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of KAWEAH COUNTRY —
Sequoia and Kings Canyon
Lemon Cove and Woodlake
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Planning a day's outing in the local national parks is more difficult in the winter months than the summer. In the summer, the choice is easy: Head for the hills, and the higher, the better.
Last week, we set aside Sunday for a day trip into the park. Come Sunday morning, we were still discussing whether to go hiking or cross-country skiing.
These last-minute decisions hinder the early starts necessary to make the most out the shorter winter days. Nothing can be packed in the car until final plans are made -- skis or hiking boots, hot chocolate or cold drinks, parkas or windbreakers, polypropelene or T-shirts?
Gambling that there would be fresh snow in the forecast soon, we loaded up the hiking paraphernalia and opted for the foothills. At the last minute, we even loaded the bikes into the truck.
It was after 11 a.m., but off we went to Sequoia. The itinerary was to park at Hospital Rock (six miles past the Ash Mountain entrance station in Sequoia National Park) and ride our bikes up the Buckeye Flat road (closed to vehicles during winter) to the old Moro Creek Corrals trailhead. From there, we'd leave the bikes and hike the three miles on the Middle Fork Trail to the Panther Creek crossing.
Riding bikes sounded like a good idea to the kids, but when they began the steady and constant ascent they were less than enchanted. The first half-mile is paved, then the dirt Moro Creek Corrals road continues on up the hill for another 1.3 miles (the paved road descends to Buckeye Flat Campground just below).
This is a strenuous bike ride for children, gaining more than 500 vertical feet in elevation (2,800 to 3,350) in under two miles. With lots of water breaks and snack stops, everyone remained in good spirits -- it was a beautiful, clear day and the views along the road are spectacular.
The Buckeye Flat road parallels the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River with glimpses of sparkling pools and great fishing spots. During one break, we watched two fishermen on the banks far below.
The Buckeye Flat area receives a winter respite from the rigor of summer. The road is closed to vehicle traffic where it meets the Generals Highway at Hospital Rock.
The Moro Creek Corrals road hugs the hillside, at first heading east, then south. By the time it turns easterly again, it aligns with the Middle Fork Canyon although the river is now a couple hundred feet below.
The first glimpse of the river from the dirt road includes a birds-eye view of the recently rebuilt footbridge (the bridge was a total washout in the '97 flood) that crosses the Kaweah on the Paradise Creek trail. The road remains well above the river the rest of the way, but follows the contours of the canyon.
As the road (and river) turns north, Alta Peak looms into full view as do the highest growing sequoias of the Giant Forest on the ridgeline above. Castle Rocks across the canyon are a constant companion during the journey.
At the Moro Creek Corrals trailhead, there is ample space for parking, so driving here is an option when the road opens. Parking, a trail sign, and two bearproof trash containers are the only things at road's end; contrary to what the name implies, don't be expecting rustic corrals and a string of horses.
We used the old hitching post as a bike rack and began the next leg of our biathlon. From here, the landscape quickly changes from oak-studded green hills to a solid wall of chamise, buck brush, and manzanita.
The only route through the bramble is the trail and even that is becoming quickly overgrown. Constant tick-checks are required and, by being alert, we flicked a few off, but none came home with us.
The trail to Panther Creek and for those with more time, to Redwood Meadow (13 miles), begins by immediately descending to Moro Creek. Besides Panther, this was the largest of the eight creeks that cross the trail on their homage to the Kaweah River.
Some industrious rock-hopping was required to get across, but all eight of our feet remained dry. While balanced between rocks in the middle of the creek, don't forget to look up at the creek's namesake. Moro Rock is directly above, viewed from an angle not often experienced.
A careless smoker in 1988 caused a devastating wildfire to rage through this area, disintegrating everything in its path. The fire traveled up the hillside and was extinguished just before reaching the southernmost portion of Giant Forest near Crescent Meadow.
A few skeletons of manzanita are the only telltale signs of this wildfire at this elevation, but along the High Sierra Trail 3,500 feet above, thousands of standing dead trees reveal the severity of this fire, the scars of which have lasted more than a decade.
Along this east-facing route, the snowy slopes of the Sierra beckon. From north to south, the views of the 12,000-foot crest of the Great Western Divide provide endless views and Mount Stewart, Eagle Scout Peak, and Lippincott Mountain are seen looming over the Kaweah's headwaters.
The constant wall of high chaparral, some reaching eight feet, was broken only when approaching one of the many creek crossings. The black oaks enjoy these moist areas and keep the brush at bay. The massive acorn crop this year, now on the ground, makes walking about as easy as trying to cross a roomful of marbles.
Just before Panther Creek, the chamise and manzanita are left behind. Although the north side of the river, where the Middle Fork Trail is located, is in a forest of oaks, the evergreen belt begins on the south side of the canyon.
One more quick descent down the trail, dodging treacherous acorns, and we reached Panther Creek at 3,900 feet elevation.
It is a beautiful area with a carpet of sugar-pine needles covering the ground and the scent of cedar in the air. Upstream is a gorgeous, calm pool that, within mere feet and in complete contrast, flows innocently into a narrow granite channel and becomes a thunderous waterfall that drops straight down the last 100 feet to the Kaweah River.
Across the creek is a granite-balcony campsite that is best not occupied by a restless sleeper. This is where we met two backpackers, the only people we would see all day.
The two were traveling in opposite directions, one to and one from Redwood Meadow. They had only met that afternoon when both declared Panther Creek as the destination for the day.
They informed us that because of the mild weather, full moon, and granite bunkbed, they would be foregoing their tents this night and lay their sleeping bags on the rock.
The afternoon was waning as we ate our lunch at creek side.
We heaved a collective sigh of relief when we disembarked from the trail and our bikes were intact. The kids quickly forgave us for the initial, grueling bike ride when they coasted the two miles back to Hospital Rock rather than having to hoof it.
Although our hikes are completed much earlier in the day, this time the lateness of the hour paid handsome dividends. It was straight up 6 p.m. when the alpenglow turned Castle Rocks a bright pink.
The full moon was seconds behind as it rose over the granite domes. After ooh-ing and ahh-ing over this incredible sight we rounded the next bend and were greeted with an incredible pink and orange sunset.
The next crook in the road was an unofficial deer crossing. We sat quietly on our bikes as three does grazed their way up the slope.
We loaded the bikes in the truck by the light of the moon and headed home to Three Rivers.
This trail is best in the fall, spring, or a clear winter day. Searing summer temperatures can take the fun out of this route during that season.
THE LADYBUG TRAIL... LITERALLY
The foothills zone of Sequoia National Park offers hiking opportunities in winter and spring, before the oppressive heat of summer arrives. Although clear, sunny days lift the spirits and offer incomparable vistas, anytime in these seasons is a good time to hit the low-elevation trails.
The hike from South Fork Campground to Ladybug Camp is less than two miles and is rewarding for so little effort. The elevation gain is close to 800 feet.
The trail begins in a foothill woodland at 3,600 feet with dense groves of oak and California nutmeg and laurel. It travels upwards through riparian groves of alder, cottonwood, and sycamore, which now have more leaves on the ground than on their branches.
The trailhead begins 13 miles up the South Fork road from Sierra Drive. The last few miles of the road is unpaved, but is in good condition and passable in all but the stormiest of seasons.
To travel up the South Fork is like a walk back in time. Small family farms give way to acre upon acre of rangeland.
Those that live on the upper reaches of the road still have to plan their journeys into town the same as the families of a century ago, who also had to consolidate their errands into one trip. It's a little more convenient with modern-day transportation rather than horse-and-buggy or Model T, but it is still a long and winding, yet so scenic, road.
But it wasn't always a road that took travelers up the South Fork; it was a trans-Sierra trail. Its destination back then was the Owens Valley, not just a mere 13 miles to a campground.
In December 1862, John B. Hockett received permission from the County of Tulare to build a trail from the west to the east side of the Sierra Nevada range. The Hockett Trail began near Hale Tharp's ranch at the confluence of Horse Creek and the Kaweah River (now Lake Kaweah), followed the South Fork along much of the present-day road and the Ladybug Trail, then crossed the South Fork to ascend steeply to Hockett Meadows.
It crossed the crest at the present-day southeastern-most corner of Sequoia National Park and descended to the Little Kern. At Lewis Camp, it crossed the Kern River, then over Cottonwood Pass to descend to the Owens Valley.
The trail was built mainly for commerce, so Visalia businesses and merchants could resupply east-side miners. For more than 100 years it has been a favorite route for southern Sierra travelers.
The Ladybug Trail is no longer the Hockett Trail although a non-maintained trail still exists, overgrown and steep, to Hockett Lakes. These days, the South Fork Trail from the campground through Garfield Grove, which follows a more southern route, connects with the Hockett Trail just east of Hockett Lakes.
The Ladybug Trail travels on the north side of the Kaweah's South Fork. It starts on the east side of the South Fork Campground, just inside the Sequoia National Park boundary.
No entrance fees are required to access this remote corner of the park.
Hikers cross the river on a footbridge immediately after leaving the campground. After crossing the bridge, the trail turns east and continues to parallel the river although climbing above it.
At one-half mile, Pigeon Creek is crossed. At about one mile, the trail descends to Squaw Creek.
The trail now climbs away from the oak-hardwood forest and enters the conifer zone. Cedars are prevalent here and down along the river are the rounded tops of some giant sequoia trees whose seedlings washed down-canyon from the Garfield Grove in 1867.
In December of that year, a rainflood swept down the South Fork carrying with it many of the giant trees. Redwood logs were swept all the way down to Three Rivers and as far away as Farmersville.Many pieces of the massive tree trunks are still strewn along the length of the Ladybug Trail.
At 1.7 miles, Ladybug Camp is reached. Veering off to the left here, the trail continues another 2.3 miles to Whiskey Log Camp.
On this day, we proceeded east along the South Fork a few hundred more yards around a bend to a spectacular series of pools and waterfalls at the confluence of Garfield Creek. It's a heavenly site with a view of the currently snow-capped Homer's Nose outcrop.
We rock-hopped a bit, then opted to watch the river roll by on a sunlit, water-polished boulder with remnants of an old bridge. The bridge, which crossed the South Fork just north of Garfield Creek, washed away in some past flood, and this portion of the Hockett Trail became history.
The Ladybug Trail is an optimal day hike whether warming up for the summer backpacking season or just spending an afternoon with the family.
And the reason it's called "Ladybug"? The name says it all.
When it's hot in the foothills, but snow still blankets the high country, the place for hiking is in Giant Forest, the jewel of Sequoia National Park. Scenery and history combine on any number of trails that criss-cross through the ancient forest.
We chose a four-mile loop through the famous forest that began at the Hazelwood Nature Trail, the former site of a park campground. A quarter mile east of the now-deserted Giant Forest Village is the trailhead and a small parking area.
The hike would take us through the center of Giant Forest, thus ensuring lots of Big Trees, but we were really searching for the Washington Tree, which is nearly as large as the General Sherman, but with much fewer visitors. We also planned to visit to an old homesteader's cabin and the Bear's Bathtub, and explore the site of an American Indian village.
The route began on the Hazelwood trail, then we took the Alta Trail to the Huckleberry Trail. There are many trail junctions along the way, but with a topographical map of the area (available at park visitor centers) and this written description, it is easy and worth it to take this journey.
Start the hike on the Hazelwood Nature Trail (elevation 6,400 ft.) where there are interpretive signs about the founding fathers of Sequoia National Park and the region -- Hale Tharp, John Muir, George Stewart. As the nature trail makes its loop back to the parking lot, take the trail to the right (south).
Notice the giant sequoias all around in various stages of growth, and their different hues of cinnamon-red as sunlight filters through the overstory. Stand up against one and measure yourself; you'll barely be taller than its buttressed base.
The next junction in the trail comes in the midst of a recently fallen giant that straddles the trail.
There are two trail signs -- one for Bear Hill, the other for Moro Rock. Take the Moro Rock trail to the left and immediately there's another junction.
Here again, take the left fork. The trail parallels a creek surrounded by dogwoods that should be in bloom within the next couple of weeks, making this trail an even more unforgettable experience. There is a switchback across the creek and then up the hill, one of only a couple of short climbs on this route.
Once at the top of the hill, the trail cross the low ridge and we entered a part of burned forest that was part of the Huckleberry prescribed fire two summers ago. The trail heads north around the ridge and then descends to Huckleberry Meadow.
Coming out of the trees, the Squatter's Cabin comes into view. This is an extremely well-built log cabin with fireplace, and the homesteader obviously planned on staying awhile.
But it wasn't to be. The cabin was built on land already claimed by Hale Tharp, a Three Rivers pioneer and reportedly the first non-American Indian to visit the Giant Forest, and this little dream home was abandoned.
This is about the halfway point of this day hike, and we ate our lunch in solitude on a log overlooking the meadow. We had not seen another person since we left the Hazelwood Nature Trail.
To continue this loop hike, go east from the Squatter's Cabin for three-tenths of a mile. From the next trail junction, Crescent Meadow comes into view just ahead, but take a left turn and head back up the hill, leaving the well-traveled trails in this area behind.
The trail climbs back up the other side of the hill that we've been circling and follows a drainage that supports some delicate hillside meadows. Another trail junction is reached; to the right is the Congress Trail, but we went left where the trail sign pointed toward the Washington Tree.
We continued for about a half mile and came upon Circle Meadow, where a deer was grazing. Another trail junction and sign, and we took a short detour to view the Bear's Bathtub.
The Bear's Bathtub is a hollow chamber between two giant sequoias that is filled with water. The trees have grown close together, so it's obvious that a bear could no long fit comfortably in this original redwood hot tub, but perhaps a century ago...
As we retraced our steps back to our original trail we noticed movement in the forest on the other side of Circle Meadow. As we watched, six does entered the meadow and began grazing.
We continued north and soon came to the Washington Tree. The massive tree is easy to spot; it was quite obviously larger than most we had seen that day.
On the other side of the trail from this tree is a promising and beautiful sight. Hundreds and hundreds of young sequoias are growing guaranteeing regeneration of these rare trees in this area.
From the Washington Tree, we retraced our steps to wear a trail sign points us toward the Alta Trail. After crossing the creek, start looking at the large, flat granite boulders for signs of past Indian occupation.
This was a summer village for the Yokuts. We first pass by large holes, all in a line; just down the trail are some mortar holes, marked by a metal trail sign.
Following the creek for a ways, there is substantial flow and deep pools, which made for a reliable source of water. The Washington Tree stands as a sentinel over these exposed granite domes, the creek, and the black earth, darkened by generations of Indian campfires, making this a very spiritual place.
After leaving the former village, we met the Alta Trail, turned left and headed down toward the Generals Highway and the parking lot. A couple more junctions are encountered, but the signage is now clear enough to find the way back to the car.