early.  As early as possible.  Otherwise, you won't be camping in Yosemite National Park.  That was the lesson I learned when trying to book two weeks in advance to stay in this beautiful park.  No, as the title above suggests, two weeks was not early enough.  So instead I stayed at the closest available public campground, in Sierra National Forest.  If you want to explore Sierra National Forest, I imagine this campground is quite convenient.  If you want to explore Yosemite, it is not.  You'll have to drive roughly 30-45 mins before you even enter the park.  Once you arrive at the park, depending on where you want to go, the drive can get much longer. You're at the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias when entering here, but getting to the valley is likely another hour (depending on how slow the car you will get inevitably get trapped behind is going) and so is Glacier Point.

On-site water source
at Chilkoot
The Chilkoot campground, other than being a little tricky to find since the directions that you receive upon booking tell you it's on Beashore Rd, though GPS data and Google Maps call this Beasore Rd.  But once you've figured that out and make it to the campground, you're fine.  It's then just a matter of settling into the site and getting a visit from the campground host who will register you.  This was a very pleasant experience with our host, who was friendly and helpful (we were able to purchase firewood for $7 a bundle, two of which lasted the 3 night stay).  The main inconvenience is getting water; we lugged water up the steep, unmarked path from the creek (which you can find mainly because its audible from all sites).  Our host kindly offered to supply us with some water (though I'm not sure what the cost would have been, or if there even was a charge), but other than that, you'll have to get your water in the nearby hamlet of Bass Lake (which also sells gas cheaper than you'll find in the park, or even just outside of the park on the highway 120).

Sites are in close proximity,
but not uncomfortably dense
The sites themselves are better than average for car camping, even with the limited services.  There is a reasonable amount of privacy, considering it is car camping.   The privacy stems from there being only 14 sites in the campground, making a single loop around a few outhouses.  The sites themselves are very large, and since it's a single loop, you aren't completely surrounded by sites, just adjacent to and/or across from them.  However, the sites are wide open, as you can see from the picture.  Additionally, there is no scenery to speak of at the campground, just trees and the creek (which isn't visible from the sites, but is audible).


Wildlife in the Mariposa Grove
Yosemite is a spectacular spot.  The natural beauty of the park is breathtaking, though the crowds and staff in the valley detract from the experience.  The valley was extremely busy when we went (mid-June), and, while beautiful, it has an amusement park feel due to the hoards of tourists.  Try to allot a single day to visit the valley; that way you can see its many great views in one shot (it's easy to drive from one to the next), then you don't have to make the trip back down.  Regarding the staff in the valley, most that we encountered were somewhat ignorant of the park.  Often they wouldn't have answers to questions on the locations of trails or where to get a park map or if the park store had wifi (it does, and you don't need to pay), and there are large line-ups to access staff that seem better informed.  Many of the staff were volunteers, possibly seasonal, perhaps in their first season at the park.

View from Wawona Point
If you want to escape the crowds, all that needs to be done is to travel a little further up the trail head.  After you're about 500 meters (1/3 of a mile for my American friends) down most trails, you'll lose most of the more laid-back park visitors; most seem to have the few main attractions to check off their lists (Grizzly Giant in the Mariposa Grove, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Falls, Glacier Point, maybe Sentinel Dome) and don't make it much further.  But fortunately there is much more to see.  A great hiking resource can be found on this site, so that you can plan accordingly.  Some spots where we found very few other hikers on the trail, but that were very nice include:
  • Upper Mariposa Grove (much nicer and more densely populated with giant sequoias than the lower grove), and Wawona Point (provides a spectacular view that you'll have all to yourself)
  • Taft Point (though it was covered with snow so we didn't make it very far)
  • Artist Point
View of the Valley from Glacier Point
Many fallen trees on
the way to Artist Point
The biggest issue with hiking in Yosemite is the grossly insufficient trail marking.  There are very few trail blazes, in fact some trails didn't have a blaze to speak of, just signs pointing the way at the trailhead.  If a trails isn't well trampled, it would be easy to get lost...just as we did on the Taft point trail (the trail was buried in snow).  In addition, less popular trails are very poorly maintained, with fallen trees and limbs blocking the path (see the photo of the trail to Artist Point on the right).  Considering the number of inexperienced staff, poor maintenance and terribly marked trails, I suspect the culprit here is under-funding.  While this might be expected in less popular parks during these turbulent financial times, to find that this is the case in the 3rd most visited park in the US was a shock and a great disappointment.
Museum at Upper Mariposa Grove

View from Artist Point - worth the trek

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Review: Galeairy Lake, Algonquin Interior

Location: 100 km from Huntsville (1.5 hrs), 240 km from Ottawa (3 hrs)
Website: Friends of Algonquin Park or Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps Canoe Routes
Camping Facilities: Backcountry
Grade: C+
Cloud Lake - Centennial Ridges Trail
Summary: Uneventful paddling on a lake filled with tourists on pontoon boats.
Stargazing: Good   
Thoughts:  I'll keep this brief, because I didn't venture far enough to have much meaningful material to provide.  We did this trip with the aim to base camp while making day trips around the highway 60 corridor, specifically to hike the Centennial Ridges trail.  As a result, our campsite would ideally be a short paddle from the highway, quiet and in a scenic spot.  Two of my first options (Rock Lake and Canisbay) were completely booked up, Galeairy didn't really fit any of these criteria.

First, the access point is actually located outside the park so you drive past the west gate to get there and paddle back into the park.  The paddle back into the park was manageable on the occasions we did it mainly because the winds weren't to fierce.  If this hadn't been the case, I can imagine it being a bit of a struggle.  Either way, its an hour-long paddle going against the wind, and 45 mins in its absense, till you reach the first site.

Second, you won't find much peace and quiet here, due to relentless motorboat traffic all the up until sunset.  I think this is primarily due to the resort on this lake, but not entirely; on our way out at 6am, some cottagers were already out to try water-skiing on the otherwise calm and peaceful lake.

Finally, there's nothing worth seeing here. We stayed at the first site; though we checked out a few more sites further in, the first site was quite nice and the others would just tack on further paddling to our day trip.  But what we did see during our paddle wasn't noteworthy.  It might get more interesting closer to the portage into Rock, but I suspect it doesn't given that the topography.

Whitefish Lake  - Centennial Ridges Trail
Regarding the Centennial Ridges hike, I was pleasantly surprised at both how nice and short it was, given what I'd read.  The signs post a 6-hr estimated completion time, though my wife and I did it in 3 1/2, with plenty of breaks to enjoy the scenery.  Admittedly, the trail pretty well gives you a single landscape to view (overlooking Whitefish and Lake of Two Rivers), but from many different view points.  The best view point from my perspective is the final one (signpost #10) overlooking Whitefish Lake.  The most unpleasant signpost was at Cloud Lake, due to the clouds of mosquitoes that descend upon you as you approach (this was early July, I'm sure its much better after mid-August).  A fun and worthwhile hike, though if you don't want do the whole 10 km hike, just head south toward signpost #10 where the trail splits.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Review: Ragged Lake / Parkside Bay, Algonquin Interior

The bay into the portage from Smoke
to Ragged Lake
Location: 55km East of Huntsville (~ 1 hr)
Website: Friends of Algonquin Park or Ontario Parks
Map: Google Maps Canoe Routes
Camping Facilities: Backcountry
Grade: B- (Ragged), B+ (Parkside Bay)
Summary: Congested, but less so than Canoe Lake. Ragged has few high quality campsites, but better options are available on Parkside Bay.
Thoughts:  The less desirable cousin south of Canoe Lake, Smoke Lake is a nice introduction to Algonquin, with smaller crowds at the portages due to fewer canoe route opportunities south of Highway 60.  As far as the challenge of the paddle, crossing Canoe Lake is likely easier than crossing Smoke, due to the winds and waves that can whip up on Smoke.  These can be especially strong in the southern 1/3 of the lake after passing the narrower northern portion, where the lake gets suddenly wider in the east-west direction.  Once you throw in the wakes of the many motorboats whizzing by, it can be a pretty choppy ride (but not altogether unpleasant).

View from site NW of island on Ragged
Remnants of a
mussel dinner
Things get better once you get to the portage into Ragged Lake.  Though there's a sharp incline right at the beginning, its a very short portage.  Its one of those instances when you wonder if the length was accurately recorded on the map, as it seems even shorter than its 250m.  The put-in on Ragged has some historical significance as it was once the site of a log chute between Smoke and Ragged, though not much remains.  There is a trail that is perhaps 15-20 m north from this put-in, along the east side of the portage, where you can hike down to the rapids and have a look at the old chute site.  Its a nice, peaceful set of rapids, but don't expect to see any remnants of the chute.

View from south "point" site
on Parkside Bay
The sites on Ragged are hit and miss. While many will suit most needs (decent site sizes), they are extremely tightly packed, especially around the island.  We stayed on a site on a NW point, just across from the island and 6 other campfires were clearly visible (and audible).  A few exceptions are the northern most site, just after the portage (though you're bound to see plenty of paddlers come by your site on their way further south or to other lakes) and the two southern most sites (the southeastern sites have very nice private beaches, making great docking points, in addition to swimming/sunbathing opportunities).

Parkside is even tolerable in the rain
Parkside bay is slightly better, though I haven't been here on a long weekend (in fact, only on weekdays).  Its much wider, with greater space between the sites.  There are two sites on long points on the east side of this bay that are winners, get them if you can. There is also good fishing on this bay, where we've tangled with some feisty bass.

Family of ducks on Parkside
While the variety of routes is often much greater north of Highway 60, the availability of sites is probably better to the south.  We booked our stay about one month in advance on Ragged Lake, and that was booking for the August long weekend.  While it's best to stay away from Ragged if you can, you'll still have a decent camping experience, with loons, large sites, and clear views of the night sky still possible.  Be warned however; you may have to share this with experience with a few dozen others.