/ spring hikes
ROCK TO PANTHER CREEK
trail is best in the fall, spring, or a clear
winter day. The searing temperatures in summer
would make this route less than enjoyable.
Planning a day’s outing in the local
national parks is more difficult in shoulder
seasons (spring and fall) than the summer.
In the summer, the choice is easy: Head for
the hills, and the higher, the better.
On this early spring day, we had set aside
Sunday for a day trip into the park. Come
Sunday morning, we were still discussing whether
to go hiking or skiing.
These last-minute decisions hinder
the early starts necessary to make the most
out of the shorter 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, mid-weight layer or
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 and ride our bikes up the
Buckeye Flat road 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
This is a strenuous bike ride
for young children (ours were eight and 10
at the time), gaining more than 500 vertical
feet in elevation (2,800 to 3,350) in less
than 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 always 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
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 a rebuilt footbridge (the bridge was a
total washout in the 1997 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
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 bear-proof 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 is 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 rarely seen.
A careless smoker in 1988 caused
a devastating wildfire that raged 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
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 having lasted more than a decade.
Along this east-facing route,
the 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 (1999), 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
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 laying their sleeping bags
on the rock.
The afternoon was waning as we
ate our lunch at creek side before returning
by the same route we came.
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
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 in
the opposite direction by a spectacular 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