BLAUERT: Rim fire makes it hard to escape smoke

September 17, 2013 

— Last weekend I drove east over Sonora Pass and experienced the smoke from the Rim fire.

As the third largest fire in California's history, it's produced a lot of smoke. The ghosts of incinerated trees hung low over Jamestown, Sonora, Mi-Wuk, Long Barn, Cold Springs and Strawberry.

But emerging from the smoke were countless "thank you" signs for firefighters and emergency personnel hung from homes, trees and fences.

Visibility increased as we climbed to the top of the 9,624-foot pass, but the sky still had a gray tinge. It remained hazy as we drove south along U.S. 395 through Bridgeport toward our hiking destination at Lundy Lake (near Lee Vining). We finally saw blue sky in Lundy Canyon.

We hiked the steep trail from the end of the canyon up to Helen Lake in the Twenty Lakes Basin. By the time we reached the top, the wind had shifted directions and the air of the basin was turning gray. The gray followed us back down the canyon and we were surprised to find that it had become so thick in Bridgeport that we couldn't see any of the surrounding mountains. That convinced us to revise our camping plans and head south to the Mammoth area.

When we arrived at the Big Springs campground the sky was comparably clear. By the next morning, however, the smoke had found us again. Even driving south to Bishop we couldn't escape it, though on our journey home from the Bridgeport area and the whole 108 corridor was much less smoky than it had been the day before.

Though we couldn't avoid the smoke, and there were some times when I wouldn't have minded a throat lozenge or some eye drops, we still enjoyed our trip.

Part of enjoying the outdoors involves being flexible and recalculating your plans when necessary. Since the visibility was poor Sunday, we spent part of the day driving around the volcanic tablelands north of Bishop checking out a truly amazing collection of ancient Native American petroglyphs. When you can't enjoy the views in the distance, there are plenty things much closer to enjoy.

A few aspens are already starting to show yellow, hopefully a promise of a good fall color season soon to arrive.

Here are a couple of fire lookouts:

• CRANE FLAT: This former lookout is located on a 6,647 foot summit between Yosemite's Big Oak Flat Entrance Station and Crane Flat.

The building is still standing, but today it's a helicopter base for rescue operations and fire suppression. You get to it from a road on the north side of the Big Oak Flat Road, marked by a small sign. Visitors are generally welcome during daylight unless rescue or fire operations are in progress. The summit offers some nice views of western Yosemite, including the Clark Range to the south and the Three Chimneys to the north. In winter the road to the top is closed, but it makes an easy 3-mile round trip on snowshoes or cross-country skis. Because fire operations will still be in progress for several weeks, it's likely this will be a busy site until then. Plan your trip for the early fall when clearer skies will provide better views and fire operations will have subsided.

• HENNESS RIDGE: Yosemite's other lookout tower is just inside the southwestern boundary of Yosemite National Park atop a 6,339-foot summit.

Though it is no longer used, it is in good condition except for the exterior staircase which is closed about halfway up. This prevents visitors from experiencing the complete 360-degree view. From the base and the highest point you can reach on the stairs, the view is partially obscured by trees and it doesn't seem that the top is quite high enough to be above them. Since this area was logged from 1912 to 1923, the trees must have been much shorter when the lookout was built in the late 1930s.

You can find the Henness Lookout by parking at the end of Azalea Lane in the community of Yosemite West (just off Wawona Road near Chinquapin) and walking a half mile up the gated access road. It's an easy hike with gentle elevation gain and while the view might not be as impressive, Henness Ridge can be a great easy hike if you're looking for something new to do in Yosemite.

Volunteers have done a lot of work to improve condition of this lookout over the past decade and perhaps someday the top of the tower will be open to the public.

• OVERNIGHT: Nine lookouts are available as overnight rentals. Staying in one can be fun and affordable. The views — especially sunrises and sunsets — are often amazing. My favorites have been the Little Mount Hoffman Lookout in Shasta-Trinity National Forest and Bear Basin Lookout in Six Rivers National Forest. Reservations at www.recreation.gov.

Adam Blauert is a correspondent to the Sun-Star. He's an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking, and exploring the western states. He can be reached at adamblauert@yahoo.com.

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