Going to Yosemite Instead
"You know, there’s room for one more in the car if you want to come to Yosemite."
That’s all I needed to hear, of course. Instead of getting on a train back to Chicago the next morning, I’d be with friends in a loaded up rental car heading for the Sierras. Though we arrived late in the park, the following morning it was clear none of us had any intention of easing our way into our very short stay. For me, it’s just more of the same at this point. Hard life, right?
After getting the worst possible news that Yosemite Falls was completely dried up due to California’s severe drought, we quickly changed plans to hike Vernal and then Nevada Falls. Now, while I’d like to say this was a new, authentic experience, truth be told I have been to Yosemite before. From what my parents have told me, I was a baby and spent a lot of the car ride puking. Apparently my family did a lot of traveling when I was too young to remember anything, but at least they have stories to tell me about how I pooped here or vomited there. That, and I’m finally starting to understand why I have this deep-rooted desire to travel. Clearly, it’s to spite my folks for taking me to all these places when I was too young to actually remember a damn second of it.
Psychological issues thinly veiled in facetiousness aside, after just our first hike in the heaven that is Yosemite I now realize I would go to this park again even if I’ve been there a hundred times. For those inexperienced with hiking, the Vernal/Nevada Falls hike on the Mist Trail and *heart flutters* John Muir Trail may be pretty difficult, but it’s incredibly accessible with frequent water/restroom facilities. I was shocked by that part, and wondered if the park had truly been lost to development. If you’ve been on this blog any stretch of time, you know I prefer my time in nature to be as difficult and dangerous as possible, but seeing as this part of my journey wasn’t just about me, it’s a small concession to be able to refill water bottles instead of simply rationing what you got. Also, in writing this post I was pretty relieved to read that Vernal/Nevada Falls have like some of the most accessible trails in the park. Luckily, wilderness remains.
Another tradition I’ve come to have in my traveling is swimming in any body of water that’s near where I’m going, assuming the risk of me getting a disease is moderately low. At Vernal Falls, the water there was pure, chilly, snow melt. The shock of jumping in usually forces all the air out of your lungs, and if you stay in water that cold you’re sure to get hypothermia. So, naturally I stripped to my underwear and jumped in, swimming to either ends of the pool and attempting to climb up the slick rocks of the waterfall until I could feel all the heat leaving my body. People do weird things in nature. It’s a great mid-point refresher on the way up to Nevada Falls, especially in that late-summer heat. Going further up, though, and with just a little bit of off-trail hiking, we found an amazing swimming hole surrounded by huge boulders, secluding it from the trail and other hikers- minus some dude who was apparently on acid, which combined with hiking off trail seems like an incredibly bad idea. People do weird things in nature.
Though the hike up from Vernal to Nevada is steep and tough, the water up there (the same water of the Merced River which flows down into Vernal Falls) is somehow warm. It’s exactly the right temperature to sit in and forget about time, the sun’s eventual setting, and that you’re at the summit of the trail loop and the most amazing view is literally just around the corner. We would eventually put our clothes back on to further show off an impressive sock game, soak in the valley views, and stare at the unforgiving beauty of Liberty Peak and Half Dome, then saunter our way back down the John Muir Trail, but only after a little more time in the water.
Outside of walking around the woods alone, a lot of other stuff went down at Camp Navarro. I showed up to the camp with two families and many friends all enjoying the weekend’s camping, the nearby wineries, the recreation…
And, of course, Miranda and Will. Two friends who planned the whole weekend to culminate in them getting married in the middle of a beautiful redwood grove. I’m simultaneously blown away and not surprised at all that they had so many of us midwesterners made it out to enjoy everything. But that’s what happens I guess when two people can give so much love to others and then still have so much still to give to each other. But as full as the days had been here in a place that for real was starting to feel like heaven, our last dinner together was bittersweet because I knew I had a train to catch early the next morning to get back home. Or so I thought.
Chasing Fog, Old Logging Roads
I’ve never been much for ‘no trespassing’ signs. Honestly it feels more like I’m being taunted than anything else when I come across one. The property bordering Camp Navarro is owned by a logging company that, for all my snooping, doesn’t appear to have used this land in at least five years. The roads are in very bad shape (that’s saying a lot for logging roads) and the forest is having it’s usual last laugh by slowly reclaiming the ground.
So, with no sign of anyone having patrolled these off-limits roads and it being 6am on a Sunday I headed out on what turned out to be almost a completely vertical hike. I’m the first one to damn the logging companies and the culture that created them, but that said these roads did leave me impressed that anything could even get up their steepness to bring trees down. Especially trees as tall and heavy as these. Now redwoods, when they get to be that certain hugeness, stop getting the water they need from the ground and begin relying on the fog that surrounds them. It’s one of those wonderful evolutions that makes ecosystems so specific to location and makes me incredibly grateful that this beauty can’t be found just anywhere.
Oh and it is beautiful. At a certain point in elevation- and like I have no clue what that might be as I gave up on caring about outdoor recreation data a long time ago, but anyway at one point I had hiked far enough up that I was also now in the fog. Normally as I climb higher I start feeling the enormity of where I am and what I’m just a small, temporary part of, but this day the fog trapped me in it’s tiny, grey world. Myself, a few other trees, and the road immediately in front of me are all that existed. You could draw some deep meaning out of this, I’m sure, but unless you’re a philosopher who hikes (if you ever meet a philosopher who doesn’t hike you should question their legitimacy immediately) you’re probably more inclined to just look around with a big, dumb smile on your face, take some pictures, and remark on how cool it looks.
As I did.
Hiking the Redwood Forests of Navarro, California
The contentment that began to creep into me during my time at Camp Navarro didn’t go unnoticed. My first night sleeping out alone in the adirondack was a great moment of enjoying pure darkness and total silence. Initially when I explored I thought the soft ground so unique the redwood forests might be great for barefoot hiking (a new hobby of mine), but in the mountain ranges that connected the groves the ground went dry, sun-bleached, and rocky. Stuffing my feet into huge, padded boots is so unappealing to me that I’ve settled for wearing Toms for hikes too rough for bare feet.
So, to wake up from the most serene sleep ever, with just the right amount of my body sore, as first light was hitting the sky but not quite making it down past the canopy was a transcendent moment for me. I immediately grabbed a water bottle, an apple, and feeling hella cute and manly I stomped away from camp once more with goals of getting really sweaty, really dirty, and wasting as much of the day as possible. It took less than a day for me to feel like I was where I belonged and doing exactly what I was meant to do.
The first time I remember being surrounded by redwoods was six or seven Januaries back when I went to San Francisco for the first time and spent a day with friends in Golden Gate National Recreational Area. Like, I was in awe of their size and stuff just like every person upon first encountering redwoods, but at the time I wasn’t yet brainwashed by bearded dudes like Muir and Abbey. By that I mean I thought nature was cool and having nice paths and parking lots in and around it was acceptable. In Navarro, though, I was isolated. No paved paths or trashcans— hell, no water for that matter. There was one road that I decided was as best to avoid as late night texts from an ex. Deer trails were good enough until I’d stumble across an old, abandoned ATV route. You don’t really care how you’re getting through the woods when the woods you’re in are the oldest and most beautiful thing ever.
If this sounds like a great way to get lost, you’re right. Don’t walk around the woods like this. You’ll get eaten by at least one bear and no one will know what to do with your camera gear or your dog back home. People who die alone in the woods aren’t remembered for ending their lives like badasses but as living like fools.
Arriving at Camp Navarro, California
Poor little east-coast-turned-midwestern-boy, I had no idea places like this existed. You can find out more about this place here if you want, but this magical place was a boy scout camp for forever, then retired, and is now opened once again to the public. For the first half of this long trip, here is where I stayed. My first day was mostly settling in, finding out where I could find my preferred sleeping spot (alone, in the woods, not inside) and exploring the immediate grounds of the camp. Though the camp’s property has some interesting trails and gives you an intimate look at California’s current drought, in the coming days I’d come to find the Navarro area has a fantastic amount of wilderness to offer.
Where I’ve Been
So I disappeared into the Calfornia wilderness for two weeks. This project is on the cusp of being a year old, which by the way holy crap, and I’ve been taking a lot of time reflecting back on where I’ve gone, what I’ve done, and where all this is going. It’s been good to go back and see how things have changed, how they’ve progressed.
Then I went west.
Enjoy these iPhone shots, I’m currently sitting on a shit ton of film and memory cards. Posts return tomorrow, but if you can’t wait pop over to my instagram.
More photos, and sneak peaks, on instagram.
Thoughts and other nonsense on twitter.
That's all the planning I do.
Traveling around the western US, I started Railpass as a 15-day train trip to circle western America, explore new areas throughout the U.S., have surprising adventures, and document the experiences.
Taking only a few cameras, a bicycle, and a change of clothes, each stop on that route was a full day's worth of adventure. The train rides between destinations offered a chance to talk to other rail-travelers, recuperate, and (of course) blog here.
This blog started as a photo-journal of that trip, and continues to be updated with further adventures via train.
My name is Brent Knepper.
I'm a freelance photographer from Chicago, IL. My first train trip happened when I skipped class in high school and took my bmx bike with me from rural Virginia to New York. My parents have since forgiven me.