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of KAWEAH COUNTRY —
Sequoia and Kings Canyon
Lemon Cove and Woodlake
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There are more than 800 miles of trails in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. In fact, 80 percent of the parks is accessible only by foot trails. Whether day-hiking or planning an extended backcountry trip, there are sweeping views, picturesque peaks and passes, waterfalls and rivers, wildflower-filled meadows, sparkling lakes, and really, really BIG TREES!
As summer turns to fall, and fall to winter, the high country becomes blanketed in snow and hikers retreat to lower elevations to explore the foothills. To accommodate this inevitable changing of the season, the Hiking the Parks series proves there is a recreational pursuit for everyone and intermittently becomes "Skiing the Parks."
(Originally published Dec. 6, 1996)
Listening to the songs of the water and wind and birds was the endless pleasure enjoyed by our family of four last weekend as we explored the Kings Canyon and its mighty rivers. In fact, we experienced everything mentioned in the above John Muir quotation.
We spent two nights at Kings Canyon Lodge that is, during the late autumn and winter months, the "road’s end"on Highway 180.
Until this season (1996), Hwy. 180 was closed at the top of the hill at the Hume Lake junction. Now the gate is located about one-half mile below Kings Canyon Lodge near Yucca Point.
During the summer months, through-traffic flies by on the way to the true road’s end at Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. But we were treated to quiet days and serene nights with the only sounds being the canyon winds and the roar of Tenmile Creek on its hurried way to meet up with the Kings River at the bottom of the canyon, more than 1,000 vertical feet below.
And it was this are of Sequoia National Forest that we set off to explore. We awoke to find that the previous day’s clouds had moved out and a beautiful, clear day awaited us.
The Yucca Point trailhead is located about one mile below Kings Canyon Lodge. If parking in the turnout just up-canyon from the locked gate, it is an approximate three-quarter-mile walk on the highway to the trail.
The elevation at the Lodge is 3,800 feet above sea level. The elevation at trail’s end, the confluence of the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River, is about 2,200 feet. This two-mile trail makes a perfect autumn or winter outing.
This trail is a well-traveled fishermen’s route. Be forewarned, however, that the fishing restrictions are catch-and-release only in this portion of the Kings River.
The trail is a steady decline that switchbacks down the mountain on the east side of Tenmile Creek. The vegetation consists of many plants that are also common in the Three Rivers environment – redbud, live oak, manzanita, yucca, buckeye, and the pungent laurel.
Watch out, too, for poison oak, which sheds its leaves in the winter, but not its irritating oils.
Soon our destination came into view. We were looking straight down to where the two forks of the Kings River meet, and up into the deep canyons these two powerful rivers have carved.
This view remains in sight during the rest of the hike. Other awe-inspiring views include Tombstone Ridge to the northeast, Windy Cliffs to the east, and farther beyond, Tehipite Dome.
Near the end of the trail, we met up with Tenmile Creek again at an amazing 200-foot waterfall cascading down the water-polished granite into a large pool.
We were just in time to see a small bear or some other medium-sized animal swimming across the calm pool. We dug frantically in the pack for the binoculars, but didn’t get them out in time to make a positive identification.
The animal disappeared behind some rocks before we got it in our sights. Nonetheless, it was a rare wildlife-viewing opportunity.
Our final approach to the canyon floor was through a canopy of live oak and laurel. The trail ends abruptly at the confluence of the two forks of the river.
We headed downstream, searching for a sunny lunch spot and a good fishing hole. The river, even though at one of its lowest levels of the year, was raging and extremely cold. It is obvious that if anyone, especially one of our children, fell in, there would be little chance of saving them.
Since the water levels were lower than spring or early summer, however, we had quite a bit of beach from which to choose and many boulders on which to climb. We ended our hike about one-quarter of a mile downstream where Tenmile Creek meets the Kings River.
Although the hike back to the highway is entirely uphill, the grade is gradual enough not to be too strenuous. The two-mile jaunt back to the road took us just over an hour.
By midmorning the following day, there was a light rain with intermittent sun and a beautiful rainbow that ended in the canyon bottom where we had hiked the day before. Snow was falling on Tombstone Ridge.
It was a fitting end to our end-of-autumn outing.
The Kings Canyon Lodge is a privately-owned facility in what is now (as of 2000) Giant Sequoia National Monument. It’s a funky, rustic place owned and operated by Lewis Evans, who took over management from his father.
The Lodge is located 13 miles north of Grant Grove on Hwy. 180. It’s less than a two-hour drive from Three Rivers, no matter what park entrance is used, however, snowfall closes the Generals Highway during the winter and a snow-covered roadway may have to be negotiated in the higher elevations in the Grant Grove area.
But, remember, the crowds are gone, the scenery is spectacular, and it’s all within mere hours from Three Rivers. Discover Sequoia and Kings Canyon this winter.
(Originally published Feb. 27, 1998)
After checking out the menu options, a low-elevation hike was the order of the day. We put the backpack in the truck and traveled the 10 scenic miles to the end of North Fork Drive.
This time of year, the hills are green, the fiddleneck and popcorn flower are just beginning to paint the hillsides, and the North Fork of the Kaweah River is flowing briskly. The grass and trees were sparkling after the rain the day before.
Local turkey vultures were sitting on fence posts and snags with their huge wings spread wide, taking advantage of the sunshine to dry their feathers.
Come springtime, these same green foothills will be filled with carpets of color as multitudes of wildflowers hit peak bloom. The east-facing slopes turn orange with poppies, some years much more abundant than others.
Toward the end of the car trip, the road forks. The upper branch, the old Colony Mill road, is blocked by a locked gate. The lower branch leads a half-mile down to Sequoia National Park. This is where the hike begins.
In the recent past, this spur road also used to be gated and the walk back uphill to the car after a day of hiking could be discouraging and sometimes downright sweltering. The Back Country Horsemen of California, in cooperation with the National Park Service, made the necessary improvements to reopen this road to the trailhead.
The parking are (elevation 1,750 feet) near the creek is large enough for stock trailers to turn around and it cuts one mile off the walking part of the trip. This is a remote entrance into Sequoia National Park, no entrance fee required.
The first adventure begins immediately, as Yucca Creek needs to be forded. After leaving the car, make a short jaunt back up the road to the high ground that leads over to the creek.
All that is left of a bridge over Yucca Creek is the rock abutments. There also used to be two large culverts that could be used as a crossing, but only one remains. The top of the other most likely was swept away during last year’s (1997) high water.
The Back Country Horsemen made some long-needed improvements to the Yucca Creek Trail as well. They also made a fine creek crossing… for those on horseback!
At this time of year, scrambling down the culvert and hopping across the creek is still an option, and our feet stayed dry. This won’t be the scenario when water levels peak, which is another reason why winter is an optimal time to explore this region.
On the way back, I made sure the kids, a seven-year-old and two nine-year-olds, could climb back up the culvert on their own. They passed this test of physical fitness without a problem.
Once across the creek, the trail is wide open as it follows an old wagon road/truck trail. Prior to the recent upgrades, the Civilian Conservation Corps last improved the road in 1935.
And this is where we were head first – to the site of the old CCC camp. But the history of this area doesn’t just date to 60 years ago.
The trail forks at three-quarters of a mile. The upper fork turns north and parallels the North Fork of the Kaweah River for as far as one would care to travel during a day’s outing.
Although no maintained trail exists past six miles or so, this route could ultimately take a backcountry traveler into the Redwood Canyon area of Kings Canyon National Park.
Taking this trail was the original plan, but we took the right fork along the creek and instead spent the afternoon back in time at Yucca Flat (elevation 1,900 feet). We ate a snack while talking about the Kaweah Colonists in the 1880s; our lunch took us back a millennium or two as we ate amongst bedrock mortars and pictographs. Upon our departure, we were in the 1930s, exploring the Grunigen family’s ranch site.
A microcosm of Three Rivers history exists in this scenic area. Although there is no interpretation for the traveler that happens upon this hillside meadow, it is an easy destination and allows for an unforgettable experience in the resplendent foothills "backcountry"of Three Rivers.
That was then...
The best reason for taking up the sport of cross-country skiing? Because it is so accessible from Three Rivers.
And if we can do it, so can you...
Until six years ago, when the snow would fall, for us it was just the end to another hiking season. But even though covered in snow, the mountains still beckoned.
One day, while the kids were in school, John and I packed our gloves, hats, and tire chains and headed to Wolverton.
We rented skis and went up and down and around Long Meadow until absolutely exhausted... and warm! What a revelation — playing in the snow, but not being cold!
Amazingly, even with the installation of tire chains at Eleven Range, we reached this winter wonderland in less than an hour from the park entrance. We were hooked!
This free-heeled classic skiing is not just for mountain men in buckskin and coonskin caps anymore. It’s a great, full-body workout that works on everything from balance to abs, legs, and arms, especially triceps.
Over the years, our love of "skiing the parks"has evolved and streamlined. It’s a special family activity that is fun and educational, teaching natural history, winter survival, personal fitness, and so much more.
By purchasing our own ski equipment, the choice of trailheads is limited only by our skill level, which improves every year.
An addition of a four-wheel drive vehicle means no more stopping to install and remove tire chains. Our gear is always packed and ready to go and... we’re outta here!
This is now...
Knowing that our weekend was totally booked and we wouldn’t be able to experience last week’s fresh snowfall, John and I dropped the kids at school Friday morning and ventured on to Sequoia. It was raining in Three Rivers, and by the time we reached 3,000 feet elevation, there was snow falling.
We entered a huge cloud at Amphitheater Point, but nothing was going to deter us from making our weekly sojourn to the mountains. At Deer Ridge, we met the first in a trio of snowplows working to keep the snow off the road for employees and diehard winter travelers.
We drove through a very deserted Giant Forest, passing only a snowplow, and headed on to Lodgepole on this cold, stormy day. We wanted a day of exercise, but had to be home in time for dinner, and nearby was the perfect trail.
We stopped in at the Lodgepole Visitor Center, open year-round, where there are also public restrooms. Next we checked out the new ski-rental shop in the Lodgepole Market Center (rent skis and snowshoes here now; there is no rental shop at Wolverton this year).
Back in the truck, we drove to the entrance of Lodgepole Campground where the large parking lot is plowed during the winter.
As soon as our skis touched the snow, we knew we were in for an arduous journey. Since we insisted on skiing immediately after the snowstorm of the night before, we would have the honor of setting trail.
The first mile of this ski trail is an uphill grade, beginning at 6,700 feet elevation and climbing gradually but steadily to about 7,100 feet. At the one-mile mark is a trail junction; Wolverton is to the east, three-quarters of a mile up and over the hill.
We stayed on the Old Lodgepole Road, traveling south toward Giant Forest. Just past the junction, the trail crosses Wolverton Creek and enters a dense forest of lodgepole pine, cedar, and red fir.
If the snow stays at its current depth of three to four feet, a sign peeks out that points the way to the General Sherman Tree, but disregard it. It is there to direct summer travelers along a trail that is not practical to use in the winter. Instead follow the yellow triangular signs on the trees with an "L"on them (for Lodgepole).
Continue traveling southeast for another quarter mile and then climb a narrow embankment to the Wolverton Road. Use caution when crossing here because this road is open to traffic year-round.
If blacktop is showing, skis have to be removed before crossing to the other side. A coat of ice and a couple inches of snow allowed us to glide across; the first time in 1.5 miles that we didn’t have to forge through snow.
On the other side of the road, the trail continues. No one had skied here since the last couple of storms passed through, and the going became even more challenging and the trench we were digging even deeper.
We pushed on, literally, still climbing slightly, still knee-deep in powder. Down below the road is the Wolverton pack station; its corrals, cabins, and outbuildings snow-covered and closed for the winter.
Just beyond is a concrete block building used for storage by the Park Service. It, too, is out of service for the winter.
After topping out at about 7,200 feet, we began to descend toward the General Sherman Tree, located on the north end of the Giant Forest. This would normally be the icing on the cake of any cross-country ski trip — the downhill — but we still were trudging in a deep trench of new-fallen snow.
The first part of the descent weaves in and out of felled trees, which make up the Wolverton wood lot. The trail is well marked through here; just maintain the southerly direction.
Once through the wood lot, the trail is obviously on a road again. There are no markings here and a couple of fallen trees must be crossed (not a problem when the snow is this deep), but keep skiing south until on the edge of a bluff.
Here, the route can go south no further. The road can be seen to the left, descending into the forest.
As we traveled down this last hill, the giant sequoias came into view below. This is what we had come to see; the cinnamon-red trunks amidst the white snowscape and gray sky suddenly added a new dimension to the landscape and it’s always thrilling.
We entered the Sherman Tree area (elevation 6,900 feet) and skied along a shoveled pathway to Sequoia’s most famous landmark. We admired the massive trees and skied to the back of the largest of all, brushed snow off the fence, and sat down, protected from the snowstorm by the overhanging branches of some of the great Sherman’s offspring.
Besides three snow-players down the road, we were the only ones in the area. After the exertion of breaking trail for 2.5 miles, we became cold quickly and could only stay in our secluded spot for a few minutes.
After a snack, we turned back the way we had come. For once, we were anxious to return via the same route, since we could now enjoy the trail we had worked so hard to track and pack.
The ski to the Tree had taken us two hours, 15 minutes. Skiing back was certainly easier than the initial breaking of trail (and would only take one hour, 15 minutes), but there was already another inch or two of snow in our tracks.
As we crossed to the far side of the Wolverton Road and prepared to cling to the narrow hillside on its short descent down to the main trail, we noticed two skiers behind us.
Their timing was right on this day because they had our trenches to ski in rather than making their own. We offered to let them go ahead of us, but they knew better and declined, preferring to let us continue to groom the trail.
The snow didn’t stop falling until we arrived back at the trailhead when, ironically, the sun poked through the clouds briefly. We were utterly exhausted and absolutely elated, as always after a day in the Sierra.
Really Big Meadows(Originally published Jan. 26, 2001)
Whether it’s summer or winter, the Big Meadows area between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is a favorite destination year-round. Whether hiking, horseback riding, camping, sightseeing, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing, the Big Meadows area is an ideal locale to enjoy the amenities of the Sierra Nevada.
We spent the day on cross-country skis, our preferred mountain mode of travel in the winter. Due to the rolling terrain, spectacular vistas, and off-trail and backcountry opportunities, all levels of skiers can be entertained at Big Meadows.
The Big Meadows Road provides access to several campgrounds, Horse Corral Pack Station, a Forest Service ranger station, backcountry trailheads, and the Buck Rock Fire Lookout. In the winter, the snow-covered roads are available for use by winter recreationists.
The area, which is now a part of the Giant Sequoia National Monument, is located eight miles south of The Wye (near the Kings Canyon park entrance) on Highway 180. There is a sign on the highway that indicates the Big Meadows turnoff; turn east for one-quarter of a mile to a plowed parking area. (See "Getting there"for additional information on road conditions and access.)
The Big Meadows area has been a popular cross-country skiing destination for many years. Until the 1980s, there was a warming hut at the meadow, which was operated by the now-defunct Wilsonia Ski Touring.
What’s best about Big Meadows these days is that Montecito-Sequoia Cross-Country Ski Resort currently has included the area in their network of groomed trails. This means no longer performing the exhausting task of breaking trail through fresh-fallen powder, but packed snow and built-in two-way ski tracks — quite a luxury.
After stopping in at Montecito-Sequoia’s ski shop to purchase our trail passes (they also rent skis), we had one more decision to make — whether to drive the half-mile back to the Big Meadows Road trailhead or ski directly from the Montecito-Sequoia lodge area.
The helpful folks at the ski shop informed us that there was one steep hill between the lodge and Big Meadows that wasn’t yet fit for skiing, which helped us make the decision to drive. By 11 a.m. last Saturday, we were stepping into our skis at the Big Meadows parking area.
The trail is actually the Big Meadows Road and groomed for about 4.5 miles. Several well-marked side trails/roads also take off from the main Big Meadows Road with levels of difficulty ranging from easy to intermediate to advanced, so the possibilities are endless.
The trail begins at about 7,550 feet elevation, heading north up a gradual grade for about three-quarters of a mile to a junction. There is a sign here that indicates that Rabbit Meadow is to the left (north).
This was our first rest stop, and we started peeling off layers. The day was sunny and warm, and although mid-January, it was reminiscent of spring-skiing weather.
With jackets off and sunscreen on, we continued our journey east. We did not take the time to tour Rabbit Meadow, which is an easy one-mile loop ski that intersects again with the Big Meadows Road about a half-mile further up the trail.
We traveled through an open forest of lodgepole and Jeffrey pines and red fir. The trail is easy to follow and the gently rolling terrain made for constant skiing with steady gliding, the best kind of workout.
The kids, on the other hand, weren’t interested in our cardiovascular health. They were on a mission to find slopes, the higher and steeper the better, and the farther we traveled, the more conducive the terrain became for their type of skiing.
The day was so warm that huge clumps of snow were falling from tree branches above. This was also a form of entertainment for the kids, especially when the timing is so perfect that a "snow-bomb"actually hits its moving target, namely Mom or Dad.
About one mile from the Rabbit Meadow junction, the trail emerges onto a plateau. Here, the recent snow-groomers plowed an area on the south side of the road that is an excellent Great Western Divide viewing area.
On this exceptionally clear winter day, we were able to see Little Baldy, about 11 miles away via the Generals Highway. Farther yet, we looked beyond the Kaweah’s Middle Fork canyon to the snow-covered Great Western Divide, easily spotting Sawtooth Peak, Empire Mountain, and Farewell Gap in the Mineral King area.
At a little over two miles, we reached the westernmost arm of Big Meadows. We ate lunch here, at Horse Camp, perched in the sun on a lodgepole pine fence, overlooking a large section of the massive meadow.
While sitting here, several parties of skiers passed by, heading both in and out. After lunch, we continued on our easterly route and immediately came to the Buck Rock Lookout spur.
This is a steep road that ascends about 1,100 feet to the fire lookout in 2.3 miles. The views at the top into Kings Canyon are unforgettable... so we assume.
We haven’t yet skied there, although we were certainly tempted. We stayed with our original route, however, and will look forward to the Buck Rock tour on another day.
We skied another quarter mile on the Big Meadows Road and came to the Forest Service ranger station. Most of the skiers that had skied past while we were eating lunch were now sprawled on the sunny porch of this cabin enjoying their lunch break.
Just beyond the cabin is the summertime trailhead parking area for Jennie Lakes and Weaver Lake. Skiers can actually take this short, groomed cutoff to utilize a restroom here, another unexpected amenity along this trail.
After we climbed a small bluff, we headed down the other side. This is now the beginning of the Big Meadows Campground. The campground is extremely large, extending for more than a mile along Big Meadows Creek.
We continued skiing until our agreed-upon turn-around time of 2:30 p.m. This found us on the east end of the campground, still on the groomed road, but we were the only tracks, meaning we had gone where no skier had gone before... this winter.
Our elevation at this point was 7,600 feet. We skied about four miles with very little vertical elevation change, making it a great ski trip for beginning skiers with lots of stamina.
The Big Meadows area offers many skiing opportunities. A skier could make their every outing of the season to Big Meadows and be able to explore some new terrain each time.
We, too, will soon return to this superb area. It’s a winter paradise that we look forward to exploring.