October 23, 2018 by Deborah W. Trotter
Autumn can be a wonderful time to visit a national park – the crowds are down, the weather is changing from warm to cooler, and there might be splendid fall color. A possible downside, however, is that autumn is prime time for prescribed burns on national park and forest lands.
One October afternoon, just about a year ago, we drove down into Kings Canyon to take a hike along the Kings River to Bubbs Creek, about 2 miles beyond the end of the road, despite having learned at the Visitor Center that there was a prescribed burn underway that would force us to stay on one side of the river. That was a disappointment, but our bigger concern was smoke.
We were told the air quality would be diminished, by how much would depend on the wind conditions. When we first got out of the car, the sky was blue, we could only faintly smell smoke, so we decided to chance it. Early on the trail we met a group of firefighters coming off their shift, and I was encouraged by the fact that they were not wearing masks of any kind.
The Pardise Valley trail is lovely, nearly level, meandering up the river valley through evergreen and deciduous trees below the craggy walls of the canyon. The smoke created eerie effects along the way, and the farther we went, the more concerned we became that at some point it would all blow in our direction and force us to return to the car, breathing it as we went.
Amazingly, that never happened. The smoke stayed beside or above us all the way, never clouding the trail, as if diverted by some invisible, benevolent force. We were able to walk across the bridge at Bubbs Creek, and the trail on the other side was closed by signage, as expected. Oh, and also by actual fire, unmonitored, flaring up and smoldering its way through the ground cover, just as prescribed, we assumed.
On the return hike, the smokiness remained toward the river and the opposite bank, but its presence in the area contributed to some strangely beautiful sights.
We would definitely have preferred a smoke-free hike, but you don’t always get what you want, especially during autumn in the mountains, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as it might have been. Inquiring about prescribed burns before an autumn visit to a national park is a good idea, but be aware that decisions about the location of a new burn can change from one day to the next based on weather and wind conditions.