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Fall / spring hikes

Moro Rock

 

HOSPITAL ROCK TO PANTHER CREEK

(Published February 1999)

This 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 short-sleeves?
   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 just below).
   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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 Three Rivers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
THE KAWEAH COMMONWEALTH is published every Friday in Three Rivers, California.
EDITORS/PUBLISHERS: John Elliott and Sarah Barton Elliott
41841 Sierra Drive (Highway 198), Three Rivers, CA 93271
MAIL: P.O. Box 806, Three Rivers, CA 93271
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