Perhaps this is what our national parks hold for us: stories, of who we have been and who we might become—a reminder that as human beings our histories harbor both darkness and light. To live in the United States of America and tell only one story, from one point of view, diminishes all of us.
– Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land
Monday, September 9 was our trip to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The twenty-two acre island, now part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, was once a rounded hill in the valley that would become San Francisco Bay after sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age. During the Gold Rush in the middle of the nineteenth century, the island held a lighthouse and a military fort. Later, the fort was converted to a military prison with a cellhouse at the top of the island completed in 1912. In 1934, the Federal Department of Corrections took control of the island and turned it into the nation’s first and most notorious maximum security prison. It served that function until 1963 when it was shut down by the Kennedy Administration. The island languished for over six years until it was occupied by Native American rights activists in November 1969. The occupation lasted nineteen months. The following year, the National Park Service purchased the island to add it to the newly established Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Shortly after taking ownership of the island, the Park Service began offering tours of the facilities in what had been intended to be a short term use while the agency decided what to do with Alcatraz. The tours proved to be so popular that they have continued for some forty-five years with annual visitation now topping 1.4 million tourists.
On Friday, September 6, Sean and I began what was our longest trip since our honeymoon in 2015. The night before, we had quietly toasted at home my final day as Director of Communications at Openlands. After our trip, I’d be starting a new adventure as the founder of Bold Bison Communications and Consulting. We had a lot of packing to do, so we celebrated with a couple drinks and some delivery Brazilian food for dinner. We were both behind on our packing since he’d had to spend a portion of the previous week in Philadelphia for work and I’d been wrapping things at my former employer.
For a long time, I’d known that I wanted to spend my 40th birthday at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. So I’d always be able to answer the question, “Which Parks are you going to do next?” with a nod to a distant trip to Guadalupe Mountains. Then it became the next Park, and then that trip came and went. Afterward, we weren’t sure where exactly we would focus for the next big trip, but a grand trip that had been percolating in my mind soon became the clear frontrunner. In early 2019 we began planning a trip with great bookend cities and some iconic Parks: flying into Portland, doing the three Parks that surround northern California’s Mount Shasta, and flying home from San Francisco. Redwood National Park just sounded magical. Crater Lake National Park is one of the iconic early Parks. And Lassen Volcanic has long been one of the Parks in the system I’ve been most excited about.
Just before 3pm on July 4, Sean and I departed Mist Falls and began the hike down Paradise Valley. The Falls marked the farthest into the heart of the Sierra Nevada that we would reach on this trip. The following day we would continue on to the third part of our California trip: three nights in San Diego and Andrew and Yesi’s wedding.
For our Fourth of July day hike in Kings Canyon National Park, Sean and I chose the popular trail to Mist Falls on the South Fork of the Kings River. From the parking area at Roads End, the trail gains about 800 feet of elevation in just under four miles, with most of the elevation gain at the end.
General Grant National Park was established in 1890 to protect 154 acres of the General Grant Grove of Giant Sequoias. Then, fifty years later, General Grant National Park was transformed into Kings Canyon National Park, 461,901 acres of mostly wilderness. The push to protect a greater portion of the Sierra Nevada as a wilderness Park was led in large part by Franklin Roosevelt’s legendary Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. The lands that would become Kings Canyon National Park were held by the Forest Service. In the 1930s, advocacy organizations like the Sierra Club and the National Parks Association were becoming increasingly concerned that development in the Parks was destroying their wilderness qualities. They felt that the lands in question may be better off managed as wilderness by the Forest Service rather than developed for visitors by the Park Service. This led to Ickes’ lobbying the organizations for support in the creation of a new National Park, the reverse of how these things usually happened. As the 1930s drew to a close, FDR’s enthusiasm for the new Park grew after Ickes shared with the president a book of images of the Kings Canyon region by famed photographer Ansel Adams. By early 1940, Ickes and Roosevelt had swayed Congress, and the president signed the establishing legislation for the Park on March 1. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed legislation that further expanded the Park to its present boundaries.
At a little after 1pm on July 3, Sean and I reached the southern edge of the plateau on which Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest sits. We were at the junction of Trail of the Sequoias and High Sierra Trail. In front of us to the south was the gorge of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, some 3,700 feet below. Beyond were the ridges and peaks of the southern Sierra Nevada.